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Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

Russia, Ukraine and 'US Prestige'

Given the US media's general fondness for the Ukrainian protesters who wound up driving President Viktor Yanukovych from office, it was inevitable that Russian President Vladimir Putin's military response in the Crimea–an autonomous region of Ukraine populated largely by ethnic Russians–would generate some intense criticism. And so it did.

But alongside the denunciations of Putin came waves of criticism for US President Barack Obama for being too weak to make Putin stop.

On NBC Nightly News (3/1/14), Meet the Press anchor David Gregory announced: 

There is U.S. prestige on the line…. The president just Friday afternoon said there would be costs to this kind of intervention. So what are the costs? Why is it that Russia seems to disregard these warnings from the administration?

It was a theme that Gregory hit on his own show on Sunday (3/2/14). "Does NATO draw a line here to try to check any further aggression beyond Crimea into the eastern part of Ukraine?" Gregory wondered. He also posed this question to Secretary of State John Kerry:

On Friday, the president said, "There'll be a cost to intervention." What does it say to you that Vladimir Putin has ignored the United States for 10 days?

To Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Gregory posed a question from the hawkish right:

How did we get here? Do you agree with some of your colleagues who say it's the weakness of President Obama and the United States right now that has emboldened President Putin of Russia?

Introducing the roundtable discussion, Gregory said:

This is a conversation about Obama's leadership, pure and simple. This is a major test for whether the rest of the world, particularly bad actors, take him seriously when he says to not do something, Chuck Todd.

NBC's Todd concurred:

This is not the first time with Putin. Putin acts, Obama warns. Putin acts, Obama warns. This is a pattern that he can't afford to stay in here and just continue to warn. You heard John Kerry, more warnings.


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The focus on Obama's supposed weakness in the face of Putin's strength meant that some statements flew by without comment–like when Kerry said that "you just don't invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests." Because really, what kind of country does that?

The tendency was evident elsewhere in the press. The Washington Post editorial page (3/1/14):

The United States now faces a naked act of armed aggression in the center of Europe by a Russian regime that is signaling its intent to steamroller this US president and his allies. Mr. Obama must demonstrate that can't be done.

The paper's news side (3/1/14) asserted:

Rarely has a threat from a US president been dismissed as quickly–and comprehensively–as Obama's warning Friday night to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

And on NPR's Morning Edition, Cokie Roberts (3/3/14) appeared in order to repeat things that Republicans have said about Obama's weakness:

LINDA WERTHEIMER: So, for the Obama administration, what are the politics of Russia's move on Crimea?

COKIE ROBERTS: Well, the president is perceived by many of his opponents — and even some of his friends — as being weak. And Sen. Lindsay Graham said yesterday that he should stop going on TV and trying to "threaten thugs and dictators" — I'm quoting here. He says it's not his strong suit. Everybody's eyes roll when he does it. So we have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.

Now, that's the kind of criticism you're going to hear. And, of course, it harks back to his drawing blood red line in Syria and then ignoring it, and the sense that, among the president's opponents, that foreign dictators feel like they can do anything and get away with it.

Does anyone at NPR really think it's worth anyone's time for Cokie Roberts to come on and repeat what she heard politicians say on Sunday talkshows?

Writing at the Guardian (3/3/14), Michael Cohen has a different take: "Shocking as it may seem, sometimes countries take actions based on how they view their interests, irrespective of who the US did or did not bomb."

Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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