Thursday, March 6, 2014
Russian TV and slanting the "war" in the Ukraine
That was a moment of restraint. A throbbing, cinematic soundtrack accompanied nightmarish images: Officials forced to their knees, heads bowed, before baying mobs. A masked man with a swastika armband. The events in Kiev, the announcer said, were “a cocktail of revolutionary ecstasy and criminal disorder.”
Russian television coverage, a mixture of legitimate perspectives, half-truths and outright propaganda, has made similar assertions day after day, though Kiev is now relatively calm. It is the same narrative that President Vladimir V. Putin described Tuesday in a news conference: The United States and its allies had poured resources into creating a dangerous far-right force now closing in on worried citizens in the east of the country.
The authorities in Kiev slammed the government-operated Russian channels’ depictions as incitement to war this week, prompting at least one Ukrainian cable operator to stop broadcasting all three. Russians and Ukrainians critical of the Kremlin’s policy have taken to fact-checking the news, debunking misrepresentations through social media. But TV remains the single greatest influence on Russian public opinion, often used to lay the groundwork for steps Mr. Putin intends to take.
“If you watch some of the shows that go on during the day, it’s harkening back to the heroic deeds of the Soviet Army, liberating the Crimea and Sevastopol,” said Vladimir V. Pozner, host of a political talk show on Channel One. “You begin to be very antsy — is this the buildup to something else? Is this not preparing the population for what ultimately will be the use of force?”
He added that he believed that American and European television channels were also selective in their depiction of the crisis. “There’s a kind of new Cold War going on,” he said.
As a whole, Russians take a view of the conflict vastly at odds with their counterparts in the West, and that is in part the result of the news media. In a poll conducted in late February by the All-Russian Public Opinion Center, which works closely with the Kremlin, 29 percent of respondents described the events in Ukraine as “rampant anarchy and banditry,” 25 percent described them as “a coup and overthrow of the state” and 27 percent saw them as the outbreak of a civil war.
There have, however, been some challenges to the Kremlin’s depiction of the on-the-ground realities, especially in Crimea.
On Sunday, the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, a group that advises the Kremlin, released a statement signed by 27 of its members describing government reports of attacks on civilians in Crimea — the main pretext for Russian intervention — as “unreliable and exaggerated,” based on reporting done by two members who traveled to Crimea. Pavel Chikov, one of the members, said he noticed the deputy head of Mr. Putin’s administration sitting quietly in the audience Tuesday during a stormy discussion of the statement. “I would say that it was very sensitive to the presidential administration for sure because it was a move inside the administration against presidential policy,” he said.
Abby Martin, a Washington-based anchor from Russia Today, a state-owned, English-language cable news network, created a stir by denouncing Russia’s intervention during a broadcast on Monday. Margarita Simonyan, the channel’s editor in chief, sent her a message saying that what she had said was “not in line with our editorial policy,” she said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “We have never made a secret of the fact that we reflect Russia’s position,” she said.
Ms. Martin, who plans to stay at the channel, said she thought much of the American news media apologized for its government, too, but responded forcefully to a statement by Ms. Simonyan that suggested she did not fully grasp the issues.
“Believe it or not, it’s possible to disagree with Russia,” Ms. Martin said. “I don’t agree with sending in thousands of troops to a sovereign nation to ‘protect ethnic Russians.’ It’s a bizarre pretext to use military aggression, and it’s flat-out wrong.”
Her decision was followed late Wednesday by the on-air resignation of a second anchor, Liz Wahl, who said she could “not be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”
In a statement, Russia Today said “the usual course of action” was to address grievances with the editor, or “quit like a professional.” Ms. Wahl’s resignation was, the statement said, “nothing more than a self-promotional stunt.”
Russia’s three large channels are headed by executives who meet regularly with Kremlin officials, and they have been deeply engaged in promoting Mr. Putin’s agenda since he returned to the presidency in 2012.
Often, they employ ominous soundtracks and wild hyperbole; during Mr. Putin’s 2011 election campaign, one documentary used starving African refugees to illustrate Russia’s condition before he came to power. When Mr. Putin decided to ban the adoption of Russian children by Americans, one news channel broadcast footage of a woman from Alaska who disciplined a child by forcing him to drink hot sauce.
The coverage of Ukraine relies on similarly emotional imagery.
Sunday’s “Vesti Nedeli” was largely an indictment of the United States and its allies. It lingered on the seared, curled bodies of people killed during NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in 1999, and quoted the words of the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, who, before he died of a heart attack in his prison cell, warned his fellow Slavs to isolate themselves from the West: “Look at us, and remember they will do the same thing to you when you show weakness and go to pieces.”
Arina Borodina, a media analyst, said the Ukraine crisis had increased the audience for news programs, which now regularly receive top ratings, are broadcast more frequently and have grown in length. “As far as Ukraine is concerned, it’s been a long time since there was such a massive propaganda campaign in the interests of the state,” she said.
Some viewers have begun singling out distortions in Russian broadcasts. A Channel One news report on dangers to Russian speakers in Crimea showed footage of cars lined up at a border, explaining that “more and more citizens of Ukraine are arriving in the southern regions of Russia.” But a Ukrainian blogger pointed out that it had been taken at the Polish border. A journalist in Kharkiv, Ukraine, created a site, fakecontrol.org, to distribute such reports.
Irek Murtazin, a Russian blogger, took umbrage when a state newspaper reported that the upper house of Parliament had “unanimously” approved the use of military force in Ukraine, publishing screen shots that showed that only 90 of the body’s 166 members had voted. “It is a sign that the Russian elite is not as monolithic as it is presented to us,” he said. Ms. Borodina said the fact-checking was a new phenomenon, as bloggers and others turn a critical eye on television.
“People just didn’t watch television before,” she said. “Falsifications have always been there.”