Editor’s Note: New York Times Standards Editor Craig Whitney issued this response to questions posed by The Nation about its coverage of the Russia-Georgia conflict in South Ossetia.
In answer to the question you posed to Clark Hoyt, who sent it along to me–Why did the New York Times take so long to question its own misleading reporting on the South Ossetia war, in which the Times portrayed Georgia as a victim of Russian aggression, rather than as the aggressor?–it is a perverse distortion of this reporting, nothing less, to say that it portrayed Georgia as a victim of Russian aggression rather than as an aggressor.
Let’s look at the record.
If you were reading the New York Times on Southern Ossetia in 2008, you would have seen this:
February 16, 2008
, Saturday Late Edition–Final
Section A Page 3
Desk: Foreign Desk Length: 632 words
Russia Warns It May Back Breakaway Republics in Georgia
By C. J. CHIVERS
MOSCOW–Russia held a high-level meeting with the leaders of two breakaway republics in Georgia on Friday, and vowed to increase its support for the separatists if Kosovo declared its independence and was recognized by the West.
The meeting, coupled with vocal warnings in Russia’s Parliament that it would react strongly to a declaration of independence by Kosovo, threatened to push the Kremlin and the West into a fresh and potentially volatile standoff over the status of separatist territories in Georgia.
Kosovo is expected within days to declare its independence from Serbia, Russia’s traditional ally.
The Kremlin has long objected to the move, and even threatened to retaliate by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions it supports inside Georgia’s internationally recognized borders, as independent states.
Russia has in the past several years granted Russian citizenship to almost all residents in the separatist enclaves. In anticipation of further engagement with the regions, Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, met here with the presidents of the regions’ de facto governments.
Mr. Lavrov then issued a stern but vague statement saying Russia was prepared to expand its case diplomatically in the days ahead. ”The declaration and recognition of Kosovar independence will make Russia adjust its line toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he said in a statement.
Increasing financial assistance is among the steps Russia might take, he said.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia border Russia along the Caucasus ridge, and broke from Georgia after brief wars in the early 1990s. Their status has simmered as a source of contention and ethnic tension in the years since.
Both regions have declared self-rule, but in fact are managed as Russian protectorates. The standoffs, labeled ”frozen conflicts,” have been sources of unsuccessful international mediation and worries of renewed fighting.
Georgia in recent years has strongly protested the Russian support, accusing the Kremlin of hypocrisy.
It has noted that Russia has supported separatists inside Georgia while holding Russia’s own sovereignty inviolable and waging a bitter war and counterinsurgency against separatists on the other side of the Caucasus ridge, in Chechnya.