By Gabriella Kostrzewa
What a shock. There is one author of an op-ed most Americans were not expecting to see when they opened the pages of the New York Times on the 12th anniversary of September 11th earlier this month: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an opinion piece titled, “A Plea for Caution From Russia: What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria,” the Russian president attempted to make his case to the American people about why the United States should not take military action against Syria.
The timing of the editorial was even more interesting, as just hours earlier President Obama had made an entirely different speech to the American people arguing that the United States should take military action against Syria. President Obama’s speech was full of the splendor that comes along with the presidential bully pulpit. It was given during primetime and from the east room in the White House.
Reaction to Putin’s editorial was swift, and it soon captivated the news cycle that most expected to be dominated by President Obama’s speech and the anniversary of 9/11. Putin’s opinion piece was splashed across the home pages of almost all major American news websites. Most Americans seemed to be less offended about Putin’s views on Syria as recent polls suggested that a majority of Americans did not support military action against Syria, but by the fact that Putin called into question American exceptionalism.
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote.
Although Putin’s op-ed raised a lot of questions, one that stuck out was why would the New York Times decided to publish the op-ed. Yes, Putin has world stature as the president of Russia. The editorial certainly got publicity, and helped to continue the conversation and debate about Syria.
In his book Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy, Robert M. Entman proposes that not only do journalists have a professional motivation to publish foreign policy voices or to include them in their stories, but that when the president’s frame is challenged the outcome of the conversation depends on who wields the most power.
Naturally, the White House has significant power to control the news cycle and to create newsworthy events and actions. In addition, the Obama Administration announced that it could take military action against Syria without approval from Congress. The White House possesses the power to make the final policy decision, which as Entman argues is one of biggest motivators for journalists to provide outside voices against the presidential administration.
This leads us to why the New York Times would publish an editorial by Vladimir Putin immediately following President Obama’s speech to the nation. The morning after a presidential speech is when the majority of the conversation would be about the speech and about the president’s argument for intervention. This means the time was ripe to present a foreign opposition opinion to provide a counter argument to the Obama Administration.
What makes the utilization of the Putin op-ed even more fascinating is the fact that Putin and Russia are not usually viewed in a positive light in the U.S. Just weeks before, President Obama cancelled a sit down with President Putin over rising tensions due to Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden. The debate over Syria hasn’t helped tensions either with Obama and Putin being pitted against one another.
As a result, only an editorial from Putin would have been able to pack quite a punch, and what a punch it packed. It would have been quite normal for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to criticize the Obama Administration, and even some Democrats opposed to military intervention.
Yet an editorial from Putin did not just upset the balance of the scales of the scales but it created a whole new dimension for the conversation. The American public is rarely considering what both the U.S. president and another president from a world superpower have to say. The op-ed was an offensive move made by the New York Times that put President Obama and his administration on the defensive.
The media will naturally want to serve as a watchdog of the administration, because the White House has the ability to yield so much power and clout in the media. Journalists want to provide a semblance of balance to the American people, and by publishing the Putin op-ed the New York Times was able to do just that.
Entman, Robert M. Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2004, 55, 88-94, 151.