Not just by what they have reported, but in some cases by what they have not reported, journalists have helped tell the story of Russia in modern times. And something else has helped them tell it: what has happened to them afterward, either good, as in winning an undeserved Pulitzer Prize, or bad, as in being murdered.
While nothing like either of those reactions has been visited on reporters covering the Sochi Olympics, it is their tweeting of jokes and photos about lousy hotel conditions that brings these thoughts to mind. The worst consequence of their messages has been jokes in return, such as a PBS commentator saying it takes open hotel bars to keep the press happy.
But the disarray the reporters encountered points to something of deeper concern than mere gripes about no lights or undrinkable and possibly dangerous water.
To give Russia a chance to shine and shout on TVs throughout the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin spent an incredible, unaffordable $51 billion on such projects as new Sochi roads, new bridges, new hotels and extraordinary opening ceremonies.
The method behind much of this madness was corruption, cheating that hurts the country even as it enriches or enhances the power of the cheaters on both sides of the bargain. Skip a contractual obligation here or one there and you get a wink in return, along with more profit. An unfinished hotel room is not a huge worry.
In his heart of hearts, Putin may have wished the complainers had to endure something harsher than kidding for the pinpricks in his mighty public relations venture.
But there was little he could unnoticeably do and he surely knew this too would pass as attention came to focus on the excitement of exceptional athletes doing exceptional things.
Foreign reporters in Russia have not always been so uncooperative in telling the story the powerful wanted told. In the early days after the Russian revolution and the later formation of the Soviet Union, leftist reporters would visit and see what they had hoped to see even though it was not there.
Some fellow leftists were more intellectually honest, sometimes helping to awaken at least a few to the mounting evil, though other leftists saw the truth and lied about it, decreasing foreign concern.
That brings us to Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter who helped enable the evil through misrepresenting the truth about such issues as massive starvation and telling outright lies about Joseph Stalin being an OK kind of guy.
In 1932, Duranty won the Pulitzer, a scary example of how lies told often and convincingly enough can obscure truth even from people with the job of judging it.
The opposite of Duranty was Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who made so bold a move as to heap criticism on Putin and then, in 2006, was shot four times, once in the head. Hers is hardly the only killing of journalistic critics of official Russia. There have been dozens and maybe far more, along with a decided laxity in prosecution, according to some organizations that have examined the issue.
None of this means Putin himself was responsible, but this is his Russia, the land he manages very nearly autocratically, a place in which changes really do occur, but mostly to the extent he wants them.
What he has very much wanted is a resurgence of Russian power and prestige, and if this means restricted rights inside Russia, bullying of neighboring countries and irresponsible behavior internationally, so be it. As all kinds of impositions and threatening criminal cases demonstrate, he does not want press freedom, and it’s highly doubtful he wants justice done in the murders of journalists.
Enjoy the Olympics if you wish, but that distinguished looking guy in the overcoat you may have noticed during the opening ceremonies? Do not buy his pretenses.