It’s been a year or so since Russia invaded its tiny southern neighbor, Georgia. The details of why and how it happened remain in deep dispute: each side viciously disputes who really started the conflict, and each side’s partisans viciously attack each other as being spies and flacks.
But what’s really interesting about the ongoing dispute is how it has played out in the media. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two breakaway regions that form the pivot of Georgia’s dispute with Russia, are paying Saylor Company, an LA-based public relations firm founded by former Los Angeles Times senior editor Mark Saylor, $30,000 a month to help manage their public images. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is still taking to the op-ed pages of American newspapers to brag about how great his country is—and how Georgia is an innocent victim of Russian aggression.
President Saakashvili has a lot of help. In Forbes, Melik Kaylan, who once bragged about lounging with Mr. Saakashvili at the home of his rich friends in Greenwich Village, has come out as an unofficial media advisor to the Georgian president, suggesting he take early action in the American media to deflate Russia’s advance.
Kaylan’s advice was framed, of course, in the most apocalyptic of terms, portraying Russia as the new Soviet Union, and the technically legal enforcement of a Georgia-violated treaty as evidence of old Stalinist recividism. In part, such perceptions are Russia’s fault: they have, at best, a tin ear for what plays well in America (or they just don’t care). President Saakashvili, on the other hand, was educated at Columbia University, and is at ease charming American reporters. It’s how the Georgian government was able to convince an Associated Press reporter to play “gotcha” with a South Ossetian human rights activist, and accuse her on camera of being a shill for the KGB.
Georgia has also intensified its campaign in the English-language Web—sites like GeorgiaUpdate.gov.ge exist to advance the Georgian government’s point of view to a Western audience. The Georgian government has also been adept at reaching out to Hollywood: Joshua Kucera, a freelance journalist who has traveled the region, wrote recently of how Tblisi is enlisting documentary filmmakers to sympathetically portray Georgia’s experience during the August war.
Kucera himself is the target of some Russian efforts to shape the narrative as well. He recounted last year in The Atlantic how a man named Vladimir tried to bribe him into writing positive stories about Russia; he quickly had a visit from the FBI, which seemed very interested in his dealings with them.
Russia, for its part, has had less luck in getting its story to the outside world. For one, its English-language news sites are, for the most part, pathetic: Ria Novosti, for example, doesn’t always link to English-language versions of its Russian stories, and it’s unusual to see any major Russian figures writing opinion pieces on the matter in American newspapers. But it also just doesn’t seem to care as much: while Georgia has adopted a deliberate policy of cultivating so-called citizen propagandists, Russia hasn’t done nearly as much effort in spreading its story to the West. There is a blog devoted to the subject, but none of the opinion-makers voicing their instinctive opposition to Russian foreign policy seem to pay it very much attention.
Thus, while the war itself remains a bit complex, morally—Russia was provoking a Georgian response, Georgia responded to the provocation, and Russia’s response to that went beyond any excuse one could conceivably muster—the reigning narrative in the U.S. is that Georgia is an innocent victim of an expansionist Russia. The New York Times has done an admirable job of getting both sides of the war into its pages, with Chris Chivers in particular writing long stories explaining how each government justifies its actions, but that’s where the balanced coverage seems to end.
But even within the Times, editors see no contradiction in first running news about the Georgian government’s repression of political opponents, and then running editorials about how President George Bush and the Russians baited President Saakashvili into a war he couldn’t win. The coverage is incoherent when viewed as a whole.