RD Interview: James Carden, author of a new Nation article describing the bias in the mainstream media against Russian experts who refuse to accept the default hardline response to Moscow, explains why a greater diversity of voices is needed on Russia.

Members of the NGO group Oxfam, wearing paper mache masks, imitate U.S. President Barack Obama,left, French President Francois Hollande, center, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, at the Enniskillen Golf course near the venue of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, 2013. Photo: AP

At some point during the Ukraine crisis, the dialogue on the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship was replaced by a monologue in both countries.

The problem, as frequent RD contributor James Carden explains below, is that a plurality of voices on Russia can no longer be easily found within the U.S. mainstream media. In a worst-case scenario, warns Carden, we may see a revival of the McCarthyism trend of the 1950s, when any voices thought to be sympathetic to the Soviet Union were publicly exposed and denounced.

In this Q&A, Carden explains the factors that led to today’s toxic environment and warns against the potential implications if this Cold War mentality within the U.S. continues to dominate public discussion about Russia.

Russia Direct: Your article in The Nation raises the important problem of the lack of plurality in U.S. mainstream media. What was your initial inspiration for the article in The Nation? And how hard was it to get it published once it was written?

James Carden: The poisonous atmosphere that has enveloped the U.S.-Russia policy debate has been something that has concerned me for some time. As I point out in my Nation article, beginning in late 2013, early 2014, with the commencement of the crisis in Ukraine, some American journalists and pundits from across the political spectrum began engaging in what can only be described as a concerted campaign of demonization, not only of Russia, but also of scholars, journalists and pundits who raise legitimate questions over America’s role leading up to the crisis.

People who have had the temerity to ask questions like Did NATO expansion play a role in Russia’s calculations regarding Crimea? Were sanctions against Russia more or less likely to enflame the situation in the Donbas? Was Mr. Putin solely responsible for the ensuing catastrophe? suddenly found themselves branded as “extremists” in the pages of The New Republic (which, since then, has undergone a much welcomed metamorphosis), as “anti-Semites” by The Daily Beast, and as Putin’s “pathetic American dupes” in the pages of New York magazine. These three examples are only a small sample of the invective that has been directed at what, in reality, is a small group of distinguished Russian experts and foreign policy realists.


For a very different take on the problem of the media coverage of Ukraine's impact on U.S.-Russia relations read "The paradox of Kremlin propaganda: How it tries to win hearts and minds"

As for finding a home for the piece, that was relatively straightforward. The Nation, with its proud history of standing up to the first wave of McCarthyism in the 1950s at a time when thought leaders on the Right were penning defenses of Joe McCarthy (Brent Bozell and William F. Buckley’s McCarthy and His Enemies is one prominent example), was a natural home for the piece.

RD: To what extent do you think that the mainstream media has marginalized U.S. foreign policy voices possessing a more nuanced view of Russia?

J.C.: To a large extent. On any given cable or network television news outlet or on any of the prominent op-ed page of the three or four major American newspapers, representatives of both the irresponsible Right (neoconservatives) and irresponsible Left (liberal interventionists) will be given time to air their views on U.S.-Russia policy, while the aforementioned group of Russian experts and realists (who are by no means uncritically “pro-Russian” or uncritical of Mr. Putin’s foreign and domestic policies) are, for the most part, nowhere to be found.

The reason for this is not difficult to discern. From the time the crisis in Ukraine began, there has been, by the major media organs and their helpers in the elite press like the New York Review of Books, the (old) New Republic, and many others besides, a willful blurring of the distinction between “explaining” Mr. Putin’s policies and actions and “excusing” them.

It is a sad commentary that even a purportedly “liberal” news outlet like MSNBC simply echoes the hardline views of Russia and Ukraine propagated by such far-right outlets as the Fox News Channel and William Kristol’s Weekly Standard.

RD: In your article, you warn about the potential for a new bout of McCarthyism in the U.S. To what extent does this lead to the self-censorship of authors, writers and experts who may have different views on Russia?

J.C.: This is more difficult to gauge, butI find it hard to believe that so many extraordinarily capable think tank scholars in Washington  - who obviously know better - have chosen to remain silent. No doubt part of the reason for this is due to what I just explained: If you hold a position contrary to the most hardline American interventionists it is highly unlikely you’ll be invited to appear on, to take perhaps the worst example of American political groupthink, MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

Yet, that wouldn’t prevent these scholars and former government officials from writing about or speaking about the crisis in U.S.-Russian relations in their own fora, and the fact that many have not leads me to believe that the current environment is so toxic that they probably believe that speaking out against this New Cold War mentality may jeopardize their chances of being appointed to a high-level position in the next U.S. administration.

RD: How vital is it that voices in the U.S. foreign policy minority get heard in the mainstream media?

J.C.: It is crucial. The coverage of U.S.-Russia policy is, by and large, one-dimensional. A bit of history is in order. I’ll use the Washington Post as an example because I wrote about the Post’s approach to U.S. foreign policy at length earlier this year in the pages of The National Interest.

The editorial page of the Post is run by a journalist who cut his teeth covering Russia from Moscow in the 1990s. He, along with scores of likeminded writers, economists, and various and sundry policy hands became heavily invested in the success of the Westernizing “reforms” of the Yeltsin years.

Related: "Divisive and unexpected signs of real dialogue on US-Russian relations"

We know how well these “reforms” turned out: By any metric they were an unmitigated disaster for the average Russian. But the Post, like almost every other mainstream American news outlet, glosses over Yeltsin’s real record because in facing up to it, they would implicate themselves.

And so, by ignoring Yeltsin’s considerable sins, Mr. Putin has become the sole focus of their concern and it is at his feet, not Yeltsin’s, where the American punditocracy lays the blame for everything that they believe is wrong with Russia today.  Resting upon faulty premises, theirs is a bad history that, necessarily, midwifes bad policy.

RD: Since your piece has been published in The Nation, what kind of feedback or response have you received?

J.C.: The feedback that I have received has been overwhelmingly positive - the professional Russia-watchers and policy hands who have been kind enough to contact me have, in effect, told me the same thing: “It’s about time.” Yet I fully expect that the article will unleash yet another round of invective from the usual suspects. 

However, looking at it optimistically, that could be taken as a good sign since it will show that the neoconservative and liberal interventionists are losing the policy debate on the merits and have only ad hominem attacks to fall back upon. Plus ca change…