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Attention world leaders! Message for Americans? Try a newspaper op-ed

News analysis

MOSCOW – In just the past week, two world leaders – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani – have launched major diplomatic initiatives toward the United States, not through the United Nations or their consulates, but on the editorial pages of American newspapers.

Is it just a coincidence or the beginning of a new trend?

Putin said the idea to write an op-ed piece for a U.S. daily came to him “completely by chance.” He said he wanted to convey his opinion on what would happen after limited airstrikes on Syria in a direct, unfiltered way to the American people and their representatives in Congress. 

The op-ed appeared in The New York Times on Sept. 11, the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and he later praised the paper for publishing it just as he wrote it. But it didn't matter to Putin which paper published his writing. 

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“Just one of the leading ones,” Putin said when asked, at a public forum outside Moscow on Thursday, about his choice of publisher. “So that this information would reach the consumer, and so that I could dictate what I would like to see there.”

This was not Putin’s first op-ed in The Times. In November 1999, Putin penned an editorial to address terrorism and violence in the Caucasus region, with an emphasis on Chechnya.

The recent op-ed was positively critiqued for its clear language and concise arguments, but seems to have had little residual effect. According to a Gallup Poll taken after Putin’s editorial was published, a majority of Americans – for the first time in 15 years – viewed Russia as either unfriendly or as an enemy.

''If there's real change,'' said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, "a constructive relationship on Syria or on Iran's nuclear program -- then perhaps we'll see a long-term improvement in image, but the op-eds per se can create opportunity, not more.''

Still, Putin seems to have started a trend: On Friday, the name of Iran’s president appeared as a simple byline on The Washington Post’s Opinion page: “Why Iran Seeks Constructive Engagement” by Hassan Rouhani. 

In it, Rouhani effectively extended a hand to America – offering to engage it in dialogue to help resolve the crisis in Syria and seek a breakthrough in tense U.S.-Iranian relations. Rouhani concludes with an appeal to the United States to take his hand while it’s still there: “I urge them to make the most of the mandate that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue,” he wrote.

And while Putin’s editorial was placed in The Times by Ketchum, an international public relations and marketing agency, the Post’s editors said they had worked directly with Iranian officials. 

“It was in very good shape when it landed” on Wednesday, said Fred Hiatt, the paper’s opinion page editor. “As far as I was aware there was no PR firm involved,” Hiatt added.

It’s not the first time political leaders have used the op-ed, short for “opinion opposite the editorial” page, to take their cases to the readers. Back in 2011, two months after the shooting tragedy in Tuscon, Ariz., President Barack Obama laid out his gun control philosophy and plans in an editorial in the modest Arizona Daily Star. President Bill Clinton used to wax editorially in The Irish Times.

But it’s rare – analysts say – for officials from America’s rivals, like Russia or Iran, to do so. Especially the latter, considered by one in three Americans to be their “worst enemy,” according to a Gallup Poll last year.

Putin said he chose the op-ed format because he believes the U.S. government and media demonize him and his ideas. “This is because, unfortunately, the mass media [in America] often portray one-sided perspectives of this or that problem, or there is a total silencing on something,” he said.

But at least Putin and Rouhani's opinions were viewed by mainstream American readers – the target audience – and in the newspapers they had chosen themselves.

That wasn't the case for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who wrote a scathing rebuttal to Putin’s op-ed. Perhaps looking for the Russian equivalent of The New York Times, McCain said he wanted to publish his piece in Russian and in Pravda, the iconic made-in-the-USSR daily, and former mouthpiece for generations of Soviet politburos. 

His press people reportedly negotiated with Pravda, and McCain’s caustic “letter” entitled “Russians Deserve Better than Putin” appeared on Thursday to a hail of mostly negative comments from Russians and Americans alike. Criticism even came from the current editor of Pravda himself, who claimed he’d never even seen the McCain op-ed, and wouldn't have published the “black propaganda” if he had.

Pravda, it turns out, split into two publications after the Cold War – the original Communist Party paper, now mostly handed out at party rallies; and Pravda.ru, a private, pro-Kremlin website that has nothing in common with Pravda besides its name.

But Pravda.ru does have an English language version – for tourists and Russians who can read English – and that’s apparently where McCain’s no-holds-barred attack on Putin ended up… for the very few to see.

Publishing op-eds in foreign newspapers may be growing in popularity for the world’s political elite but there are still some kinks in the system.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Moscow.

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