I owe my journalism career to the imperialistic ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Back in 2014, when I was training to become a translator at the University of Rochester in New York, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. I was horrified for my distant relatives in Ukraine, I was worried about my immediate family in Poland. More critically, I was upset by the dearth of reporting and accurate news coverage of the events in the U.S. at the time.
Out of a sense of powerlessness came the decision to become a reporter myself. From writing my first short article for the campus newspaper, to working for Reuters both in Warsaw and in Washington, D.C., to now settling in Roseburg, Oregon as an editor for the Daily Yonder—the journey has been endlessly fascinating.
Now Russia has invaded Ukraine again. As atrocities occur only a couple hundred miles away from my family home, I’m reminded in a brutally direct way why I entered this trade: A nation is being brutalized by the weapons of war, and it demands documentation for everyone to see and remember. People are being murdered for the petty ambitions of one man and his loyal cast of powerful kleptocrats.
This invasion is also a good reminder there are other conflicts around the world that we should care about. But instead, we move on. In an uncanny way, what’s going on in Ukraine, this calamity at the doorstep of the West, at our doorstep, feels like a fruit of years of moving on and looking away. Looking away in Syria, in Georgia, in Crimea, and around the world.
Don’t be fooled into a false sense of security, into a false narrative of this somehow not being “our” business. “Useful idiots,” a term with vague origins but popularized during the Cold War, describes people who willingly, or unknowingly, do the bidding of somebody else.
These are people abusing freedom of speech, using our democratic freedoms to undermine democracy itself, trying to tell you that somehow Ukraine is not a legitimate country. It’s an information war.
Cynical media personalities and political operators, like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, question the legitimate right of the Ukrainian people to defend themselves while poisoning the discourse around the correct response to the crisis.
My own country, Poland, just welcomed more than 100,000 war refugees from Ukraine, with numbers growing every hour. And yet, despite the full support of the Polish government to the Ukrainian cause, a right-wing news magazine just published an interview with a Russian ambassador to Poland.
In it, the diplomat repeated the lies and rationale of Putin for invading the country. In response, the Ukrainian ambassador gave an official note to the Polish government, while the opposition in the Parliament asked to recognize the Russian ambassador as a persona non grata. As the disinformation continues, Russia shells civilian districts of Kharkiv with cluster bombs.
If you don’t believe in the role of America as the world’s police, if you’re not moved by atrocities of war, consider that this country’s economic and military might is built on the network of capitalist democracies and sovereign states.
“The chief business of the American people is business” goes a famous quote delivered by President Calvin Coolidge during a meeting on the role of the free press and the dangers of propaganda, or what we know today as “fake news” and “disinformation.”
There is no “USA #1” with autocrats like Putin going unpunished, taking over sovereign states, and spewing lies and state-sponsored propaganda unchallenged by hard and honest reporting.
That’s what reporters are doing at the frontlines right now, and that’s what I’d like to do domestically. Challenging willful misinformation and cynically biased reporting remains at the very core of what drew me to the work of a reporter and an editor in the first place. Whether it’s in Eastern Europe or in America’s small towns – it’s part of the larger fight.
Many journalists in Ukraine right now are risking their lives to bring us the latest and honest news of the war. The least we can do is pay attention.
Jan Pytalski is associate editor of the Daily Yonder.