Coverage of Russian Plane Bombing Shows What a Difference an Enemy Makes

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Coverage of Russian Plane Bombing Shows What a Difference an Enemy Makes

Skepticism is the rule when US media covers terrorist attacks against official enemies. (Photo: Alexei Nikolsky via AP/US News)

FAIR (11/13/15, 11/16/15, 11/17/15) has noted the contrast between US media coverage of Paris and Beirut after the militant ISIS movement claimed responsibility for terror attacks in both cities. It may be even more illuminating to look at media reactions to another ISIS-claimed disaster, the bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268, a Russian tourist plane that went down over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, killing all 217 people on board. When the victims of terror come from an official enemy state, it’s clear that different media rules apply.

Before it was determined that a bomb caused the crash, Associated Press‘s Jim Heintz (11/7/15) wrote a speculative piece that began, “No matter what caused the fatal crash of a Russian airliner in Egypt, the answer will almost certainly hit Russia hard—but not President Vladimir Putin.” Whether it was terrorism or mechanical failure, Heintz wrote, “Either answer could challenge Russia’s new self-confidence—but could also be used by Putin to advance his aims and reinforce his power.”


Needless to say, we’re not seeing a lot of coverage of how France’s François Hollande could use the Paris attacks “to advance his aims and reinforce his power.”

While US outlets were circumspect to the point of being unintelligible in drawing a connection between France’s war against ISIS in Syria/Iraq and the Paris attacks, AP had no trouble making it clear that Russia had been targeted not because of its values or symbols but because of its military attacks against a violent adversary: “A faction of the militant Islamic State group claimed it had downed the airliner in retaliation for Russia launching airstrikes on IS positions in Syria a month earlier.”

AP raised the question, seldom heard in the French context, of whether the terror attacks should lead Russia to rethink its military strategy in the Middle East:

The crash has provoked a national wave of grief and anxiety, and if terrorism is proven, many Russians could reconsider the wisdom of the country’s airstrikes in Syria against opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which include IS…. But although such concerns could be strong, they are unlikely to gain enough momentum to threaten Putin’s policies or his hold on power.

The New York TimesNeil MacFarquhar (11/10/15) listed the Metrojet bombing as part of “a series of nasty shocks to Russia, some of them direct results of Mr. Putin’s actions”:

And last week, a Russian charter flight plummeted into the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing all 224 people on board, in what British and American intelligence agencies suspect was a terrorist attack in response to the Kremlin’s military intervention in Syria.

Yet the basic reaction is to shrug and point a finger elsewhere, preferably at the West.

Imagine the response the Times would have gotten if, in the wake of the Paris massacre, one of its writers had chided the French for blaming anyone other than Hollande for the violence.

Yet the Times‘ take was relatively sympathetic compared to a Washington Post editorial (11/6/15), which found in the mass killing of Russians new reasons to declare its enmity toward the Russian government. The Post had no doubt who was to blame for ISIS blowing up the airliner, and it wasn’t ISIS:

Yet to concede that the Islamic State might have penetrated Egyptian security at the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, and that Mr. Putin’s Syrian ad­ven­ture could have prompted the worst civil air attack in Russia’s history, would be not just an embarrassment but a potentially grievous political wound.

Comparing Putin to Egyptian ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Post declared:

Both rulers have sold themselves as warriors courageously taking on the Islamic State and its affiliates; both are using that fight as a pretext to accomplish other ends, such as repressing peaceful domestic opponents and distracting attention from declining living standards.

France has likewise been enduring years of anemic growth, resulting in Hollande consistently coming in third behind the leading right-wing and far-right parties in polling about the 2017 elections. But you’re unlikely to see that brought up as a possible motivating factor when US media report on Hollande’s request for extended emergency powers, including “increased surveillance, soldiers on the streets, the ability to place people under house arrest and sweeping capabilities to carry out additional raids and searches by security forces” (USA Today, 11/18/15).

Because Russia’s government is considered to be an enemy of Washington, US media express skepticism about its interest in increasing its powers, suspecting it might have its own self-interest rather than the safety of its citizens foremost in mind. US news outlets depict Russia as living in a world of cause and effect, where Moscow’s own actions have an impact on how other nations and groups respond to it; it is not portrayed as a passive victim of others’ inexplicable violence. The Kremlin’s power is seen as finite, with its ability to achieve its ends not guaranteed by its good intentions and inexhaustible supply of willpower.

In other words, if you want US media to cover your government’s response to a terrorist attack in a way that’s actually useful to you as a citizen, you might get more news you can use if you live under an enemy regime rather than one counted as a friend of the United States.

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

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