Dear New York Times: Hungarians are not stupid

On Sunday, The New York Times published a 2,500-word article on Hungary, “As West Fears the Rise of Autocrats, Hungary Shows What’s Possible.” It even appeared on the front page of the print edition, featured front and center with photos, under a somewhat less subtle title, “Taking an Ax to Democracy as Europe Fidgets.”

As I was reading the article, I began to have this strange sense of déjà vu. It seemed like I had read this piece somewhere before. And that’s because I have, we all have, many times. Not this article per se, of course, but dozens and dozens just like it in the mainstream, liberal media, including in the NYT, using the same points and the same sources.

It’s now so repetitive that when I got to the line where the NYT correspondent, Patrick Kingsley, writes that “Hungary is now considered a democracy in sharp, worrisome decline,” I wondered if it would be a copy-paste from an article that appeared in the left-wing New Statesman back in – wait for it – 2013, under the title, “Hungary is no longer a democracy.” Or perhaps from this one published in 2011 (!) in The Guardian, where Kingsley previously worked and served as a so-called migration correspondent, “Hungary’s democratic ‘dictator in the making’ takes centre stage in Europe.”

It’s uncanny. When I got to that line about a “sharp, worrisome decline,” I could predict what the article would say next (even if I hadn’t spoken at length to the Times correspondent when he was in Budapest, which I did). I could also predict what it would not say.

Here’s what I knew it would cover. It cited an alleged “assault” – yes, that’s the word that appears in the article – on the media, the judiciary, checks and balances and the constitution. It said that homelessness is a crime in Hungary (it’s not). It talked about the changes to the election system, which have supposedly made it so unfair that it’s impossible for the opposition to win (never mind that opposition candidates have won in three parliamentary by-elections since 2014).

Kingsley’s mention of the restructuring of the electoral system offers a classic example of the herd behavior of international journalists writing about Hungary, simply repeating without questioning. He claims that the restructuring “has helped [Orbán] remain in power” and cites the redrawing of the electoral districts, but he does not name his “analysts and academics” who cry ‘gerrymandering!’ And it’s clear that he – like dozens of journalists before him – have not bothered to look at the map of electoral districts and cannot offer a single concrete example of how the system is supposedly rigged.

The article, like many others, relies on sources that come exclusively from the opposition and staunch critics of the government. In this case, the only exception was yours truly, the government spokesperson. It relies on local contributing reporters – those are the ones who arrange interviews, do the interpreting, provide background – who are well known here as fierce critics of the government. The article shows no attempt to engage sources that would offer a view on the achievements of the Orbán Government and why it remains popular with the voters.

I get it that a journalist has to talk to critics, but talking only to critics is journalistic malpractice. And when they do, the result is unsurprisingly a lopsided report that’s not becoming of the newspaper of record that the NYT once was.

And as I predicted, here is what the article did not cover:

It did not cover the fact that all of those laws mentioned, from the new constitution to the media regulations and those reforming the judiciary, have already been discussed and settled with the European Commission. Our laws are in harmony with European legislation. That case was closed long ago.

But more to the heart of the matter, it did not mention record low unemployment. It did not talk about how the government took on the banks to help Hungarians free themselves from oppressive foreign currency-denominated loans. It did not talk about cutting deficits, reducing debt and restoring the credit rating to investment grade, rising investment and growing consumer confidence. It did not talk about the tens of thousands who previously lived on welfare but have now returned to the active labor force. It did not mention the support to families, student loan debt relief and aid to first-time home owners. Nothing about public attitudes on border security and stopping illegal immigration. Nothing about the rise in the number of marriages and the sharp decline in the number of abortions. Not a word.

Yet if an enterprising journalist genuinely wanted to capture what’s going on in Hungary today – and there is indeed an important story unfolding – those factors that affect the everyday lives of Hungarians are an important part of that tale.

Here’s the thing. The NYT reports that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the ruling parties are “almost certain to win another term in April elections.” Nothing is “almost certain” in politics, of course, but if that’s what they see, then the reporter’s task is not to regurgitate all the flawed reporting we’ve seen since 2011 but to delve into the question of why. Hungarian voters are not stupid, and when they mark their ballots on April 8th, they’ll have good reasons for their votes, whatever their preference may be.

We look forward to the visit of many international journalists to Budapest in the coming weeks until that big day in April. For those journalists, here are a few suggestions: Try not to write your story before you arrive. Set yourself apart from the herd by starting your reporting from a different perspective. Try to answer the fundamental question at play in this election: if Prime Minister Viktor Orbán enjoys such strong popular support (and the opposition such dismal support) that he is predicted to win a third consecutive term, why is that?

And if you want to find a thoughtful answer to that question, get out and talk to real people.