Along with U.S. intelligence and the Obama administration, the U.S. media seemed ill-prepared for and ill-informed about the events in Ukraine.
I find it interesting that few media outlets referred to a key debate point during the 2012 campaign when President Obama chided GOP rival Mitt Romney for referring to Russia as the country’s top “geopolitical foe.”
Mr. Obama said, “The Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
In fact, President Vladimir Putin took a page out of the Cold War playbook by sending an estimated 16,000 Russian soldiers into Crimea.
The news media have a sound ability to report about demonstrations — as evidenced by the events in Kiev when dozens of people were killed. But the media often fail to provide context. As I watched the events in Kiev unravel, it was unclear whether the demonstrators came from the right, the left or somewhere in between. The people in Maidan Square became media props in an anti-government demonstration — much like what we saw in the Arab world three years ago.
Moreover, it took the U.S. media several weeks to figure out why Russia really cared about Ukraine. Simply put, it really doesn’t have to do with protecting Russians there. Sevastopol, which is in Crimea, has been an important staging point for the Russian navy for 250 years. The ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, had extended the Russian lease on the port from 2017 through 2042. The Russians reportedly have more than 1,000 naval vessels there, including 134 submarines, 85 destroyers and 45 frigates.
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In reviewing the news coverage, I found the most ridiculous moment occurred when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow blamed the former president, George Bush, for the events in Ukraine because he involved the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, which distracted analysts from Eastern Europe. It was an amazing moment of nonsense!
The Washington Post provided the most schizophrenic analysis of Ukraine. In an editorial, entitled “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy,” the newspaper posited: “For five years, President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality. It was a world in which ‘the tide of war is receding’ and the United States could, without much risk, radically reduce the size of its armed forces. Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not received the memo on 21st-century behavior.”
Columnist David Ignatius provides a completely different view. “[Mr.] Putin has made a mistake, escalating a crisis for Russia that has been brewing for many months.”
Editorial writers and columnists can and do often disagree. But even the left-leaning slate.com admits that Mr. Obama got it wrong.
David Weigel says: “Why was Obama wrong? Because, I think, he was willfully blurring the distinction between ‘geopolitical’ and other sorts of threats. He was playing to the cheap seats.”
In an excellent background story in The Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous and Laurence Norman provide an insightful look at what also went wrong with U.S. policy in Ukraine. Simply put, the Obama administration tried to play both sides, including friendly meetings between a smiling Vice President Joe Biden and Mr. Yanukovych. That friendly relationship continued until earlier this year. As the story notes, many protesters “resented the U.S. for saying it wanted to work with Mr. Yanukovych instead of booting him.”
For reporters like me who lived through and covered the Cold War, it is amazing to see the general lack of analysis and understanding in the media about the Ukraine crisis. That does not justify what Russia has done by invading the country, but it does underline what the media have been far too slow to understand and to report.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at email@example.com. Twitter: @charper51.