Sometimes the truth does not lie "somewhere in between"

Many readers are irritated, including with my reporting on Ukraine. Their suspicion is legitimate. But not every view of the war is equally true.

BY ALICE BOTA, editor for the German weekly Die Zeit. Translated by Charles Kirchofer. Re-posted with the author's permission. The original article appeared in German on March 13, 2015.

A reader named "B." writes in. Complains that the reporting on Ukraine is misleading and false. I’ve been on location over the past few months and have reported on the Maidan (yes, including the right-wing extremists), on Ukrainian volunteer battalions , the shooting down of flight MH-17 , the elections , the war, the victims of Donetsk. His criticism also applies to me, which is why I write back. “What is so misleading?” I ask. What mistakes did I make? After all, I think it is quite possible, even probable, that I made mistakes—everyone makes mistakes. The question is how serious they are and how I can correct them. An error becomes a lie only when it is made intentionally to conceal and deceive.

B. answered in a way that I already know from other angry readers who attempt to express their criticism more precisely: How can I justify saying that Russia is involved in the war in eastern Ukraine? There is no evidence! 

I usually write back in detail. There IS evidence, I write. There are Russian soldiers who return home in coffins from Ukraine and family members who are not allowed to talk about their suffering. There are Russian NGOs like the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, who are trying to find out how many of their sons have already died in Ukraine. There are reports such as that of the Armament Research Services, which were able to identify Russian (and other) weapons in eastern Ukraine—never mind the fact that one really has to wonder when, within a few months, a bunch of local insurgents has a more professional army than Ukraine.1  There are Russian intelligence officers such as Igor Girkin, who was involved in the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine and speaks openly about Russian tactics.

The list could go on and on. The only thing missing is an admission by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he is waging war in eastern Ukraine. And for many, it seems, nothing is true that Putin himself has not confirmed. 

But even the word of the Russian President does not always seem to be enough. It’s been months since Putin admitted to having sent his soldiers to Crimea. But only now, after he spoke about it again on Russian television, has this fact really seemed to arrive in Germany.

Just a year ago, the media, especially public broadcasters, were attacked when they said the obvious: that Russian troops were occupying Crimea. Everyone who was there could see it for him/herself and could even ask the soldiers about it. But to say or write that? Insinuations! Prejudices! Lies! 
The letter from Mr. B. represents a phenomenon, namely, the flight into relativism when it comes to Russian politics. At times, this relativization is fed by the fear that Germany could be drawn into this war; sometimes by distrust of the Americans, sometimes out of hatred for them; sometimes by a perceived historical debt to Russia (which is, paradoxically, rarely seen to be owed the Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles); at times by contempt for Europe; and that sometimes simply stems from being unable to cope.

Relativization is a principle of propaganda used by Russian television that has long since extended beyond Russian borders. Everything must appear feasible and even the obvious must seem to be just one variant of many. This is done by scattering many different, contradictory versions of stories (on the shooting of MH-17, it was said that the passengers were already dead, had been killed by the Americans, or that the rocket was intended for Putin) or by repeating false “facts” until they appear correct (for example, that American Blackwater mercenaries are fighting in Ukraine. So far, that is nonsense). Until nothing is true and everything seems possible, as the author Peter Pomerantsev called his book about modern Russia (Nothing is true and everything is possible, 2014).

Pomerantsev, who worked for many years as a TV producer in Russia, describes, among other things, how the Kremlin synthesizes Soviet-style control with western-style entertainment in order to numb society. “The news is the incense with which we praise Putin’s actions and make him president,” Pomarentsev cites Russian TV producers. Pomarentsev shows that TV news in Russia has nothing to do with reality—it is entertainment.

Russian state media make no mistakes, they simply lie. And they do not care when they are caught, as in the story of the child who was allegedly crucified by Ukrainian fascists.

When I respond to letters like that from Mr B., when I engage with his arguments, refute what is wrong, and say what seems to me to be correct, an interesting dialogue often develops. And mostly it becomes apparent that distrust and discomfort are the driving forces: What interests are the Americans pursuing in Ukraine? Isn’t Russia justified in feeling threatened? Haven’t the Europeans also made mistakes?

We can talk about all that and we need to write about it. But the truth, that great, so often abused word, does not always lie somewhere in between. You cannot track it down through relativizing. To broadcast everything to the world, even the worst nonsense, to give everyone a platform to speak without asking who speaks in what function and why--this is not plurality, but the illusion of it.

1. emphasis added


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