On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally honored over 300 Russian journalists for their “high-level professionalism” and “objectivity” in their coverage of events in Crimea.
Here’s what Putin means by “professional.” Among the awardees on Monday was Margarita Simonyan, the acid-tongued, 34-year-old editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-funded RT broadcast network. Last month, she gave full expression to Putin’s territorial appetite when, at a peak of pro-Russian separatist violence in Ukraine’s east, she ominously tweeted, “Ukraine, RIP.”
And here’s what Putin means by “objective.” Another one of the Kremlin’s journalism prizes went to Alexander Zharov, head of the Orwellian-named Federal Mass Media Inspection Service. It is the express job of that agency to police the Internet, threatening those who post content critical of the government with fines and worse. Last month, Zharov’s agency blocked access to opposition Web sites, including the one belonging to world chess champion and dissident Garry Kasparov. For his loyal work on behalf of Putin, Zharov was duly awarded for his “service to the Fatherland.”
In America, we’re used to reporters challenging the government. But that’s not what the Russian journalists awarded by Putin—apparently all of whom are either on the state payroll or work for media mogul oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin—have been doing. Over there, “journalists,” such as they are, literally survive by parroting the government. Doling out awards to them around the anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, which falls later this week, is an old Soviet tradition.
Like other popular Russian pastimes, such as chain-smoking and consuming vodka, being an (actual) journalist in Russia is hazardous to one’s health. Since Putin came to power in 2000, over two dozen reporters have been killed in the course of doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In recent months, Putin has amped up his war on what little remains of the country’s free media. TV Rain, the country’s only independent television station, is about to go off the air thanks to barely-disguised behind-the-scenes Kremlin meddling. Late last year, the Russian government abolished the relatively well-respected state news agency RIA-Novosti, replacing it with a new organization headed by a foaming-at-the-mouth Russian chauvinist who recently lauded Russia for being the only country “genuinely capable of turning the USA into radioactive ash.” Try to imagine Wolf Blitzer saying something like that.
For those Russian so-called “journalists” who would rather toady up to iron-fisted power as opposed to question it, the opportunities are endless. Putin has invested a great deal into his propaganda war against what he terms the “Anglo-Saxon mass media,” dumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into the coffers of RT, which broadcasts an endless series of conspiracy theories, pro-Kremlin apologetics, and hysterical anti-Western propaganda. Secretary of State John Kerry recently denounced the network as a “propaganda bullhorn” which Moscow uses to “promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground” in Ukraine.
To understand just how truly slavish RT and its buffoonish “reporters” are, witness the interview CNN’s Chris Cuomo conducted last month with Anissa Naouai, one of the network’s signature fresh-faced young automatons. The young RT host denied, with a straight face, that Russia ever invaded Crimea (now that Putin has finally admitted to the presence of Russian troops on the peninsula, perhaps Naouai will likewise change her tune). RT’s coverage of Ukraine has been so egregiously biased in the Kremlin’s favor, and so unremittingly hostile to the pro-Western government in Kiev, that two of its own hosts spoke out against the Russian government on air.
The live resignation of RT anchor Liz Wahl, who denounced the network for “whitewashing” Putin, was hardly the end of Russian propagandists’ woes in the United States. Soon thereafter, the Washington Free Beacon revealed how one of the network’s executives pled guilty to tax fraud last July. On top of this, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating Voice of Russia, a Moscow-funded radio news network that broadcasts in the U.S., for racial discrimination. I’m sure it comes as a shock that the heads of Russian propaganda outlets could be exposed as racist tax cheats.
From the very beginning of the Crimea crisis, Russian media has been committed to one thing and one thing only: advancing the Kremlin narrative. Invariably, this means lying on a near-constant basis: lying about how Ukraine’s Maidan revolution was the work of “fascists” and “neo-Nazis,” lying about how ethnic Russians are at risk of “pogroms,” lying about how hundreds of thousands of refugees lined up at the border with Russia in fear of their lives. (The video that Russian state television used to depict this supposed mass exodus consisted of traffic during a busy day at the entirely peaceful Ukrainian-Polish border.) RT’s slogan, emblematic of its campaign to reach a young, cynical audience, is “Question More.” Sadly, that is a recommendation that Russian journalists pursue at risk of death.
Russia isn’t the only place where reporters and apparatchiks mingle, of course. Last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an annual orgy of media navel-gazing and self-aggrandizement, where reporters hobnob and crack jokes alongside the president and members of his administration, reminds us of the ways in which our own, vaunted free press can sometimes lose sight of its fundamental mission. As a happy participant in these festivities, perhaps I have no right to comment upon how this event contributes to a general sense that the American media have compromised their values.
At the end of the day, however, there are plenty of independent-minded journalists in America who will expose government wrongdoing, no matter who is in power. And, contra House of Cards, reporters who expose the errors of or otherwise embarrass our political leaders win prestigious awards; they do not end up dead on the subway tracks. Glenn Greenwald, the purveyor of Edward Snowden’s state secrets, just won a Pulitzer Prize. I’m no fan of Greenwald’s—I think he’s helped damage America’s security—but there’s no question that his Pulitzer is evidence of the strong, anti-establishment ethos that exists in American journalism.
And I would much rather have that anti-establishment code guiding our journalists than the one that reigns in Russia.