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New York Times Defends and Explains Publication of Putin Op-Ed

Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned political observers in the United States Wednesday evening with the publication of an op-ed piece in The New York Times that, among other things, promoted his own diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria, argued against any potential U.S. military involvement, and blamed anti-Assad forces for the August 21 gas attack on the Damascus suburbs. In response to heavy criticism for publishing the piece, on the anniversary of 9/11, no less, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan took readers through the editorial process.

A Times reader wondered, like many of us, how a piece like Putin’s, rife with contradictory, self-serving and unsupported statements, gets published by The New York Times. Reader Lawrence DeVine asked “Did he call up the editorial page editor and say, hey, how would you like 800 words on you, us and Syria, I’ll have it in by Wednesday night deadline, no sweat, I’ll take your usual freelance rates?”

Sullivan spoke with editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, and explains:

The Times editorial department was approached Wednesday by an American public relations firm that represents Mr. Putin, offering the piece. At the same time, Mr. Rosenthal said, Mr. Putin’s spokesman had called The Times’s Moscow bureau with the same purpose in mind.

Mr. Rosenthal agreed to review the article and quickly decided to publish it. It was posted on the Times Web site by Wednesday evening.

“I thought it was well-written, well-argued,” he said. “I don’t agree with many of the points in it, but that is irrelevant.”

“Syria is a huge story and Putin is a central figure in it,” giving the piece great news value, he said.

Among the more forceful criticisms of the piece is the Times’ decision to publish Putin’s unsupported claim that “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”

Sullivan asked Rosenthal about that decision:

I asked him about Mr. Putin’s statement that there is “every reason to believe” that the poison gas has been used by opposition forces, not the Syrian government – which many now do not believe to be true. Mr. Rosenthal said that “falls into the category of opinion.”

That point is debatable, since Putin didn’t simply state his own belief, but offered the existence of facts in support of that belief, without providing any. Opinion or not, though, it’s doubtful that the Times would print an op-ed that said something like “There is every reason to believe that iPhones cause blindness.”

Sullivan concludes by approving of the decision:

From my point of view, The Times’s publishing the Putin Op-Ed was completely legitimate. Whether you agree with it or not, whether you approve of Mr. Putin or not, it could hardly be more newsworthy or interesting. Just as with any Op-Ed piece, The Times’s publication of this one is not an endorsement of him or his ideas.

As for whether “the usual freelance rates” apply here, the answer is unsurprising. Mr. Putin won’t be paid.

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