New York Times misreports Pussy Riot case

On August 17, 2012, the New York Times reported on the front page of its website that three members of the now-famous all-female Russian group known as "Pussy Riot" had been convicted of hooliganism and sent to prison.  The article was so rife with gross and reckless errors that it ought to be stuffed and hung like a trophy in the den of the conservative movement.

The Times called Pussy Riot a "punk band." In fact, they are a performance art collective.  They do not perform concerts or release albums, they stage provocative incidents that usually last only a few seconds and the music is far from being the point. They are, in essence, actresses pretending to be a punk band to achieve their art. They originally came together as part of another performance collective called Voina (which means "war" in Russian); this was the group that painted a 200-foot penis on a St. Petersburg drawbridge and staged an orgy in a Moscow museum. None of this made it into the Times "reporting."

The Times said the trio had received a "stiff punishment" of "two years" in a "penal colony."  In fact, the two-year sentence they drew was the absolute minimum the law permitted, and the trio will likely be given double credit against the sentence for the nearly half-year already served in pretrial detention per Article 72, Subsection 3 of the Russian Penal Code.  This means that in effect the longest period they could likely spend in a "penal colony" was one year.  It's entirely possible they'll be paroled much sooner than that, and be home after only a few months in the penal colony and less than a year total time.  This in contrast to the three-year sentence requested by the prosecutor and the seven-year sentence the law permitted for the offenses charged.

The Times reporter wrote:

Outside the courthouse, supporters of the group chanted "Free Pussy Riot!" and clashed with the riot police. Dozens were arrested, including the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is active in the Russian political opposition. Mr. Kasparov fought with the police and appeared to be beaten as he was bundled into a police vehicle.

But Kasparov was arrested long before the court's verdict was announced, and not for fighting with police.  He was arrested because he tried to enter the courtroom to watch the verdict being read and grappled with police only when they laid hands on him in a blatantly unconstitutional manner while he was attempting to give an interview to assembled journalists; another opposition activist, Sergei Udaltsov, was arrested because he tried to make a speech outside the courthouse before the hearing began.

By contrast, the Times didn't mention that the trio was forced to wear handcuffs as they sat inside a locked cage-like enclosure within the courtroom and that they were menaced repeatedly by attack dogs as they moved to and from court. It never mentioned the fact that they did not receive a jury trial or the opportunity to post reasonable bail pending trial.  It didn't mention that a vast number of reporters were excluded from being in the courtroom during the sentencing, nor did it even make clear whether any Times reporter got inside.  The paper had no comment from the defendants, nor any comment from anyone they allegedly wronged. It had no comment from the U.S. Ambassador, the Secretary of State of the President. It had no investigative reporting on the judge. Every word in its "reporting" could have been gleaned from Twitter a reporter in his pajamas.  In fact, that reporter's work would likely have been more accurate.

Instead, and worst of all, the Times chose devote a huge chunk of the article to shamelessly propagandizing the incident on behalf of its beloved Obama administration: "Human rights groups and Western governments, including the United States, immediately criticized the verdict as unjust and the sentence as unduly severe." It went on to imply that the U.S. was actively championing the cause of human rights in Russia:

In Washington, where Obama administration officials followed the trial closely, seeing it as a measure of Mr. Putin's new presidency and its own troubled relations with Russia, the White House and the State Department each criticized the verdict. The State Department all but called on Russia's higher courts to overturn the conviction and "ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld." A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said the verdict was disappointing and the sentences disproportionate. "While we understand that the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system," he said.

Reading the Twitter feed of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, shows clearly just how much the Obama administration cares about human rights in Russia. In the month of August McFaul only mentioned Pussy Riot once, and he never commented about the case himself. He simply linked to an obscure State Department press release that had been translated into Russian on the U.S. Embassy website.  In it, Foggy Bottom said it was concerned that the charges against Pussy Riot were politically motivated.

This Tweet came right on the heels of an obsequious comment seeking to flatter Russians in which McFaul stated:  "My family having a fantastic time in your wonderful country. Today's highlight -- Tretyakov Gallery." The message to Russians was unmistakable:  I don't really care about Pussy Riot, I'm your buddy.  Then, instead of working to pressure the Kremlin on this issue and innumerable others, McFaul promptly went on vacation to spend "slow time on the beach" and the last Tweet before the verdict was announced was a Retweet of Condoleezza Rice rooting for her favorite football team. Just hours after the verdict, McFaul found it necessary to retweet a photo of Obama laughing it up with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the Oval Office.

McFaul did publish a number of tweets about the verdict, but he never made a personal comment and he has never said he ever challenged anyone in the Kremlin about the arrest or the trial before the sentencing. How thrilling it would have been if he had visited the trio behind bars, or at least tried to do so. He simply repeated press releases made by others which stated that the sentence was "disproportionate to the crime."  This clearly implies that some lesser sentence would be acceptable to the U.S., but the law did not permit any lesser sentence.  The only way to lessen Pussy Riot's punishment would have been to acquit them, and the only way that might have happened would have been if the Obama administration had demanded it.

Opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova boldly confronted McFaul on Twitter.  In Russian, she asked him:  "Michael, now do you understand why the Magnitsky bill is so essential? When will the USA adopt it?"  The Magnitsky bill, named for crusading, corruption-fighting Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky who was wrongfully arrested and murdered by Russian police, is the measure pending in Congress which is designed to replace the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.  J-V demands that Russia live up to basic international standards on human rights before being given normal trading status with Western democracies, and the Obama regime has been lobbying furiously for J-V's repeal, almost as if it were the Kremlin's own personal lobbyist.

McFaul ignored her.

In other words, the Obama administration did absolutely nothing prior to the announcement of the verdict to stand up against the political prosecution which they themselves admitted was taking place.  They just let it happen. The words "Pussy Riot" never passed the lips of either Obama or McFaul on the record, much less did words like "jury trial" or "corrupt judge" or "neo-Soviet show trial" and both were therefore deeply at fault in enabling the Kremlin's persecution of the artists. 

Obama and McFaul seem to believe American voters will let them have it both ways.  They can allow atrocity after atrocity to unfold, currying favor with the Kremlin all the while in the manner of Neville Chamberlain, then with a little lip service to American values in the aftermath sweep it all under the carpet.

That craven behavior of the Obama White House was the most significant part of the Pussy Riot story, and the Times didn't just ignore it but reported the opposite to be the case. It did so for one simple reason:  Because the opposite is part of Obama's reelection narrative, that he salvaged Russo-US relations and turned an enemy into an ally. 


On August 17, 2012, the New York Times reported on the front page of its website that three members of the now-famous all-female Russian group known as "Pussy Riot" had been convicted of hooliganism and sent to prison.  The article was so rife with gross and reckless errors that it ought to be stuffed and hung like a trophy in the den of the conservative movement.

The Times called Pussy Riot a "punk band." In fact, they are a performance art collective.  They do not perform concerts or release albums, they stage provocative incidents that usually last only a few seconds and the music is far from being the point. They are, in essence, actresses pretending to be a punk band to achieve their art. They originally came together as part of another performance collective called Voina (which means "war" in Russian); this was the group that painted a 200-foot penis on a St. Petersburg drawbridge and staged an orgy in a Moscow museum. None of this made it into the Times "reporting."

The Times said the trio had received a "stiff punishment" of "two years" in a "penal colony."  In fact, the two-year sentence they drew was the absolute minimum the law permitted, and the trio will likely be given double credit against the sentence for the nearly half-year already served in pretrial detention per Article 72, Subsection 3 of the Russian Penal Code.  This means that in effect the longest period they could likely spend in a "penal colony" was one year.  It's entirely possible they'll be paroled much sooner than that, and be home after only a few months in the penal colony and less than a year total time.  This in contrast to the three-year sentence requested by the prosecutor and the seven-year sentence the law permitted for the offenses charged.

The Times reporter wrote:

Outside the courthouse, supporters of the group chanted "Free Pussy Riot!" and clashed with the riot police. Dozens were arrested, including the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is active in the Russian political opposition. Mr. Kasparov fought with the police and appeared to be beaten as he was bundled into a police vehicle.

But Kasparov was arrested long before the court's verdict was announced, and not for fighting with police.  He was arrested because he tried to enter the courtroom to watch the verdict being read and grappled with police only when they laid hands on him in a blatantly unconstitutional manner while he was attempting to give an interview to assembled journalists; another opposition activist, Sergei Udaltsov, was arrested because he tried to make a speech outside the courthouse before the hearing began.

By contrast, the Times didn't mention that the trio was forced to wear handcuffs as they sat inside a locked cage-like enclosure within the courtroom and that they were menaced repeatedly by attack dogs as they moved to and from court. It never mentioned the fact that they did not receive a jury trial or the opportunity to post reasonable bail pending trial.  It didn't mention that a vast number of reporters were excluded from being in the courtroom during the sentencing, nor did it even make clear whether any Times reporter got inside.  The paper had no comment from the defendants, nor any comment from anyone they allegedly wronged. It had no comment from the U.S. Ambassador, the Secretary of State of the President. It had no investigative reporting on the judge. Every word in its "reporting" could have been gleaned from Twitter a reporter in his pajamas.  In fact, that reporter's work would likely have been more accurate.

Instead, and worst of all, the Times chose devote a huge chunk of the article to shamelessly propagandizing the incident on behalf of its beloved Obama administration: "Human rights groups and Western governments, including the United States, immediately criticized the verdict as unjust and the sentence as unduly severe." It went on to imply that the U.S. was actively championing the cause of human rights in Russia:

In Washington, where Obama administration officials followed the trial closely, seeing it as a measure of Mr. Putin's new presidency and its own troubled relations with Russia, the White House and the State Department each criticized the verdict. The State Department all but called on Russia's higher courts to overturn the conviction and "ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld." A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said the verdict was disappointing and the sentences disproportionate. "While we understand that the group's behavior was offensive to some, we have serious concerns about the way these young women have been treated by the Russian judicial system," he said.

Reading the Twitter feed of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, shows clearly just how much the Obama administration cares about human rights in Russia. In the month of August McFaul only mentioned Pussy Riot once, and he never commented about the case himself. He simply linked to an obscure State Department press release that had been translated into Russian on the U.S. Embassy website.  In it, Foggy Bottom said it was concerned that the charges against Pussy Riot were politically motivated.

This Tweet came right on the heels of an obsequious comment seeking to flatter Russians in which McFaul stated:  "My family having a fantastic time in your wonderful country. Today's highlight -- Tretyakov Gallery." The message to Russians was unmistakable:  I don't really care about Pussy Riot, I'm your buddy.  Then, instead of working to pressure the Kremlin on this issue and innumerable others, McFaul promptly went on vacation to spend "slow time on the beach" and the last Tweet before the verdict was announced was a Retweet of Condoleezza Rice rooting for her favorite football team. Just hours after the verdict, McFaul found it necessary to retweet a photo of Obama laughing it up with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the Oval Office.

McFaul did publish a number of tweets about the verdict, but he never made a personal comment and he has never said he ever challenged anyone in the Kremlin about the arrest or the trial before the sentencing. How thrilling it would have been if he had visited the trio behind bars, or at least tried to do so. He simply repeated press releases made by others which stated that the sentence was "disproportionate to the crime."  This clearly implies that some lesser sentence would be acceptable to the U.S., but the law did not permit any lesser sentence.  The only way to lessen Pussy Riot's punishment would have been to acquit them, and the only way that might have happened would have been if the Obama administration had demanded it.

Opposition leader Yevgenia Chirikova boldly confronted McFaul on Twitter.  In Russian, she asked him:  "Michael, now do you understand why the Magnitsky bill is so essential? When will the USA adopt it?"  The Magnitsky bill, named for crusading, corruption-fighting Russian attorney Sergei Magnitsky who was wrongfully arrested and murdered by Russian police, is the measure pending in Congress which is designed to replace the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.  J-V demands that Russia live up to basic international standards on human rights before being given normal trading status with Western democracies, and the Obama regime has been lobbying furiously for J-V's repeal, almost as if it were the Kremlin's own personal lobbyist.

McFaul ignored her.

In other words, the Obama administration did absolutely nothing prior to the announcement of the verdict to stand up against the political prosecution which they themselves admitted was taking place.  They just let it happen. The words "Pussy Riot" never passed the lips of either Obama or McFaul on the record, much less did words like "jury trial" or "corrupt judge" or "neo-Soviet show trial" and both were therefore deeply at fault in enabling the Kremlin's persecution of the artists. 

Obama and McFaul seem to believe American voters will let them have it both ways.  They can allow atrocity after atrocity to unfold, currying favor with the Kremlin all the while in the manner of Neville Chamberlain, then with a little lip service to American values in the aftermath sweep it all under the carpet.

That craven behavior of the Obama White House was the most significant part of the Pussy Riot story, and the Times didn't just ignore it but reported the opposite to be the case. It did so for one simple reason:  Because the opposite is part of Obama's reelection narrative, that he salvaged Russo-US relations and turned an enemy into an ally. 


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