How Hungarian Media Work
This is not going to be of interest to most of you, but I need to post it for the record. The Bulwark has published a piece by an anti-Orban Hungarian focusing on the supposed "international scandal" I caused by my reporting on a meeting with PM Viktor Orban. It is true that my reporting caused the opposition media to freak out. But it says little about me, and everything about how they work. It has been an education for me, that's for sure.
The author accuses me of changing my blog post under government pressure:
Yet Dreher quickly accommodated to the requirements the Orbán regime when, the day after his article appeared, the Hungarian and Ukraine news media started quoting from it. The Hungarian public was especially shocked by Orbán’s statements concerning the EU and the implication that Huxit—Hungary quitting the union—might be on the horizon. For the Ukrainians, currently under siege by the Russian army, Orbán’s sympathy for Putin rather than camaraderie and solidarity with Ukraine were considered the most appalling.
Well. The truth is that I did not change what I wrote, but followed the standard American journalistic practice of clarifying one's meaning when it could have been misinterpreted. There was zero sense in the meeting with Orban that he intends on taking Hungary out of the EU. Rather, when asked if he wanted to be in the EU, Orban said, "Definitely not! But we have to." I went on to explain that the famously anti-EU prime minister went on to say that it's in Hungary's economic and national interest to stay in the EU, and that he just has to suck up being considered a "bastard" (his word) by Brussels, for the good of his country. Everybody in Hungary knows that there is no love between Viktor Orban and the European Union bureaucracy. But nobody has ever seriously suggested that Orban's government will seek to take Hungary out of the EU, membership in which is popular with the Hungarian people.
Yet the opposition media seized on Orban's remarks, as reported by me, to gin up fear among its readership. When Hungarian friends let me know that this was happening, I did the responsible thing, the normal American thing, and rewrote that part of the piece to make it crystal clear what Orban was saying -- and what he was not saying. This is normal -- but apparently in Hungary, to the opposition media, revising your blog post to make it more accurate after becoming aware that some people might misunderstand is the same as being a government stooge. I added that Orban was joking (he smiled when he said, "Definitely not!") because I wanted to make it clear the spirit in which he said his remarks -- remarks he made in front of a room full of writers, any one of whom could have contradicted me had they wanted.
The Hungarian writer of the Bulwark piece writes:
So Rod, employing a solution not uncommon in autocratic countries, rewrote the article to change its meaning. The original headline: “Viktor Orban: ‘We Are In A War With Russia’” was changed to “Viktor Orban: West Is ‘In A War With Russia,’”
I had quoted Orban saying, "We are in a war with Russia." But later, when I realized that someone might think the Hungarian leader was saying that Hungary itself was in a war with Russia, I slightly changed the headline to make it clear that the PM was talking about the NATO alliance's de facto condition -- one that he has been warning against since the war began.
The Bulwark scribe writes:
Dreher left unchanged Orbán’s disparaging remarks about Ukraine, a country that is putting up a valiant fight against the Russian aggression—and, as could be expected, this caused a diplomatic row. (The fact that Orbán did in fact utter the disparaging remarks about Ukraine reported by Dreher is corroborated by another report by an attendee at the meeting, published in German.)
You'd think that if I was determined to do Orban's bidding, I would have edited out those remarks. Nope -- the PM said them. So what? He told the truth. He has always condemned Russia's invasion, but his broader point that evening was that Russia is not going to let Ukraine enter NATO, no matter what, and is determined to wreck Ukraine to keep it from joining the West. Orban said this as part of a general discussion about how continuing the war only guarantees the ruin of Ukraine. It is, of course, completely understandable that the neocon Bulwark, which never met a war it didn't embrace, would jump on this and distort it, as part of the massive pro-war propaganda campaign. Nevertheless, even if it chaps the Zelensky government's backside, it remains true that Ukraine is being savaged by the Russian army, which Orban reasonably believes won't be forced out without making the place ungovernable.
A German journalist, Roland Tichy, was there too, and wrote about it. Here's something from the (rough) Google translation of his report:
Orbán destroys the hope that sooner or later Putin will give up the war. After all, presidential elections are coming up, and losers in the war don't win elections, even rigged ones. Russia is also indifferent to the isolation in the West; rather, it confirms the feeling that the world does not understand Russia and that the country stands on its own. And Russia has now converted its economy into a war economy. The replenishment of weapons and ammunition is running, the war machine has been started. The Hungarian prime minister is not the pro-Russian man he likes to be portrayed as. He says he knows their cruelty; after all, in 1956 the then Prime Minister and predecessor Imre Nagy was hanged by the Russians. But knowledge of the opponent is more helpful than unreflected self-confidence.
Part of the analysis is that there is no indication of Russian weakness. History just repeats itself. In wars, Russia is initially weak - the result of corruption, sloppiness, incompetent commanders, monstrous tactical errors. But very soon turn to Russia around, mobilize his powers and learn fast. This is also the experience that the German Wehrmacht had to make after sensational initial successes. Ukraine also initially managed to inflict massive defeats on Russia. But now Russia is entering the second phase, backed by its industrial war machine and capable population. Now it can and will mobilize many soldiers - a multiple of what Ukraine is not able to do in terms of numbers alone. Russia plays for time, always, and sees time on its side in this war as well. Of course, high-tech weapons are valuable - but in the end the war will be decided with the boots on the ground.
Orbán draws his conclusions from this analysis. Neither the US, and certainly not the EU, had any discernible strategy other than strengthening Ukraine's legitimate resistance. "First it was 5,000 helmets, now it's tanks," he mocks the gradual escalation of the Scholz government. Fighter planes are already being demanded. Logically, if Ukraine runs out of men sooner rather than later, ground troops will eventually be inevitable.
But what is Russia's war plan? The conquest of Ukraine is not - and here is the word that enrages Kyiv: A conquest of Ukraine would be followed immediately by a merciless guerrilla war. The horrors of war have destroyed any willingness in Ukraine to accept a puppet regime dependent on Russia. “And then Ukraine does not belong to anyone. Afghanization is taking place.” It was precisely after the occupation of Afghanistan by Russian troops that Russia experienced its bitterest defeat in the brutal, self-destructive guerrilla war – which had already lasted against the Soviet occupation into the 1950s. War aims, says Orbán, develop in war. Russia had to give up its initial goals.
Russia is now aiming for a buffer zone roughly along the Donbas contact line, which is now contested. The total destruction, literally scorched earth, brutal devastation and destruction together with the digging in and fortifications of the Russian army are the indication. A kind of “death zone” between western Ukraine and NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other?
Orbán sees this as an opportunity and calls for an immediate ceasefire. Then things get tedious, with preparatory groups and the UN and wise men conducting the negotiations. Areas would have to be defined, conditions formulated and negotiated, guarantees promised - a process lasting more than months.
Such a ceasefire, however, is ruled out by Kyiv, which has declared the goal of recapturing the territories occupied by Russia - as is currently by the USA, which is far from hostilities. In Europe, on the other hand, Germany is the bitter loser: It has to buy expensive LNG from the USA instead of cheap pipeline gas; it has lost its privileged position as a US partner to Poland. The economy is booming there, while it is collapsing in Germany. Germany suffer. Its national interest is clear, but it cannot follow it. Also because the Greens have proven to be "America's best friends in German history".
You see? Viktor Orban is a foreign policy realist. He is saying things that the pro-war side in Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington do not want to hear -- but that the American people, and European peoples, really need to hear. Our media in the US -- including the jingoes at The Bulwark -- want the American people to think that this war is winnable by Kyiv. It is also undoubtedly the case, as Orban says, that Europe obeying without question war plans made in Washington hurts their own interests. As Orban said in the meeting, the tragedy of Germany is that its leaders perfectly well know that continuing to support the war is not in its national interest -- but its leaders won't say so, or act on that knowledge.
One also understands why the Kyiv government would be upset by the PM's remarks. It depends on keeping up false hope that it can decisively defeat Russia, and even drive it out of Ukraine. Orban plainly said that he has no illusions about Russia's supposed good will. He's simply trying to focus on what's really going on there, and is likely to go on, not on the illusions entertained by policymakers in Washington and in European capitals.
Maybe Viktor Orban is wrong in his judgment. I don't think so, but maybe he is. Still, the American people and the European peoples need to hear his perspective, so they will understand the potential consequences of this war that their leaders and the mainstream media class are pushing. You American readers should be aware, though, that there are plenty of people in Budapest and Washington -- including writers and editors, like the Bulwarkistas -- who consider it their interest to distort Orban's words in an attempt to inflame passions against him. Y'all are being played by these people.
I must say that this has been a lesson for me. In the US, if a journalist observed that his reporting had, for whatever reason, caused confusion in readers, it is standard practice to update with clarification. There's nothing scandalous about it. That's not how the opposition press works here. What is harder to anticipate as a foreigner in this country is how the actual words of a public figure like Orban will be taken deliberately out of context to making him look bad, and then an attempt not to change the reporting, but to make it more clear the broader contextual meaning of Orban's remarks, will be construed as somehow sucking up to the government. I mean, look, I've never hidden the fact that I'm fond of Orban, but I am not going to write what he wants me to write for the sake of pleasing him. And nobody in his government asked me to!
Lesson learned. These people are jackals, the opposition press. The Hungarian writer who freelanced this piece for the Bulwark has found his tribe in DC.
UPDATE: I wanted to know who the Hungarian writer of the Bulwark piece, Balazs Gulyas, is, so I Googled, Google-translated, etc. Turns out that he keeps raffish company. Gulyas is a regular on an online talk show from the office of his magazine, Magyar Hang (Hungarian Voice), alongside a Hungarian journalist called Sandor Pörzse. Pörzse used to be the editor-in-chief of Barikad, the now-defunct newspaper of the far-right party Jobbik. If you depend on the American media to inform you about Hungarian politics, you probably think Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party are the "far right." Nope. They're center right. Jobbik is far right. Really far right. Back in 2010, this was the cover of one issue:
That's a famous statue in Budapest of St. Gellert. In reality, the stone St. Gellert is holding a cross. The magazine has replaced it with a menorah. Headline reads: "Wake Up, Budapest! Is this what you want?" The same issue had a number of articles warning about a Jewish takeover of the country. In the Holocaust, 550,000 Hungarian Jews went to their deaths in the Nazi camps.
At the time, Pörzse, who also once served as a Jobbik MP, was the editor-in-chief. You can read about it in this post from the Hungarian Spectrum website. It's worth pointing out that Jobbik was officially part of the anti-Orban coalition in last spring's election. That's correct: the center left joined with the far left and the far right to oppose Orban. They lost, thank God, otherwise Jobbik would be in the government.
Do you know this about Hungarian politics? That to vote against Viktor Orban's Fidesz party last spring and for the opposition coalition meant voting to give Jobbik a ministerial role in the new government, had the coalition won? If not, why do you think it is that the same US media who love to falsely portray Viktor Orban as anti-Semitic, simply because he criticizes George Soros, declined to report that the anti-Orban coalition included a far-right, historically anti-Semitic party?
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In the conservative weekly Mandiner, there's a piece about the online talk show in which Gulyas appears chit-chatting with Pörzse and others. I don't know who these others are. Maybe they're fine folks, but dang, that Pörzse is a piece of work. The story mentions that in the discussion between the 36 and 39 minute mark, Pörzse complains that the "cigok" (a slur for Roma people) "own the metal trade." People fall silent for a second, stunned by the racist remark. Gulyas then laughs and says "the old Pörzse is back!" Back in 2019, a Hungarian website asked the editors of the magazine that sponsors the online talk show why they gave a permanent guest slot to the anti-Semitic Pörzse, who once told a campaign rally "the Rosensteins cannot take the place of the Hungarians," and said that if Hungarian politics didn't address the Jewish question, then "Rosenstein's child" would eventually get the job meant for Magyar children.
True, Balazs Gulyas is not Sandor Pörzse, and simply associating with Pörzse does not make Gulyas guilty of anti-Semitism. Still, it's pretty funny that Bill Kristol's website is so eager to rip Viktor Orban and me that they run the critical work of a Budapest-based journalist who laughs at racist slurs and shares a talkshow panel with a regular guest -- not a one-timer, but a regular -- who is a notorious Jew-hater. I wonder if any of the Bulwark's staff writers would be able to keep their jobs there if they routinely appeared as a talk show guest alongside an open anti-Semite.