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A Further Response on the Masha Gessen Matter


Mark Adomanis, the Forbes contributor, wants to justify in this post his earlier charge, denied by me, that in the Wall Street Journal I had accused Masha Gessen of being a Kremlin stooge. I have made no such accusation, however; so there is no evidence for it; and he produces none. Nil, nada, zero, none, zilch. Moreover, in my first reply I assured him that I did not believe that Ms. Gessen is or ever was a Kremlin stooge. Indeed, I said specifically that she was a strong critic of President Putin.

Mr. Adomanis should therefore withdraw the charge and apologize. We all make mistakes, after all. Instead, he does two things.

He imitates the squid and emits clouds of irrelevant ink — on the meaning of “current,” the distinction between columnist and contributor, etc. — to obscure the lack of evidence for his original accusation. That done, he makes a different but equally false charge — but one that sounds vaguely like the first, to give the impression that he is standing firm. This second charge is that I was “insinuating” Ms. Gessen was a Kremlin stooge when I wrote that she disdained opposition journalism.

Needless to say, I was insinuating nothing of the sort. And, again, there is no evidence to support even such a shifty accusation. Besides, there is the awkward fact that Ms. Gessen is quoted by both of us as disdaining opposition journalism. The difference between us from the standpoint of Mr. Adomanis, apparently, is that when I quote her to this effect, my only purpose can be to insinuate that she is a Kremlin suck-up. So he goes on to ask the question: Can this single quotation convict Ms. Gessen of sycophancy when she has a long record (which he cites) of anti-Kremlin journalism?

The answer to this question is, of course, No. That is certainly my answer to it. But then I never “insinuated” otherwise. So his outline of Ms. Gessen’s anti-Putin activism proves something with which I fully agree. His triumphant claim that Edward Lucas of The Economist supports him on this falls at the same fence. What Mr. Lucas actually tweeted is: “I disagree with Mark Adomanis about everything. Except this: Masha Gessen is not a Kremlin stooge.” That sums up my own position precisely.#more#

Now, I will admit that when I began this little rejoinder, I thought I would have some fun mocking Mr. Adomanis wholesale. But the more I read him, the more I realized that he was perfectly sincere in his attack on me and that he was acting from a gallant impulse to defend the journalistic honor of Ms. Gessen. These are decent motives deserving respect. Instead of mocking him, therefore, I will embark on the more difficult task of persuading him that he is wrong and should reconsider his argument.

The crux of the matter is his argument — well, insinuation really — that I can have no other motive in quoting Ms. Gessen’s dismissive remark on opposition journalism than to suggest she is a Kremlin stooge. If I can produce another motive, his argument collapses. And I can do so quite easily, starting from Ms. Gessen’s own words. Here’s the money quote:

“I want to do a kind of journalism that no one is doing at the moment. I would describe it as normal journalism,” she told the Moscow Times shortly after her appointment. “Something that’s not polemical, like opposition media, and something that’s not controlled by the Kremlin.”

Ms. Gessen here distinguishes among three kinds or styles of journalism. Naturally she rejects pro-Kremlin journalism. But she also rejects a journalism that is “polemical,” which is how she sees “opposition media.” What she endorses is what she calls “normal journalism,” which she defines negatively as “not polemical.”

And those are the choices in the debate over Radio Liberty. No one favors pro-Kremlin journalism on Radio Liberty; not even Putin thinks it a possible outcome. Ms. Gessen and those RFERL senior managers who appointed her favor what they call a “normal journalism” of softer social features. The dismissed journalists and the Moscow human-rights community prefer the harder-hitting and, yes, polemical style of opposition journalism.

Let me now ask Mr. Adomanis to go back to my initial article in the Wall Street Journal. If he does so, he will find that the quote from Ms. Gessen occurs in the middle of six paragraphs devoted to an examination of the choice between “normal” and “opposition” journalism. I argue there not that Ms. Gessen is a Kremlin stooge, or anything like that, but that she has chosen the wrong kind of journalism, especially at a time when there is growing resistance to Putin’s authoritarianism among dissidents old and new. That was the argument of my WSJ article, and it bears no relationship to an accusation of Kremlin sycophancy.

Why did Mr. Adomanis get it so wrong? I can only speculate, but my guess is that he read not what I wrote but what he was expecting me to write. Others had criticized Ms. Gessen along the lines of Kremlin sycophancy. I had criticized Ms. Gessen. Therefore I had criticized her as a Kremlin stooge. Besides, he remarks in passing that I am a right-winger; so I must be the kind of person who would promiscuously attack people as soft on the Kremlin. When he came to a passage in my article that, if wrenched bleeding from context, might be made to look like such a charge, he misread it with pleasure.

This kind of ideological dyslexia is quite common. Mr. Adomanis cites Mark Galeotti as suffering from it as well. And Mr. Adomanis had a second attack of it when he interpreted my quoting Molnar’s old joke — apparently journalists who can write outnumber those who can read — as an accusation of illiteracy. Not so. I don’t do vulgar abuse. It’s an accusation of the kind of misreading that is seemingly his forte. But others must help him to correct it in future.


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