Monday, August 11, 2008

C.J. Chivers, NYT, offering a a page one opinion piece on Georgia

(Thanks Glenn, for the Instalanche, and welcome Instapunditeers.)

(Update: Dear Mr. Chivers. I’ve gone back and read some of your earlier reporting, which is excellent. So why don’t you ignore all the rude things I say below, and quit wasting your time writing the kinds of things that get the cross-x I give it below. Why, in the midst of the world potentially changing in a genuinely strategic and dangerous way, are you writing pointless opinion pieces, pieces which I or anyone else might agree or disagree with, while channeling - not Kremlin operatives, not Georgian generals but ... anonymous USG flunkies, likely from the State Department, with some or another ax to grind. This requires your genuine, hard-won, value-added Russia and Central Asian reporting skills? You have the skills to go gather new, actual facts, and you waste your time on this blather. I realize this is what the Times values, and this is how you get on the front page. But please be aware that there are some NYT readers - even paying subscriber readers - who would actually like to read brand new facts, gathered out in unlikely, difficult places. The test of a good, well-reported piece, Mr. Chivers, is that I wouldn’t be able to say anything about it: a painfully simple logical argument, not subject to the kind of logical questions I raise below, and facts that you have found out that no one yet knows. I don’t suppose it will wind up on the front page. But I would read it and I bet a lot of other people would too. Why don’t you do what you are specially in a position to do, and go out and research and report something in this moment of crisis? I mean something not obtained in the eternal circle-jerk between NYT reporters and USG officials eager to leak something. You can put all your brilliant analyses and opinions in the book later - I promise I’ll buy it. But in this moment of crisis, why not do some original reporting? Like you used to do? You used to be quite good at it, you know.)


The last time I had occasion to think about NYT’s Moscow bureau chief C.J. Chivers was by reason of his reporting on the latest UN conference on small arms controls. I put that post up at Opinio Juris, here. My basic point was that Chivers’ reporting was soft-ball at best, took whatever UN officials had to say at pretty much face value, and didn’t offer relevant qualifications to the narrative he and UN officials seemed together to accept. Dave Kopel, at Volokh Conspiracy, had more to say, here.

The NYT has a front page article by Chivers, a “news analysis” offering, In Georgia and Russia, a Perfect Brew for a Blowup, August 10, 2008. I haven’t posted this to OJ, because it’s frankly not worth it, but it is still an annoyance. Midway through the article, Chivers informs us that:

The risks were intensified by the fact that the United States did not merely encourage Georgia’s young democracy, it helped militarize the weak Georgian state.

In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first he had almost nothing practical to offer. Georgia’s military was small, poorly led, ill-equipped and weak.

But Mr. Saakashvili’s rise coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia’s forces from bottom to top.

At senior levels, the United States helped rewrite Georgian military doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle.

Georgia, meanwhile, began re-equipping its forces with Israeli and American firearms, reconnaissance drones, communications and battlefield-management equipment, new convoys of vehicles and stockpiles of ammunition.

The public goal was to nudge Georgia toward NATO military standards. Privately, Georgian officials welcomed the martial coaching and buildup, and they made clear that they considered participation in Iraq as a sure way to prepare the Georgian military for “national reunification” — the local euphemism of choice for restoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control.

All of these policies collided late last week. One American official who covers Georgian affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity while the United States formulates its next public response, said that everything had gone wrong.

Does Chivers really want to tell us that the United States “helped militarize the weak Georgian state”? What is the evidence for that? The fact that the US helped reequip the Georgian military and helped train it? Mr. Chivers, cf. militarize - it doesn’t mean training and weapons merely. It doesn’t mean what you seem to think it means. It means systematically remaking the state under military domination. Is that really what you mean? Really? Again, what is your evidence for this remarkably strident charge? Besides the supply of American equipment and training?

After all, US policy around the world has been training of military forces in democratic states so that their militaries would operate in a more professional and disciplined fashion - particularly in matters of human rights. As I noted in my OJ post, here, the Georgian military was in desperate need of such professionalization going back to the days that led to the current conflicts. It was, in my personal experience at Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s, a militia army, extremely abusive and undisciplined in pretty much every way. The US “helped militarize” the Georgian state by seeking to raise its military above those standards. Good God, the horror.

To precisely what in what the US taught do you take exception? You say that the United States “helped rewrite Georgian miilitary doctrine and train its commanders and staff officers. At the squad level, American marines and soldiers trained Georgian soldiers in the fundamentals of battle.” You say this with a certain hint of dark things. Wow. How horrible - the fundamentals of battle. Who would have thought?

So what are you suggesting? Come on, be straight about it. What exactly do you think that American training said or did that was objectionable? Are you, for example, suggesting that US forces trained Georgian forces in abuses, of the kind of Abu Ghraib? What? It’s not good enough to drop a dark suggestion that training in basic military skills is somehow wrong. You actually have to say what’s wrong with it. If your point is that this led Georgian political elites to assume that the US would back them in a fight with the Russians over South Ossetia or Abkhazia, fine, or that the US failed to disabuse them of that possibility in order to keep them in Iraq, fine too - but that’s a completely different argument from saying that Americans trained Georgians in perfectly respectable military skills that any army needs, including respect for the laws of war, and implying that there was something sinister about it. Those latter possibilities, while entirely possible and in my speculative estimation likely, require premises going beyond simply saying that the US trained the Georgians. I’m speculating; you’re telling me you’re not. But what you offer in way of evidence consists of the fact of training and equipment - consistent with any number of other policies and explanations - and some anonymous sourcing.

Christ, it’s not that hard. Tell us straight what you you think is wrong with US policy. Is it the content of training? Is it the the bare fact of training? Is it an implied deal of training for the US going along with a Georgian move to re-take the territories? These are not the same thing, but you conveniently treat them as though they are - and, in particular, without managing quite to say so, imply sinister things about the bare fact of training and its content, as a way of casting suspicion on US conduct, rather than Georgian interpretations of it. As for the US re-equipping the Georgian army, if that’s wrong, one obvious implication is that it would somehow be better if the Georgian republic were unable to defend itself against Moscow - maybe that’s true, maybe not, but surely you would admit that this is a rather Moscow-favorable interpretation of things, offered by a Moscow bureau chief, and that simple argumentative obligations, not offered as narrative, would require that you at least acknowledge the possibility and state why that is not the case. Might I trouble you to do that?

Look: what you’ve offered us is an argument, masquerading as a narrative news story. I’m very interested in arguments, especially on a policy topic as difficult and fraught with risks as this, and I don’t doubt that you have important things to say. But if you want to offer an argument, then, well, argue it. Make claims and then explain the evidence for your premises. You offer us a narrative story that is, let’s be honest, very Moscow-centric, backed by a couple of unnamed US government sources. The last one you cite, the one American “official who covers Georgian affairs,” sounds like possibly he or she has an agenda or two. Is that possible? Might you tell us about it? But the fundamental point is that if you actually set out to argue your case, it wouldn’t look anywhere near as convincing as the narrative you spin out, because you might have to consider weaknesses in your own position. It would be a lot harder to rely on anonymous sources. A decent editor would query the use of inflammatory and unwarranted language like “militarize.”

I’m fine with the NYT becoming an 80% opinion paper, heck, 95%, since that’s what it is already. But in that case, offer the opinion pieces as arguments. My fifteen year old daughter just finished an elementary logic class this summer - strikingly, one of the most important parts of the class was the discussion of why straw arguments were bad, and the obligations in argument of charity in presenting an opponent’s position and fidelity in offering it. The fundamental problem with the journalistic media style is that, offered in place of argument, presenting opposing views, alternative explanations, anything to the contrary, simply disappears. Doesn’t fit the narrative. For heaven’s sake, if you’re going to argue, then argue.

Mr. Chivers, I don’t doubt you have important things to say about the Russia-Georgia war. So why don’t you report the facts, unadorned, and if you want to argue your opinions, then do so in an plainly stated, argumentative way?

(ps. To finish out the apparent agendas, I suppose I should add that what Chivers means by “militarization” is that Georgia supported the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. As he says (bold added):

[T]he fact that the United States did not merely encourage Georgia’s young democracy, it helped militarize the weak Georgian state.

In his wooing of Washington as he came to power, Mr. Saakashvili firmly embraced the missions of the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first he had almost nothing practical to offer. Georgia’s military was small, poorly led, ill-equipped and weak.

But Mr. Saakashvili’s rise coincided neatly with a swelling American need for political support and foreign soldiers in Iraq. His offer of troops was matched with a Pentagon effort to overhaul Georgia’s forces from bottom to top.

Is it a “fact” that the US “helped militarize the weak Georgian state”? This sounds like an opinion to me. It might be a reasonable one - I think what Chivers says next is almost certainly correct, that the Georgians perceived the situation as a quid pro quo, but that too falls into the category of opinion, even if informed opinion, at least on the evidence presented: it is not shown, instead it is used as a premise in the rest of the argument - assumed, in other words.

It is likewise quite another question whether the US, which has had a long term policy of assisting places like Georgia with training and equipment, for reasons that long predate Iraq or Afghanistan, also saw this as the quid pro quo. Chivers would have to establish that this would not have been US policy in any case. Not exactly what I associate with, um, facts. The implication, in any case, that Chivers wishes to draw from this is that the weak Georgian state was “militarized” by the fact of US military assistance - as though there were no independent reasons why the US would not have undertaken this - and the “proof” of this is ... Georgian military support for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lovely.)

(pps. Remarkably, dear readers, I am one of the dwindling out-of-NYC home subscribers to the Times. I pay for it, I don’t just read it online. Even more remarkably, I am actually a NYT shareholder, oy vey - shares I bought a while back because, as a finance professor in my day job, I thought it would help if I owned a few shares of a company I frequently use as a class test case to give me a personal reason for keeping track of the company finances. Still, I didn’t imagine when I bought it that the stock price would fall this far ... For that matter, I’ve written for the Magazine a couple of times. I don’t have a strong opinion as to whether the content really has an effect on the financial decline of the Times; there are arguments both directions, in that the greater opinionizing , if it really is that and not simply more noticed opinionizing, might have the effect of reinforcing the core audience as a niche product. And the conditions of the industry are disastrous for reasons that reach beyond any single newspaper. But I do agree with Glenn Reynolds and others that the best financial strategy for newspapers, including the Times, is reporting of facts and not simply offering opinions. The web is filled with people with opinions who frankly write as well as any NYT writer. Any ass with a law degree can do what I did here, and simply closely read what was written; I did what an editor should have done. What we don’t have is independent access to facts. Pity that the Times seems to reached the point where “reporting” simply means calling a government source and saying, hi, you want to leak? For that matter, I suspect Chivers is probably a pretty decent factual reporter on the ground in the many places from which he has reported, possibly even an outstanding one, but you’d never know - the problem is that factual reporting is not especially valued by his employer, and does not seem to be the ticket to the front page. More’s the pity. Mr. Chivers, I apologize for being rather rude in this post. But at some point exasperation trumps - who was it, Dorothy Parker, who got it best: What fresh hell is this?)

10 comments:

Jeff said...

Kenneth,

Precisely, well done. You're criticism is wasted on the Times reporter in question and his editors, of course, but it needs to be said.

The Times masks arguments as news, often while delivering their 15% for their preferred political agendas. Lord knows why they wnat to carry water for Putin. My guess, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

That, and Duranty loved Stalin, too.

49erDweet said...

Mr. Chivers has apparently reached that exalted place in life where his opinions - once expressed in writing - become facts. Hard and fast facts. Doesn't the NYT say so?

Keep moving, please; there's nothing to see here. Next?

Anonymous said...

Sadly, this is all standard nowadays. My 29 year-old nephew just finished a graduate course at the Columbia School of Journalism. He found me (55 year-old conservative) interesting, since he knew I was educated and intelligent; how could I be a conservative?

So we had a series of email exchanges. I would bring facts that were troublesome to his worldview to his attention, and he'd dismiss them. I'd point out that he needed to meet my argument with facts, not simply make responses such as, "Oh, I doubt that." When I restated that he'd not met my argument with facts to disprove my argument, he said (I'll never forget it!), "It's a reporter's JOB to doubt things."

Perhaps so, but doubting should be only the impetus for research and the nailing down of facts. Not to mention, of course, that he never "doubted" his own preconceptions, only the inconvenient truths I brought to his attention.

So I gave up, telling him that it was useless to approach him with fact-based arguments, when he could simply dismiss them out of hand, unconcerned with facts and honest debate. He agreed that, yes, we should end our exchanges, allowing as how he was, as I'd accused him of being: hopeless. I'll never forget the phrase that followed: "And happily so."

He then made some remarks about how he was partial to analysis anyhow and that his job as a reporter was to explain things to people.

This is what the urban/liberal mindset and Columbia School of Journalism have done. To these guys, there is no difference between impartial facts and an op-ed. They don't feel it's wrong for them to be partisans. No wonder they're all in the tank for Obama. Or for anything else their buddies all share as preconceptions or "the narrative."

God (and blogs) help us!

Kevin R.C. O'Brien said...

The Times continues to proudly claim Duranty (and his Pulitzer, which is sadly typical of the breed). In Chivers they seem to have found a worthwhile successor.

The only question remaining is, does he sit on his Russian boss's lap when he takes this kind of dictation?

I just hope those, poor, victim-of-Georgian-militarism Russians aren't overpaying for him:

http://finance.yahoo.com/echarts?s=NYT#symbol=NYT;range=5y

Here's a circulation chart. Unfortunately this site doesn't let me break out the Times, which is losing circ at a higher rate than average.. so imagine a steeper decline than shown here.

http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.org/2008/chartland.php?id=149&ct=line&dir=&sort=&col1_box=1&col2_box=1

Bias = turned off readers = plummeting circulation = plunging ad revenues = unemployed biased journalists.

Hey, but CJ's covered. The Russians will always need a good mouthpiece.

Like the prof says -- it's one thing to have an agenda, but you ought to have enough respect for your readers to provide some support for your argument.

John F. Opie said...

Hi -

Oddly enough, I just put up something similar on my blog (shameless flogging, I know...):

http://21stcenturyschizoidman.blogspot.com/2008/08/on-just-war-georgia-and-stupidity.html

Chivers really didn't do himself or the NYT any good in writing what he did...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you haven't noticed, but for at least 10 years everything in the Times, right down to the sports reporting and restaurant reviews, is an opinion piece disguised as a news story.

HenryBowman said...

To Anonymous at 9:33 PM:

An old interview with KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov explains a substantial part of your frustration with your nephew:
http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=047_1181753664

Anonymous said...

Hey, cut the NYT and Chivers some slack here. They are simply responding to their pre-programmed instructions from their ancient masters in Moscow.
If that little bell is rung, the NYTers will salivate. Throw in a dose of BDS and their response is guaranteed.
Watch this! Claim you have something new saying that Franco was especially mean in the Spanish Civil War. GUARANTEE, the NYT will have 3 front page stories and never mention the authenticity of your document.
They are what they are; ignore them!

catfitz said...

I agree that Chivers has overstated the U.S. role here.

The debate would be helped by understanding just what sort of military equipment or weapons systems the U.S. actually gave or sold to Georgia. Training a military hardly seems to be the provocation Chivers implies.

bila said...

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