The report - on freedom in Russia - was devastating when it came out on 1 February. It gave Russia a rock-bottom rating, placing the country alongside some of the world's worst dictatorships. Many media outlets ran with the story and have been giving it play for almost a month.
The verdict had been delivered by Freedom House, an independent American group that advocates free speech and democracy around the world, in its report, Freedom in the World 2007.
In Moscow there was an immediate and furious response. Indignant Russian officials condemned American bias and sent back across the Atlantic a cold counter-blast of invective. The row was reminiscent of the superpower propaganda battles of the Cold War, with each side ready to think the worst of the other.
It was a great story, except for one thing. The Russian news agency RIA Novosti, on which most other outlets had relied, had gotten the story wrong. And other publications had not checked the wire story against Freedom House's own report.
It turns out that Russia is not quite in the worst category for every aspect of freedom, as Freedom House defines it. In the rankings, scaled from 1 to 7 (with 7 the worst), Russia scored a 5 for civil liberties and received a 6 for political rights.
On the other hand, when countries were divided into three major categories - free, partially free, and not free - Russia was placed in the "not free" group.
But that's nothing new. It has been placed in that category by Freedom House since 2004.
The uproar has given rise to a few questions: Why did many Russian officials seem particularly sensitive to the report this year - and why did Russian media trumpet it - when it does not differ substantially from previous ones? And why didn't Russian media outlets check their facts first?
Freedom House spokeswoman Amanda Abrams put it more directly in an e-mail: "It's quite possible that this has been an orchestrated campaign - this could be a way to paint the Russian government as a victim as well as a way [to] preemptively deflect the criticism that may arise before and after the upcoming presidential elections."
FUEL TO THE FIREChristopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, said that in previous years the ratings given to Russia had drawn a diverse response from within the country. Officials from the Foreign Ministry had criticized the "not free" rating while journalistic comment had been mixed, with some pointing to the ratings as evidence of the government's growing authoritarianism.
"The release of the ratings for the year 2006, however, drew a much different response," Walker wrote in an e-mail. "The initial salvo came on 1 February when the state-run news agency, RIA Novosti, either unwittingly or disingenuously, reported that Freedom House had given Russia the lowest possible score and had thus lumped the country with totalitarian regimes like North Korea and Cuba."
Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament, bluntly declared that Russia would ignore the report, while Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky even linked the Freedom House survey with American plans - opposed by Russia - to put missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"The indignant reaction we have seen fits perfectly with the anti-U.S. rhetoric that abounds in the Russian media and in the speeches of our politicians. Even President Vladimir Putin has changed his tone. His speech in Munich was both a vivid illustration and a clear signal," said Nikolai Donskov, St. Petersburg bureau chief for the independent Novaya Gazeta.
Speaking at the Munich conference on security policy on 10 February, President Vladimir Putin said the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.
"No one feels safe! Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them," Putin said.
In this climate, the RIA Novosti report was replicated, without qualification, by Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Kommersant, and the liberal radio station, Ekho Moskvy, among others.
"Yes, many of the media had printed incorrect ratings but the splash would have never been so tremendous, had there not been a strong negative attitude to the U.S. in Russia," said Anna Sharogradskaya, head of the St. Petersburg-based Regional Press Institute, an independent media training and monitoring organization.
The outburst, she insists, was not about the rating itself. "The report provided an excuse for the officials to vent their anger at the United States," she said. "Russia wants to look better than it is, and the officials' reaction was the most alarming thing here. Instead of getting to the bottom of things, analyzing the rating, and explaining why Russia should be rated differently, they just let their anger and disappointment burst out."
She is convinced that no sloppy mistake alone could have launched such a major controversy. The soil had been well-prepared.
"The tradition of negative coverage of the U.S. has persisted since the Soviet era; it never really stopped but now the wave of anti-American sentiment is reaching a new high," the expert said. "It used to be implicit in character, but now it has escalated into an explicit form."
Yevgeny Volk, head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Washington-based think tank, said, "The Russian political establishment has had a grudge against Freedom House for a long time. During the ‘color revolutions' in Ukraine and Georgia the organization was widely referred to by pro-Kremlin politicians as masterminding the opposition campaigns. It is impossible to say whether the mistake in the [news] wires was part of an orchestrated campaign but in general it is common for the Russian media to slightly darken the color of any statement by U.S. politicians about Russia in order to further incite the already strong anti-American feeling in Russian society."
Russia is increasingly concerned about its international image. Millions of dollars were invested in the English-language TV network Russia Today launched in autumn 2005. In 2006, the Kremlin also hired a foreign public relations company to project a better image of Russia to the outside world.
"Any criticism from abroad, especially from the U.S., is interpreted by officials in Russia as an attempt to taint the image of the country, which is regaining its position as a powerful state," said Novaya Gazeta's Donskov. "The USSR was feared by the rest of the world because of its arms, but now it is oil and gas that make the outside world feel vulnerable. Of course, if they stopped buying Russia's gas, it would quickly make the Russians learn a few things about democracy, but, sadly, that's not going to happen."
But at least one prominent observer of the Russian media discounts the notion that the mangled story was a pretext for the Kremlin to blast Freedom House.
Vladimir Pozner, head of the Russian Television Academy, pointed out that the outlets that ran the incorrect story span the political spectrum.
Kommersant and Ekho Moskvy, for instance, "relish any kind of anti-Putin information they can find. In other words, the negative rating … is something they take great pleasure in making public," Pozner wrote in an e-mail.
RIA Novosti and Rossiiskaya Gazeta "on the contrary, are pro-Putin and anti-Western, so their approach is, ‘See? The West has it in for us, and [Freedom House] is managed by a former CIA director, so what do you expect?' " he added.
HOW LOW IS LOW?Part of the misunderstanding may lie in the structure of the Freedom House report. Donskov said it was Freedom House's division of all countries in three categories that allowed many commentators to manipulate the story. "Technically speaking, Russia, Cuba, and North Korea were all placed in the ‘not free' group, the lowest in the three categories," he explained. "That Russia and Cuba have different ratings within that group is another matter.
Russian journalism is sensation-oriented, and, of course, whoever you call for a comment, asking if Russia and Cuba should be in the same boat, you get a predictable answer."
Donskov speculated that even if all media had reported the correct ratings, the reaction would have been equally rough. "The original report was inaccurate, yes, but the true ratings are also rather low," he said.
But Yelena Likhanova, a senior editor at the St. Petersburg-based news agency Rosbalt, blamed low standards and inaccurate reporting.
"Our agency has a very strict reporting code. It is absolutely mandatory to double-check any statistics with the original source," she said. "Unless that has been done, we will not print a story. Full stop. But in most places reporters rush to file the article, and at the very most they phone someone up for an extra comment - without double-checking the basics. It is not obligatory in most editorial offices to double-check information. It is typical to blindly rely on the wires, especially if it is a large and long-standing agency."
At least one editor has admitted that a reporter did neglect to double-check the statistics.
Denying any anti-American or anti-Freedom House agenda, an editor of a major international Russian-language news website said its correspondent in Moscow used the figures that appeared in several wire stories in Russia that morning. "So he assumed the information was accurate," said the editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "As the focus of his material was Russia's authorities' reaction rather than the report itself, unfortunately, he didn't double-check with the Freedom House website. He said he definitely remembers it being discussed that morning on Echo Moskvy."
Pozner, too, locates the problem in Russian reporting practices.
"Most importantly, one of the greatest deficiencies in Russian journalism today is the almost total lack of responsibility, including checking and cross-checking your facts," he wrote. "And that is my take on the situation. If the Russian government could embarrass [Freedom House], it would, although, frankly, I don't think [Freedom House] carries much weight with the Russian population. But in this particular case, I see it as a typical screw-up, nothing more."