March 8, 2022

We see the horrific images in Ukraine as everyday citizens hunker down in makeshift bomb shelters while others desperately flee toward the border. Others have picked up guns to defend themselves, their homes, their country.

We’ve seen videos and photos of buildings destroyed and streets littered with rubble.

Even more sadly, we’ve seen photos of dead bodies and heard stories of children killed in a brutal and unprovoked invasion.

Who can see this and not feel overwhelmed with empathy for the Ukrainian people? Even Russian citizens must feel awful about what they are seeing, right?

Actually, that’s not the case.

And it’s not that many Russian citizens don’t care about what’s going on in Ukraine. Many just don’t know what’s going on or refuse to believe it.

Early on in this war, there were reports of protests against it in some of Russia’s biggest cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Thousands, reportedly, have been arrested.

But now we are learning more about how Russia’s propaganda machine is working hard to hide the truth of what is happening. And that machine appears to be working.

Two stories in recent days show just how disheartening and frustrating it is to see Russians in complete denial about the attack on Ukraine.

The BBC’s Maria Korenyuk and Jack Goodman wrote, “Ukraine war: ‘My city’s being shelled, but mum won’t believe me.’”

In that story, a 25-year-old woman in Ukraine named Oleksandra talked about speaking with her mother, who is in Moscow.

Oleksandra said, “I didn’t want to scare my parents, but I started telling them directly that civilians and children are dying. But even though they worry about me, they still say it probably happens only by accident, that the Russian army would never target civilians. That it’s Ukrainians who’re killing their own people.”

Oleksandra believes her mother is only repeating what she hears on state-run media in Russia.

“They are just brainwashing people. And people trust them,” Oleksandra said. “My parents understand that some military action is happening here. But they say: ‘Russians came to liberate you. They won’t ruin anything, they won’t touch you. They’re only targeting military bases.’”

Meanwhile, there was a similarly troubling story in The New York Times from reporter Valerie Hopkins. Misha Katsurin, a Ukrainian restaurateur, called his father back in Russia to tell him how everything was “extremely scary.”

His father’s response was, “No, no, no, no stop.”

Katsurin said, “He started to tell me how the things in my country are going. He started to yell at me and told me, ‘Look, everything is going like this. They are Nazis.’”

His father went on to tell him that the Russian soldiers were in Ukraine to help the Ukrainians by giving them food and warm clothes.

These are just two of many examples of Ukrainian citizens who cannot convince loved ones back in Russia that they are under attack.

Katsurin told Hopkins, “I am not angry at my father — I am angry at the Kremlin. I’m angry about the Russian propaganda. I’m not angry at these people. I understand that I cannot blame them in this situation.”

Dr. Joanna Szostek, an expert in Russia and political communications at the University of Glasgow, told the BBC, “The state narrative only ever shows Russia as the good guy. Even the tales they tell about World War II, the Great Patriotic War, Russia has never really done anything wrong. And this is why they won’t believe it now.”

Russian media open before now

Speaking of the Russian media, The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers wrote, “With New Limits on Media, Putin Closes a Door on Russia’s ‘Openness.’”

Myers noted that before this invasion of Ukraine, those in Russia could watch foreign newscasts such as CNN and the BBC. Now, independent media is off the air and many foreign news outlets have either pulled out of Russia or have suspended operations after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to jail anyone for up to 15 years for reporting what the government deems “false information” about the war — including even calling it a “war.”

Nina L. Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City, told Myers, “Just two weeks ago it was not possible to imagine how quickly most of it would get closed. And yet it is.”

On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman called Russia a “sealed room” and said he can’t ever remember a time like this.

Myers wrote, “In today’s digitally connected world, Mr. Putin could have a difficult time cutting off Russia entirely. Even in the Soviet Union, information flowed back and forth over borders. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, that allow people to evade internet restrictions by disguising which country they are logging in from, can help spread information the way samizdat, illegal copies of censored books or articles, circulated clandestinely in Soviet times.”

A graphic and heartbreaking image

In Monday’s newsletter, I wrote about the graphic image on The New York Times website that showed three members of a family lying dead in the street after Russian soldiers either targeted civilians or didn’t care as they blew up a railroad track being used for evacuations. Ukrainian soldiers were attending to another man who was still breathing.

The photo, by Lynsey Addario, also was used on the front page of Monday’s print edition of The New York Times. (Here is the photo, but be warned, the images are graphic.)

New York Times deputy managing editor Cliff Levy tweeted that the photo was “one of the most important of the war.”

Addario appeared on Monday’s “CBS Evening News” and told anchor Norah O’Donnell she thought of her own children as she took the photo.

“I thought it’s disrespectful to take a photo, but I have to take a photo — this is a war crime,” said Addario, who added there was “no question” that this was an area where civilians were.

Addario told O’Donnell, “I think it’s really important that people around the world see these images. It’s really brave of The New York Times to put that image on the front page. It’s a difficult image, but it is an historically important image. … Because it’s a war crime and it’s happening.”

Speaking to President Zelensky

ABC News anchor David Muir spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an interview that aired Monday night on ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

Muir asked Zelensky if he thought Putin was a war criminal.

Zelensky said, “I think that all people who came to our land, all people who gave the orders … they are all war criminals.”

Zelensky also told Muir he hopes U.S. President Joe Biden and others send fighter jets to Ukraine, saying, “ I’m sure that the president can do more. I’m sure he can. And I would like to believe that — that he’s capable of doing that.”

As far as Putin, Zelensky told Muir, “I think he’s capable of stopping the war that he started.”

More of note regarding Russia-Ukraine

To write or not to write?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaking last December. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Last week, The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood wrote about Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in “Absolute Power.” Wood even talked to Salman for the story about a variety of topics with, apparently, no subject off limits.

In the story, Wood asked if he had ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. (A year ago, the Biden administration determined that the crown prince had “approved” the murder.)

Salman told Wood that it was “obvious” that he did not order Khashoggi’s murder, adding, “It hurt me a lot. It hurt me and it hurt Saudi Arabia, from a feelings perspective. … I understand the anger, especially among journalists. I respect their feelings. But we also have feelings here, pain here.”

Then Salman said, “I never read a Khashoggi article in my life.” Then, incredibly, he said that if he did order death for those who wrote about him critically, “Khashoggi would not even be among the top 1,000 people on the list.”

There, of course, was much more to Wood’s story.

But Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah heavily criticized Wood’s piece in her column: “The Atlantic’s elevation of MBS is an insult to journalism.”

Attiah wrote, “Most sickeningly, The Atlantic gave MBS a platform to not only continue his absurd denials of having anything to do with Jamal’s murder (even though it was carried out by figures in his close circle and the CIA concluded he gave the order to capture or kill), but also to present himself as the real victim.”

Attiah also wrote, “It would have been one thing for the Atlantic to drill MBS on his role in Jamal’s assassination. Instead, MBS was allowed to denigrate Jamal, saying he wasn’t important enough to kill.”

Attiah closed by writing, “‘Absolute Power’ is an insult to Jamal’s memory and to journalism. When history looks back at this period, this Atlantic piece will shine as an example of how the path to the resurgence of brutal, global authoritarianism is paved in no small part by the worst aspects of access journalism in the United States.”

The Atlantic, in a statement, told Attiah, “We encourage people to read Graeme Wood’s story for themselves. The 12,000-word piece addresses issues about Saudi governance, religion, and society, and also addresses various manifestations of MBS’s autocratic and repressive rule.”

Even before The Post column, others had criticized Wood’s piece for making Salman look sympathetic.

So Wood wrote another piece for The Atlantic: “Of Course Journalists Should Interview Autocrats.”

Wood wrote, “Any publication bragging that it is too sanctimonious to accept an invitation to interview the crown prince of Saudi Arabia is admitting it cannot cover Saudi Arabia. The Atlantic is not in the business of sanctimony, and it expects its readers to understand, without being told, that someone who dwells on his own indignities as the result of a murder, rather than on the suffering of the victim, might not be the perfect steward of absolute power.”

Wood pushed back on those who criticized him for writing that Salman was “charming” and “intelligent,” writing, “… if you think charm and intelligence are incompatible with being a sociopath, then your years in Washington, D.C., have taught you less than nothing.”

The argument some made against interviewing the crown prince is that it’s like giving him a platform to spew his ideas and lies.

But Wood wrote, “‘Giving a platform’ — to use the cliche that imprisons the minds of those who don’t know how journalism is done, or what its purpose is — is not a favor bestowed on important people. It is an invitation to walk the boards and fall through trap doors. And that is exactly what Saudi officials themselves, whose past two days have been spent desperately fluffing pillows for a soft landing below, seem to think their ruler did.”

There still isn’t a consensus on this. Some believe that The Atlantic handed Salman a megaphone and didn’t do enough to tamp down his lies. Others believe that The Atlantic story showed Salman for what he is, which is quite possibly a sociopath.

Media tidbits

(Courtesy: NBC News)

  • NBC News’ hit podcast “Southlake” has returned with a new bonus episode. “Books and Backlash,” hosted by Antonia Hylton and Mike Hixenbaugh, is available now. Hylton and Hixenbaugh look at how the fight over diversity in Southlake’s Carroll Independent School District in Texas is back in the headlines with a new focus: books.
  • New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul will join the Times Opinion section as a columnist. In announcing Paul as a new columnist, the Times also announced it will be adding more columnists to the Opinion section in the coming months. Paul has been with the Times since 2011. The announcement from the Opinion section leadership said, “Pamela impressed us in our conversations with her keen desire to write about what people really think and believe but are often too afraid to say. She made clear to us that she has little patience for groupthink on the right or left but rather wants her column to help people question what has often become the received point of view.”
  • The New York Times’ Katie Robertson gets very clever with how she writes: “Axios Wants Us to Read Everything in Bullet Points.”
  • There was a little bit of a media dustup over the weekend as New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Times-turned-Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz had a back-and-forth over Twitter about journalists “branding” themselves. I was going to weigh in, but Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers has some great insight in her Medium piece: “Do Journalists Need to Be Brands?”
  • In an article adapted from her book “Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth,” which is due out today, it’s The New York Times’ Elizabeth Williamson with “Alex Jones and Donald Trump: A Fateful Alliance Draws Scrutiny.”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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