Last week the New York Times named veteran reporter Andrew Kramer, formerly a correspondent on its Moscow bureau, to run its new Kyiv hub. Many Ukrainian civil society actors weren’t thrilled, pointing to the writer’s past pro-Russian slants in several pieces and voicing frustration that once again the country is being approached through a colonial lens.

To be clear, NYT opening a Kyiv bureau is a good thing. The outlet has done some phenomenal work since the start of the war, particularly on the data and visualisation side (like this investigation leveraging hundreds of radio intercepts and visual elements). More of those, and a stronger voice from the ground, is something to celebrate.

Yet the concerns of many in Ukraine are understandable. Great NYT investigations are too often interlaced with dumbfoundingly ignorant editorials like the one arguing to cede land for peace (and thereby abandon tens of thousands to torture, rape and death). 

It also opens up old wounds and unsettled scores. The memory of the Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed between 3 and 7 million Ukrainians, lives on. Importantly, so does the fact that NYT’s then Moscow bureau chief and Stalin apologist Walter Duranty covered it up in a loathsome campaign of disinformation.

Breaking the “Kyiv via Moscow” paradigm

Ukraine’s turbulent history in recent decades put the country on the “global media map” for years. Most international publications would have some regular contributors or stringers in Kyiv – although regional head offices in Moscow would typically call the shots and send in the “real correspondents” during times of crisis.

Sometimes this worked out well. Talented reporters with experience and local knowledge in both countries uncovered the bigger stories. Frequently it didn’t – writers would land in Kyiv with heads full of Russian narratives, buzzwords and talking points. This led to embarrassing corrections and edited headlines.

Ukrainian civil society reaction to the Kramer appointment actually emphasised both points. Media trade publication and watchdog Detector Media noted that Kramer started his journalistic career in Kyiv and highlighted his works including coverage of Paul Manafort’s misdeeds in Ukraine (later continued in the US) and Russia’s international electoral meddling.

But they also noted Kramer had produced an overly promotional piece for the Sputnik vaccine and decided to write about the threat of armed nationalists in Ukraine just two weeks before Russia’s open invasion (see an extensive criticism of the piece here). 

These cases are unfortunate, but it’s hard to find someone with a long publishing career who hasn’t missed the mark a couple of times. Yet in the case of Ukraine, whose very existence is denied by its powerful and genocidal neighbour, such errors can carry a heavy price. Ultimately, we will see how NYT’s coverage evolves with more leadership on the ground.

Decolonising Ukrainian coverage

NYT is not the first media to have realised the importance of people on-the-ground. Back in March Washington Post announced its Moscow correspondent Isabelle Khurshudyan would run their new Kyiv bureau with the support of Nairobi bureau chief Max Bearak (as chief correspondent). 

Moscow experience is both an asset and a liability for a reporter covering Ukraine – and not just because of the daily stream of disinformation spread throughout the Russian capital. Moscow’s understanding of Ukraine is deeply flawed – as evidenced by the spectacular failure of its attempted 3-day conquest. 

The Kremlin never believed in the reality of Ukraine as a nation, never made serious efforts to understand it. While Russian diplomats have a reputation for doing well in local languages in places like Tehran or Ankara, hardly any cases of Ukrainian-speakers were seen in Kyiv. Correspondents travelling from Moscow would run into the same hurdle. 

Ukraine is a deeply bilingual country – but that doesn’t mean what you think. Yes, you can order at a restaurant in either language and be served. But discussions between Ukrainians seamlessly switch between languages and if you’re not familiar with both, you will soon lose the plot. Yes, they are from one linguistic family, but it’s about as easy for Russian-speakers to understand Ukrainian as it is for English-speakers to understand Dutch.

Further, the everlasting description of Ukraine being a “post-Soviet country” is outwearing its welcome, especially as the country is fighting a brutal colonial war of independence. At some point we have to ask: do you need experience in London to write articles from Mumbai or in Paris to report on Algeria? Because Algeria’s independence was closer to the breakup of the Soviet Union, than the USSR’s breakup is to today.

NYT’s Ukraine reporting: a shameful history

What makes the NYT’s decisions all the more sensitive is the publication’s deeply shameful history with regard to Russian oppression in Ukraine. In the 1930s, the outlet’s Moscow bureau chief purposefully and with full intent covered up the murder of millions in Ukraine – and got a Putlizer Prize for it. 

The man-made famine, which has been recognized as genocide by 17 countries, killed between 3 and 7 million Ukrainians in 1932-33. That was according to most estimates; Duranty himself confided to British embassy officials in 1934 that as many as 10 millions may have died (he was not so open with NYT’s readers).

Amazingly, NYT’s internal investigation of the matter came out with broadly the same opinion. Writing in 1990, a member of the editorial board assigned to the matter found that Duranty had, in essence, bet his career on Stalin’s rise and didn’t want to impede it or lose access. The verdict was that Duranty’s work was “some of the worst reporting to appear in this newspaper”. 

Sadly, the Putlizer board doesn’t want to admit its error, hiding behind explanations that there was no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception (suggesting that being an idiot who spreads misinformation is a Putlizer-prize-worthy stance). In practice, the excuse is the same thing Ukrainians worry about now – he was only guilty of “too often giving a voice to [Stalin’s/ Putin’s] propaganda”. 

But that shouldn’t stop NYT. There is a unique opportunity to do the right thing: to reject the Putlizer prize and return it, to publicly apologise to Ukrainians, and to build an excellent Kyiv bureau that builds on the broad and rich experience of its staff.

Photo by Spenser Sembrat on Unsplash