In 2008, while covering the Republican Convention, I bumped into Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow!, and I was star struck. When Russia Today announced that Julian Assange would get his own show, I thought that was brilliant and couldn’t wait to watch it. One of my more interesting email newsletter subscriptions comes from CounterPunch, a political website in Portland, Oregon—that lovable hipster Narnia. But now that my mainstays in alternative media are covering the revolution in Ukraine—a part of the world I have lived in and researched extensively for years—it’s left me heartbroken, and wondering: If Russia Today, DemocracyNow!, and Counter Punch are spreading misinformation about Ukraine, what else have they been wrong about? By sharing their articles in the past, have I helped them blur the truth?
Ukraine has a history of being the victim of media conspiracy. In 1933, the Western mainstream media deliberately covered-up Stalin’s genocide famine in Ukraine that starved to death many millions. Stalin, a great statistician himself, cited 10 million dead. Eugene Lyons, a reporter for UPI in Moscow, confessed to the cover-up in his tell-all memoir Assignment in Utopia. It was reviewed by Orwell and helped inspire ideas for 1984, namely the slogan: 2+2=5.
Before reading this article, had you heard of the famine? There’s a reason why most people still don’t know that many millions of Ukrainians were starved to death by their government in a single year; the Western media, confined to Moscow, was successful in ignoring “the rumors.” In one notorious instance some of the world’s most influential foreign reporters ganged up on a brave, young, independent journalist named Gareth Jones, by publishing articles full of lies that contradicted Jones’ fearless eye-witness reporting. The media’s silence or flat-out denials helped the Kremlin keep the truth of the famine locked behind the Iron Curtain. It eventually became reserved to the world of academia, where it was debated for generations.
Today the alternative media is the Kremlin’s little helper. Many Americans are infuriated with our government’s NSA spying and wars-for-profit, and obviously rightfully so. But their anger toward American neocons seems projected onto a revolution that would inspire free thinkers and freedom fighters. If only they could forgive The New York Times for Judith Miller, they would trust the incredible reporting the paper is doing on the ground in Ukraine. Yes, corporate media is fiercely generic and prefers covering shiny celebrity objects; but its ability to afford fact-checkers and travel budgets can lead to some damn good reporting.
Here’s what you need to be aware of as the situation in Ukraine develops:
Any article that links to Russia Today (RT) to cite a “fact” was written by a lazy journalist. It’s well-known that Russia Today was started by the Russian government, which has a history of imprisoning and killing investigative journalists.
Russia Today has led the charge that Ukraine’s protest movement was a fascist, neo-Nazi take-over of the country. Luckily, the jaw-dropping photos of President Yanukovych’s Versailles McMansion, built with stolen tax-payer money on privatized national park land, clearly communicated to the world why Ukrainians were fighting. They had enough of their government’s sociopathic corruption: an estimated $70 billion was stolen from the budget since Yanukovych became president in 2010. Yes, he was democratically elected (and he lied to get elected), but he delegitimized his power when he violated the Ukrainian constitution by mass-murdering his own people.
In fact, many Jewish intellectuals across Ukraine were protest organizers, according to Tablet Magazine. A former Israeli soldier taught self-defense on Maidan—Kyiv’s Independence Square. Unfortunately, Haaretz and David Firestone, a columnist for The New York Times, were duped by an erroneous story that quoted a Kremlin ally who urgently called for Jews to leave Ukraine for their own safety. (Ukraine has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world, according to Haaretz.) Haaretz has since issued a correction; Firestone has not and seemed to attribute a recent attack on two Jews to the protesters. Jewish-Ukrainian historian Vitaliy Nakhmanovich released a statement that those attacks were a provocation by government forces—a statement I tweeted to Firestone just after he re-tweeted something else I posted, but I have not received a response.
It’s safer to be Jewish in Ukraine than black in Florida. Anti-Semitism is not on the rise in Ukraine. Vadim Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress (VEK), co-founder of the European Jewish Parliament (EJP), issued this statement:
“Thus, I categorically refute the statements appearing in a number of foreign media outlets of facts of massive anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine that do not correspond to reality! The whipping up of the situation around this issue is of a provocative nature and does not contribute to a calm life for the Jewish community of Ukraine. Together with the entire people of Ukraine, the Jewish community will actively participate in the building of a democratic state and promote the renewal and prosperity of the country.”
Another common fallacy is that the “Russian half” of Ukraine supports and wants to be aligned with Russia. First of all, how do you think half of Ukraine became Russian in the first place? After Stalin wiped out millions of Ukrainians in the genocide-famine, he replaced them with Russians; the borders of Ukraine then only extended around what is now eastern Ukraine; that is why western Ukraine, then under Poland, is still so very Ukrainian—they did not experience the famine. Mind blowing, eh?
Ukrainian protesters are not fascists: the movement was started by a dark-skinned Afghani-Ukrainian, the first victims were Armenian and Belarusian, and many of the killed protesters were native Russian speakers. Even some Russians are inspired by what Ukraine has done; this incredible footage from a hockey game in Russia shows young Russians chanting: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” Yes, there are far-right elements–there’s a shadow side to every movement and human-being; Jewish-French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy breaks down that issue wonderfully here.
The anti-corruption movement is diverse. Leaders and victims came from all over the country. Ukraine does not want to be partitioned, and symbolically expressed its unity on Wednesday when Lviv agreed to speak Russian, and Donetsk agreed to speak Ukrainian for a day. My father is from Lviv, and my mother is from Donetsk; if they can stay married for 45+ years, Ukraine can stay united. The only threat is Russian meddling which will either take the form of its usual Soviet-style subterfuge or a Russian military invasion of Crimea. During this critical time, Western leaders and especially media must stay vigilant and not serve the Kremlin by spreading its propaganda.
Know that Ketchum PR represents Russia, and has placed Russian-friendly content in The Huffington Post. Conservative bloggers have been paid to write pro-Kremlin pieces, as this bombshell investigation explains. You will continue to see a retired university professor named Stephen F. Cohen defend Russia and demonize the Ukrainian anti-corruption movement onThe Nation. This is because Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and part owner of The Nation, is his wife. So his perverse defense of Vladimir Putin will likely always have a home there. It is strange how Cohen can overlook Putin’s human rights record. Historically, communists and other liberals have associated the Soviet Union with the socialist struggle. The Soviet Union never achieved the dream of socialism that Denmark, for instance, has. It was a terror regime that seduced liberal movements and leading intellectuals in the West. When he was a newly arrived immigrant in the Lower East Side, my uncle saw his American high school teacher crying on the day “Uncle Joe” Stalin died. For him, it’s a memory as strong as witnessing the fiery clashes of Hitler and Stalin’s armies in east Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The West did not orchestrate the Ukrainian protests—they started from a Facebook post by Afghani-Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayem. When the State Department’s Victoria Nuland was caught in the leaked phone call saying “fuck the EU,” it was obvious that this would color the movement as a “Western conspiracy.” But many Ukrainians also had to agree with her: the EU seemed to do nothing but issue statements of moral support. I feared it would soon run out of combination of words that all said the same thing. Their tone-deaf moral support is perfectly called-out in this video from protesters. In the end,Ukrainians rejected a Western-brokered “peace deal” and threatened to storm the president if he didn’t leave town the next day; he fled. Ukrainians won their freedom despite the West, not because of it.
Another fun-fake-fact is that the protesters were paid. Such a cliché deserves a cliché: that’s like saying Santa Clause is real. People gave their lives fighting for their freedom—a sentiment honored in the Ukrainian national anthem.
If you think that’s romanticism, then maybe we in the West need to get romantic, and fast. We, the American people, on the left and the right, have a common enemy in corporate-bought politicians. If anything should unite our country and draw us out into the streets it’s America’s desperate need for campaign finance reform. But who among us would be willing to take a sniper bullet for that?