Centennial of A Test of the News – NYT Russia Coverage ‘Nothing Short of A Disaster’

It was a century ago that the New York Times first developed its dismal reputation for getting so much about Russia completely wrong. 

Interestingly, this occurred within the timeframe that it became widely accepted as the ‘newspaper man’s newspaper’, George Seldes noted in his 1935 classic, Freedom of the Press

For the August 4, 1920 edition of the New Republic magazine, journalists Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz wrote a classic work of critical media analysis called A Test of the News. The study reviewed three years of the New York Times’ coverage of the Russian revolution from March 1917 to March 1920. You may read the report in its entirety in pdf form here

Lippmann and Merz concluded that “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all. Yet on the face of the evidence there is no reason to charge a conspiracy by Americans. They can fairly be charged with boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions with a downright lack of common sense.” 

In one of his last works on the subject before he passed away in 2017, Manufacturing Consent co-author Edward S. Herman wrote that “Lippmann and Merz found that strong editorial bias clearly fed into news reporting. The editors very much wanted the communists to lose, and serving this end caused the paper to report atrocities that didn’t happen and the imminent fall of the Bolshevik regime on a regular basis (at least 91 times). There was a heavy and uncritical acceptance of official handouts and reliance on statements from unidentified ‘high authority.’ This was standard Times practice.”

This fake news performance of 1917-1920 was repeated often in the years that followed. The Soviet Union was an enemy target up to World War II, and Times coverage was consistently hostile. With the end of World War II and the Soviet Union at that point a major military power, and soon a rival nuclear power, the Cold War was on. Anticommunism became a major U.S. religion, and the Soviet Union was quickly found to be trying to conquer the world and needing containment. With this ideology in place and U.S. plans for its own real global expansion of power well established, the communist threat would now help sustain the steady growth of the military-industrial complex and repeated interventions to deal with purported Soviet aggressions. 

Herman’s entire piece, written for the July/August 2017 edition of Monthly Review, Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies, is well worth reading in its entirety and can be found here.

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