The Man in the Middle

You might have thought David Johnson would be famous by now. He started Johnson’s Russia List (JRL) in 1996, three or four days a week compiling a list of articles about Russia, attaching the articles themselves, and sending it all via email to those who asked for it.  After ten months Sarah Koenig wrote up the controversy surrounding the enterprise in The New York Times: On Johnson’s List, Russia Watchers Watch Each Other.

Of the many ventures that have stirred Internet uproar, David Johnson’s Russia list has been one of the most tempestuous …. Since its debut in May, his list’s vitriolic spats over NATO expansion or the shiftiness of Russia’s presidential pretender, Aleksandr I. Lebed, have deeply irritated some of the world’s leading analysts. But they can’t stop reading it.

What was the nature of their complaint? That JRL often contained items with which readers didn’t agree.  Jonathan Sanders, a Moscow correspondent for CBS News, told Koenig that JRL and CNN indeed had become more useful sources of information than the US State Department.

The trouble was, Sanders quickly added, was that JRL often included work by Sovietologists he considered unreliable. “It’s unfiltered, so you get this great outpouring of angst and self-promotion, ideological blathering, and vicious polemic.”

In the quarter-century since then, the antipathy between  the United States and Russia – and the turmoil surrounding JRL – have only increased, especially after 2014, when pro-Western  demonstrators in Kyiv forced the democratically-elected pro-Moscow president of Ukraine to flee to Russia, and Russian  forces occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in response.  A full-scale war on Ukraine began in 2022.

Meanwhile, the lack of curiosity about JRL and its proprietor has become at least as striking as the commotion that attended its beginnings twenty-five years before.  A cursory search turned up only the NY Times article and a handful of mentions on the web. I first wrote about Johnson in 2008.  Granted, newspapers write about other newspapers mainly when they think they have something to gain. Still, the inattention to the one man still in the middle is emblematic of a highly-polarized war-time situation.

Johnson seldom editorializes. The editing he does seems limited to positioning on the list.  The first item is the equivalent of his front page. Being listed last often seems to hint at derision. (As a casual reader for most of those twenty-five years, I attest that JRL’s outpouring is great, even torrential; there can be twenty, thirty, even forty items on a given day.) For instance, in JRL 2022 #248, of December 16.  I read the first item carefully: a thoughtful essay, The Left and Ukraine, by Jonathan Steele, former Moscow bureau chief of the Guardian, writing in Counterpunch. The last item, Are We in the West Weaker Than Ukrainians?, a pep-talk by Nicholas Kristof, I had already read in the NYTimes.

Earlier this month Johnson wrote an unusual note to his email subscribers:  edition,:

I don’t want to offend anyone but I think some candid remarks may be in order. I started Johnson’s Russia List in 1996 to bring a balanced collection of articles to the attention of Russia watchers. Making it easy to be a genuine “expert.” This worked pretty well until the Maidan events of 2014 when most people jumped enthusiastically on the Ukraine train. Following which the Russiagate story in the US accelerated the collapse as most people did not resist the extremist version of events. Because of the Trump connection. The demonizing of Russia and Putin took hold as the mainstay of Russian studies. And events in 2022 solidified this. Dissent became immoral as untested Ukraine allegations about Russian crimes drowned out everything else.

That’s pretty much the way I see it, too. While I despise Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, the newspapers I read, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, seem to me pretty much over the top in their zest for the cause of Ukraine, with no corresponding attempt to understand the Russian perspective.  Only the Financial Times regularly manages to curb its enthusiasm for the war.

(I am not sure how Johnson understands “the Russiagate story” nor do I care, for  I consider I understand it well enough on my own. But I am concerned by what he means by “the collapse.” His circulation should be growing, not shrinking.

NYTimes is worried about Elon Musk’s power as publisher of Twitter to suspend reporters’ accounts, in effect cancelling their participation in his so-called town square, and I am too.  But I worry as well about NYimes capacity to shield its readers from dissent by ignoring its critics. In a good year JRL would be a candidate for peace prizes.  Mainstream media editors ought to be able to figure that out for themselves.

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