WASHINGTON -- The problem with stories like the one unfolding in Ukraine is that it is so easy to become a megaphone for propaganda, from all sides. So much of the action takes place out of sight of reporters, especially in a diplomatic dispute, which is what Russia's incursion into Ukraine remains for now. It would be so much clearer if shooting would break out.
But so far, aside from being able to see the Russian troops on the ground in Crimea, reporters really are dependent on their sources to give us an idea of what is going on as world leaders talk among themselves about resolving the crisis. They speak publicly, of course, but most of that is, as we say, for public consumption, tough talk, overblown descriptions of events, rallying opinion, intimidating the other side. The substantive talk -- how to deal with the issue -- takes place in private meetings and phone calls.
Which is why, whenever someone claims to have actual detail from one of those conversations, we glom onto it. Especially if the details go beyond the colorless White House "readouts" on the conversations. Unfortunately, it's almost impossible to know if those details are true.
The current example of this is the New York Times' report posted online Sunday and in its Page 1 lead story on Monday purporting to know what German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Obama after her conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In that story, the Times quotes an identified Obama aide supposedly briefed on the conversation that Merkel described Putin as "in another world."
Here's how that story reported it: "Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told Mr. Obama by telephone on Sunday that after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality, people briefed on the call said. 'In another world,' she said. That makes for a crisis significantly different from others on Mr. Obamas watch."
The quote was too good to ignore and became the reporting line for every talking head and commentator for the next several news cycles. It was even the underpinning for a question tossed at the president Tuesday by Bloomberg reporter Michael Dorning as the president was unveiling his budget proposal: "Q: Do you have response to President Putins press conference this morning? Is Chancellor Merkel right that hes lost touch with reality? And have you spoken with him again personally?"
In answering, the president didn't address Merkel's alleged comment or whether Putin was unhinged. The closest he came to was criticizing the legal advice Putin was receiving: "I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I dont think thats fooling anybody."
As for the German chancellory, it's not exactly endorsing the Times's account. Die Welt, the German newspaper, reported that "The chancellery was not pleased with the reporting on the conversation. They claim that what the chancellor said was that Putin has a different perception on Crimea, which is why she is pushing for a fact finding mission on the matter."
Government spokesman Jens Alberts told Claudia Himmelreich, a McClatchy special correspondent, exactly what the government said on Monday: no comment on the contents of the chancellor's confidential phone conversations -- with either Putin or Obama. In defining the German view, Alberts said he would "not dwell on reports and rumors of someone claiming she possibly said this or that. However, what is undisputed is that President Putin has a completely different view of the situation and the events on Crimea than the German government and our western allies."
A different view. Obviously. But unhinged?
So if Merkel didn't portray Putin as unhinged, why would the unknown Obama aide tell the New York Times she did? Because in the world of propaganda, successfully portraying your adversary as being crazy, without any rational backing to his actions, makes it unnecessary to try to understand the complexities or sensitivities of the issues. If Putin is crazy, then that's enough. We needn't think any further about what he has to say. And if the New York Times says he's crazy, that's good enough for the dozens of reporters who've come along since, repeating the comment to their millions of viewers and readers as if it was a confirmed statement.
But there's ample reason to suspect that Merkel's assessment was more in keeping with her government's portrayal of it -- he's got a different view -- than the unnamed aide's portrayal -- he's nuts. For one, Merkel reportedly has a very close relationship with Putin -- they chat back and forth in German, which Putin apparently learned for his KGB cover as an interpreter when he was stationed in East Germany. It seems unlikely she'd offer so dismissive an assessment of someone she's worked closely with. For another, Obama spent 90 minutes on the phone with Putin on Saturday. If Putin was unhinged, Obama wouldn't have needed Merkel to tell him so.
It's been clear for a long time that Putin's world view is different from Obama's or Merkel's -- on many things. He laments the collapse of the Soviet Union, just like those who wish the confederacy had survived or that the sun still never set on the British Empire. Syria, too -- where we talk of the fight for democracy and Putin talks of terrorism. As events have unfolded, that doesn't mean he's crazy.