Nowhere to run to, baby 4 journalists explain how Russian television transformed into a ‘propaganda machine’
The website Colta.ru has published a new series detailing the emergence and transformation of Russia’s modern-day TV propaganda machine. The first text was by Liza Lerer, the former marketing chief editor at Rossiya-1 television station; the second was about Yulia Chamakova, the author of the infamous fake story about Ukrainians “crucifying” a young boy; and the third installment features conversations with four former television staff members, three of whom wished to remain anonymous. Meduza summarizes this third installment, written by Alexander Orlov and Dmitry Sidorov.
Colta’s first subject, a former employee of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), says the staff was gathered together at a meeting in February 2014 and informed that a new Cold War had begun. “We were told a new era was underway that made the 1970s and 1980s look like child’s play,” the source told Colta. “So anyone who didn’t want to pitch in could find themselves another job outside the news industry.”
Only a handful left. Those who stayed did so for all the banal reasons you’d expect. “Their families. Their debt. Plus, everyone knew there was nowhere else to go.” According to the former employee, half the staff was “absolutely disgusted” by their own work, while roughly a quarter of the people, he says, simply didn’t care.
According to Colta’s source, VGTRK never once debated how to cover the events in Ukraine, and it never even considered reporting the viewpoints of people who opposed Crimea’s reunification with Russia. The station’s correspondents, the former employee says, started to be little more than microphone stands for this or that necessary speaker; they’d record the necessary stand-up and regurgitate the necessary information. With the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine, competition between the television stations came to a halt: “A collective propaganda organism emerged.”
Colta’s second source, a former employee of VGTRK’s news broadcasting unit, says meetings attended by the heads of the Russian mass media were held every Friday at the Kremlin. According to this former VGTRK employee, every TV station’s chief editor “received a printed plan where everything was written down about how, what, and whom to invite on the air as an expert.” Chief editors are not permitted to make independent decisions, claims Colta’s source, who says news channels were even instructed to forecast a colder winter, as part of the Kremlin’s overall information strategy. “There is a general tendency to escalate that they depend on us. ‘Now we won’t send you any gas, and you’ll all freeze!’" the source says of VGTRK’s approach. “They even told us this at meetings, saying, ‘Stir up more shit!’”
A third source, a producer at REN-TV who quit a year ago, says the image of [Russia’s] enemy changed with the crisis in Ukraine. “Before those infamous events, our main enemies were various Rothschilds, Morgans, and others identified by conspiracy theories about global capitalism—figures who [supposedly] hounded us with bad food and fluctuating oil prices. When everything started in Ukraine, the enemy ceased to be abstract; it became something concrete,” the man told Colta, comparing Russian journalists directly with prostitutes.
Colta’s only source willing to have his name printed is TVTs producer Stanislav Feofanov, who worked at REN-TV on the show “Nedelya” with Marianna Maximovskaya, when the Ukrainian crisis began. According to Feofanov, journalists working at “Nedelya” were always given the opportunity to cover both sides of the conflict, and he never encountered any direct censorship. “But it was clear that the show was hanging by a thread,” Feofanov says, “and so its cancellation was no surprise. When MH17 was shot down, it became impossible to do the news the way we did it. On every channel, there was only screaming about the junta in Kiev—the “punishers”—who shot down the plane.” At TVTs, where Feofanov works today, he focuses on more abstract, academic matters, he says.
“Everyone understands perfectly well who’s responsible for the real propaganda on Channel One and Rossiya-1. [Why do people work in this industry?] They’ve got mortgage payments, debt, family problems. But I still can’t answer why, exactly. I’m in roughly the same boat: I live in a rented apartment, and this fall I’m taking out a loan to buy a new home, but I still don’t understand how you can pour shit into people’s ears like that,” Feofanov says.