Conde Nast Accused of Self-Censorship

In what was widely viewed as an act of self-censorship, publishing giant Conde Nast suppressed the publication of a controversial story in the September 2009 issue of the Russian edition of one of its magazines, drawing the ire of American journalists and media critics.

The story in question was an 8,800-word feature for the September 2009 issue of GQ, written by veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson. The story examines allegations that a controversial series of apartment bombings in 1999 may have been the work of Russia's internal security services in an effort to aid Vladimir Putin in his rise to the presidency, rather than an act of Chechen terrorists, as had been widely reported. The bombings killed hundreds of Russians.

The issue containing the story, which was titled "None Dare Call it Conspiracy: Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power," was not shipped to Russia. The story was also omitted from GQ's Web site, and was not reprinted in any of GQ'ssister periodicals. On September 4, National Public Radio's David Folkenflik broadcast a critical report titled "Why 'GQ' Doesn't Want Russians To Read Its Story," detailing the lengths to which Conde Nast had gone to bury the story.

According to the September 4 NPR report, Jerry S. Birenz, a top Conde Nast lawyer, sent a memo to several corporate executives and GQ editors, ordering them not to distribute the story in Russia, show the story to Russian government officials, journalists, or advertisers, or publicize the story in any way. The piece, which ran on page 246 of September's GQ, was not mentioned on the cover.

"The idea that information can be sequestered at a time when people can communicate instantly across oceans and continents may seem quaint," Folkenflik said. "But in this instance, Conde Nast sought, against technology, logic and the thrust of its own article, to show deference in the presence of power."

Other media outlets joined in the criticism, expressing dismay that Conde Nast had seemingly tailored the release of the story to avoid offending the Russian government.

In a September 14 story in The Miami Herald, columnist Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, wrote that although journalists in Russia have suffered "appalling reprisals," the quashing of the GQ story "wasn't about protecting journalists. It was about a huge and gutless institution committing an act of preemptive self-mutilation to appease people its duty is to expose." In an environment of media consolidation, Wasserman wrote, he often hears the argument that the concentration of private power is necessary to "stand up to governmental bullying and blow whistles when they need blowing." But in this case, Wasserman wrote, Conde Nast, which is owned by Advance Publications, a publishing company privately held by the Newhouse family, proved that argument wrong.

In a September 15 column, Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post also criticized Conde Nast's decision, writing that its suppression of the story will probably only lead to the exertion of greater pressure by Russian companies on their Western partners, making it even harder to publish controversial material about Russia in the future. "There is no law or edict that can force these companies, or any American company, to abide by the principles of free speech abroad," Applebaum wrote. "But it is at least possible to embarrass them at home. Hence this column."

Since 2000, there have been over a dozen journalists killed in Russia, many covering government and military scandals. The most high-profile murder was that of Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known investigative reporter. For more on the Politkovskaya trials, see "Politkovskaya Murder Trial to be Reheard; Prominent Activist and Reporter Killed" in the Summer 2009 issue and "Accused Politkovskaya Conspirators Acquitted" in the Winter 2009 issue of the SilhaBulletin. For more on Politkovskaya's murder, and the subsequent investigation, see "Famed Russian Reporter Murdered in Contract Killing" in the Fall 2006 issue, "Russia: Politkovskaya Investigation Continues; Reporter Detained for Alleged Extortion" in the Fall 2007 issue, and "Charges Filed in Politkovskaya Murder, Killer Still at Large" in the Summer 2008 issue.

In the September 4 NPR story, Nina Ognianova, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that Russian authorities often exact retribution on journalists who become too critical. "You can be sued for defamation - but you don't even have to be sued. You can be audited," Ognianova said. "Politicized audits are a big hurdle for publications that dare to publish sensitive topics."

Anderson, the author of the GQ piece, told Folkenflik the reception his story received in the U.S. was mystifying. "I think it's really kind of sad," Anderson said. "Here now is finally an outlet for this story to be told, and you do everything possible to throw a tarp over it."

In a September 4 post on Foreign Policy's Net Effect blog, Evgeny Morozov wrote that Conde Nast had inadvertently exposed itself to the "Streisand Effect" by censoring the story. The "Streisand Effect" refers toa 2003 incident in whichsinger Barbra Streisandunsuccessfully sued a photographer in an attempt to have the aerial photograph of her house removed from the publicly available collection of Californiacoastline photographs, citing privacy concerns.As a result of the case, public knowledge of the picture increased substantially and it became popular on the Internet. Morozov pointed out that the outcry over the story's suppression had led to greater publicity for the story in the long run, including, most notably, a "crowdsourced" translation of the story into Russian by New York-based gossip and media news blog Gawker, which posted scanned copies of the story in its entirety in both English and Russian on its Web site. "I think that anyone concerned with the state of modern Russia and the rise of Putin, regardless of whether they subscribe to numerous conspiracy theories, should thank Conde Nast for their incompetence," Morozov wrote. "There is hardly a better way to get people talking about it."

Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, told Folkenflik that the decision to suppress the story was an absurd one for Conde Nast.

"On one level, the smart thing is to stay in business and stay in Russia, of course," Kirtley said. "But these stories will get out, they will get read in Russia. They're being somewhat naïve to believe that by limiting this to their American edition that somehow they're preventing this from being read."

Kirtley emphasized that the most important problem with Conde Nast's decision was its failure to fulfill its obligations as a news organization. "It goes with the territory of a news organization to speak for those who can't speak - and to bear the consequences," she said.

- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant



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