The Media Today

Syria, Turkey’s President Erdoğan, and the ongoing op-ed problem

October 15, 2019

On Sunday, according to reports, Turkish forces struck a convoy of civilians that was traveling with Kurdish forces in northern Syria—part of Turkey’s incursion into the region following Donald Trump’s sudden decision, last week, to draw down US troops there. Saad Ahmed, a reporter with the local news agency Hawar News, was one of several journalists in the convoy, and was killed in the strike; at least four others—Arsene Jakso, Dilsuz Deldar, Amal Younis, and Ahmed’s colleague Mohammad Ikinji—were injured, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “At least nine people were killed, more than 70 injured,” Lindsey Hilsum of Britain’s Channel 4 News, who had been traveling with the convoy but abandoned it for safety reasons, said of the strike. “Were any of them those we’d met on the road? I have no way of knowing. All I know is that hope and determination could not save them.”

Turkish forces, and their proxies in Syria, haven’t stopped there in their fight against Kurdish groups they consider to be terrorists. In recent days, reports detailing shocking human-rights abuses, including the execution of Kurdish captives by Turkey’s partners and the killing of “scores” of unarmed civilians, have circulated. On Face the Nation Sunday, Margaret Brennan raised such claims with Mark Esper, the US defense secretary. “These are war crimes,” she said. Esper, cautiously, concurred: “It appears to be, if true, that they would be war crimes.” Yesterday, Trump—who has wavered a little on his drawdown decision following massive, bipartisan criticism at home—echoed Esper’s words as he slapped sanctions on Turkish officials, and tariffs on Turkish steel. Turkey’s action, Trump said, is “precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes.” On the ground, the situation continued to deteriorate. According to the Washington Post, Turkey expanded the geographical scope of its operation. And US officials confirmed to Foreign Policy that Turkish proxies are deliberately releasing prisoners tied to ISIS.

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Much coverage and commentary in Western media has focused on Trump’s strategic blunder in clearing the path for Turkey’s offensive. (Per Axios, Trump aides didn’t think Turkey would actually invade.) Further down the news cycle, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has also taken some sharp blows. Yesterday evening, in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, Erdoğan punched back. Under the headline “Turkey Is Stepping Up Where Others Fail to Act,” Erdoğan passed the buck, painting his operation as an unavoidable corrective to other world leaders’ failures to act on the migrant crisis and on Syria. Turkey, Erdoğan wrote, “has no argument with any ethnic or religious group.” (Many Kurds in Turkey, whose community has faced a years-long campaign of repression, may beg to differ.)

Erdoğan is not a first-time caller. This year alone, he’s been published in the opinion section of the New York Times, and multiple times in that of the Post. In hindsight, his piece for the Times—which ran in January, after Trump first announced plans to withdraw from Syria—grimly foreshadowed his argument in the Journal, albeit in peppier terms: Turkey, Erdoğan wrote for the Times, was “volunteering” to finish fighting “terrorists” on behalf of the US, and the international community should support its efforts to do so. In March, he wrote for the Post comparing the white supremacist who slaughtered Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, to members of ISIS; late last month, he wrote for the same paper about the need to secure justice for Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident murdered by Saudi officials in a consulate in Turkey.

Following the Christchurch op-ed in March, I wrote in this newsletter that opinion editors were wrong to give Erdoğan a platform in their pages. The problem, I wrote, was the clear dissonance between Erdoğan’s op-eds—normally innocuous and righteous—and his politics. In print, Erdoğan said Western leaders must learn from the dignified, tolerant response of Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, to Christchurch; in real life, he toured Turkey ahead of local elections playing the shooter’s video to incite crowds. In print, Erdoğan expressed outrage at Khashoggi’s murder; in real life, he has eroded press freedom in Turkey, and is the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists. His renderings of Turkish interests in Syria, likewise, have been deeply propagandistic. His focus in the Journal, on the refugee crisis, seems aimed at a domestic audience. Unsurprisingly, the words “war crimes” are nowhere to be seen.

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In March, Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor at the Post, told me that publishing Erdoğan is not an endorsement of him; rather, he said, the op-ed page should be “a forum for a wide range of views.” I returned to Hiatt yesterday, to ask whether his section had any new red lines around contributions, and if so, whether Erdoğan’s conduct in Syria would disqualify him from writing about it. He replied: “An editor should evaluate each piece on its merits, not draw red lines.” (James Bennet, editorial page editor at the Times, did not return a similar request for comment. CJR reached out to Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Journal, about today’s op-ed shortly before sending this newsletter, and will update it at should we receive a response.)

As I wrote in March, simply banning authoritarian politicians from writing op-eds about newsworthy events would be an unsophisticated response to a complicated, nuanced problem. That said, serving readers requires more than offering up propaganda and trusting them to make up their own minds about it. Readers looking at an Erdoğan op-ed about Jamal Khashoggi should be confronted—prominently—with Erdoğan’s own record on press freedom*. Likewise, readers looking at his op-eds about Syria—today and, it seems likely, going forward—should know that his forces attacked a convoy of journalists and civilians, and didn’t stop there.

Below, more on Turkey, Syria, and the press:

  • “A nationalist surge”: The Post’s Kareem Fahim reports that Turkish media have mostly backed Erdoğan enthusiastically over the Syria invasion—and that more critical voices have been bullied or otherwise suppressed. Last week, Hakan Demir, an editor at the daily newspaper Birgun, was detained after he reprinted a statement from the Syrian Kurdish fighters Turkey is targeting. He remains under investigation.
  • Another op-ed: It’s not just Erdoğan using the Western press to get his position across on Syria: on Sunday, Foreign Policy published an article by Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are lined up against Turkey. Abdi explained that his forces will partner with their erstwhile enemy Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, following the retreat of their American allies.
  • The wrong footage: On Sunday, ABC News ran footage of Turkey bombing Syria—but the footage wasn’t of Syria at all. Rather, it appears to have been taken at a gun range in Kentucky. ABC apologized but did not explain the error.

Other notable stories:

  • Tonight sees the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate, hosted jointly by CNN and the Times. Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper will moderate, as will Marc Lacey, the Times’s national editor. The stage will be the most crowded in debate history, with 12 candidates vying for attention. (Why didn’t they just split them over two nights?) We could be in for a messy evening; in a preview, the Times writes that the big question will be, “Can anyone make a splash without being the one who ends up soaked?” (That is, indeed, a question.) Ahead of time, CJR’s Alexandria Neason asked Scott Wunn, executive director of the National Speech and Debate Association, how hosts and participants might cut through the noise. “The moderator has so much power,” he says.
  • Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill hits shelves today and is still making headlines, despite its lengthy rollout: yesterday, we learned that the National Enquirer, per Farrow, shredded secret documents about Trump in 2016, the same day a Wall Street Journal reporter approached the magazine for comment on its “catch and kill” scheme to protect Trump. American Media Inc., which owns the Enquirer, denies this. Management at NBC News, another target of Farrow’s book (he used to work there), are hitting back, too—yesterday, Noah Oppenheim, its president, told staff that the book is “a smear.”
  • Following Shep Smith’s shocking departure from Fox, executives on the news side of the network are determined to keep his time slot focused on the facts; Variety’s Brian Steinberg reports that heavy-hitters including Bret Baier, Chris Wallace, and Martha MacCallum will all take turns filling in for Smith until a permanent replacement is appointed. Elsewhere, BuzzFeed reports that the Trump-based tensions at Fox aren’t unique—Rupert Murdoch’s UK titles face a similar divide over Boris Johnson.
  • For CJR, Elizabeth Hewitt spoke with Emma Betuel, a mind and body reporter for Inverse who wrote the first deep dive into Dank Vapes, a murky brand that officials subsequently linked to vaping-related lung illnesses. Betuel says: “I felt like I was screaming in a corner, ‘This company is not legitimate and they’re really dangerous.’”
  • OneZero’s Will Oremus explores the algorithm of Pinterest, which—when it comes to misinformation—is charting a different course than its Silicon Valley rivals. Where others have been criticized for radicalizing users through recommendations, Pinterest has opted to “embrace bias, limit virality, and become something of an anti-social network.”
  • Digital First Media—the cost-slashing, hedge fund-backed newspaper publisher—is outsourcing design work at some of its titles to the Philippines, Julie Reynolds writes for The Intercept. Reynolds reports that, prior to the Philippines move, Digital First laid off six employees in its California design and copy-editing hub, itself established to cut costs.
  • Staff at the Daily Progress, a newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia, are unionizing. Their newly formed Blue Ridge Guild is asking management at the paper, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway’s media arm, to voluntarily recognize the effort.
  • In Italy, Carlo De Benedetti, an 84-year-old media mogul, is trying to buy back into the newspaper company he founded—seven years after retiring and handing his controlling stake to his sons. In recent years, De Benedetti has berated his sons for mismanaging the company, whose titles include la Repubblica and La Stampa. Bloomberg has more. 
  • And when Business Insider’s Benjamin Goggin asked Bryan Goldberg, CEO of Bustle Digital Group, for comment on cratering morale at the company, Goldberg accused him of spreading “FUD” (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) and causing employees distress. (ICYMI in June, Lyz Lenz profiled Goldberg the “digital slumlord” for CJR.)

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*Update: After the publication of this article, Hiatt, the editorial page editor at the Post, told CJR that Erdoğan’s recent op-ed on Jamal Khashoggi did run in print opposite an article, by Asli Aydintasbas, noting Turkey’s “complicated” role in the Khashoggi story given Erdoğan’s jailing of journalists.
Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.