Three times when something went wrong in The New York Times

The building of The New York Times, New York, USA. Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images.
The building of The New York Times, New York, USA. Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images.

Anti-Ukrainian manipulations in one of the world’s most respected media or three times when something went wrong in The New York Times

‘The New York Times is a media that can be described by many words starting with ‘the most’ — the most frequent winner of the most prestigious Pulitzer Prize in journalism, the oldest daily newspaper in the United States, one of the most popular news websites and generally one of the most influential and respected media in the world. 

However, unfortunately, when covering the Russian war in Ukraine, the media does not always justify its credibility. Below are the most telling cases when The New York Times manipulated information, distorted facts and consciously or unconsciously spread pro-Russian narratives.

‘Unrealistic goals: how NYT ‘decided’ the destiny of Ukraine

In the editorial ‘The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready’ of May 19, 2022, the New York Times wrote that Ukraine will ‘allegedly have to make painful territorial decisions that any compromise will require.’ Due to the newspaper, Ukraine’s goal of returning all the territories seized by Russia since 2014 is ‘unrealistic.’

A memorial sign ‘Crimea is Ukraine’ on the territory of the entry-exit control point ‘Kalanchak,’ Kherson region, November 22, 2021. Photo: УНІАН

This material became widely publicised and received a lot of criticism from Ukrainians. In particular, the President’s Office commented on this ‘information’ from the American edition.

‘Doesn’t this person who writes ‘let’s give something up’ want to come here and talk to the families whose loved ones were killed or raped? Doesn’t want to talk to them? NYT, what’s the problem? You can drink coffee here, sit in Bucha, talk to them,’ said Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the President’s Office, on Freedom TV channel, adding that the people and the President of Ukraine will decide on how the war will end. 

So what was the problem, NYT?

Firstly, the situation at the front directly influences the assessment of Ukraine’s chances in the international community. In May, the case was radically different from what we see now. 

‘The New York Times article about the ‘unrealistic’ decisive victory of Ukraine was published on May 19, in the period of fierce fighting in Donbas and the absence of large-scale offensive operations in Ukraine. If the Armed Forces of Ukraine continue to demonstrate successes, such as recently in the Kharkiv region (the Ukrainian army launched a counteroffensive in early September and only by the middle of the month liberated more than 300 settlements — ed.), the opinions of the world media will become more pro-Ukrainian.’ It is how analysts of the VoxCheck fact-checking project commented on the NYT case at the request of the ‘Ukrainian Moment.’ 

Secondly, as Adrian Karmazyn, former director of the Ukrainian Service of the Voice of America, and an expert of the Ukrainian Association of American Studies, explains, the United States (or at least some part of the United States) may have been ‘unprepared’ for a prolonged war in Ukraine and a prolonged counterweight to Russia. 

Director of the Ukrainian Service of the Voice of America in 2005–2015 Adrian Karmazyn, photo: Adrian Karmazyn, Facebook

‘There are politicians — supporters of the policy of isolationism — mostly from the pro-Trump wing, who say, ‘We cannot spend so much on supporting Ukraine. We must focus on American internal problems.’ 

At the same time, the expert notes that Ukraine now has bipartisan support in the US Congress. In general, there is no risk of slowing down the assistance to Ukrainians, regardless of the results of the upcoming elections to the House of Representatives. 

So, it seems that ‘America is ready.’ 

Indeed, now, in the conditions of successful counter-offensive actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the NYT no longer writes about ‘unrealistic goals,’ and the American authorities emphasise that it is Ukraine that will decide when the negotiations will begin, what will be the conditions of these negotiations and the end of the war. 

However, The New York Times article remains prejudiced, and potentially, such materials threaten to start a ‘vicious circle’ of media influence on the situation at the front and vice versa. 

Ukraine and the Ukrainian army will not pay attention to such assessments of The New York Times. Still, there is a danger that European countries or Americans themselves will pay attention to them. And such pessimistic forecasts of the American media can indirectly lead to a decrease in assistance to Ukraine from international partners: asking why to help if there is no chance. 

It is okay to state facts and assess the chances (regardless of who wins at this time), but it is not okay to promote the thesis that it is unrealistic to return the territories. Especially given that the United States does not recognise and has never recognised the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the formation of the so-called ‘LPR’ and ‘DPR,’ or attempts to annex Ukrainian regions into the Russian Federation. 

Unobvious manipulations and controversial figures

Igor Girkin, 2014, photo: УНІАН

In July, the New York Times, in an article titled ‘Desperate for Recruits, Russia Launches a ‘Covert Mobilization’ called Igor Girkin, a retired Russian Armed Forces officer, former FSB colonel, war criminal and the first ‘defence minister’ of the so-called DPR, a ‘military analyst.’ At the same time, the media did not mention Strelkov’s role in Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

‘Many analysts doubt how long Russia can continue its offensive against Ukraine without a general mobilisation. Igor Girkin, a military analyst and constant critic of the strategy towards Ukraine, said that Russia would not be able to conquer the whole country without it,’ the article of the American edition says. 

The article allegedly does not promote pro-Russian narratives (rather the opposite), but there are better ideas than quoting Igor Girkin. As the fact-checking project ‘BezBrekhni’ (‘Without lies’ explains, on the one hand, Girkin serves as a lightning rod — he criticises military failures in a dosed and controlled manner (and if it were disadvantageous for Putin, Girkin would have been silenced long ago). On the other hand, he misleads the Ukrainian viewer (lulls) by talking about the weakness of the Russian army and its imminent defeat.

Soldiers of the National Guard of Ukraine repair a captured Russian tank near the Ukrainian-Russian border in Kharkiv region, September 20, 2022.

But even more surprising is how a media like The New York Times could be so careless about the commentary to its article. At first, one could assume that it is a problem with translation or with the distance of interests. The American correspondent will only carefully check some details regarding the Russian war in Ukraine. Even though it is one of the top topics worldwide, these events are ‘far away’ from the United States. However, firstly, the article’s author is very experienced (we will return to his personality). Secondly, there should not have been any difficulties in identifying Igor Girkin because if you look at the relevant article in the English version of Wikipedia. You can read that Girkin ‘played a key role in the annexation of Crimea and later in the war in Donbas, organising the militant groups of the so-called DPR.’ In addition, the New York Times wrote about Girkin as one of the defendants in the case of the downing of the Malaysian Boeing near Donetsk on July 17, 2014.

It is time to return to the personality of the author of the article, namely to the ‘national correspondent’ of the newspaper, Neil MacFarquhar. According to the profile, McFarquhar started working for The New York Times in 1995. He has managed to visit the bureau chief of the publication in Cairo, the UN, and Moscow.

We are in a place where some contradictions begin. On the one hand, MacFarquhar was one of the journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for a series of articles about alleged Russian interference in the affairs of various countries. In particular, the series includes an article about Russian interference in the US elections and an article about the murder of Ukrainian Ivan Mamchur, which in 2016 was allegedly ordered by Russian special services. The award committee noted these reports with the wording ‘for exposing the predatory regime of Vladimir Putin.’ 

On the other hand, if we trace MacFarquhar’s work, especially during his work in the Moscow bureau, we can see that some of his materials were not at all critical of the Russian president. For example, in the article ‘Putin promises to help, but sees his role limited’ on July 23, 2014, MacFarquhar writes that Putin ‘promised to use Russian influence on Ukrainian separatists in the east.’ Of course, this is a quote from the Russian president. Still, the whole article seems to promote Russian narratives, such as ‘Putin intends to reduce tensions,’ ‘Russia may send peacekeeping forces,’ etc. 

Nobody can deny the merits of Neil MacFarquhar as an international correspondent, but how to explain these minor but revealing inaccuracies or mistakes, such as the situation with Girkin: except by the imprint that, in any case, leaves behind the work in Moscow?

Confusion in favour of Moscow: what is written about the ‘Azov’ regiment

Ukrainian soldiers on a bus after evacuation from Azovstal, near the pre-trial detention centre in the temporarily occupied Olenivka. 17 May 2022. Photo: AP

French media France 24 wrote in March that the Azov regiment has become ‘the centre of a propaganda war between Kyiv and Moscow’: some call them war heroes, while others call them neo-Nazis. So what is the correct name for the Azov regiment, and what does the New York Times have to do with it?

The separate detachment of particular purpose, ‘Azov,’ also known as the ‘Azov’ regiment, is a formation of the National Guard of Ukraine (not an informal paramilitary group). Political scientists and researchers of the ideology and activities of modern far-right movements Viacheslav Likhachov analysed the controversy over the Azov. In short: ‘Azov’ is not a neo-Nazi regiment, and the National Guard of Ukraine has no units created on ideological grounds. On the other hand, among the founders and fighters of Azov, there are people with neo-Nazi backgrounds and far-right views, and there were people suspected of committing war crimes, but, as noted, they left the ranks of the unit no later than in 2015.

As for the New York Times, as of now, there are no problems with the formulation. For example, the news of September 21 about the exchange of prisoners of war uses the name ‘Azov Battalion is a unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.’ Meanwhile, it is noted that Russian propaganda tried to portray Azov as a neo-Nazi.

Defenders of Azovstal met with their families in Turkey. Photo: President’s Office

At the same time, the NYT itself has also repeatedly called the Azov regiment neo-Nazis. For example, in 2014, the publication linked the Azovs to ‘chaotic and brutal attacks’ during the battles for Donetsk. It stated that the Azovs ‘entered Maryinka under a neo-Nazi symbol resembling a swastika.’ In 2019, writing about the massacre in New Zealand, the NYT noted that the attacker ‘wore a symbol on his jacket commonly used by the Azov battalion, a Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary organisation.’

The problem is that the New York Times equates individuals or isolated incidents with an entire regiment as a national security force without explaining the evolution in its wording.  

Due to such inconsistencies and sometimes lack of explanations, unpleasant situations arise in the information space. For example, the media criticism project ‘Fair’ recently criticised The New York Times for ‘presenting neo-Nazis as heroes.’ It was about the NYT article dedicated to the meeting of Azov commanders released from Russian captivity with their families. Thus, the New York Times suffered because of its inaccuracies in the past. 

In addition, this confusion is actively used by Russian propagandists. Of course, the Russian authorities do not need any evidence to recognise the Azov regiment as a terrorist organisation and justify the invasion of Ukraine and war crimes by the so-called ‘denazification.’ In particular, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov justified the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol with this ‘denazification.’ 

However, the thesis of Russian media and bloggers that ‘Americans support Ukrainian neo-Nazis’ looks ‘more respectable’ concerning such an influential publication as The New York Times.

Russian military bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol on March 9, 2022, photo: AP

In the ‘Ukrainian moment’ material, we did not consider examples of quality New York Times materials about Ukraine and the Russian-Ukrainian war, although there are many of them. 

‘I think that for every poorly written story about Ukraine in the American media, there are about 100 well-written stories with reliable sources. In the eight months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been big positive changes in the number of quality stories about Ukraine in the US media. This is probably because hundreds of Western journalists have been working in Ukraine since the beginning of the war, promoting pro-Ukrainian narratives and have managed to understand the Ukrainian situation well,’ says Adrian Karmazyn.

There is only one thing to add to this: The New York Times is undoubtedly a supplier to the media market of numerous high-quality, exclusive and thorough texts and news (no wonder the slogan of the NYT is ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’). And yet, among the massive amount of quality content, one should be able to identify even the slightest contradictions, fakes and manipulations.

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