The first few days of any conflict exist in the darkest version of what soldiers call “the fog of war.” Nothing is certain; competing and conflicting reports about incursions, attacks, counterattacks, and atrocities filter through various news channels, only some of which ever get confirmed later. In a fast-moving war, publishing rumors and relying only on official sources—with little or no social or historical context for the fighting—can distort the public’s, and the policymakers’, understanding of the situation. The war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia is a perfect example of this, as sloppy reporting in the war’s early days led to some questionable decisions later on.
Put simply, most early reporting in U.S. media on the conflict lacked any context, either recent or historical. Since at least 2006, Georgia had been dealing with provocative cease-fire violations in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in the two weeks or so leading up to the August 8 incursion, Georgia claimed to have suffered “daily shelling” of its villages from South Ossetian outposts near the provincial capital of Tskhinvali. Days before the war began, on August 3, The New York Times reported from Moscow that South Ossetia was claiming at least a half-dozen dead fighters after a brief skirmish with Georgia. Similarly violent incidents along the borders of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia have occurred repeatedly over the past several years. So, unlike the many newspapers that were describing it as “blitzing” or “lightning” (with all the uncomfortable Nazi images those terms conjure), many analysts saw the war coming years ago. It really wasn’t a surprise.
Furthermore, there was a tendency in both Russian and western news outlets to pin some blame for the conflict on Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. This is fine as far as it goes, but it misses a key point: even before Saakashvili became President after the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, tensions between Georgia and Russia were high. Not only had they fought nearly the exact same war in 1993, but former president Eduard Shevardnadze, who was never as much of a firebrand nor as anti-Russia as Saakashvili, faced two assassination attempts in the mid- and late-90s at the hands of suspected Russia-backed agents.
Even ignoring the very bloody and stalemated history of the 1993 war, most early coverage ignored this history, choosing instead merely to relay statements from U.S. or Georgian officials, bounced weakly off counter-statements from Russian officials. Headlines in English were never “Russia responds to Georgian aggression,” a theme that was dominant in many Russian-language accounts. Rather, American papers were mostly filled with the story of Russia invading the sovereign country of Georgia—an overly simplistic portrayal of events.
Upon entering South Ossetia, Russian troops claimed to have discovered evidence that suggested Georgian troops engaged either in genocide or ethnic cleansing, depending on the source. For days, many outlets, including The Associated Press, reported the Russian claim that 1,500 South Ossetians had been killed during the Georgian advance. While these reports sometimes were accompanied by the important caveat that they could not be independently confirmed (or hardly any caveats at all), just as often such claims were reported as fact, or not given the benefit of the doubt, leading to an inaccurate view of what really happened in Tskhinvali.
An August 14 Human Rights Watch reportconcluded that only forty-four people had died in the city “since the start of the fighting,” which includes several days before the Russian incursion into Georgia. While civilian deaths, and injuries, and damage to non-military targets deserve condemnation no matter their source, there is little doubt that the mostly uncritical reporting of Russia’s provocative claims led to a great deal of confusion as to the actual scale of the fighting, and unjustly accused Georgian forces of atrocities they did not commit.
Inaccurate journalism has real consequences. While offering support to Georgia, President Bush and his spokespeople had to hedge their statements about what was going on in the country—not because they were being diplomatic, but because they had no idea what was going on, thanks to “confusing reports from the ground,” and “one-sided and possibly exaggerated accounts of actions from both sides.” While part of the explanation for this is that American intelligence agencies have been primarily focused on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea over the last six years rather than the Caucasus, another important part is that officials have come to rely on initial reports from the media.
Hence, policymakers make poor or tentative decisions based on a faulty understanding of what was happening. While President Bush has every right to take Georgia’s side in the conflict, it was wrong of him to portray Russia’s advance into the country as smooth and unstoppable and unspeakably brutal, when the Pentagon did not know for certain if that was indeed the case. Yet he probably did not know better. Subsequent reporting has revealed just how halting and imprecise Russia’s military advance was, which could have tempered Western leaders’ rush to condemn the situation before they understood it.