Conde Nast, Putin’s Russia, and Freeing Information

(scan of the article, from Gawker)

As newspapers cut their international bureaus and do less investigative journalism, both GQ and Esquire have emerged as a surprising source for some excellent, in depth articles on international relations and foreign policy. For example, last year’s Esquire article on Admiral Fallon was a harbinger of the end of his career with the Bush administration, and GQ recently ran an impressive feature on the damage done by coal plants.

Unfortunately, style magazines cover hard news as a complement to their primary goals. It’s not part of their purpose as magazines. And we can see that – vividly – in GQ’s treatment of an article about Russia in their newest issues. GQ went to all the effort of sending a veteran war journalist, Scott Anderson, to Russia to investigate some 1999 bombings in Moscow that were blamed on Chechen separatists. The bombings were one of the main justification for Putin’s war in Russia’s North Caucasus, which led to horrifying brutality on both sides. The article found likely government involvement in the bombings.

And GQ buried the article. It ran in the September issue, but it’s not on the GQ website. It’s not even mentioned on the website. An internal memo has decreed that it will not run in or be mentioned by any Conde Nast (GQ’s parent company) publications  in Russia. GQ put it in print and now they’re trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. This is especially depressing when you consider the number of journalists who have  been killed in Russia, and the bravery of Anderson’s main source, a former KGB officer who is named and on the record in the article.

There is no identified motivation for killing the article. My own guess would be that Conde Nast’s publications don’t want to lose access to the massive high-end market in Russia. Russians are now the largest market for a number of luxury brands; that means that Conde Nast properties like CG and Vogue have major profit potential.

In a world with the internet, though, you can’t bury things that easily. Gawker has now published scans of the article and a translation into Russian. My favorite comment on the article so far “It says something awful for the magazine business that the Condé lawyers were pretty confident that no one would notice an article if it were merely printed in one of their flagship titles…”

I’m not sure how much difference this actually makes in Russia. KGB involvement in the 1999 bombings is suspected by many Russians, and I don’t know that a crowdsourced translation of an article by an American is going to convert anyone who doesn’t already believe it. But Russia is a country where reporters are literally dying to get the truth out. Killing an important Russian article for profit reasons is cynical and depressing. It’s nice to see the internet being used to free information.