This news really was fake, happily

Posted June 2, 2018 12:07 a.m. EDT

Timothy Dexter was an eccentric entrepreneur who made a fortune around the time of the American Revolution, often through bizarre schemes - such as the time he shipped a load of stray cats from New England to the Caribbean islands, which happened to arrive during a rat infestation, enabling the lucky Dexter to charge top dollar for his feral felines.

By far Dexter's oddest scam, though, was faking his own death to see how people would react. Sadly, his supposed widow struck him as insufficiently bereaved - she did not weep at his wake - and so Dexter caned her. (Which one might think unlikely to have elicited a more sorrowful response when the fiction eventually became truth.)

Dexter's scheme wasn't nearly as complex, it seems, as that of Arkady Babchenko, a Russian war correspondent who was supposedly shot dead in his apartment Tuesday in Kiev, Ukraine.

"His wife was in the bathroom when she heard the gunshots and walked in to find her husband wounded on the floor," the Kyiv Post reported that day. "She called the police. The journalist died on the way to the hospital."

On Wednesday, however, Babchenko showed up at a news conference, quite alive. His abject apology to his wife, who seemed to have been grieving appropriately enough, may also have been faked; she later told an interviewer that she knew her husband's death would be staged.

It was an elaborate sting, Ukrainian authorities explained, aimed at foiling an alleged real plot by Russian security forces to kill Babchenko. His reporting had been critical of Vladimir Putin, the sort of behavior that has preceded the murders of at least 10 people in recent years, including several journalists, and attacks on many others. The Ukrainian officials said they had detained two suspects involved in the actual scheme to really assassinate Babchenko, who were allegedly recruited by a Russian intelligence operative. The bogus killing, Babchenko said, was necessary to collect evidence against the Kremlin.

Moscow sees the plot as something else entirely - part of an anti-Russian smear campaign, officials there said, and "the height of cynicism." Or, to use a phrase you've often heard in this country, the notion that the mock homicide had exposed a real plot to silence critical journalism was "fake news."

Several organizations work globally to protect journalists who face censorship, threats of violence or death for their work; to them, the sting hurt the credibility of journalism and will make it easier for despots to claim that truthful reporting they find inconvenient is actually false. That's an understandable concern.

But the bigger issue is that threats and violence against journalists are very real every day in many parts of the world, and even routine in Eastern Europe. For instance, six journalists who worked for Novaya Gazeta, which used to employ Babchenko and is the last independent paper in Russia, have been killed in the last 20 years.

It's even worse elsewhere. The International Federation of Journalists reported that 82 journalists were killed while working last year, and more than 250 were jailed for doing their jobs. IFJ's year-end tally for 2017 found that "unprecedented numbers of journalists were jailed, forced to flee, that self-censorship was widespread and that impunity for the killings, harassment, attacks and threats against independent journalism was running at epidemic levels."

In that context, those of us who work in American newsrooms can only be grateful for the security we enjoy, and for the freedom to publish that our Constitution promises.

Yet the Committee to Protect Journalists notes that numerous U.S. journalists received death threats last year, and the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reported 44 physical attacks on journalists in the United States in 2017.

It's not hard to draw some conclusions about why threats against journalists have grown. As the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press noted, "There are consequences to the dangerous rhetoric aimed at reporters and it only heightens the threat of violence against them."

Just to be clear: Donald Trump is no Vladimir Putin. There are plenty of reasons to believe that Putin is personally behind the effort to silence those whose reporting presents truths incommodious to his rule; our president has done nothing of the sort. Putin used to work for the KGB, which used killing as a tool; by contrast, Trump's favored weapon to achieve success in his previous career as a real estate developer was likely belligerence, or maybe bankruptcy.

No, so far, Trump is more like Timothy Dexter than Vladimir Putin, more clever schemer than homicidal manipulator. But that doesn't mean those who displease him don't face consequences that ought to worry us.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Contact him at rsmith@timesunion.com.

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