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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No More Crocodile Tears for the Times

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"Е the feather-ruffling veteran journalist Matt Bivens Е"
Ч Matt Taibbi, "Sign of the Times," an article published in the eXile, Feb. 8.

I would have preferred "crusading." Or "courageous." Or even just "well-thought-of." But the eXile has to adopt a certain world-weary condescension Ч we all have our roles to play. So I guess I should be happy with "feather-ruffling," given that on balance The Moscow Times is "dull as hell," the eXile editors "could never stand it" and to ponder the paper's future means to sympathize with "even the littlest, most seemingly unimportant group of people" as they are "pushed relentlessly toward a role as a mere pawn for much larger forces."

When I was editor of The Moscow Times, we avoided responding to criticism or allegations from our competition. I worried sometimes that this would make us look arrogant or unaware of what was said about us. But I also did not want to spend our editorial energy on spitting matches with other expat papers.

That said, I never had to put up with a week in which all the other expat media in town were leading their papers with stories about our demise Ч and citing me as a key "source" in their articles.

In "Sign of the Times," Matt Taibbi tells a story not just of The Moscow Times but of our newly minted competitor, The Russia Journal Ч a newspaper that charges almost nothing for ads, doesn't seem to get any ads even so, yet still manages to spend a few million dollars a year. Taibbi says The Russia Journal is a Kremlin-backed project to undercut The Moscow Times. Late last year I had a reporter ask Gleb Pavlovsky, the well-connected Kremlin PR master who came up with the Strana.ru web site, if this was so. Pavlovsky, the reporter said, simply laughed. (I was never clear whether he laughed dismissively or cackled gleefully).

Aluminum Press

Whether they are losing their own money or Pavlovsky's, I've come to suspect that my old friend Taibbi is correct. One reason I think so is that I can confirm Taibbi's assertion that some oligarchs are looking for a more friendly English-language calling card. At least briefly, Siberian Aluminum linked up last year with The Moscow Tribune to make a bid for control of The Moscow Times.

A Siberian Aluminum/Moscow Tribune delegation last year hired Dutch consultants and approached VNU Ч the Dutch consortium that holds one-third of The Moscow Times' parent company, Independent Media Ч about buying The Moscow Times. The idea was to merge the Tribune and the Times. John Helmer Ч then a Moscow Tribune columnist, now at The Russia Journal Ч fleshed out the plan for me over coffee last year. Helmer said that it had in fact been his brainchild, that he had gone to Siberian Aluminum and sold them on the idea, and that a Trib-Times merger would be a net gain for both papers. He also assured me that if the merger went through, all were hoping that I would stay on as editor. (Sure they were!)

The rest of Taibbi's "Sign of the Times" is a eulogy for The Moscow Times, now doomed to be a mere pawn of much larger forces. I disagree. But there's not much point in arguing over a prediction. Let's just all keep reading and see what happens.

What I do object to, however, is a fairy tale that the eXile crowd has laid out on a few occasions (and The Russia Journal people are now stupidly aping): That the Kremlin came to The Moscow Times in the winter of 1999-2000 and told us to be more loyal in our reporting, and we saluted.

This scenario was first manufactured by eXile in August 2000. The Moscow Times had just reviewed a book by the eXile editors, and they apparently found the reviews insufficiently worshipful. (See "The Gonzo Classic That Wasn't" and "And Does Anybody Care Except for Us?") "Should I in turn go after Bivens' wife and children? Is that what he wants?" wrote Mark Ames about the reviews then. "Hold me back, hold me back!"

Ames went on to say that I had written satisfactory yet annoyingly earnest editorials up until a certain day, and then the Kremlin and the tax police came and made me stop.

Truth and Lies

This was a lie. But, in a warped sort of way, it was kind of an honest lie: At least Ames had made clear he was "coming after me," so his rant could be taken in a particular context. That context was amplified in a subsequent issue, in which Ames fantasized in graphic detail about forcing a former Moscow Times reporter to drink HIV-infected menstrual blood.

Once a lie is published, however, over time that sort of charming context can be forgotten; the lie simply becomes "background," to be regurgitated in later articles. In a recent issue of Stringer, the eXile's Russian-language sister publication, Taibbi wrote:

"In December 1999, the tax police raided the offices of Independent Media and 'discovered' a multimillion debt. In an article in Brill's Content written afterward, Times editor Matt Bivens wrote that simultaneously people from the Kremlin told the paper they did not like coverage of the Chechen war. What followed was a negotiation of sorts between Derk Sauer, the Dutch CEO of Independent Media, and the tax police. As a result, the unpaid tax bill disappeared somewhere, and Sauer asked editor Bivens to 'tighten up' his material about Chechnya and make the newspaper less political.

"After the New Year, the changes in The Moscow Times were very noticeable. The editorial Ч a daily column by Bivens Ч was pulled and replaced by editorials reprinted from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and other leading Western publications. Coverage of the Chechen campaign became strikingly softer."

Just for starters, this account is wrong in almost every one of its supporting details. The $9 million tax bill never did "disappear somewhere," for example: It stayed with us until April, when we finally won a Supreme Court decision slapping it down. (We covered the original tax bill and the ruling). There were therefore never "negotiations of a sort" between Sauer and the tax police, at least as far as I know. The editorial was not "pulled and replaced" after the New Year. Sauer never told me to make the paper "less political." Coverage of the Chechen campaign becoming "strikingly softer"? C'mon, Taibbi! Have some respect for Yevgenia Borisova (See articles.), who risked her life to report from all across Chechnya Ч an assignment she had long lobbied for, but which I only agreed to after the meeting with Sauer, at Sauer's urging. As I wrote in Brill's Ч and this is a passage that Taibbi and the eXile doggedly insist on omitting Ч Sauer pushed us to improve our war coverage by doing some on-the-scene reporting. I was balking at that because I did not think The Moscow Times had the resources to deal with, God forbid, a kidnapping; Sauer, in the name of good journalism, pushed me to reconsider.

Fewer Editorials

It's true that in the winter of 2000 I stopped having an editorial every single day. So what? I still wrote lots of editorials, and we did not in any way back down from previous positions. In fact we wrote some of our harshest Ч including a full-page editorial headlined, in a cheap eXile-esque grab for attention, "Dizzy With Success" that among other things called for an end to the war and parliamentary investigations into who really blew up the Moscow apartments.

I also used the "relief" of only doing three or four editorials a week to spend some time in St. Petersburg reconstructing corruption allegations from the early 1990s against former Deputy Mayor Vladimir Putin, for an article I published on March 4, three weeks before the vote. (See "Waiting for Vladimir Putin") A week before the vote, The Moscow Times formally endorsed Grigory Yavlinsky, in an anyone-but-that-loser-Putin editorial. And throughout, Yevgenia Borisova was filing harsh stories about atrocities in Chechnya, and we were putting them on the front page.

I pointed all of this out to Taibbi after the Stringer abomination. Nevertheless, Taibbi offered much the same fairy tale a week later in "Sign of the Times." As before, his only source Ч as near as I can tell Ч is me:

"Independent Media was raided by the tax police in 1999, an incident which was reportedly followed up by a visit from Kremlin henchmen expressing their displeasure with the Moscow Times' coverage of the Chechen war. ... According to Bivens, Sauer encouraged the staff to 'tighten up' its coverage of Chechnya, while not changing the substance of its reporting at all."

OK, once more: No Kremlin henchmen ever came to visit. Sauer never addressed "the staff." He never said "tighten up;" those were my words, which I wrote on the assumption Ч I now see a naive one Ч that my readers would assume the words meant what they said, and that my critics would quote them honestly.

For the umpteenth time, here is the passage from Brill's that eXile and The Russia Journal both find so significant:

"Three months after we received our tax bill, I and other editors were summoned to a meeting with our publisher, Derk Sauer. We feared the worst: that someone had gotten to our parent company, Independent Media, and was shutting us down. Instead, we found Sauer sober but as independent-minded as ever. He said that friends in the government had warned him that The Moscow Times was starting to irk the Kremlin and could get him [Sauer] in trouble. He criticized some of our journalism where it had indeed been careless and insisted we tighten it up. But he also said he did not expect us to change our positions on Chechnya, and he suggested we send a reporter to the war zone Ч a step I had been hesitating to take."

'Tighten Up'

Whenever I refer this passage to Taibbi, he apparently sees only the words "tighten up." This is an incredibly willful misreading. As Taibbi so often insists in his eXile Press Reviews, words mean things. This passage says: 1) We editors feared we would be shut down. 2) But Sauer surprised us. 3) Sauer told us he had "friends" who had warned him we were irking the Kremlin. (Taibbi somehow turns this into things like, "Kremlin henchmen visited The Moscow Times.") 4) Sauer criticized some of our journalism where it had been careless and insisted we tighten it up. 5) But Sauer also said he did not expect us to change our positions on the war. 6) And he suggested we report from the war zone.

Taibbi asks: What does "tighten up" mean? In reply, I have offered to more thoroughly parse the event and have told him the following: Sauer told us, "I am ready to lose the company on a point of principle, but I'm not ready to lose the company over someone's stupid mistake." Sauer then went on to cite an example of our sloppiness: We had just run, on front, an Associated Press story that said 250 Russian soldiers had been killed in one battle and that 50 had been found with their throats slit. (See article.)The sourcing was very loose, and no one else in either the Western or Russian journalistic world had touched the story. Sauer's point was not even that we should have ignored that story, or that we should not have printed it on front Ч those sorts of calls, he said, were our business. He was angry at the headline, "250 Soldiers Die in Chechen Battle." His argument was: If you are going to run big with such a speculative, unconfirmed account, at least indicate that it's disputed information in the headline, as in: "Report: 250 Soldiers Die in Chechen Battle."

I stopped being editor of The Moscow Times about a month ago, and on that occasion I wrote the traditional unsigned article that looks back over the editor's tenure and introduces the new editor. (See "New Editor Named to MT.")In that article I wrote that the paper finished out the year with a loss, and that I ended my tenure as editor as I began it Ч with staff cuts and cost-cutting.

In Taibbi's Stringer article, this became "massive layoffs." (Ultimately, we lost three jobs from a newsroom of 50 people.) In his eXile article, my reporting the fact of the staff cuts was an indulgence in "Stalinist self-denunciation." (It seems the eXile believes any discussion of the financial state of The Moscow Times is immoral. Previous eXile articles have accused me of "boasting of his newspaper's profitability Е which is something even the most shameless career editor is supposed to only brag about privately with his publisher or stock broker.") The Russia Journal Ч which slavishly follows eXile's critiques of The Moscow Times Ч of late has triumphantly suggested that The Moscow Times is going under. And as Russia Journal assistant editor Katya Larina put it in her Feb. 2 article "Trouble in the Harem," the paper's collapse would be no great loss because we were "notorious for playing political favorites and for using news columns to boost the interests of advertisers."

Someone, meanwhile Ч someone at The Russia Journal? Ч has been anonymously e-mailing all who will listen that The Moscow Times is bankrupt.

The truth is, The Moscow Times has traditionally been run close to the bone because Sauer invests in our journalism, instead of pocketing profits. One reason he can do so is because our parent company Ч "the Harem," as The Russia Journal calls it, includes several glossy magazines and the Vedomosti newspaper Ч is a success. I've been at Independent Media management meetings where spending discipline and profit targets are laid down for magazines like Cosmopolitan. When magazine editors point out that The Moscow Times does not have to cut its costs to hit such highs, Sauer tells all that we have special rules for the Times Ч that of course it has to stay financially sound, but it's allowed to be about journalism first, profits second.

That sort of philosophy was what attracted me to editing The Moscow Times in the first place. It's why I did not feel I was breaking some huge taboo by reporting that we made a small loss in 2000: I'm simply not alarmed by that loss and don't see it having huge ramifications for the paper. (And while I'm no longer privy to such matters, I understand 2001 will be a dramatically better year Ч if only for the switch to Monday-Friday publication, since advertisers prefer Monday papers to Saturday papers.)

It's also why Ч even as NTV is being gutted and Mikhail Lesin remains press minister, even though The Russia Journal only makes sense as a Moscow Times "spoiler," and even though the president is a KGB man Ч I still have a lot of Ч perhaps irrational Ч hope for the paper's future.

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.