When I think about what influenced me as a journalist, a classic example of excellent Russian journalism—which is, I believe, extremely relevant now—comes to mind.
In an undergraduate class on the history of Russian journalism, I discovered the works of Vladimir Korolenko, a prominent journalist and human rights advocate during the early 20th century. I was particularly impressed by his series of publications on the high-profile anti-Semitic Beilis trial in 1913. In this trial, initiated by extreme nationalists and based on popular anti-Semitic sentiments, a Jewish man from Kiev, Menahem Mendel Beilis, was accused of the ritual murder of a child. Korolenko investigated the case and took a public stand in defense of Beilis. He also wrote an open letter titled “Call to the Russian People in regard to the blood libel of the Jews,” which many public intellectuals of the time signed. Korolenko’s actions played a significant role in the acquittal of Beilis.
Why did it strike me so deeply? Because it’s easy to be liberal and pro-diversity when it is mainstream. What is difficult is going against the mainstream. Uncovering a false accusation that has state power and public opinion behind it requires common sense, humanism, courage, and a readiness to go against the current.
Today, politicians and members of society still easily place all kinds of “bad guy” labels on groups of people whom they perceive as threats. And very few journalists have enough intelligence and courage to begin public discussions on whether these accusations are true. Since my student years, Vladimir Korolenko and his coverage of the Beilis trial has been a symbol of the principle that, as a journalist, you shouldn’t blindly accept the mainstream narrative, but instead subject it to verification according to universal human values.