“Hello, I’m Alexey from Moscow, Russia, and I am an investigative journalist.” I’ve uttered that phrase several dozen times during our usual introductions routine during eight weeks of travel around the United States.
But from now on, I’m going to have to open with a qualifier: “Hi, I’m Alexey from Moscow, Russia, and I’m an investigative journalist who got scooped out of the story of his career.” While on the road with the World Press Institute 2018 fellows, I’ve been watching from afar a story of international spy intrigue and the kind of investigative journalism that really puts your name in the reporters’ hall of fame, if a Newseum existed in Russia.
In mid-September, an international team of reporters, some of them based in Russia, broke a major piece of news that ended up on the cover pages of many of the world’s major newspapers. The story identified two high-profile assassins from the Russian military intelligence agency who were dispatched to murder a “turncoat” former Soviet intelligence officer in the small English city of Salisbury.
The assassination attempt went south, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia survived the nerve agent attack — unlike a random bystander — and when the British police released CCTV images of the two suspects to the public, Russian journalists scrambled to establish their identity. A few of my colleagues did just that, beyond any reasonable doubt and against the increasingly absurd denials from the Russian government. One had to flee Russia, fearing for his safety. The story is still unraveling, with more and more lurid details emerging every day, now putting Russia’s entire military and foreign intelligence under risk of being exposed.
And I wasn’t there to cover the story of the year. I was on the World Press Institute Fellowship, visiting the most acclaimed and decorated American newsrooms and meeting with such captains of the trade as the Washington Post’s Marty Baron and ProPublica’s Paul Steiger. Having learned about their almost impossibly high standards supported by a constitutional amendment not open to relitigation, I’m now wondering what they would make of the story.
Because this scoop of a lifetime prompted some fierce soul-searching in the Russian media community. If a journalist — not a whistleblower like Edward Snowden who, incidentally, is still in refuge in southwestern Moscow — stumbles upon a scoop that is so enormous that it actually threatens the national security (at least 300 active-duty agents were exposed), what should they do? What comes first: their hunger for information that someone wants hidden, the public interest, or their civic duty to their country? But what if the state’s interests run so contrary to those of the society, what then? After all, the bungled assassinations and the hacking and the election interference are hurting every Russian citizen through imposed sanctions, extra checks on every border control, etc., etc. But the security services must ultimately be acting in the country’s interests, hence they are, for all their faults and corruption, on our side? Wrong, argue other Russian reporters. They are fundamentally hostile not just to the West, but to us as well, and it’s our duty as journalists and citizens to expose them.
This isn’t an unprecedented situation, and certainly American journalists, including a few Pulitzer Prize winners, at some point faced the same issues. Seymour Hersh must have heard the same arguments in 1969 when pitching his My Lai massacre investigations, and the New York Times at the time refused to run its scoop about the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
But we in Russia don’t have a strong tradition of independent journalism going back decades, or any constitutional protection of free speech, or a significant portion of the society that appreciates the value of a free press. So while we all are fascinated with the history of American journalism and reporters courageous enough to confront the all-powerful three-letter agencies, some lessons, unfortunately, might not be applicable to Russia. So we’ll have to learn by doing — and losing a few colleagues in the process.