There’s still a lot we don’t know, but at this point it seems highly likely that the downing of a Malysian airliner over the Ukraine was the work of trigger-happy pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists who literally didn’t know what they were doing. According to the NY Times, “There were strong indications that those responsible may have errantly downed what they had thought was a military aircraft only to discover, to their shock, that they had struck a civilian airliner.” That likelihood hasn’t stopped propagandists on both sides of the conflict in the Ukraine from trying to exploit the tragedy for propaganda purposes. Ukrainian president Poroshenko promptly called the shooting an act of terrorism. Sen. John McCain predictably laid the blame directly on Russian president Putin, while Putin blamed the Ukrainian government for resisting his campaign of subversion.
Parallels have been drawn to another shooting of a civilian airliner: the downing of Korean Airlines 007 by a Soviet warplane in 1983. There was no reason to believe—and there is still no reason to believe—that that calamity was anything but a horrendous mistake. Why on earth would the Soviets knowingly shoot down a civilian airliner? But that natural question apparently didn’t occur to the Reagan administration, which milked the tragedy for all the Cold War propaganda value it was worth. Reagan denounced the evil Russians for an act of deliberate mass murder in the air, and the US media and Congress dutifully fell in line with the administration’s propaganda campaign. But US intelligence in fact had reason to believe that the Soviets had blundered. The Korean jet had wandered 200 miles off course into Soviet airspace into an area housing sensitive missile installations, around the time of a scheduled missile test and just after an American spy plane had entered the same area. While denouncing Soviet barbarity, the administration deliberately suppressed exculpatory information it had available.
Fast forward 31 years. I was incredulous last night to see Chris Matthews on MSNBC do an admiring segment portraying Ronald Reagan’s handling of KAL 007 as one of that president’s shining moments. How could a leading TV news host be so clueless? Matthews might have done better if he had recalled another airline shooting—the 1988 downing by the US Navy of an Iran Air passenger plane. Reagan called the shooting a tragic mistake, a characterization that the US media took for granted to be true. News stories about the incident focused on human fallibility and the difficulties of forming quick and accurate assessments in sensitive military situations—considerations that were generally absent from the media’s treatment of KAL 007. You would think that Matthews, having been a cheerleader for the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq, might have learned by now to regard Washington propaganda more skeptically. His obvious failure to do any homework on KAL 007 was a gross act of journalistic irresponsibility.
Matthews’ naivete quickly became fodder for right-wing commentator Brent Baker, who gloated at how the liberal Matthews was forced to acknowledge this example of Reagan’s greatness. Baker’s main point: “Matthews – probably inadvertently – illustrated how Reagan, unlike the current occupant of the White House, understood his role as leader of the free world under threat from evil forces.” (Actually, KAL 007 illustrated Reagan’s great skills as a storyteller, one who was never terribly bothered about whether his story could be supported by facts.) We will probably be hearing more such nonsense from the right, and we should recognize it for what it is.