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‘I learned to strike deals with myself’ Former TV journalist explains how Russian propaganda works

Source: Meduza
Photo: Konstantin Goldenzweig's Facebook page

Konstantin Goldenzweig was working for the pro-Kremlin television station NTV when he was interviewed on German TV. In a live statement, Goldenzweig said he thought Putin felt hurt when Russia was excluded from what was previously known as the G8 (now the G7). This cost him his job. After getting fired, Goldenzweig posted a public apology his Facebook page, asking for forgiveness for his participation in “the disgrace” that is Russia’s state television. Meduza translates Goldenzweig’s statement about how propaganda has replaced journalism on Russian television, and why he no longer wants to be a part of it.

Not authorized to speculate on behalf of the President

I was working at the G7 summit in the Bavarian Alps. I was approached by my German colleagues from Pheonix, a small German news channel (not even a very popular one). They told me they were looking for Russian journalists who could comment on how the Russian leadership feels after being excluded from the summit, and whether Putin is upset about it. As a person who regularly covered Putin’s trips and got to observe him as a journalist, I said that I supposed he is a complicated person, that he was hurt, and that he is quite upset about Russia's exclusion from the summit. They asked how a possible tightening of sanctions, which was discussed at the summit, might affect Putin. They also asked if he has any interest in deescalating what is happening in eastern Ukraine. I said that he doesn’t have any interest in this, because, as I see it, Moscow benefits from the ongoing conflict. This was recorded live, it was very spontaneous, we talked for a about five minutes, and I quickly forgot the entire thing.

The next day, I saw a [LiveJournal blog] post written by someone named Miss Yudenich. This was the first I had ever heard of this woman, who apparently has connections to some Kremlin organizations. In her post, she claimed that I was not authorized to speculate on behalf of the President—that I am not his press secretary. She also posed the general question of why a TV channel owned by the state would pull such a stunt. My friends from NTV told me that since the early morning, the channel had been getting one call after another, from offices almost as high as the Kremlin, that the chief editor [of NTV, Vladimir Kulistikov] is completely furious, that my contract was going to end not on July 1, as I had planned, but right away. I was fired that same day.

I am, in fact, ashamed of what I was doing for the past year and a half, despite the fact that these reports had taken up maybe only 10 percent of what I did at work until recently. I tried to minimize political reports as much as I could, despite the general trend. Still, if you feel ashamed, that means you have to repent and apologize. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’ll wake up all pure and innocent the following morning. You still have to carry the weight of your responsibility and your reputation. But publicly admitting that you were working in propaganda—not journalism—makes it all a bit easier. 

I learned a lot from going through this. I don’t mean that I profited from it… I have 352 euros in my bank account right now, and I really can’t imagine what my family and I are going to do next. But, as the saying goes, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.

Actually, back in March, I had already told my higher-ups that I intended to leave my job before too long. I couldn’t leave spontaneously because I was a correspondent at a foreign NTV office, and this entails a ton of money for tech support, and it affects the fate of two other people. That’s why I told them about my plans far in advance.

Konstantin Goldenzweig’s interview with German TV channel Pheonix, June 8, 2015
Phoenix

It was impossible to minimize the propaganda

It’s important to explain why I decided to leave only this year. The thing is, in a context of general degradation of Russian TV journalism, the channel NTV has been slowly decaying, to be perfectly blunt. I won’t hide that I learned to benefit sort of from this, professionally. I mean—just two or three years ago, before this totalizing propagandist mobilization, when I would get calls from Moscow and they would try to commission some ideologically-laden report—I could easily say, “You know, that sounds really great, but I’m filming the anniversary of Wagner’s birthday right now, and tomorrow I have an interview with a German journalist who built a monastery near Berlin. And I also have this fantastic Tolkienist gathering. And this, that and the other thing…”

The lack of coordination gave you room to wiggle and writhe your way out of one thing, and into doing good reports on non-political topics, as I see it. And there is nothing to be ashamed of here, because I was trying to produce good stuff about culture, science, World War II, humanitarian links between Russia and Germany, and other social topics, or even yellow press topics, since this is NTV, after all.

But in the fall, the channel's leadership got some new people, who were sent to bring NTV out of its lethargic sleep, as our ratings were declining sharply, and the information war was going on. These new conditions made it difficult to minimize your part in working on direct propaganda.

I got calls with requests to film Night Wolves [a patriotic Russian biker gang] motorcades; they asked me to film book presentations abroad about Ukrainian fascists written by former activists from the Russian National Unity movement [an ultranationalist group]; and they sent me to cover freak demonstrations in Germany in support of Novorossiya [the breakaway Donestk-Lugansk union in eastern Ukraine]. They started telling me that we can’t put two [Ukrainian President] Poroshenko sound bites in a report on Poroshenko’s Germany visit, because that would be too much publicity.

Or, for example, Vladimir Putin goes to Holland, where distressed gay people organize a demonstration against homophobia in Russia, and earlier that day he is attacked by naked women from [the feminist activist group] Femen. What are you gong to do with that story? You’re a correspondent here—you’re assigned to this report. Of course, you get detailed instructions about how these are all links in one big conspiracy chain, otherwise why would all of it happen at once? That this is a dirty campaign against our Tsar, and so on. They find you some Dutch idiots who organized a pedophilia political party, and they tell you to do a report about them.

Sometimes, the instructions come from the Presidential Administration, and they’re written on these special notecards. Everybody knows about them, even though they’re not signed or anything, and you can’t ever prove it. These contain so-called “strong recommendations,” which are, for example, regularly sent to evening news shows, and they deal with inconvenient, controversial topics. What to emphasize, what scandal to highlight, which points to bring up, and so on. In emergency situations, they send over scans of these notecards. This happened to me a couple of times maybe, but, luckily, I barely even got a glimpse of a tiny part of the entire mechanism.

Self-censorship

Eventually, I learned to strike deals with myself. How does this happen? At first, just like you did two or three years ago, you write up everything honestly. Then they tell you, “Hey, you know, let’s take this sound bite out.” Okay, you take it out and rewrite the report. Then you start writing [your next report] with this in mind—you know that they will probably take out a particular sound bite, so you record some other people. Why waste time on recording people they’ll throw out anyway? So you record the “right” speakers. Because you think: okay, why should you fight this battle if you know you won’t be able to show your take on the matter, since it’s the opposite of what they expect from you. And then you start saying all the stuff they expect.

Sometimes it was possible to be sly about it. I remember we had sound bites from an interview with [German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter] Steinmeier where he called people fighting in eastern Ukraine “disgraceful separatists” instead of “militia.” By the way, I never called them “militia” in any of my reports. I thought through certain figures of speech. For example, “these are the people Russia calls ‘militia,’ who are known as ‘separatists’ in the West.” But still, you kid yourself if you try to retain even a fraction of your reputation. It's a joke, of course. There’s probably not a single topic on NTV right now that isn’t at least somewhat related to the overarching political agenda.

The latest example is a report we did on German compensations to former Soviet POWs; it was edited in such a way that made it entirely unrecognizable. We recorded an interview with one of the leaders of [Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s party, and he said it was good that Germany is ready to pay compensation, but we are waiting for Russia to also pay compensation for the German women raped in 1945, for people sent off to labor camps without due process, and so on. This is a controversial statement that doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense to me, and I don’t know if I agree with it. I put it into the report to show why the debates about compensation have lasted so long. My job as a journalist is to present this point of view, too.

Moscow tells me: “Your speaker is lying!” I say, “Okay, so maybe he's lying, but our task is to explain why this issue hasn’t been resolved in so many years—to show the other side of the debate.” In the end, half the report was cut, and NTV also replaced my headline with its own. What resulted was a report allegedly put together by me about how Germany waited on purpose to pay out compensations, until most Russians had died, just to save money and pay out the minimum.

Another example. At the G7 summit, I recorded a standup [a report with the correspondent speaking on camera] about the summit's final statement, about how the G7 members decided not to turn a blind eye to Russia’s unification with Crimea, despite long arguments about it. These are just facts, and I don’t evaluate them in any way. I just included the final statement in the last part of my report and said that, despite expectations, their position on the matter had not changed. They [editors in Moscow] immediately demanded that I change the standup, because Russian viewers apparently aren't interested in such information.

Then they sent over lists of speakers they wanted me to film. These included representatives of Germany’s left-wing party, which partially supports Putin, but only gets about 3-to-9 percent of the vote in various German regions. You also have to show that Merkel is a puppet of the United States, while the German people actually have different opinions. And so on. When you work in these conditions, you start thinking—why argue?

At the same time, all these years, I got to work on interesting topics, and I don’t mean politics. For example, this year for May 9 [Russia’s celebration of victory in World War II], while others were showing off all those weapons [in Russia’s Victory Day parade], we filmed what I think is an absolutely heart-wrenching story about human beings. It was the story of a simple German pensioner who spent decades caring for the grave of an unknown Russian pilot, who had been shot down above Germany on May 8, one day before the victory. It was also about the pilot's daughter, who was born in 1945, after he father died. Only now, after all these years, thanks to this German man, she was able to find out where her father is buried. And to me, her meeting with this German man is one of the most important stories [I've ever filmed]. I got lucky like that during my five years in Germany quite a few times.

But in the end, I developed a strong feeling that I was doing something wrong. This is not only a question of conscience: it’s just that you'd prepared to work in journalism, and you ended up doing something completely different at times. And you realize that the longer you work on this nonsense, the less of a chance you have to get out of it. At some point, you understand that you’ve come to your last fork in the road. I don’t see any possibility for compromise with the media's new orientation. I came to understand that it was impossible for me to carry out the tasks that my editors put before me. And the demands are only getting stricter and more rigorous. Since I couldn't carry out the assignments, why should I have inconvenienced my respected colleagues? When I realized this, I told my bosses that I was going to leave my job.

Femen activists at the Hannover Fair, April 8, 2013
Photo: Juri Reetz / dpa / Corbis / Vida Press

If you feel ashamed, just watch some Ukrainian TV

All this time, I was really envious of colleagues who truly believe this stuff. I know such people. They’re just regular guys. They just really believe that fascists usurped power in Ukraine, or that Novorossiya should join Russia tomorrow, or that Russia saved Crimea from destruction. They don’t pose any additional questions. These people have it much easier.

But there are also reasonable people who reflect on the situation, who are still working at the channel, and there are a lot of them. They justify working there in various ways: I have a mortgage, where would I get another job after NTV, how is Ukrainian TV any better…

Switching on Ukrainian television is a great medication against reflexivity. If you are ashamed, if you want to bury your head in the sand, you just go and switch on Ukrainian TV. And, you know what, life doesn’t seem so bad anymore! Their propaganda is cruder, I would say. I saw some guy report from the Donbas [the separatist east of Ukraine] who said, “Dozens of locals are watching Ukrainian military vehicles arrive, and you can see for yourself, they [the locals] are all drunk.” That’s the level they're operating on! And I thought to myself, okay, so this kind of thing exists on the other side, too…

Until recently, I was talking to potential employers. But after I was let go so quickly, I understand that state TV is now out of the question. I had this idea of going on to do non-political reporting. But now, it could be that I’m banned. I should probably go into infotainment, but maybe I’m be banned there, too. Who knows… And how can you work in Germany, if back home they say you’re a traitor and a turncoat? 

I had hoped to have a couple of months to think about all of this quietly, but now I don’t have that kind of time. Right now, I’m speaking from an apartment paid for by NTV. I’m holding my work phone paid for by NTV. My toddler goes to the doctor because he has medical insurance paid for by NTV, and so on. Initially, I planned to go to Moscow after leaving NTV, to get the remainder of my salary, my vacation allowance, to talk to colleagues from various channels, and to think up something that isn’t related to political reporting. Now all of this is hardly realistic.

Of course, I never thought that my interview with a marginal German channel would result in such an uproar. But in the end, I can only thank these people. It's like taking a shower. You were wading around a swamp, you got lost, you forgot why you ended up there in the first place, and then you suddenly ended up in a shower and you washed yourself off. It’s warm, clean, refreshing…. You don’t know where you’ll be living tomorrow, of course, but those are just little things… I think everything will be alright. I have no doubt that everything will turn out fine, because when you clear your karma, you grow, and everything in your professional life gets better too. And I hadn’t experienced that sort of thing recently, unfortunately.

The day Goldenzweig was fired, NTV posted a video on its website called “Farewell, Kostya!” which featured clips from his standups from various political reports he made over the past few years. Goldenzweig thanked his colleagues for the video in a Facebook post, writing, “It’s easier to apologize for shameful participation in this disgrace when all your sins and shortcomings have been piled together in one place. I hope at least to avoid a public discussion about who controls this disgrace on NTV and how, or about how reasonable, wonderful people end up having to work under these conditions on this channel, which prides itself for being independent. I’m done, and I’m off to get disinfected.”

Recorded by Andrey Loshak

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