“…a great metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.”
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
On 10 April 2010 a Polish Air Force Tupolev Tu-154M crashed near the Russian city of Smoleńsk. All 96 people aboard the plane were killed, including President Lech Kaczyński and his wife. American media coverage of the crash is best represented by The New York Times, which offered the following description of what happened: “President Kaczyński’s plane tried to land in a thick fog, missing the runway and snagging treetops about half a mile from the airport in Smoleńsk….” This version of events has been repeated throughout the English-speaking media, and is consistent with official Russian claims. What other claims could there be?
While specialist Web sites sometimes ventured into speculation about the crash, the attitude of the mainstream press was underscored by the American wife of the Polish foreign minister, Ann Applebaum, who wrote in The Washington Post that, “nobody suspects a conspiracy. Of course, a few fringe Web sites might make that claim…. But the Russian and Polish governments believe the culprits to be pilot error and fog.” Not everyone takes this view because Russia has a dark history, full of intrigue and murder. What country knows this better than Poland? Of course, everyone knows that Russian-Polish relations have been strained. The American media attributes this to the unfortunate Katyń Forest massacre – as if the post-war Soviet colonization of Poland had not occurred; as if Poland’s post-Communist elite was no longer working for Russian interests; as if Moscow’s bad behavior was a thing of the past. The mainstream press gives us the impression that Poland and Russia would enjoy a fabulous relationship if Stalin had not ordered the killing of 22,000 Polish nationals at Katyń. A horrible crime, everyone agrees. But isn’t it time to forget and forgive? Stalin is dead, and his henchmen are long gone. Why harp on past injuries? – Which leads us to the second cause of poor Russian-Polish relations: President Lech Kaczyński.
In the same New York Times article that broke the Russian crash story, Kaczyński was characterized as “a pugnacious nationalist who often clashed with Russia….” The English word “pugnacious” means “Disposed to fight; inclined to fighting; quarrelsome, combative.” This word is related to “pugilist,” which refers to a man who fights with his fists. The Times description of Kaczyński vaguely smacks of Soviet-style propaganda. In a conflict between Russia and Poland, it is the Polish leader who is “pugnacious.” The bully who invaded Georgia, whose generals threatened to target Poland with nuclear weapons, is not “pugnacious.” – Kaczyński is “pugnacious.”
The New York Times is America’s paper of record. Its influence on other media should not be underestimated. It is no accident, therefore, that on 13 April 2010 the UK Independent said Kaczyński was known “as a pugnacious nationalist who sought to give Poland a more powerful voice internationally….” It is no accident that on 24 April 2010 a Dallas News commentary said Kaczyński “was a pugnacious patriot who wrapped himself in the Polish flag and railed against Germany, Russia and the European Union.” In June the Financial Times complimented the late president’s twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, for “tempering his pugnacity” during the Polish presidential elections.
So there you have it. The “pugnacious” Polish president, clashing unnecessarily with Russia, tragically dies because of pilot stupidity and his own pigheadedness. And there is more. On 12 January 2011 The New York Times published a story by Ellen Barry, “Report on Polish Crash Finds Pilot Error, but Says Powerful Passengers Share Some Blame.” The headline should have read, “Report on Polish Crash Finds Pilot Error, but Polish Officials Reject Finding.” The first nine paragraphs of the story give us the Russian version of what caused the crash. Polish objections to the Russian report are not covered until the tenth paragraph, and continue for less than three paragraphs. The remaining six paragraphs are based on Russian statements and the Russian report. Overall, out of 18 paragraphs, 15 present the Russian view whereas three present the Polish view. The USA Today coverage of the Russian report was no better.