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?