The Media Today

The weight of words in the Russia-Ukraine story

February 22, 2022
Displaced civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the territory controlled by pro-Russia separatist governments in eastern Ukraine, rest in a sport hall in Taganrog, Russia, Monday, Feb. 21, 2022. World leaders are making another diplomatic push in hopes of preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as heavy shelling continues in Ukraine's east. (AP Photo)

Yesterday afternoon, Moscow time, Vladimir Putin gathered his security council in a domed Kremlin room with a veneer of Russian imperial glory to “discuss” what to do about Ukraine. Unlike at some of Putin’s recent photo ops, there was no massive table this time (though various observers agreed that one would finally have been appropriate); instead, top officials sat in rows of chairs, still an absurd distance from Putin, across a long stretch of polished flooring. “This is happening spontaneously because I wanted to hear your opinions without any preliminary preparation,” Putin said, as the officials got up, one by one, to agree with him. The meeting was broadcast on state TV and was ostensibly live, though if that was the case, the defense minister might want to check his watch since it appeared to be five hours behind the time. (As the painter David Hockney once said, “you’ve got to plan to be spontaneous.”)

As the meeting unfolded, astonished reporters and analysts variously described it as “totally extraordinary and deeply disconcerting” and “truly remarkable and terrifying,” while comparing it, variously, to a Netflix drama, a reality TV show, King Lear, and James Bond. It appeared to have been choreographed and scripted, with officials parroting the same apocalyptic and fantastical talking points that have blanketed state media recently to justify recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, two eastern Ukrainian provinces claimed by Russia-backed separatists. (The separatists already control around a third of the territory in the two provinces, all of it abutting Russia.) As The Guardian’s Shaun Walker and others noted, some of the officials seemed visibly to squirm as they made their support for recognition a matter of very public record, not least Putin’s spy chief, who wore a “genuinely flustered expression” as Putin admonished him to speak more clearly, then shut down his support for a full annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk; others suggested, though, that this, too, may have been staged, to show Putin in the act of rejecting a possible option (for now). Putin promised to make a decision on recognition later in the day, before the cameras cut.

Related: A week of whiplash and the need for cool heads over Russia and Ukraine

We didn’t have to wait long before we got the second episode of what Walker described as Putin’s “double bill,” and when it came, it, too, looked more scripted than spontaneous. Putin spoke for an hour, again on state TV, in deeply ahistorical terms—claiming that Ukraine was dreamed into existence by Lenin and is thus not a real state, and calling it an “integral part” of Russia’s “history, culture, and spiritual space,” before confirming that he would go ahead and recognize separatist Donetsk and Luhansk as independent in the near future. With Western media starting to report that Putin would soon follow through, Putin followed through; state TV cut to a ceremony in a different room, where Putin signed a decree and gestured to separatist leaders who were seated to his side behind desks of their own, again at a great distance from Putin himself. With the decrees, Putin said that he was sending troops into the regions, ostensibly as “peacekeepers.” Video clips and reports from politicians suggested that they had already crossed the border, as news outlets raced to confirm them.

The story quickly reached a fever pitch in US media. The troop order appeared to constitute a Russian “invasion” of Ukraine as defined by Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, last month, though Biden administration officials stopped short of using that word last night in the face of persistent questioning from journalists, noting that despite Russian denials, the country’s forces have been in the separatist areas since 2014. Some independent Ukraine-watchers reached a similar conclusion, casting Putin’s recognition as an “escalation” since the “invasion” happened a long time ago, but a number of US national-security pundits were strident about using the I-word; William Taylor, a former US ambassador to Ukraine (remember him?), insisted repeatedly that “this is an invasion” on both CNN and MSNBC. The New York Times took a middle ground, concluding that it was “unclear” whether a “full-scale invasion” had begun since it’s not yet certain that Russia will send troops into the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that it doesn’t already control.

As this debate started to play out, it should have been abundantly clear that we are not dealing, here, with “peacekeepers,” though various major Western outlets put some version of that word in headlines; usually, they were placed in quotation marks, but at least one BBC chyron didn’t even bother with those. The Washington Post splashed the headline “Putin sends ‘peacekeeping’ force into Ukraine” across the front page of its early print edition, though a later edition used the word “troops” instead. This did not go down well. “Was Putin’s speech the speech of a peacekeeper?” the journalist Jane Lytvynenko asked. “Use words wisely.” The chess champion Garry Kasparov quipped that “we need a children’s textbook for the media. WRONG: ‘President Putin to send peacekeepers to breakaway regions of Ukraine.’ RIGHT: ‘Russian dictator formally announces annexation of additional Ukrainian territories after 8 years of military occupation.’”

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Words always matter for the press and especially so here since, despite the escalation, we are still in the thick of the information war that has shaped the Russia-Ukraine story so far. Putin’s pair of performative, lie-drenched TV spectacles yesterday were a case in point, and while it’s important to relay his words, it’s still essential that we put them in as rich a context as possible, including (if not especially) in short forms like headlines and tweets, as newsworthy staging posts in this story fall ever more quickly. Putting “peacekeepers” in quote marks is not enough.

If it’s vital that we use words sharply and accurately, however, it’s perhaps less important that we endlessly parse them in our coverage. The “invasion” debate is important to the extent that the Biden administration has put that word at the heart of its response to Putin’s threats, making it the condition for a package of sanctions that it has threatened to unleash. Overall, however, the word itself, and muddy associated concepts like “red lines” and “full invasion,” matter less than the consequences of what Putin is doing—and has done already—on the ground. As foreign-policy pundits have already noted, Putin’s latest move may have been calibrated, in part, to lead Western powers into semantic quicksand and thus dilute the efficacy of their response. Dictating the terms of that response, clearly, is not the media’s responsibility. But semantic hand-wringing can also obscure the truth, and that is. The information war doesn’t end when “real” war begins.

Below, more on Russia and Ukraine:

  • The latest: This morning, officials in the European Union and the UK met to finalize sanctions packages in response to Putin’s latest steps, while Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, said, to some surprise, that he would halt the certification of Nord Stream 2, a controversial gas pipeline that would have linked Germany and Russia if opened as planned. Scholz had previously been seen as reluctant to take such a step, but said that “the situation today is fundamentally different.” The Biden administration, meanwhile, levied sanctions focused principally on the two separatist regions and confirmed that tougher measures will follow should Russia “further invade” Ukraine.
  • Sharing intel: On Sunday, the Post was first to report that the Biden administration had told the United Nations that, according to intelligence it obtained, Russia is making lists of people “to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation” of Ukraine, including journalists, anti-corruption activists, and people from vulnerable groups. Speaking on a tour of morning TV yesterday, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, confirmed the Post’s story. As with previous administration claims about Russia’s supposed plans, officials have not laid out the evidence behind the intelligence.
  • A brawl: Late last week, Yuriy Butusov, a Ukrainian journalist, slapped Nestor Shufrych, a pro-Russian politician, on a Ukrainian TV talk show, after Shufrych declined to say whether Putin is a “murderer or a criminal.” The pair brawled on the studio floor for around a minute before they were separated. Slate’s Daniel Politi has more details.
  • Meanwhile, in a Russian prison: Last week, Alexei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader and sometime journalist whose current sentence ends next year, went on trial again in a Russian prison, facing charges that could extend his sentence by a further fifteen years. Navalny’s supporters suggested that Russian authorities deliberately timed the trial while the world is distracted by the Ukraine crisis, while Navalny himself said that the prison was chosen as the location since it is far from Moscow, curbing media accessibility. Ivan Nechepurenko has more details for the Times.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Israel’s justice ministry contradicted bombshell recent reporting by Calcalist, a business paper, claiming that police in the country used Pegasus, a potent Israeli-made spyware tool, to warrantlessly surveil various public figures, some of them journalists. (I wrote about the claims in a recent newsletter.) Investigators said that police never targeted the vast majority of names on a list published by Calcalist, and obtained judicial approval to target the others. Critics accused Calcalist of journalistic negligence; Calcalist responded that the justice ministry’s findings “require serious consideration and re-examination of the findings and allegations we published,” but also noted that the investigation “validates” the paper’s core claim that police have used spyware against Israeli civilians. Ronen Bergman and Patrick Kingsley have more details for the Times.
  • Apoorva Mandavilli reports, for the Times, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made public “only a tiny fraction” of the covid data in their possession, including figures on hospitalization by vaccination status, the effectiveness of boosters in younger Americans, and wastewater trends that can flag viral spread. The CDC fears that some of this data is “not yet ready for prime time,” or could be misinterpreted.
  • Also for the Times, Alexandra Alter talked to novelists who are grappling with whether to incorporate covid into their books. “A flood of pandemic fiction is perhaps inevitable,” Alter writes, and several authors said it is “necessary, noting that unlike the fire hose of news coverage about covid, which can leave readers feeling numb and overwhelmed, fiction can provide a way to process the emotional upheaval of the past two years.”
  • Jane E. Brody wrote her final “Personal Health” column for the Times forty-six years after publishing her first. “I based the advice in these columns on the best available evidence at the time I wrote them. But the very nature of the scientific process dictates that medicine evolves, and will continue to do so,” Brody writes. “Only one thing remains static and continues to jeopardize the health of all who fall for it: quackery.”
  • After Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, told The New Yorker that he “could care less about the unnuanced voices on Twitter” who criticize the Times’ journalists, James Fallows pushed back, noting that Baquet abolished the paper’s public editor position because social media could crowdsource the role. The Times, he writes, “is too influential and indispensable to have its leaders or representatives sound so haughty.”
  • New this morning: the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has named David Peña Jr. as its new leader. “Peña has served as executive director for the National Hispanic Business Association, the Hispanic Dental Association, President for College & Universities at ALPFA National, and President for The Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce,” NAHJ writes, and his “civic involvement is as diverse as his work history.”
  • The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China slammed the country’s government and the International Olympic Committee for their treatment of reporters at the Winter Olympics, claiming that officials “regularly” interfered with their work despite the IOC dismissing problems as “isolated.” On one occasion, the FCCC reports, a journalist was blocked from interviewing an athlete from Hong Kong. (I wrote about the Games yesterday.)
  • Last week, nineteen journalists at EMTV, a top broadcaster in Papua New Guinea, were shut out of their offices and suspended after they walked off the job in solidarity with Sincha Dimara, a top EMTV editor who was herself suspended after pushing back on management interference in the station’s coverage of a jailed Australian businessman. Bosses deny interfering; Rebecca Kuku has more for The Guardian’s Pacific project.
  • And Truth Social, Trump’s new social media platform, launched in Apple’s app store yesterday, though access appears limited for now; when Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, tried to sign up he “muscled through” a “litany of errors” but was unable to verify his phone number, and he couldn’t sign up for the app’s wait list either. All new apps contain bugs, Darcy notes, “but I did not anticipate it being this bad.”

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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.