Facebook has come under heavy fire from the New York Times and the Washington Post for uncritically spreading Russian misinformation. But Lee Smith makes a strong case that the Times and the Post are guilty of the same offense on a larger scale.
These organs spread Russian propaganda via “Russia Beyond the Headlines,” a multi-page full-color broadsheet laid out just like a newspaper and distributed for newspapers like the Times and the Post to insert — for a fee. “Russia Beyond the Headlines” was produced by the state-owned publisher Rossiyskaya Gazeta. According to Smith, it serves not only Russian national interests but, inevitably, also the personal interests of Vladimir Putin. The Institute of Modern Russia, a New York think tank run by Pavel Khodorkovsky, found that a “Russia Beyond” insert in the largest German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, featured an article attacking Khodorkovsky’s father, a onetime oligarch imprisoned and later pardoned by Putin.
The Washington Post inserted “Russia Beyond the Headlines” into its newspaper until 2015, according to Smith. The New York Times still does.
What is the nature of these inserts? Says Smith:
Russia Beyond paints a picture of a normal country, with normal concerns, including reviews of Moscow’s trendy restaurants and reports from the latest ComiCon. The Russia depicted in its pages isn’t working with Iran and the Syrian regime to slaughter civilians and gas children. Rather, it’s a global actor in good standing, whose citizens don’t understand why the United States and European Union placed sanctions on their country in response to the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
The insert contains only a small disclaimer right below the masthead, in light typeface, explaining that it’s an advertising feature. From personal experience, I can say the disclaimer is easy to miss.
Thus, as Smith says, it turns out that, like Facebook, the New York Times and Washington Post were among those taking money to distribute Russian propaganda. Neither paper will say how much money it received, but Smith believes the amounts were significant and, in all events, far greater than what the Russians paid Facebook:
In 2008 the Daily Telegraph was reported to have earned nearly 40,000 pounds a month (perhaps $57,000 to $80,000) to distribute the insert. Russia Beyond likely paid several million dollars to the Times and Post combined over more than a decade. By comparison, Facebook was paid roughly $100,000 by Russian-linked disinformation sources during a nearly two-year period.
The standard defense of newspapers using these inserts is that readers are smart enough to see the material for what it is — propaganda. I think that’s generally true.
But the same can be said, probably with greater plausibility, about Russian propaganda on Facebook. As Smith says, Russia’s Facebook ads appeared in a medium that even minimally savvy news consumers treat with deserved circumspection.
By contrast, being bundled within the pages of the country’s two top newspapers gave “Russia Beyond” at least the patina of respectability. Indeed, the very fact that the Post and the Times would use the insert signaled that they didn’t (and in the Times’ case, still doesn’t) consider Russia beyond the pale.
Since 2011, it has backed the murderous Assad regime in Syria. And in 2015, it began murdering Syrians on Assad’s behalf.
Somehow, though, the Post saw nothing wrong, until 2015, with taking money to promote the menace that is Putin’s Russia. The Times still sees nothing wrong with this.
I consider the distribution of “Russia Beyond” to be actual collusion with Russia on the part of the Times and the Post, not the fanciful kind of collusion these left-wing resistance organs imagine Donald Trump has engaged in.