Thierry Marignac contributed to this editorial from Paris.
Over the past few years, the Washington Post's editorial page has pushed an increasingly hostile line toward Russia, painting complex developments there in Manichaean terms and accusing the Kremlin--and usually Vladimir Putin--of responsibility for just about anything that goes wrong, real or imagined, in that part of the world. During the recent war between Russia and Georgia, Post editorials placed the blame squarely on alleged Russian neo-imperialism, going so far as to deny that the Georgians had inflicted serious destruction on the South Ossetian capital, despite reports from human rights organizations, the OSCE and even the Post's own journalists. This hardline, deeply flawed position by one of the nation's most influential editorial pages has played a leading role in driving America and Russia to the brink of a new cold war.
A hyperbolic October 22 lead editorial, "More Poison: Another prominent adversary of Vladimir Putin is mysteriously exposed to toxins," led me to ask the Post's editorial page editor and onetime Moscow bureau co-chief, Fred Hiatt, about his sources for the paper's charges. Hiatt's painstaking response unintentionally offered a rare glimpse into how, when it comes to Russia and Putin, the editorial page's incessant demonization puts more weight on ideology than on journalistic professionalism--or simple fact-checking.
The editorial essentially accused Prime Minister Putin of poisoning a human rights lawyer in Strasbourg, France, by ordering the planting of mercury in her car. The lawyer, Karina Moskalenko, has taken on the Kremlin in the European Court of Human Rights on numerous occasions, so when she fell ill and her husband found traces of mercury in their car, French investigators were brought in to conduct an inquiry into a possible crime. But without waiting for the investigators' report, Hiatt's editorial page rushed out its verdict, intoning portentously, "It's chilling to consider that there would be another poisoning of another Putin enemy in another Western European city."
Le Figaro, which had broken the story of the suspected poisoning a few days earlier, reported that French investigators had announced that the lawyer in all likelihood hadn't been poisoned; the mercury came from a broken barometer from the car's previous owner. The Post didn't retract or apologize. The editorial page made no mention of the revelation, and the news editors banished the update to a tiny blurb buried on page A14.
In his e-mail response to my criticism of the editorial, Hiatt ignored my question asking why the Post hadn't waited for the investigation results before publishing its own verdict. Instead, he made a new set of accusations. "I am aware of newspaper articles in Figaro and the New York Times that quoted unnamed police sources positing the theory that a broken thermometer was the source of the mercury found in Moskalenko's car," he said. "These sources were in Paris, where officials may have a foreign-policy reason not to spark a dispute with Russia, and not in Strasbourg, where the investigation was taking place." He also implied that Moskalenko, who doubted the "broken-thermometer theory," as Hiatt put it, was more reliable than the investigators. These were incredible charges leveled at Le Figaro and the French political and judicial systems. But was Hiatt right?
I decided to check his version of events by calling Cyrille Louis, the Figaro reporter. Louis had broken both stories: the alleged Moskalenko poisoning and the investigators' findings debunking those allegations. Unlike the Post, The Nation doesn't have a Paris bureau. And yet it took just two phone calls to reach Louis and ask him how he reported the story. "I am frankly surprised that the Washington Post's editorial page editor would say something like this without even calling me to see if what he says was true," Louis told me, stunned and laughing. "It's simply not true. I used several sources, but the two main sources were a top police official here in Paris and a top investigator from the prosecutor's office in Strasbourg." Louis even named the source in Strasbourg--assistant prosecutor Claude Palpacuer. His sources in Paris are reliable people he has been working with for years. Louis explained that the investigators felt they'd probably solved the case after they tracked down the car's previous owner, a local antiques dealer who had indeed broken an old barometer (not thermometer) in the car shortly before selling it.
I then asked Louis what he thought about Hiatt's larger assumption: that Le Figaro's sources in Paris could not be trusted because the French might be worried about upsetting Russia. Again, Louis laughed in disbelief: "This sounds like a kind of conspiracy theory. You would have to believe that judges and police officials in two cities conspired to manipulate a Le Figaro journalist in order to plant a story that was not very big news here in the first place. Why would the authorities go through all of this effort for such a small story? I find this idea of a conspiracy completely unlikely." Louis was disappointed at Hiatt's accusations: "I suppose I might feel honored that the Washington Post bothers to write about me, but you know, I feel a bit surprised. If he called me I could have explained how I wrote the story. But he didn't try. Quite often we're very impressed here by how American journalists work, the high standards they use to source stories.... So it's disappointing to learn that [Hiatt] came to his conclusions about the way I work without even calling me."
Louis gave me the contact information for assistant prosecutor Palpacuer, who is overseeing the investigation. I tapped an old writer/translator friend in Paris, Thierry Marignac, to interpret for me. Palpacuer confirmed everything Louis told me, although the case had moved a bit further since then: "The amounts of mercury were so tiny that they were not toxic. We took blood samples from Moskalenko's family, and the results show that the mercury amounts in their blood were insignificant. In any case, mercury would have to be inhaled or injected in order to be lethal," Palpacuer said. "The investigation is not closed yet and has been given to the criminal division of the Strasbourg police department. But we know the former owner of the vehicle broke a barometer in it before selling the car, and those amounts correspond to the amounts we found."
In response to Hiatt's theory that the investigation was unreliable and probably influenced by Paris officials who didn't want to upset Russia, Palpacuer burst out laughing: "This is beyond me, I am sorry. I work with the evidence I have before me in the investigation. But really--the Russians? Influencing this case? I don't know what to say, it's ridiculous. I would just say that we welcome any new evidence if anyone has it. If there is evidence of Russians influencing this investigation, I would welcome it."
Evidence. Facts. These were not the sorts of things Hiatt's response to me were concerned with. However, Hiatt did ask me to send along any new information about the Moskalenko case. Well, here it is--information that came with the magic of a couple of phone calls.
This leaves us where we started. Will the Post retract this piece of poorly sourced, unprofessional editorializing? Will the editorial page be held accountable by its ombudsman and others at the Post? After all, the ombudsman managed to attack the paper's alleged "liberal bias" recently--a highly debatable position. But in this case, we have a clear example of a failure to get the facts right, and a further failure to retract those errors.
Given the Post's broader record over the past decade, from the war in Iraq to the conflict in South Ossetia, and Hiatt's response to this case, it's worth asking if the editorial page has mishandled other crucial decisions, especially those relating to Russia, as badly as it has bungled the Moskalenko story. It's a question that needs answering.