By Stephen Gowans
May 2, 2022
“Moscow wanted ‘to claim complete control of Mariupol by May 9, with Russian propagandists recently arriving in the city to set conditions for further claims of a Russian victory.‘” The New York Times, May 5, 2022*
Eva Bartlett, called by some an independent journalist, has close to 100,000 followers on Twitter. On her Twitter profile she says “I go to the places I write about.”
I’ve met Eva and talked to her. She is warm, amiable, polite, funny, combative, smart, and considerate. A delight. I have no doubt that she is extraordinarily courageous. There are great many people who like her, and for good reason. She has many shining personal qualities.
When I recently described a report Eva wrote from Mariupol, I said it was propaganda for the billionaires’ government of Russia.
I do believe that that is what it is. I don’t mean, however, that she is in the employ of the Russian government; only that her agenda is the same.
My motive in impugning Eva’s report was to raise legitimate questions that are all too infrequently asked about the kind of journalism Eva practices, and about journalism more generally.
The first question is how do we know that any of what Eva tells us is true? This isn’t a nasty insinuation that it isn’t true, only, how do we know it is? How should we test its veracity?
I suspect Eva’s answer would be that, one, she’s independent, and two, she goes to the places she writes about. Therefore, what she writes is true.
But “independent” is a vague word. Almost every journalist says they’re independent, but independent of what? Reporters for privately-owned media say they’re independent, because they’re not on a government payroll. But that doesn’t make them independent of the media owners on whose payroll they depend.
Freelance journalists say they’re independent, but they’re not independent of the agendas of the media outlets they sell their stories to.
Eva could say she’s independent if her reports are self-published. But she’s not independent of the agendas of the web sites that post her material. RT, a news outlet founded to propagate a Russian point of view (or at least a point of view that is highly critical of Russia’s rival, the United States) features regular contributions from Eva. That doesn’t mean she’s tailoring her writing to what pleases Moscow; only that the Moscow line and her writing are simpatico, which is why RT publishes it.
Eva’s Mariupol report was posted on the web site Internationalist 360, which has its own agenda, and is unlikely to publish reports that are inimical to its particular objectives. (Internationalist 360 appears to be associated with the Gaddafi family.)
I said I knew what Eva would find in Mariupol before she even arrived in the city. I said this because I know her biases, evidenced in RT frequently publishing her work.
Eva may be called an independent journalist, but the word “independent,” as far as journalism is concerned, is largely meaningless. Eva is more accurately called an advocate for people fighting US imperialism, including Washington’s imperialist rivals, who poses as an independent truth-seeker. (Mainstream journalists can also be described as advocates—in their case on behalf of the business community that owns the publications they write for—who also pose as independent truth-seekers.)
What about me? Am I independent? I wrote a book on Syria for Baraka Books. I would never have been asked to write the book had the publisher not had a pretty good idea, based on my previous writings, that what I would say would be consistent with his own agenda. The late Louis Proyect, one of my critics, could have said that he already knew what I would write before I had ever written the book. He would have been right.
Promotion of the book billed me as an independent analyst. Leaving aside that I wasn’t independent of Baraka and its agenda, it was true that I had no institutional affiliations. I could, therefore, be described reasonably as an analyst who is independent of any connection to governments, businesses, universities, thinks tanks, and so on. While this might have proved that I wasn’t a gun for hire, it didn’t in any way demonstrate that what I wrote about in my book was accurate. Independent doesn’t mean right. Likewise, dependent doesn’t necessarily mean wrong.
The idea that a report is legitimate simply because the reporter travels to a place she reports on—Eva’s claim to legitimacy—is meaningless. Even if we assume that a reporter doesn’t have a political ax to grind, and is highly perspicacious, does visiting a place suddenly make one an expert on all of its variegated complexities? It’s possible to poll 10 different Syrians who have lived in the country all their lives and get 10 different views on events since 2011. But if being in a place gives one special insight into the place, as Eva claims, how is it that 10 different people who have lived in the same place all their lives can have multiple, conflicting insights about the same place? The reality is that many people with experience of one place can have conflicting views about that place. Judging whether a view is sound on the basis of whether a person has experience of the place is impossible.
Eva’s Mariupol report consisted of “on the ground” interviews. But it’s possible for anyone to travel anywhere and find a number of people who express opinions that match the particular point of view one wants to emphasize. And while it is a technique commonly used by journalists, its value is approximately zero. More compelling would be a methodical, unbiased, opinion poll, designed and analyzed by someone sitting in a downtown Toronto office who has never visited the place in question. Hence, not only is it impossible to judge whether a view is sound on the basis of whether a person has experience of the place, it’s possible that a person who has no experience of the place has a better view.
As an aside, Vanessa Beeley, another advocate who poses as an independent truth-seeker and who also fetishizes travelling to the places she writes about, had no reservations about pontificating on Ottawa’s Freedom Convoy from thousands of miles away, going so far as to dismiss the points of view of people who were actually there, myself included. Based on her conduct and sympathy with the convoy’s anti-vaccine agenda , I would surmise that had Vanessa actually travelled to Ottawa, she very likely would have interviewed only Freedom Convoy supporters and ignored everyone else.
A basic question one ought to ask of any reporting is how do I know it’s true? Some people say they know Eva’s reporting is true because it matches what they already know to be true. Of course, this invites the question, how do they already know the truth? And why do they need a reporter to tell them what they already know? The reality is that they don’t know the truth, but like the version of reality Eva presents.
Regarding Eva’s Mariupol report:
- How do we know she didn’t selectively cull opinion to satisfy a pre-determined narrative? I’m not saying she did, but how do we know she didn’t? And even if she selected her interviewees at random, the methodology of interviewing a handful of people and then making sweeping generalizations is invalid.
- Is it even thinkable that Eva could have returned from Mariupol with a story that wasn’t simpatico with the Moscow line? If she had, how would her many admirers have treated her? Would they have believed her? Or would they have denounced her as a traitor and immediately unfollowed her? My guess is that they would have discarded her—and that she knows it.
Another guess: It’s not independent journalism that Eva’s many followers seek, but merely someone to tell them what they want to hear. Telling people what they want to hear is a great gig. If you satisfy your followers’ need to have their views validated, they treat you as a hero. And they certainly don’t ask tough questions like, “How do I know any of this is true?”
We should be asking tough questions. We demand too little of the people who write articles and books and conduct interviews, and who lead our political parties and peace groups. And the result is that the quality of our politics is subpar. Sadly, it will always be so, if we prefer the soothing caress of people who tell us what we want to hear, rather than the challenge of people who tell us what we need to know.
We also ask too little of our advocates. If they’re going to be effective, we better be sure the material and arguments they produce are sound and compelling, and not shot through with holes. The only way do achieve this outcome is to ask hard questions and demand work be held to a high standard.
*Michael Schwirtz, “Putin’s Forces Battle in East Ukraine to Feed His Hunger for a Victory,” The New York Times, May 5, 2022