POLITICS

Ukraine Journalists See U.S. Media Struggling To Keep Up With A Complex Country

Unreliable sources and missing context are leading to cringeworthy coverage and outright nonsense.

President Donald Trump’s request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate his political rival Joe Biden has caused a flood of U.S. media attention toward Ukraine unseen since the country’s 2014 revolution. But many of the journalists and experts who have been reporting on Ukraine for years have found something frustrating about the new coverage: A lot of it seems like bullshit.

In the rush for scoops and sources after Trump’s call, many Ukraine-focused journalists and experts have watched as unreliable officials get featured placement in stories, the country’s complex politics get overly simplified, and American pundits spread misinformation.

“Most commentators have no clue about Ukraine and its intricate politics, and just tend to recycle the warring parties’ spin, missing both nuance and accuracy,” said Katya Gorchinskaya, a Ukrainian journalist and former CEO of independent news outlet Hromadske TV.

The government turnover after Ukraine’s elections earlier this year left behind a variety of former officials and advisers who have become prominent in Western media, but experts say that those unaccustomed to Ukrainian politics can leave out important context around their claims.

“There have been some sources, particularly former MPs or former advisers to Zelensky that have been quoted as kind of the gospel truth,” said Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation and Ukraine at the Wilson Center think tank. “In reality, the picture is a lot more complex and either they’ve had a falling-out or that source may not be as reliable.”

President Donald Trump speaking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United
President Donald Trump speaking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sept. 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

One example is a now-corrected ABC News story that cited one of Zelensky’s former advisers, Serhiy Leshchenko, as a current aide to the president with inside knowledge of his administration. Ukraine experts and journalists cast doubt on the report and its focus on Leshchenko’s claim that Trump would only meet Zelensky if Biden’s case were brought up. (Conservative media then also latched on to the error in a desperate attempt to cast doubt on whether Trump did anything wrong.) Other outlets such as The Daily Beast have faced similar backlash from journalists who say the publications are giving too much credence to unreliable sources such as Ukrainian adviser Anton Gerashchenko.

But even when Ukrainian officials and commentators are put in accurate context, journalists in Ukraine have noticed that it’s often a small rotating cast of characters who are getting the most airtime from American media.

“One thing I’ve seen in the coverage here on CNN and NBC News, and in some of the reported print stories as well, is there’s only two or three names that everybody is interviewing,” said Christopher Miller, a Ukraine correspondent for Radio Free Europe and a BuzzFeed contributor. “There’s not a lot of diversity in the sourcing and you’re going to get the same story.”

Part of the struggle for Western news outlets is that they have very few journalists who are permanently based in Ukraine, Miller says, which makes it harder for reporters who have been shifted from their assignments in places such as Moscow or Brussels to quickly get up to speed with Ukrainian politics and find reliable sources. Although there are a number of excellent journalists with knowledge of Ukrainian politics who have been assigned to cover it, there are also some outlets struggling to keep up.

“In times like this when everyone is trying to break a story and really rushing, also because of pressure from editors, there is just a lot of sloppiness and a lack of nuance,” Miller said.

The frustration in Ukraine over U.S. coverage is also part of a wider sense that the country is ignored or misunderstood — and consistently mislabeled “the Ukraine” — despite playing a central role in international affairs after Russia annexed its territory and it was drawn into a war that has killed 13,000 people since 2014.

“Over the last few years there’s been a lot of sensitivity in Ukraine and among Ukrainians on coverage by Western media,” said Matthew Schaaf, director of the Ukraine office for Freedom House. “There’s some quite substantive criticism, in particular taking quotes from people who clearly don’t know what’s going on here and certainly aren’t experts on political, social and economic issues in Ukraine.”

That frustration has gotten worse after the current scandal broke. Some Ukrainians feel Western outlets are excluding their voices and sidelining the impact that Trump pressuring Zelensky and delaying military aid may have on Ukraine.

Questionable reporting on Ukraine is coincidentally what helped lead Trump to pressure Zelensky to investigate a conspiracy theory to begin with. The Hill’s John Solomon published a series of dubious articles earlier this year featuring allegations that Ukrainian officials and then-U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch helped Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Another article suggested Biden had ordered a Ukrainian prosecutor fired because of his son Hunter Biden’s business interests in the country.

Despite renewed scrutiny of his articles and sourcing, Solomon tweeted last week, “I stand by my stories 100 percent, all of which are completely accurate and transparent. We embedded the documents and videos we collected in each story for all to see.”

But Solomon’s main source was Yuri Lutsenko, a generally discredited figure in Ukrainian politics who potentially had his own complicated motivations for spreading his allegations and has since denied that the Bidens acted improperly. Solomon’s articles nevertheless became a pet conservative talking point and eventually nestled their way into the president’s brain, perhaps through Solomon’s regular appearances on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s show, before Trump ultimately attempted to get Zelensky to investigate their claims. While some journalists are now working to correct the record, other coverage appears to be taking the same bait.

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