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Press Review April 8, 2005
Murphy’s Law Strikes Pulitzer Again
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
Page 2 of 2

Even Murphy's instructor at Minot State in North Dakota, George Slanger, fondly remembered her instructor-friendly work ethic: "Students like Kim you didn't need to have to do anything with. You basically just got out of her way." That's a compliment, by the way.

The Pulitzer committee wisely ignored the weather piece, as well as several other shameful examples, like a January 29th, 2005 article titled "Giving Until It Hurts" in which Murphy argued, "Many Russians are opening their wallets against their will, saying they're victims of 'street hypnosis.'"

In her article, Murphy promotes the primitive-Russian-savage myth by claiming that countless Muscovites are being duped by gypsies, who use their dark mysterious eyes to transfix their helplessly idiotic Slavic victims into giving them their money and jewels without knowing how or why they're doing it. Only one sane person is quoted suggesting the obvious explanation to this "epidemic"--that the victims were just looking for a cheap excuse to cover up why their jewels and money were missing--and that wise person was a Philadelphia cop, thus reinforcing the idea that Russians are a bunch of mystic idiots who need Americans to explain reality to them. Anyone familiar with Russian culture knows how common fits of spontaneous profligacy here are; and everyone knows you can always blame your fuck-up on a dark-skinned foreigner, sort of like how Bostonian Charles Stuart blamed his murder of his pregnant wife on a black man.

The scariest thing about the gypsy hypnosis article is that Murphy suggests something even worse than sneering at Russians: she may actually believe that street hypnotists exist. This isn't her first foray into quackdom. Murphy, after all, is the author of the infamous 1996 LA Times article "Science Is Hot on Heels of Bigfoot Legend," which gave equal, balanced space to Northwest nutjobs who believed that Bigfoot really exists.

"Mainstream scientists have scoffed at reports of a man-ape lurking in the forests of the Northwest, something akin to the great apes that dwelt in East Asia approximately half a million years ago," wrote the future Pulitzer winner. "On the other side are a handful of anthropologists, zoologists and others who say that it is possible that the great apes could have crossed the Bering Sea along the ancient ice passage into North America-and survived by cunning, brawn and shyness in the huge tracts of forests in the Northwest."

By giving equal weight to the "Bigfoot lives" mongoloids versus the "Bigfoot my ass" humanoids, Murphy unintentionally burlesques "objective journalism." Indeed the article's inherent idiocy is the logical consequence of instilling an objective-journalism dogma into the mind of an over-achieving, credulous provincial like Kim Murphy. And while this mixture may have seemed harmless in a Bigfoot story, it nearly cost Murphy her career in 2000.

Murphy had just been promoted by the Times to cover the "hate crime beat," and was assigned to cover a lawsuit waged by infamous Holocaust denier David Irving against Holocaust historian Deborah Libstadt for calling Irving a liar. Murphy's article, headlined "Danger in Denying Holocaust?" followed the same formula as her Bigfoot article: both sides were given equal space and equal consideration without comment. Murphy believed her journalism teacher and editors a little too seriously when they taught her about objective journalism--she didn't grasp the fundamental American sub-clause to all of our pieties, the one that says, "But you know, dear, we don't really mean it, we just have to all pretend we do." The result was an article that caused an outcry in the Jewish community and shock in the higher echelons of the journalism world.

In a scathing attack in Brill's Content, Eric Umansky exposed Murphy's dangerously naive and appallingly stupid dogmatism: "Journalists are trained to report both sides of a story, but does that mandate still apply when the story is a historical fact?" he asked. "A Los Angeles Times reporter thinks it does, even if it means lending credence to the views of Holocaust deniers."

Murphy didn't just give them equal air time. She went so far as to argue that the Holocaust deniers in her story were really just providing a public service since they had helped "point [out] contradictions and hard-to-believe details in stories told by camp survivors," such as the "myth" that Nazis made lampshades out of human skin.

A few weeks later, the Times ran a five-paragraph correction, noting that the "respected academics" that Murphy claimed had corroborated some of the Holocaust deniers' arguments were not historians and that their own universities had repudiated their work. Moreover, the Times correction noted, a Nazi lampshade made of human skin had been "submitted to a U.S. Congressional Committee."

Oy vey!

One might have assumed that Murphy had let her inner-Nazi slip out to the public, but in reality what the article revealed was something far more simple than that: Kim Murphy is a moron. She genuinely thought she was doing the right thing, following exactly what she had been taught, to a "t."

As Jewish Journal editor Gene Lichtenstein gasped, summing up his interview with Murphy, "From her point of view, her job 'is to present all points of view fairly and accurately;' and to write an account that is balanced and objective. If that appears to legitimate the arguments of the Holocaust deniers, that is not her problem. In the end, she explained, the readers should be able to make up their own mind. 'I trust the judgment of our readers,' she asserted." Poor "Bigfoot" Murphy sounds like a brainwashed Soviet hack repeating worn party slogans of the journalism guild. One wonders if she still believed them, or if her faith was shaken. There's evidence that it was.

Under attack, Murphy lost her cool and reverted to a persecution-defense that she must have picked up from right-wing shock jocks. "This is an issue of political correctness. There are just certain things you're not allowed to say, even in this country."

Imagine that! You can't even say that the Holocaust didn't exist, not even in America! My god, we're clearly just one step away from opening up concentration camps with gas chambers, then getting defeated in a world war, and then later spawning a mini-industry of new Holocaust deniers who will be interviewed by future Kim Murphy's! It makes you shiver just to think about it...

But out of every dark moment comes a silver lining. Murphy learned a valuable lesson from the Holocaust-denial debacle. "You mean, only apply objective journalism dogma to stories that actually have two valid sides?" you might ask. "No more equal space to Holocaust deniers or Bigfoot sighters?" Nope, she went the full 9 yards and applied the dogma as it was meant to be applied: only use objective journalism when it's safe to do so. Otherwise, just fake it.

In Moscow, the new improved Kim Murphy, corrected in her objective journalism ideology, arose. Gone are the stories giving equal weight to both sides of the story. When the West decided to rebrand Putin as an authoritarian last year, Murphy was right there to present the one-sided view -- the official side that won't get anyone in trouble back home. A post-Beslan piece on censorship in the Russian media makes no mention of how the Russian "free press" discredited itself in the Yeltsin era; another on Gorbachev's warning that perestroika reforms were in serious danger made small mention of all the horrible socio-economic consequences of perestroika; an article on the rigged recent auction of Yuganskneftegaz quotes Yukos and Yukos-tied commentators calling it "organized theft" without once mentioning that the oil unit was itself essentially stolen from the state during the US-backed privatization in 1995. And so on.

Just a couple of weeks ago, an article about the CIS revolutions titled, "Russia Fumbles, and Former Sphere of Influence Deflates; Moscow has all but lost a hold on ex-Soviet states by underestimating the populace, analysts say," Murphy makes the single-minded point that, yes, all of the revolutions are Russia's fault for being both stupid and evil. The article relies almost entirely on anti-Putin figures and analysts, and only at the end does it give short space to those sympathetic to Russia's position. Almost nothing is said of America's long, vital support of the Akayev regime, and how we increased our financial aid to Kyrgyzstan post-9/11 at the same time that Akayev became increasingly authoritarian. Nor does she argue the most obvious point: That opposition movements are looking to the West rather than Russia cuz, like, um, the West has about 1000 times the wealth to seduce them with. Hacks like Murphy continue to feed the false illusion to the home public that these revolutions are an affirmation of Western morals, rather than Western power and wealth.

But the sleaziest bit of gossip making the foreign correspondent rounds about Kim Murphy involves her most memorable pair of stories out of the Beslan terror massacre, both of which were cited by the Pulitzer Committee. Murphy's so-called "Sophie's Choice" scoop focused on 27-year-old Zalina Dzandarova, a hostage whom the Chechens allowed to leave the school gym with her 2-year-old son, but only if she left her 6-year-old daughter behind. The daughter survived, and Murphy followed up with a story focusing on the guilt and joy Dzandarova experienced.

It was a foreign correspondent's dream, a once-in-a-career jackpot that Murphy keenly recognized. She smelled Pulitzer, and quickly milked the story for all it was worth. According to at least two foreign journalists working in Moscow, the eXile has learned that Murphy tried cajoling Dzandarova into flying out to the US and appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show with her. When the traumatized Dzandarova wavered, Murphy put on the full court press, telling her that all the airline tickets and hotel rooms had already been booked, and the famous TV personality was expecting her. Dzandarova politely refused, and Murphy was reportedly "very pissed," in the words of one person familiar with the incident. Murphy was clearly in a desperate bind: it was as if King Kong's hunters had managed to capture the beast, but were unable to bring it back in chains to New York to claim their fame and fortune. Lucky for Murphy (and for mid-town Manhattan residents), she didn't even need to pimp Dzandarova so hard. She got the prize anyway.

This isn't the first time that the Pulitzer committee royally fucked up its judgement of Russia's correspondents. In 1999 it awarded the prize for international reporting to balding hyper-hack Steve Liesman of the Wall Street Journal. Liesman was cited for his reporting on the financial crisis; what the committee aggressively ignored was a body of articles Liesman had published before the August 1998 collapse arguing that Russia was not only not in danger of defaulting, but in fact, it had "turned the corner" economically.

Kim "Bigfoot" Murphy will soon pick up her sweet $10,000 check from the Pulitzer committee. That is just one of the many lucrative perks she'll be enjoying after years of diligently trying, and finally figuring out what it takes to be a Pulitzer-worthy journalist.

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