The case of the wandering Russian watch

As I write, the hammer is falling on a hapless editor in the offices of the Moscow Patriarchate for airbrushing a watch off of the wrist of Patriarch Cyril. The doctored photo of Cyril and the disappearing watch has been a gift to the Moscow press corps, prompting a flurry of arch and knowing stories written at the expense of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The coverage reveals as much about the mindset of some reporters as it does about Muscovite media morals. The article from the New York Times is a classic of its kind, a macedoine of self-righteousness, ignorance and cant served up in a context-free bowl. It is an op-ed piece masquerading as news.

If you examine the photos taken from the Patriarchate’s website, you can see a watch on Cyril’s wrist. This photo was doctored to remove the watch, but the editor omitted to remove the watch’s reflection. Eagle-eyed bloggers spotted the reflection and called out the church’s press office. They have since removed the watch free photo from the website replacing it with the original.

Photo-doctoring has a long history in Russia and has been driven by politics (removing non-persons from history) and embarrassment. David King’s 1999 book, “The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia,” is the best treatment I have seen of this topic.

“So much falsification took place during the Stalin years that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs,” King wrote. The cover of the book shows a photograph of Stalin with three revolutionary leaders. Over time the photograph is airbrushed, cropped and clipped until Stalin alone is left, conveying the message that it was Stalin who owned the heritage of the revolution.

Other falsifications were less sinister. One of my favorites is a photo of Nikita Khrushchev arriving at Idlewild. The original photo shows the Russian premier hat-less. Sovfoto improved the picture by placing a hat on his head — but neglected to airbrush out from the photo the hat Khrushchev was holding in his hand. Nikkie Two-Hats.

One of the iconic photos from the Second World War was manipulated to prevent embarrassment. The photo of the Russian soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was edited by photographer Yevgeny Khaldei before publication. To counter charges the Russian army had looted its way to Berlin, Khaldei removed the multiple wrist watches appearing on both arms of the officer standing below the flag.

Sixty-seven years later Moscow photo editors are still removing wristwatches.

Let’s see what the New York Times did with this story. The article entitled “$30,000 Watch Vanishes Up Church Leader’s Sleeve” begins:

Facing a scandal over photographs of its leader wearing an enormously expensive watch, the Russian Orthodox Church worked a little miracle: It made the offending timepiece disappear.

Editors doctored a photograph on the church’s Web site of the leader, Patriarch Kirill I, extending a black sleeve where there once appeared to be a Breguet timepiece worth at least $30,000. The church might have gotten away with the ruse if it had not failed to also erase the watch’s reflection, which appeared in the photo on the highly glossed table where the patriarch was seated.

The church apologized for the deception on Thursday and restored the original photo to the site, but not before Patriarch Kirill weighed in, insisting in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn the watch, and that any photos showing him wearing it must have been doctored to put the watch on his wrist.

Why is this story shoddy journalism? Let me count the ways — but before I do remember the purpose of this blog is to discuss reporting on religion. It is not to discuss the issues in the underlying story.

Let’s begin with the lede. The author frames the story from the start as a scandal about the church hiding Cyril’s $30,000 Breguet watch through the magic of photo editing software. The news of the alteration of the photo is presented, followed by the assertion from Cyril that he was not wearing the Breguet watch; and if there is a photo of him wearing the watch Cyril claims the photo was doctored. The construction of this lede is to impeach Cyril by words out of his own mouth showing him to be a liar.

But was Cyril wearing the Breguet watch? Notice the Times says it appears he was, but there is no evidence or comment from a horologist to say the watch in the photo is the Breguet watch. Later in the story we hear Cyril say that he was wearing an inexpensive Russian watch when the photo was taken, and that he received the Breguet watch as a gift. If he was not wearing the Breguet, why remove the watch from the photo? I don’t know, and the Times does not try to find out.  The inferences and half truths offered at the start of the story have framed the narrative such that the reader will conclude Cyril is a hypocrite.

Having set the frame, the Times editorializes in earnest.

The controversy, which erupted Wednesday when attentive Russian bloggers discovered the airbrushing, further stoked anger over the church’s often lavish displays of wealth and power. It also struck yet another blow to the moral authority of Russian officialdom, which has been dwindling rapidly in light of recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.

A series of opinions mixed with general observations is then produced in support of the crooked cleric theme.

… Over the past decade, the church has grown immensely powerful, becoming so close to the Kremlin that it often seems like a branch of government. It has extended its influence into a broad range of public life, including schools, courts and politics. Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Vladimir V. Putin in last month’s presidential election.

… Then there is the question of the church’s wealth. Russian bloggers have published rumors that the patriarch has a large country house, a private yacht and a penchant for ski vacations in Switzerland, though none of this has been proved.

The watch, on the other hand, has been an object of fascination for years, and there is little question of its existence. It was first sighted on the patriarch’s wrist in 2009 during a visit to Ukraine, where he gave a televised interview on the importance of asceticism.

A Breguet watch “is virtually a sine qua non of any depiction of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie or, quite simply, a life of luxury and elegance,” the company says, noting that its products have been worn by Marie Antoinette and Czar Aleksandr I and cited in works by Dumas and Hugo.

… But the patriarch has presented himself as the country’s ethical compass, and has recently embarked on a vocal campaign of public morality, advocating Christian education in public schools and opposing abortion and equal rights for gay people. He called the girl punk band protest at the cathedral “sacrilege.”

Without offering any supporting evidence, the Times asserts the Russian Orthodox Church is in bed with the Putin regime. The church possesses vast wealth and Cyril jets around to Switzerland for the skiing, tools around in his yacht and weekends in the country. And, by the way, he wears a watch worn by the same firm that supplied Marie Antoinette. This is really crude. Cyril is a villain in Times-land. He supports school prayer, is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-women. All that is missing from the Times‘ roster of pet pieties is a comment about his views on minorities.

The articles tries to tie the vanishing watch into a commentary about Russia’s moral decline, linking the Russian Orthodox Church to public concerns about “recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.” How do we know that Russian public opinion believes there is a link between the church and the scandals? There may be individuals who say this, but does Russia say this? No evidence is offered to substantiate this opinion.

The Times offers four voices against the church, and one in favor to flesh out the controversy, beginning with:

Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption crusader, called the episode “shameful,” and bloggers gleefully ridiculed the church as hypocritical.

The choice of Aleksei Navalny is as interesting for the omission the Times makes about Navalny as is Navalny’s opinion.

In January Navalny was the victim of a doctored photo scam in the press concocted by Putin supporters. A photo of Navalny with Russian oligarch  Mikhail Prokhorov (the photo on the left) was altered to that of Navalny and another oligarch (the photo on the right), Boris Berezovsky — a fugitive from corruption charges who lives in London. In an attempt to smear Navalny with charges of guilt by association with one of the Russian media’s chief villains, the caption to the doctored photo stated:  “Alexei Navalny has never hidden that Boris Berezovsky gives him money for the struggle with Putin.”

Adding this information about Navalny’s experience of being a victim of press photo doctoring would have given context to the story — as would mention of the Russian penchant for fixing photos to create the preferred reality. There is no context to this story, no sense of history, no balance, no understanding of Russia, its people, culture or politics.

Let me say that I am not defending the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church’s press office in making the questionable watch vanish. What I am concerned with is the integrity of the reporting about that incident — and the preference for slotting in facts to support a story’s theme as against allowing the facts to tell the story.

An anecdote about the French novelist Balzac bears on this point. Balzac was talking to a visitor about the heroes of his novels. The subject changed to political and other events of the day. After a pause Balzac suddenly said: “Let’s return to reality,” and started talking about his characters again.

It may well be that Cyril is a crook and the Russian Orthodox Church is a tool of the Putin-regime. The Times may think so and has written an article assuming that this is so, but has not provided any evidence in support of its contentions. All of the materials — the facts, the history, the setting, the new post-Soviet Russia of Vladimir Putin — are there for a great article. That story has yet to be written.

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  • Bill

    As Groucho asked, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”

    The Times uses airbrushes liberally. It retouches stories. The face of religious liberty has been edited out of its coverage of the HHS mandate. All the news that fits our point of view.

    The Times was proud of the Pulitzer it received for Walter Duranty’s publicity work on behalf of Stalin. Come to think of it, the Times is much harder on Christian churches than it was on dear, old, misunderstood Uncle Joe.

    Citing unnamed bloggers reporting rumors is a nice touch, too. What more proof do we need? And read between the lines. Who knows what sort of hanky-panky was going on between Cyril and Marie Antoinette? That watch could well be a gift from her.

    I think it would be terribly funny if the watch turns out to be a “Bregeut,” a cheap Chinese knock-off bought from a spammer for 50 bucks.

  • http://holyprotection.wordpress.com/ Pete

    The Times had the opportunity to provide a well-written story with straight facts, and it probably would have given over enough to the readers’ minds to internally “convict” concerning the watch and the airbrushing, but rather than take the dignified route, their bias–as you mentioned above–actually skews the perspective of readers into those that want to reject the premises of the Times‘ opinion and those that love eating up every accusation this newspaper so subtley makes.

    I’m Orthodox myself, and I love the Church in Russia, but even I can see the rather straight hypocrasy (a cheap Chinese knock-off… right, haha) in the watch debacle–however, I prefer that the Times not consider my reasoning to be incapable of getting it without slanted opinion-writing in a news piece.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It’s also crucial to remember that there is no ONE Russian hierarchy. The leadership there is quite complex.

    Here’s a column I wrote flashing back to my time in Russia days after the fall of the Soviet era. This was before I converted to Orthodoxy, btw:

    http://www.tmatt.net/2000/11/22/candlestick-holders-in-russia/

    The key part:

    Two weeks after the 1991 upheaval that ended the Soviet era, I visited Moscow and talked privately with several veteran priests.

    It’s impossible to understand the modern Russian church, one said, without grasping that it has four different kinds of leaders. A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

    “We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

  • Sean

    You state twice that the Times reports without evidence that the Church is in bed with Putin. But the story does give evidence of this – it states that the Patriarch “publicly backed” Putin in the recent elections. Now this may not be proof, but it’s certainly evidence. If you’ve got contrary evidence, by all means let’s hear it. Otherwise, I think you should revise your piece.

    • geoconger

      Yes, there is no evidence that the church is in bed with Putin in this article. The article’s statement that Cyril backed Putin is not evidence of being in bed with Putin. Also, saying that Cyril publicly backed Putin is not the same thing as quoting the patriarch’s words or offering examples of actions in support. And we need also remember that the patriarch has a public role in Russian society akin in some ways to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cyril’s presence or Putin’s presence at an event may have ceremonial meaning, religious meaning, political meaning and so forth. The context is the key. The assertion that the leader of the largest Orthodox church is a political stooge and a hypocrite need be defended with facts, figures and statements — not with impressions or opinions. You can do that in an op-ed piece. Not in a news story.

      No, I will not be looking for evidence in support of the contention the church is now an agency of the government, nor will I look for evidence to disprove it. That is not the point of this website.

      The Times made unsubstantiated and unprofessional assertions in its article. The focus is whether the article provides sufficient information to support its lede and frame. I contend that it has not.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    But was Cyril wearing the Breguet watch? Notice the Times says it appears he was, but there is no evidence or comment from a horologist to say the watch in the photo is the Breguet watch.

    As the Times notes, “The watch, on the other hand, has been an object of fascination for years, and there is little question of its existence. It was first sighted on the patriarch’s wrist in 2009 during a visit to Ukraine, where he gave a televised interview on the importance of asceticism.”

    The Times should probably have linked to the 2009 photos which pretty clearly establish the existence, brand identity, and proximity of the watch. It’s certainly not labeled “BregEUt”.

    If he was not wearing the Breguet, why remove the watch from the photo? I don’t know, and the Times does not try to find out.

    While the Russian nwes service has quoted Church officials as stating a “24-year-old woman “acted out of stupid unjustifiable and unauthorized initiative” in editing the controversial images”, they haven’t provided a motive for doing so either. So the obvious one would seem reasonable, no?

    Noting the history of doctored photographs in Russia might be warranted in such an article, but saying “the atheists did it first” isn’t any kind of excuse for anyone in the Orthodox Church doing it now.

    • geoconger

      Ray,

      No one is saying “the atheists did it first” as an excuse.

      The Times error is that it is assuming a fact not in evidence and does not seek to establish the fact.


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