Post Classifieds

News shouldn't have propaganda

By Kristi Allen
On April 9, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through The New York Times and came across a special section labeled "Russia Beyond the Headlines." In the upper left-hand corner of the page, in very small print, read something to the effect of "this content was sponsored and produced by Rossiyskaya Gazeta".
This means that another newspaper paid The New York Times to include this supplement in their paper. Rossiyskaya Gazeta, however, is not a regular newspaper. It's the state-owned newspaper of the Russian government and it serves as a kind of all-purpose publishing arm. It's the official paper of record, meaning it runs the text of new laws and other acts of state, as well as publishing books and covering daily news. The paper has a circulation of 180,000, according to their website.
This left me with the questions "why is there Russian propaganda in the New York Times?" and "why isn't anyone calling this a violation of journalistic ethics?" An independent American newspaper was paid by a foreign government to run content they didn't produce! Why isn't anyone raking them over the coals?
Russia Beyond the Headlines is a long-running, established section of Rossiyskaya Gazeta that provides supplements to foreign newspapers in an effort to better Russia's public image abroad. The leading papers in the United States, including The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, all have arrangements with Russia Beyond the Headlines. The agency's content appears under various titles ("Russia Now" in the Post, "Russian Business Insight" in the Journal) and in many languages in leading papers all over the globe. While the amount of money paid for running these supplements is undisclosed, they're clearly very profitable. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the Russian government spent $1.4 billion on "soft power" initiatives worldwide in 2010.
When I looked to see what kind of criticism these supplements had drawn in US media, I was surprised at how little I found. Almost no major news agencies had anything to say about it. Jack Shafer wrote an article for Slate in 2007 called "Hail to the Return of Motherland-Protecting Propaganda!" in which he took the section to task for both misrepresentation and bad grammar: "beneath the shattered syntax of these laughable pieces beats the bloody red heart of the tone-deaf Soviet propagandist."
One editorial criticized feminists for trying to rob women of the opportunity to enjoy conventional gender roles. This may­ true in certain cases, but the article had a very hollow ring coming from the Russian government.
Overall, RBTH did not accomplish its goal. I felt no better about Russia by the time I had finished the section, but I can't say what its effect would have been if I didn't realize it was written and paid for by the Russian government.
This is very, very bad by journalistic standards. Why? Basically, this RBTH stuff is just sponsored content or native advertising (those advertisements in the form of articles at Buzzfeed and Gawker are examples) from a foreign country (they'll be more about regular, non government-funded sponsored content in this column next week). These are forms of advertising that all the media outlets mentioned above carrying RBTH engage in, and they have been reluctantly given the stamp of approval by most of the media establishment. What's the difference?
While Buzzfeed may accept payment to deliberately mislead their readers about their motives for running an article about the deliciousness of Kraft grilled cheese sandwiches, The New York Times accepted payment to deliberately mislead their readers about a source of information on world events. The supplement contained an easily missed disclaimer that left out the most important information of all- who's behind the section. It made no indication the section was actually paid for by the Russian government and not an independent newspaper, as many Americans probably assumed. The burden of finding that information was on the reader.
Since native advertising is here to stay, the business model of deliberately misleading readers and the news agencies that use it will need careful examination, especially when it comes to the news they're supposed to be reporting impartially.

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