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Is Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested by the Russians last week, actually a spy?
Some people — even in the United States — think so. Personally, I believe that to state as much is extremely reckless and endangers journalists everywhere. But beyond that, it is a symptom of a disease that is afflicting a small but seemingly growing element of the American Left.
They have a propensity to always ascribe sinister motives to the US “establishment” (including journalists) — while extending a breathtaking degree of trust to anyone on the other side, including dictators and mass oppressors of all stripes.
Look, we’ve all witnessed the history of American wrongdoing, and we all get it: The US has done plenty of terrible stuff. And almost certainly is still doing some. But to insist that nothing ever changes — that some permanent cabal will continue to decide everything all the time with the most malevolent of intents, with no one able to stop it — bespeaks a kind of madness, caused by a rigor mortis of the mind.
The thing that strikes me about the cabal is that some see it as all-powerful, calling all the shots with precision, but somehow also feckless and incompetent. It’s hard enough to govern a small town or run a mom-and-pop business, yet these folks think the cabal is capable of running everything in the world, all nicely coordinated, in furtherance of some nefarious vision
It is from this madness that spring the constant suspicions and, from those, a kind of certainty that something is always afoot. Hence, if the Russians say a Wall Street Journal reporter is a US spy, well, by gosh, that must be true!
I recently got a note from a friend I respect, who had read someone making the case that Moscow is right. The proponent of this was a smallish blog you may not have heard of, but that apparently has quite a dedicated following — and is frequently cited by its followers as thoughtful, knowledgeable, and perhaps authoritative.
I want to take a look here at this blog, and the phenomenon of which it is a part. Although it’s a mere blip in the media landscape, I believe it offers insight into a growing sickness and darkness in this country — one of a number of dysfunctional subsets of our society which range from the MAGA people to the anti-vaxxers.
None of these people trust authority, but they readily trust just about anyone who shares and echoes their distrust. If they see a brick flying at the temple, they are loath to question the motive or the honesty of the thrower. From Steve Bannon to Matt Taibbi, their fixed idea seems to be: Burn it all down.
Moon of Alabama
The blogger I want to look at prefers to remain anonymous (though seems to be a he), and goes by the moniker “Moon of Alabama.” He constantly imputes sinister motives to any foreigners taking things into their own hands to stand up to oppression. Thus, Ukrainians are US puppets. Iranians rejecting subservience to mullahs and the forced wearing of headscarves are US provocateurs. Taiwan has no legitimate reason to exist, and the US has no reason to defend this democracy against a giant dictatorship. And so forth.
Moon’s latest target: a journalist. As mentioned, the blog has argued why we should believe the Russian line that Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter arrested in that country as an alleged spy… is a spy.
Moon claims we can deduce that the reporter is, in fact, a spy by the sort of story he was doing and the questions he asked.
Moon cites a dispatch from the Russian government news service Tass. Among the reasons Moon thinks Gershkovich is a spy is that he approached workers in a military plant on the street and asked them their views:
To ask workers of such factories how they feel about the US proxy war waged against Russia while that war is ongoing seems a bit off to me.
It may feel “off” to him, but it is hardly the behavior of a spy. In fact, I am pretty sure if we studied the behavior of reporters during the Vietnam War, they did speak to those involved with the war machine to see how they felt personally. I bet we would find that both Tass reporters in the US and American reporters asked such questions.
In addition, the way a spy works is to be clandestine. You don’t use a “journalist cover” and then draw attention to yourself.
Moon is also suspicious because of what the reporter asked of the parliamentary deputy for the region where the factory is located. Again he quotes Tass:
According to the lawmaker, the reporter cited the experience of other regions on industry conversion and asked about the Sverdlovsk Region experience — for example, whether the enterprises change their profile, how many shifts there are, and if they are appropriately staffed. Vegner [the deputy] noted during the interview that he is not authorized to answer such questions.
Moon then opines:
Anything about weapon production numbers or related issues are of course state secrets, at least during times of war. What then do we call such inquiries if not espionage?
How about calling it a reporter from a business publication who routinely covers industries and businesses pursuing inquiries into how the country is ramping up for a long war? Whether there are multiple shifts and whether workers feel there are enough people on staff may or may not be state secrets, but I really doubt such information could not be gleaned by foreign intelligence services in other ways — or that such information would actually cause the Russian government any serious problems, except perhaps some stress if, for example, workers said they felt harried or overworked.
In fact, such questions are what make good journalism and interesting and useful stories.
I assume that Gershkovich knew he was pushing the envelope a bit, but then that’s what great reporters do.
Also, a spy (and a journalist) would normally not openly approach people to ask questions if they had a covert motive or thought there was a risk to themselves. We reporters often try to chat people up in social settings — say, a bar — where conversations cannot as easily be overheard and people feel more free expressing themselves.
In any case, Moon deserves a big “thank you very much” from the prosecutors in the nonexistent justice system in Russia: (“Your honor, even esteemed American blogger Moon of Alabama says American journalist is spy.”)
It is true historically that on occasion reporters have been used for intelligence purposes — and during the Cold War, editors admitted that they perceived themselves as “on the same team” as the US government — but while such co-optation was at one time common, it is much rarer these days.
I know of many examples where editors during the fifties and sixties stated how glad they were to cooperate, at least in terms of providing briefings to US government officials. But in my own experience, it has for many years been a cardinal rule in news organizations never to get that cozy with them. In fact, if anything, I would say that news organizations maintain a degree of suspicion, and, not uncommonly, even thinly veiled hostility toward government and all large institutions.
In addition, a spy’s work is clandestine. You don’t use a “journalist cover” and then draw attention to yourself. A journalist who was also a spy would typically gather material in a much more low-key manner, such as noting people they met at diplomatic receptions, topics of conversation, etc.
Ordinarily, you would not risk everything by going to a military factory and asking tough questions. The only person foolhardy enough to do that is… an actual journalist. That is exactly what we do. And we pray that the tyrants won’t toss us in the clink.
I myself experienced this dangerous tendency to look at foreign journalists as spies. You can read about how I was accused of being a spy while living and working in Serbia. In fact, it turned out there was a spy, or at least a wannabe spy. But it wasn’t me. It was the guy accusing me.
The National Press Club awarded its highest honor for press freedom to WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich, who remains imprisoned in Moscow https://t.co/mFERdG3Mh6
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) April 6, 2023
Along those lines, I think we need to distrust known journalists a bit less and ask more questions about the Moons of Alabama. Who is Moon? Why remain anonymous? Why not stand behind his claims and beliefs?
Unless Moon is writing from some police state, I’d guess he lacks a good reason for hiding his identity. All he will say about himself, on the site’s About page, is that he is “Bernhard”; far as I could tell, the name this person used in submitting an article to a Brazilian publication — “Bernhard Horstmann” — is not his actual name.
I checked all the Bernhard Horstmanns I could find, including a German wine merchant and a deceased author, and none is a fit for Moon of Alabama.
Whether or not Moon is deliberately trying to jeopardize the freedom — and even the life — of an American journalist, that is just what this kind of unfounded accusation-cum-speculation can do. It’s a threat to working journalists everywhere, and it libels Gershkovich.
Meanwhile, when it comes to Gershkovich, instead of helping destroy this guy’s chance for freedom, how about celebrating his guts? How about crediting him as a journalist doing his job? And why doesn’t Moon do his own quasi-journalism honestly? Stop trafficking in baseless speculation, stop defaming Ukraine, Iranian dissidents, and America writ large.
Also, let’s be clear about Moon’s agenda. At the end of his Gershkovich piece, in which he rants about the bomb that blew up a pro-war Russian blogger on Sunday, he said:
Dima of the Military Summary channels suggested that the terror attack that killed Tatarsky was a planned diversion. It is supposed to move the public eyes away from the fact that the Ukrainian army is currently getting removed from Bakhmut. The fight there had been lost months ago but the Ukrainian army is only now giving up. Ten thousands of Ukrainian soldiers died there in vain.
One hopes that one day the people of Ukraine will hold those responsible who had needlessly sent those soldiers into such fate.
Moon gives no source for this claim about what Dima “suggested,” nor could we find any, so we cannot verify it.
As for Moon Of Alabama, instead of giving naive readers the impression he has information or insights he doesn’t, that maybe he is in Alabama or elsewhere in the “heartland,” at least he might come up with a moniker that accurately conveys his brand.
Like “Moon Over Moscow” or “Mooning Washington.”
Indeed, in one exchange (not on his own site), Moon sneered at those trying to discover his identity, and claimed that he is not American.
Should anyone learn who or what the blogger behind the Moon mask answers to, please let us know. Then again, maybe it’s not a conspiracy, just a sad, deluded soul.