Posted by geoconger in Corruption, Get Religion, Politics, Russian Orthodox.
Tags: Observer, Patriarch Cyril, Vladimir Putin, Vsevelod Chaplin
Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.
So reads the second stanza of what may be the most politically incorrect poem in the English language. Interpretations of what Rudyard Kipling meant by his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden“, written in the wake of the American annexation of the Philippines, have differed sharply. From Henry James and Mark Twain to the denizens of Lit-Crit faculties today, many have objected to the poem as racist and condescending. Others, especially as of the time of its writing (Theodore Roosevelt for example) saw in it an expression of a Christian duty to bring the light of civilizations to the darker corners of the world.
The era that produced “The White Man’s Burden” also formed the tenets of classical Angl0-American journalism. Motivated by many of the same moral imperatives that under girded Anglo-American imperialism, the liberal school of journalism sought to civilize the newspaper profession, replacing partisan, hysterical, “yellow journalism” with an impartial, scientific, and honest retelling of the news of the day.
The mission of classical liberal journalism was summarized by the editor of the Manchester Guardian C.P. Scott in 1921. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” While on the editorial page he said: “It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”.
Scott’s dictum guides the writers at GetReligion. Yet this view is not universal. It is disappearing within the American newspaper guild and is all but gone in Europe. Yet not all agree that this approach to journalism is possible or ideal. Seeking balance and fairness in reporting is viewed (charitably) as being quaint, and (more commonly) as naive. It exhibits, the critics say, the same sort of condescension that makes Kipling’s poem so execrable. When truth is relative, this line goes, claiming to possess the sole truth is illusory — or an arrogant manifestation of a journalist’s “White Man’s Burden”.
This philosophical conflict can be illustrated by my critique of an article in the Observer, the Sunday edition of the Guardian. The article entitled “Church backs Vladimir Putin’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children” tells the story of the Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the passage of a law by the Duma that prevents Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Here we have a formidable caste of bogeymen — Vladimir Putin, Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox patriarch Cyril — playing off against orphans, Pussy Riot, and liberal democracy. What right thinking person would back KGB hacks and creepy clergy against orphans?
Before answering the question, let’s look at the article. It begins:
The Russian Orthodox church has been attacked for supporting a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, at the end of a year that saw it plagued by scandal and accusations of collusion with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.
Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking priest and a spokesman for the church, said the law was “a search for a social answer to an elementary question: why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?”
Speaking to Interfax, a state news agency, last week, Chaplin said the path to heaven would be closed to children adopted by foreigners. “They won’t get a truly Christian upbringing and that means falling away from the church and from the path to eternal life, in God’s kingdom,” he said.
This is a strong opening. It asserts church has been “plagued” by scandal and is in bed with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin before moving to a second hand quote from a church spokesman that is wonderfully awful (to Guardian readers). It then introduces a voice offering an opinion in line with the editorial slant of the story.
Critics say the church’s support for the law is the latest example of its submission to the Kremlin, in which it acts more like a government ministry than an independent spiritual body. “Everything is repeating – it’s like the 19th century, when the church lay completely under the state,” said Valery Otstavnykh, a theologist and Kremlin critic. “Everything was calm and fine until churches started getting blown up in 1917 and they all asked, ‘Why’?”
As an aside, I do not care for the word “theologist” — it is an uncommon word that is most often used in a pejorative sense. That may not be the case here as the statements of the theologist are in line with the views of the article, but it nonetheless is an ugly word.
The article then lays out the 2012 church scandals: Pussy Riot, the wandering watch, hit and run priests driving BMWs, church involvement in politics and suspect financial dealings. It then closes with a gratuitous unsubstantiated accusation and a plea by the outside commentator for the church to clean up its act.
Two weeks later, the state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an anonymous source as saying that a bordello was uncovered in a Moscow monastery.
“The church has also done a lot of good,” said Otstavnykh. “But the church as an organisation must change.”
There is no balance to this story. No facts are offered in mitigation nor voices in defense or explanation of the church’s actions. It may well be these actions are indefensible, but the reader cannot know this from this story. Throwing in the bordello line without further corroboration was improper.
The quote offered by Fr. Chaplin, who is a character about whom I have written, is taken from a Russian language story and is abbreviated in such a way by the Observer as to not allow for any nuance. The tail end of the first quote in the Observer story — “why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?” — continues in the original with a statement by Chaplin that Russia must take care of their own at the level of the family as well as at the local, state and national levels.
I would translate the second passages as:
As he noted, the adoption of children by foreign couples in most cases means “they can not get a truly Christian education, and thus fall away from the Church and from the road to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.”
“Orthodox people should remember and take seriously the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘He who has faith and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not have faith will be condemned’.”
The shading of the Observer’s version may leave the impression that children taken from Russia will go to hell because they have been taken from Russia. However Chaplin’s meaning is they may wind up raised in homes where the Christian faith is not practiced.
Chaplin’s views about the necessity of a Christian upbringing do not find favor with the Observer. In a Twitter exchange about the article, the author of the story responded to a critic who defended Chaplin by writing:
Your attempts to justify his statement as holding any logic or good will confound me.
The author may well think that, but should she have commented in public? If this article was in the op-ed section, I would say it would be appropriate for her to make this statement. But is it appropriate for a news story?
From a journalistic perspective, the critique offered by Mr. Otstavnykh should have been matched with a defense of the church’s actions. And it also would have helped the reader to know that Mr. Otstavnykh spoke in court on behalf of the Pussy Riot defendants, saying their actions did not constitute blasphemy.
Please note I am not speaking to the issues under examination. I am commenting on the professionalism and journalistic craft exhibited by this article. As a hit piece, the story is well done. As journalism, it is junk.
While many of the ideals expressed by Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden” are passé, “By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain”, is not. There is a story to be told from Russia on the interplay of the church, state and society. Mr. Otstavnyk’s concerns the Russian Orthodox Church is returning to the days when church and state were one is an important one. Is the Orthodox Church returning to the bad old days of the Nineteenth century, updating its prayer and priorities from God Save the Tsar to God Save the President? That story needs to be told.
The story told in this article, however, is neither plain nor simple, frank nor fair. And that is a shame.
First printed in Get Religion.
Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Religion Reporting, Russian Orthodox.
Tags: Alexy Navalny, New York Times, Patriarch Cyril, photo doctoring, Vladimir Putin
As I write, the hammer is falling on a hapless editor in the offices of the Moscow Patriarchate for airbrushing a watch off of the wrist of Patriarch Cyril. The doctored photo of Cyril and the disappearing watch has been a gift to the Moscow press corps, prompting a flurry of arch and knowing stories written at the expense of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The coverage reveals as much about the mindset of some reporters as it does about Muscovite media morals. The article from the New York Times is a classic of its kind, a macedoine of self-righteousness, ignorance and cant served up in a context-free bowl. It is an op-ed piece masquerading as news.
If you examine the photos taken from the Patriarchate’s website, you can see a watch on Cyril’s wrist. This photo was doctored to remove the watch, but the editor omitted to remove the watch’s reflection. Eagle-eyed bloggers spotted the reflection and called out the church’s press office. They have since removed the watch free photo from the website replacing it with the original.
Photo-doctoring has a long history in Russia and has been driven by politics (removing non-persons from history) and embarrassment. David King’s 1999 book, The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, is the best treatment I have seen of this topic.
“So much falsification took place during the Stalin years that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs,” King wrote. The cover of the book shows a photograph of Stalin with three revolutionary leaders. Over time the photograph is airbrushed, cropped and clipped until Stalin alone is left, conveying the message that it was Stalin who owned the heritage of the revolution.
Other falsifications were less sinister. One of my favorites is a photo of Nikita Khrushchev arriving at Idlewild. The original photo shows the Russian premier hat-less. Sovfoto improved the picture by placing a hat on his head — but neglected to airbrush out from the photo the hat Khrushchev was holding in his hand. Nikkie Two-Hats.
One of the iconic photos from the Second World War was manipulated to prevent embarrassment. The photo of the Russian soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was edited by photographer Yevgeny Khaldei before publication. To counter charges the Russian army had looted its way to Berlin, Khaldei removed the multiple wrist watches appearing on both arms of the officer standing below the flag.
Sixty-seven years later Moscow photo editors are still removing wristwatches.
Let’s see what the New York Times did with this story. The article entitled “$30,000 Watch Vanishes Up Church Leader’s Sleeve” begins:
Facing a scandal over photographs of its leader wearing an enormously expensive watch, the Russian Orthodox Church worked a little miracle: It made the offending timepiece disappear.
Editors doctored a photograph on the church’s Web site of the leader, Patriarch Kirill I, extending a black sleeve where there once appeared to be a Breguet timepiece worth at least $30,000. The church might have gotten away with the ruse if it had not failed to also erase the watch’s reflection, which appeared in the photo on the highly glossed table where the patriarch was seated.
The church apologized for the deception on Thursday and restored the original photo to the site, but not before Patriarch Kirill weighed in, insisting in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn the watch, and that any photos showing him wearing it must have been doctored to put the watch on his wrist.
Why is this story shoddy journalism? Let me count the ways — but before I do remember the purpose of this blog is to discuss reporting on religion. It is not to discuss the issues in the underlying story.
Let’s begin with the lede. The author frames the story from the start as a scandal about the church hiding Cyril’s $30,000 Breguet watch through the magic of photo editing software. The news of the alteration of the photo is presented, followed by the assertion from Cyril that he was not wearing the Breguet watch; and if there is a photo of him wearing the watch Cyril claims the photo was doctored. The construction of this lede is to impeach Cyril by words out of his own mouth showing him to be a liar.
But was Cyril wearing the Breguet watch? Notice the Times says it appears he was, but there is no evidence or comment from a horologist to say the watch in the photo is the Breguet watch. Later in the story we hear Cyril say that he was wearing an inexpensive Russian watch when the photo was taken, and that he received the Breguet watch as a gift. If he was not wearing the Breguet, why remove the watch from the photo? I don’t know, and the Times does not try to find out. The inferences and half truths offered at the start of the story have framed the narrative such that the reader will conclude Cyril is a hypocrite.
Having set the frame, the Times editorializes in earnest.
The controversy, which erupted Wednesday when attentive Russian bloggers discovered the airbrushing, further stoked anger over the church’s often lavish displays of wealth and power. It also struck yet another blow to the moral authority of Russian officialdom, which has been dwindling rapidly in light of recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.
A series of opinions mixed with general observations is then produced in support of the crooked cleric theme.
… Over the past decade, the church has grown immensely powerful, becoming so close to the Kremlin that it often seems like a branch of government. It has extended its influence into a broad range of public life, including schools, courts and politics. Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Vladimir V. Putin in last month’s presidential election.
… Then there is the question of the church’s wealth. Russian bloggers have published rumors that the patriarch has a large country house, a private yacht and a penchant for ski vacations in Switzerland, though none of this has been proved.
The watch, on the other hand, has been an object of fascination for years, and there is little question of its existence. It was first sighted on the patriarch’s wrist in 2009 during a visit to Ukraine, where he gave a televised interview on the importance of asceticism.
A Breguet watch “is virtually a sine qua non of any depiction of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie or, quite simply, a life of luxury and elegance,” the company says, noting that its products have been worn by Marie Antoinette and Czar Aleksandr I and cited in works by Dumas and Hugo.
… But the patriarch has presented himself as the country’s ethical compass, and has recently embarked on a vocal campaign of public morality, advocating Christian education in public schools and opposing abortion and equal rights for gay people. He called the girl punk band protest at the cathedral “sacrilege.”
Without offering any supporting evidence, the Times asserts the Russian Orthodox Church is in bed with the Putin regime. The church possesses vast wealth and Cyril jets around to Switzerland for the skiing, tools around in his yacht and weekends in the country. And, by the way, he wears a watch worn by the same firm that supplied Marie Antoinette. This is really crude. Cyril is a villain in Times-land. He supports school prayer, is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-women. All that is missing from the Times’ roster of pet pieties is a comment about his views on minorities.
The articles tries to tie the vanishing watch into a commentary about Russia’s moral decline, linking the Russian Orthodox Church to public concerns about “recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.” How do we know that Russian public opinion believes there is a link between the church and the scandals? There may be individuals who say this, but does Russia say this? No evidence is offered to substantiate this opinion.
The Times offers four voices against the church, and one in favor to flesh out the controversy, beginning with:
Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption crusader, called the episode “shameful,” and bloggers gleefully ridiculed the church as hypocritical.
The choice of Aleksei Navalny is as interesting for the omission the Times makes about Navalny as is Navalny’s opinion.
In January Navalny was the victim of a doctored photo scam in the press concocted by Putin supporters. A photo of Navalny with Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov (the photo on the left) was altered to that of Navalny and another oligarch (the photo on the right), Boris Berezovsky — a fugitive from corruption charges who lives in London. In an attempt to smear Navalny with charges of guilt by association with one of the Russian media’s chief villains, the caption to the doctored photo stated: “Alexei Navalny has never hidden that Boris Berezovsky gives him money for the struggle with Putin.”
Adding this information about Navalny’s experience of being a victim of press photo doctoring would have given context to the story — as would mention of the Russian penchant for fixing photos to create the preferred reality. There is no context to this story, no sense of history, no balance, no understanding of Russia, its people, culture or politics.
Let me say that I am not defending the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church’s press office in making the questionable watch vanish. What I am concerned with is the integrity of the reporting about that incident — and the preference for slotting in facts to support a story’s theme as against allowing the facts to tell the story.
An anecdote about the French novelist Balzac bears on this point. Balzac was talking to a visitor about the heroes of his novels. The subject changed to political and other events of the day. After a pause Balzac suddenly said: “Let’s return to reality,” and started talking about his characters again.
It may well be that Cyril is a crook and the Russian Orthodox Church is a tool of the Putin-regime. The Times may think so and has written an article assuming that this is so, but has not provided any evidence in support of its contentions. All of the materials — the facts, the history, the setting, the new post-Soviet Russia of Vladimir Putin — are there for a great article. That story has yet to be written.
First printed in GetReligion.
Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Russian Orthodox.
Tags: Belt of the Virgin Mary, New York Times, Thucydides, Vladimir Putin
The History of the Peloponnesian War in around 420 BC.
Who was the first journalist? Who was the first to adopt the intellectual and moral code that guides the craft of reporting? My vote would be for the Athenian historian, Thucydides, who wrote
In his account of the war between Athens and Sparta, Thucydides became the first writer to set himself apart from his own political system to examine critically the past. He recounted equally the virtues of Athens and its vices and stepped outside his culture, abandoning the notion that the gods controlled the destiny of men. The study of history was no longer explained by reference to myth and legend, but by the pursuit of truth about the past.
A modern journalist employs Thucydides’ methodology and is expected to stand outside his own political system, culture and religion, to criticize his own society and to pursue the truth. Even Robert Fisk, the doyenne of ideological journalists will state that the reporter’s job is to tell it like it is: “My job is to report what I have seen.”
When a reporter allows ideology or cultural biases to color a story this ideal is not met. A recent New York Times report entitled “In Russian Chill, Waiting Hours for Touch of the Holy” printed on page A8 of the 24 Nov 2011 issue illustrates this point.
A religious relic — the belt of the Virgin Mary — has been brought from the Vatopedi Monastery on Mt Athos in Greece to Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral by the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation. In the week that it was on display over a half million Russians lined up to gaze upon and perhaps kiss the glass case that enclosed the camel-hair jewel-encrusted relic. At times the queue stretched almost three miles with tens of thousands waiting in sub-zero temperatures. The faithful believe the relic was given by Mary the Mother of God to St Thomas before her Assumption. It is reputed to have miraculous powers and has helped women to conceive. The Itar-Tass and Novosti wire services provide a quick summary of events.
The Telegraph and the Washington Post focused on the phenomena of the size of the crowds and the public display of piety. The Telegraph called the spectacle an “extraordinary display of the strength of Orthodox Christianity in post-Soviet Russia,” and observed:
Russia’s Orthodox Church had an incredible surge of influence and power in recent years as millions of Russians began to practice religion in the 1990s after decades of state-dictated atheism in the Soviet Union.
We heard from members of the crowd.
“I am 74, and I have suffered a heart attack. I am handicapped in my arm and leg,” said another man, identifying himself as Vladimir, after exiting the imposing white cathedral and leaning on his wife’s supporting arm. “Maybe it will help?” he said, tears welling up in his eyes.
The Post story ran with equally strong quotes that focused also on faith.
On the other side of the cathedral, Alexei Bogdanov, a 32-year-old truck-parts salesman, had seen the relic and was waiting for his wife. Tears came to his eyes when he touched the box, he said.“We lived in our country for almost 70 years without faith,” he said. “And now we have found it again.”
The New York Times took a different approach. It covered the crowd story, but also raised the political dimensions of the relic’s mission to Moscow. However, the flip and knowing way this was done, and its smirking condescension towards the ignorant peasants as they stood in the cold, left me cold as well.
After it reported on the crowd, the New York Times raised the political angle.
As befits his status as the arbiter of most things Russian, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin was the first to greet the holy relic when it arrived … [The crowds] wait here, within view of the Kremlin, snaking past the hulking Ministry of Defense building and billboards in support of United Russia, the pro-Putin governing party.
The story offers a “why we’re here” quote from one member of the crowd and then resumes its arch tone.
Moscow’s city government closed streets around the cathedral — causing those Muscovites not so inclined to venerate relics to rant about the even-worse-than-usual traffic jams.
The article at this stage seemed ready to break away from its self-conscious cuteness and take a serious stab at explaining what is going on. The man responsible for the Moscow sojourn is named: “Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian Railroads, who is close to Mr. Putin.”
“The belt of the Most Holy Virgin Mary possesses miraculous power,“ he said. “It helps women and helps in childbirth. In our demographic situation, this is in and of itself important.”
The story does not follow up on the political angle, however, and the sarcastic tone returns.
The blogs and Facebook pages of Russian Orthodox intellectuals have overflowed with debates about whether hysteria over the belt was a disturbing sign that many Russians’ faith is based on superstition. Many noted that Christ the Savior Cathedral and the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow, one of the most important monasteries in the Orthodox Church, have relics of the Virgin Mary that are just as precious.
At a bustling coffee shop near the cathedral that this week became an impromptu pit stop for the faithful, an excited young woman rushed in to tell waiting friends that she had venerated the Virgin Mary’s belt. Then she told them about her visit to a fortune teller.
Characterizing the response to the icon’s visit to Moscow by a half million Russian Orthodox Christians as hysteria, and the gratuitous fortune teller line is unfortunate. The attempt to bring politics into the story also fails because there is no context or explanation as to why this matters. What relationship does Vladimir Putin have to the icon’s visit? Who is Vladimir Yakunin and why is it important to know that he is a friend of Putin?
Yes, there is a political story here, but the New York Times misses it. Yakunin is a close political ally of Putin and has brought the relic to Moscow in the run up to the national elections. Putin is running as Mr. Orthodox, wrapping himself in the mantle of Russian Orthodoxy and his critics have charged that the miracle of the Virgin’s Belt will be his re-election.
The [St. Andrew the First-Called] Foundation, chaired by the head of Russia’s state railways and long-time Putin associate Vladimir Yakunin, said the relic’s arrival shortly before the parliamentary election was coincidental.
“It is absolutely not related. We wanted it to come in the summer, but the entire process, the discussions, took a long time,” spokesman Alexander Gatilin said.
For a detailed look at the religious and political cross-currents surrounding this story, go to Batholomew’s Notes on Religion.
The Telegraph and Washington Post played this straight and focused on the religious angle, giving the pilgrims who braved the cold to stand in line to venerate the relic a sympathetic hearing. The New York Times took a different line offering faithful voices and fortune tellers and enclosing the whole in a box marked hysteria. It also sought the secular angle and gave us Vladimir Putin. But it neglected to explain why we needed to hear from Putin or of the political significance of the relic’s mission to Moscow.
But the bottom line for me was the snarky attitude. Instead of standing outside of its culture and attempting to report faithfully and fairly on what was going on in Moscow, it stood squarely within the jaded and hip mindset of Manhattan. What we got from the New York Times was a travelog with attitude.
First printed in GetReligion.