Times flacks for Ikea

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Thu Apr 20 08:52:28 PDT 2000

[from Johnson's Russia List]

From: "Matthew Taibbi" <matt_taibbi at hotmail.com> Subject: eXile press review

[excerpt] Is This Thing On? Press Review By Matt Taibbi

....In many ways the [New York] Times provides the ultimate proof of why the intelligent and college-educated are more easily fooled than the poor and unsophisticated. People are much more easily distracted when they have conceits and prejudices that can be appealed to, and the readers of papers like the Times - who tend to be wealthy and extremely conscious of their intellectual and cultural superiority - have conceits in abundance. You can sell a Times reader just about anything, so long as you cloak it in small type, Proustian expansiveness, and an anal and humorless journalistic method....

But none of these stories comes close to being as loathsome as the April 9 Sunday business story, written by Jonathan Fuerbringer, entitled "A Miffed Moscow Means Headaches for Ikea."

This story, which takes up an entire half page of the Sunday business section, is morally abhorrent on a number of levels. The most startling thing about it is that it is even in the paper at all. If it was suspicious for the "Buy-a-full-page-ad, get-a-front-page-writeup-in-return" Moscow Times to run a lead story about the Ikea bridge controversy, which at least takes place within its editorial jurisdiction, it's downright preposterous for a New York newspaper to devote so much space to the Moscow Ikea story. Loans-for-shares and FIMACO scarcely got this much space in the Times. When tens of millions of ordinary Russians are robbed blind by despots with

American help, this is just barely a story in the Times; but when a rich Swedish company encounters mild difficulties in its quest to become still richer, it gets a half page. Amazing.

The article is not only of dubious relevance, but atrociously reported and clearly biased, violating even the Times's own thin standards for objectivity. Fuerbringer's story is based entirely on the testimony of one source-- Johannes Steinberg, Ikea's marketing manager for Russia. Though the piece berates the Moscow government for its intractability and unfairness, it does not quote so much as one Moscow city official - or one Russian, for that matter. Fuerbringer said the city wouldn't comment, but I find that hard to believe. They talked to plenty of other reporters-- why not the top dogs? It doesn't make sense.

Then there's the language Fuerbringer uses. Take, for instance, the following passage:

"The Moscow roadblock is a reminder of the worst aspects of doing business in Russia, where laws and bureaucrats can be arbitrary, rules can change quickly, and corruption is always a problem."

Fuerbringer should be kneecapped for writing this passage. If the Russians wanted to build a Russkoye Bistro on the deck of the U.S.S. Constitution, you can be damn sure the Times wouldn't describe the city of Boston's refusal as "arbitrary". The passage allows Fuerbringer to make a value judgement about the controversy - his use of the word "arbitrary" makes it clear that he believes the Russians have no valid reason for opposing the ramp construction.

Later, Fuerbringer notes that Russia bent the rules for Ikea when it allowed the company to pay import tariffs based on value, not weight. But for this, Russia wins no points for its special treatment of a foreign company, as the rest of the article continues to harp on the ramp issue as an example of "Russia's failure to come to terms with a major foreign investment in Russia."

But the worst part of the article is its last line. Here it might be useful to point out that, generally speaking, there is almost nothing on earth that comes close to being as unfunny as a New York Times reporter. Hunter Thompson once wrote that he couldn't imagine Richard Nixon laughing at anything but the sight of a paraplegic who couldn't reach high enough to vote democratic. But Nixon was a one-man Monty Python, a human hand buzzer, compared to your average Times reporter. Here's how Fuerbringer ends his piece:

"The monument whose view Moscow says it is protecting is the spot at which the German advance on Moscow was stopped in 1941. In English, it is called the Tank Trap. Perhaps the unfinished overpass could be called the Business Trap."

Four quick points about this joke:

1) Fuerbringer doesn't know how to tell a joke. His method goes something like this: "Now I will tell you a joke. Here it comes. This is what it is." If he really wanted to sell the "Business Trap" line, he would have introduced the "Tank Trap" fact higher up in the piece, then surprised us in the end with his little witticism, minus the mirth-killing telegraph setup. As it is, he handles the joke attempt like a virgin working a bra strap.

2) Fuerbringer, in discussing Ikea's complaints, never says "Ikea is building the ramp because it says it needs to alleviate traffic." The need to alleviate traffic is assumed to be true and is reported as an unqualified fact in Fuerbringer's piece. But when he writes about the city's intent to leave the memorial unblocked, he writes about a view "Moscow says it is protecting", not a view "Moscow is protecting". This is a very telling distinction, obviously.

3) Fuerbringer seems unaware of the real symbolism of the unfinished ramp - the fact that, like the real tank trap, it represents the place at which Russians refused to bend to the will of an obnoxious foreign invader. The inability to see this highlights once again the Times's refusal to see things from the Russian point of view.

And finally:

4) If I had a name like Fuerbringer-- not only silly but German-- I'd change it before I went around in Russia making jokes in print about 1941. Just a thought. But one more than the Times had.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list