Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, took to Twitter two days ago and ripped the New York Times’ editorial staff for their decision to publish an op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin that urged the caution of the American people regarding the United States’ potential military involvement in Syria. The ongoing human rights struggles in Russia and the complications in Syria have both been discussed to a considerable degree, and it would make little impact to rehash those debates here. Kasparov’s comments, however, get to a much more interesting question about the journalistic field in general, and what newspapers’ responsibilities might be in terms of what warrants their consideration for publication.
Kasparov’s chief criticism is that the Times erred in “provid[ing] Putin with a platform for condescending propaganda.” He sarcastically mocks the paper, arguing that “now we can expect NY Times op-eds by Mugabe on fair elections, and Castro on free speech.” He mixes in some substantive arguments on Putin’s motivations and a jab at the Obama administration, but he reserves his scorn mainly for the newspaper.
That Putin’s motivations are, at best, highly politically charged, and, at worst, suspect, cannot be debated. However, Kasparov, who has shifted to a political activist role in Russia and has clashed often with Putin, errs when he places blame on the Times for its decision to publish the Russian president’s comments.
From a purely journalistic standpoint, the decision to publish is not only well-founded, but commendable. The effort by Putin to reach out to the United States’ general public in such a format is virtually unprecedented, and the constant discussion of the piece since its publication is proof enough of its importance in stirring the national conversation. (We’ll leave aside the point that the generated page views are alone a sufficient incentive for the Times.) Publication in no way equals endorsement, and even if the Times’ staff thought that Putin’s arguments were incredibly specious and highly disagreeable, their primary role is to serve as a newspaper of record, not a political advocate. At the end of the day, they had an opportunity to publish a timely, highly relevant op-ed from one of the most powerful people in the world: an incredible opportunity for a news medium to serve as the nexus of American political conversation today.
For the Times to reject that opportunity, Putin’s claims would have to be so ridiculous and transparent that they could only be construed as propaganda. But if one actually reads the op-ed, Putin’s concerns (regional stabilization, civilian casualties, bypassing the United Nations, etc.) actually line up strongly with domestic foreign policy analysts’ objections to a potential US strike in Syria, ulterior motives notwithstanding. Should we discuss those motives? Absolutely. The bulk of our analysis, however, should lie in our substantive responses to Mr. Putin’s substantive arguments; tellingly, many American respondents to the Times who could not care less for his administration’s actions have sided with Putin on the issues. In that way, the New York Times’ publication of the op-ed is a challenge to the American public to prove that our views are founded more by our reasoning than our suspicion. For that, they ought to be praised, not rebuked.