Michael Wines, winner of last year's Worst Journalist Contest, has apparently grown more fearless with age. You'd think that the horse sperm pie would have robbed him of basic motor functions and the desire to appear in public. Think again. His career recently has taken a turn towards the absurd, writing adventurously titled features about nothing at all.
A sample from the last few months includes Dec. 21, 2001's "You Pretend to Drive, We Pretend to Get You There", the chronology of a Moscow traffic jam; March 2's "Russia's Latest Export: Bad Jokes About U.S. Chickens", which showcased his obsession with lame puns (the first four paragraphs contain "one of the United States' soft spots: its thighs. Chicken thighs," "American fowl are too foul for Russians" and "a virtual drumstick-beat of warnings"); and Feb. 10's "When Putin Says 'Exercise!' Russia Treads a Beaten Path", about, well, exercise.
By Maksim Stein
God forbid Michael Wines will have to visit Ukraine again before he gets promoted to the editorial desk at the Times. But if his superiors demand that he display his loyalty and travel back to that "little corner of Africa in the heart of Europe", he might as well go prepared. Here's a list of titles and treatments of actual news that are sure to impress his overseers and will hopefully keep him from pulling stories out of thin air. Go get 'em, Tiger!
Dueling Mayors in Odessa
Kuchma stooge Ruslan Bodelan squares off against corrupt Israeli Eduard Hurvits for mayorship of Odessa... and control of the Odessa oil terminal!
Yulia Timoshenko - Foxy Fox
A 40-year-old politician whose hotter than most American teens and more corrupt than most Russians!
Kiev's Marion Barry
Kiev mayor Oleksander Omelchenko is about five foot nothing, makes tons of money overhauling Kiev's public spaces and can't get it up!
Even worse than in Russia, and a good way to get western aid!
Kinder, Gentler U.S. Ambassador
Carlos Pasqual is often seen attending student gatherings. Why?
Where Are Da Gats?
Kuchma claims that 30 billion dollars were stolen in weapons from the Ukrainian "army"!
Real Ukrainian women forced to service NATO troops in the Balkans!
Life in a Ukrainian Willage
Outside Kiev, peasants don't drink like the Russians and are still poor as dirt!
If you're going to write about something unimportant in Ukraine, it oughta be salo!
Ukraine Owes Gazprom Big
Gazprom colonizing Ukraine with the help of corrupt local politicos, plans Eurobond issue!
Lately, he has stretched the obligatory journalistic hook, which requires starting off every story with some anecdote, into full-length, content-free articles. A scan of his titles New Year's revealed that roughly a third dealt with feel-good themes, while most of the remainder reeked of rewritten wire copy.
But the topper must be his April 9 article "A Peculiar Peril of Politics: Accident-Prone Cars", datelined Kiev. The story is so full of basic fact-checking holes that we were almost considering hiring the guy ourself. In this single 900 word article, Wines manages to violate virtually every cardinal law of Journalism: facts are wrong, the sole interview he conducted is with an obviously biased source (and he doesn't identify the source's central conflict of interest), a paranoid conspiracy theory is presented with no serious evidence whatsoever, there are translation and transliteration errors, and he quoted dated suggestive lies that no one in Ukraine would take seriously, but that his New York readers (and editor) would be incapable to judging.
That America's Paper Of Record and recent winner of an unprecedented seven Pulitzer Prizes could have such sloppy copy is horrifying enough. Worse still is that the story's subject, Ukraine, is one of Europe's biggest countries with one of its least predictable citizenry. It's a push-me/pull-you nation that still hasn't figured out if it wants to be part of the American empire, or the Russian empire. Moreover it is an ecological disaster that's not just waiting to happen, but has already happened. Why can't a paper as rich and powerful as the Times find someone to cover it properly?
Wines' boo-boos begin (if I ignore the annoying alliteration in the title) in
the second sentence. "Brutus knifed Caesar. Stalin's agents killed Trotsky
with an ice pick." Bzzz! Wrong! A single agent killed Trotsky. Next!
In the second paragraph, Wines blows it again: "Then there are Ukrainian
assassins. People here say they prefer to wield a Kamaz truck, a Volga sedan
or even a subcompact Zhiguli." Even if one accepts Wines' specious claim that Ukrainian assassins use autos as weapons, there haven't been any such "hits" involving Volgas. Funny Wines didn't know this, as his article included a sidebar detailing eight accidents in the last five years that might have been assassinations.
About that list... it was lifted in its entirety from an identical sidebar from the March 28 edition of The Economist. The only change Wines made to dry up the language enough to conform to the Times' humorless standard. I'll come back to The Economist's article, which anticipated Wines' by more than a week.
Wines then spends nearly half of the article laying out the evidence for the auto-assassination-weapon conspiracy. He claims that the use of autos to silence opposition "approached conventional wisdom" after the death of Ukraine's primary arms-exporter Valery Malev in March. Maybe so, among hacks. The only counter evidence he cites came from the presidential administration--the very people implicated in the crime. Anyone reading this article in America would therefore assume Kuchma is guilty of Malev's auto-murder. (Don't get me wrong: I'm convinced that Kuchma is guilty of ordering journalist Grigory Gongadze's hit, but hell, he was caught on tape ordering the hit!)
Who does Wines rely on for his Malev-murder-conspiracy? Alyona Pritula.
Pritula is an interesting character in the Ukrainian press, and a babe to boot. For years, she was Kuchma's favorite journalist, accompanying him around the globe with a cherished spot on the presidential plane. But at a certain point she switched teams, falling for the married presidential critic Gongadze. (Speaking of food for conspiracy theorists--could jealousy have motivated Kuchma's desire to get rid of Gongadze, since his obscure web page was not likely to have crossed the sovok's radar screen all by itself?) Now Pritula runs her dead lover's website as a base for vicious attacks against the president.
The Times article introduces her in the eighth graph (and the first with a
direct quote) as "the editor of Ukrainskaya Pravda (www.pravda.com.ua), the
Kiev Internet news site"! Only much later does Wines reveal that she edits
Gongadze's old site--a startling omission.
Why leave out his primary source's relationship to the vital parties in his piece? Simple. Wines doesn't know his subject. His exposure to Ukraine is limited to rare parliamentary elections and papal visits. He has no idea that they were lovers, although it is common knowledge among journalists in Kiev. Hell, it's been a year and a half since I worked in the entertainment section of a weekly English language rag in Kiev and I still know it better than he does.
Wines also screws up the spelling of Pritula's newspaper, Russophying the spelling of Ukrainskaya Pravda. In fact, long before Gongadze's head was cut off, back when nobody had ever heard of his site, it appeared only in Ukrainian and was called Ukrayinska Pravda. Nowadays, it comes in English, Russian and Ukrainian and is among the most popular sites in Ukraine, which must be gratifying to Pritula's supposedly immense ego. But calling the site by its Russian name makes even less sense than calling it "Ukrainian Truth".
Wines finally allows two sentences that admit for the first time that "barely a scrap of hard evidence supports a plot" and perhaps "many accidents are, well, accidental." However, Wines quickly rebuts this aside by bringing up the Gongadze tapes, implying Kuchma's guilt by osmosis ("if he's guilty of one murder, he must be guilty of everyone else's too!").
And here is where Wines's biggest screw-up takes place. He writes that the tapes indicate, "that Ukraine's security services maintained a squad nicknamed 'Eagles' to hector and even eliminate enemies." Wines is referring to the following sentence, spoken by former interior minister Yury Kravchenko and taken from the forth episode of said tapes: "v mene zaraz komanda boyevaya, orli takie, scho delayut vse, chto khochesh."
This sentence translates as, "I have, by the way, a team of fighters, my boys, that will do everything you want." There are two words here which can only be understood though slang. "Zaraz" means "at once" in any dictionary but here it is just an interjection. More importantly for Wines (who doesn't speak Russian fluently, let alone Ukrainian), "orli" literally means "eagles", which is what confused him and his incompetent translator. Any local, however, will tell you that "orli" in this context is little more than an affectionate name for the thugs Kravchenko referred to, roughly equivalent to "my boys".
So, this elite "squad nicknamed 'Eagles'" that Wines implicitly links to "public suspicion that the crashes are the work of a government death squad" at the beginning of the article simply doesn't exist... except as a translation fuck-up.
Which leads to the Big Q: Why can't the Times find a decent translator?
But I digress: Wines is still obsessed with the conspiracy and finally introduces, two-thirds of the way into the article, the first "evidence" other than a list of dead and injured:
"As with any conspiracy theory, there is a tantalizing chain of circumstance, coincidence and dark supposition.
"Consider Mr. Malev, the government's arms-export director: he was driving to his Kiev apartment with a heating repairman last month when his Audi abruptly swerved into the rear wheels of an oncoming Russian Kamaz tanker truck, killing him instantly. The repairman, who survived, told journalists he was at a loss to explain the crash. The police speculated that Mr. Malev had dozed off-at 10 a.m."
According to Fakty newspaper, which admittedly might not live up to the high standards of the Times, Malev hadn't slept for 24 hours. More importantly, he wasn't "driving to his apartment" in central Kiev as Wines implies, but along a rural highway on his way home from a biznis trip. Besides, he swerved into the Kamaz, not the other way around.
Now Wines pulls out another conspiracy, but this time it actually carries some weight: Wines reports that Oleksandr Zhir, who is part of a parliamentary commission investigating corruption, linked Malev's death with the emergence four days earlier of a tape recording in which Kuchma and Malev were discussing sales of high-tech air defense systems to Iraq.
STOP THE PRESSES! If this tape's existence could be confirmed, we have one of the biggest stories of Wines' career: The third largest recipient of US aid selling missiles to Bush's biggest nemesis! What is this crucial info doing at the end of an absolutely pointless article? If Wines believes it's valid enough to put in his piece, why didn't he write the whole damn thing about it?
Kuchma dismissed Zhir's theory as "dog shit" (or "in vividly scatological terms" in Times-speak). But Wines apparently couldn't get Zhir on the phone (there are no quotes from him). Whatever the case, he blew off a potentially huge and valid story and filed the flaky conspiracy theory story instead.
The Economist article, which also had no Zhir quote, realized that his claim was as flimsy as it was newsworthy, thus only devoted three graphs to the accidents and the arms smuggling combined.
Next Wines brings up Yulia Timoshenko, a renegade babe who leads the "Ukraine Without Kuchma" opposition movement and was jailed not long ago after going into opposition. Timoshenko's rights were obviously trampled during election season--at one point she was barred from leaving the capital--but the car accident she got in during the campaign, in which she suffered a mere concussion, hardly sounds like part of a murder plot.
Yet Wines describes the collision by writing that she was stopped by a cop and then whacked by a Zhiguli. Then he uses a probably dated quote of hers, in which she says the offending "car disappeared, the driver disappeared, and we had no access to anything. I think that all these accidents are not accidental."
According to Maksim Stein, our man in Kiev, the disappearing driver had his picture in several papers and told reporters that he was really sorry. And, Stein added, the accident took place in an extremely dangerous intersection and it is likely that Timoshenko's Merc cut across traffic lanes, causing the
Accident, like one of those awful U-turn crossings on the Garden Ring that always lead to fender-benders and worse. Wines apparently didn't consider this relevant to the conspiracy he was weaving.
Towards the end of the story, Wines breaks out his first stats about how perilous driving in Ukraine supposedly is, and noting that "an equally credible explanation" is that it's a dangerous place to drive!
Yet even so, his statistics are false, at best. Wines claims that the federal DAI, or traffic police, said there were 806 deaths nationwide in March, which would be roughly double the total in March 2001. Double? Already "error!" alarms should be ringing--the law of averages doesn't usually allow for such radical fluctuations. On the DAI's website (www.sai.mia.gov.ua), Ukraine had less than 6000 traffic deaths a year nationwide every year from '98-'01. 800 deaths a month would lead to around 9600 deaths a year.
I had the eXile's secretary, Valya, call the DAI to get the official Ukrainian stats on road-deaths myself. At first the man in the stats department told her he couldn't tell her that info over the phone. When I called later, he asked for our fax and promised to send it immediately. Half a day later, he told Valya that he needed permission from his superiors in order to provide us with the March stats. Finally, as the Ukrainian workday and my deadline approached, I called him up and bitched enough to squeeze him for a compromise: the only stats he had in front of him, he said, were for the first three months of 2002. I settled, and the unidentified man told me that 1015 people died in three months.
1015? And according to Wines, 806 of them died in March?. Could January and February together only have claimed 207 hohlie?
The problem with the fantastic conspiracy theory is that it deflects from all of the very real, old-style dangers that members of the opposition face in Ukraine. For instance, no one thinks chance is an "equally credible explanation" in the death the anti-government TV exec who got his head smashed by baseball bats. Or in the shooting of parliamentary candidate Roman Zwarych in his podyezd. There's the Odessa newspaper editor was shot three times in the back as he walked to work. And a former national bank head ambushed by men with Kalashnikovs after he got off a plane in Donetsk. The list goes on, and is too long to fit in a sidebar.
Wines ends with a whimper, bringing back Pritula, the only source he interviewed. She admits that Ukrainian politicos drive like madmen and the article concludes with a Pritula quote that it's safer to sit in the back seat.
No doubt Wines agrees.