In recent months, Russia and Vladimir Putin in particular have been one of the hottest topics in the American media. Often, however, the level of panic surrounding Russia’s possible role in American (and Western) politics is so high that journalists abandon their own professional standards. Meduza examines the most common issues with today's English-language texts about Russia.
As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul admitted in an interview with Meduza, the United States has problems when it comes to experts in Russia: American universities have stopped preparing specialists in individual countries, and often no one has verified the expertise of those who present themselves as specialists. Something similar is happening when it comes to Russian expertise in American journalism.
The difficulty foreign journalists face when trying to gain access to sources in the Kremlin only complicates the situation for American media outlets. Even reliable Russian newspapers often have to interview state officials and informed individuals on the condition of anonymity. It is an obvious risk for officials to communicate with foreigners and the benefits are vague at best. As a result, many American publications largely rely on interviews with people who left Russia long ago.
For example, in a February 24 New Yorker article, “Trump, Putin, and the New Cold War,” readers hear from former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev about Moscow’s foreign policy today — but Kozyrev hasn’t be an active political player since the late 1990s, and he’s lived permanently in the U.S. since 2012. The same goes for former KGB officer Oleg Kalugin, who’s been in America since the mid-1990s.
In the same article, Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of the Russian magazine The New Times, argues that Vladimir Putin did not plan to conceal hacker attacks on American politicians. But the authors never establish how Albats could be aware of what the Russian president was thinking. (Putin himself and his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, have repeatedly stated that the U.S. authorities have not provided any concrete evidence that Russia committed any cyber attacks against the United States.)
As a result, the U.S. media’s Russia coverage often lacks any genuinely Russian perspectives.
On February 14, The New York Times published a report stating that Russia had tested a new ballistic missile. The report, however, was based solely on information obtained from anonymous sources in the U.S. intelligence services. The article never indicated that the newspaper even reached out to Russian officials for a comment — a standard journalistic practice in such cases.
American journalists traditionally do not like to trust their intelligence agencies or the government. In the U.S., no one has forgotten how confidently American intelligence agencies talked about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and how the head of the National Security Agency assured that people that the agency does not spy on millions of Americans. Reporters’ healthy skepticism seems to fail, however, when it comes to information about Russia. Leading publications confidently report that the Russian authorities were behind the cyber-attacks against representatives of the Democratic Party, as if it were a proven fact, though the American intelligence community has yet to provide a shred of direct evidence proving that Moscow ordered the attack. And yet the press seems to accept every new leaked accusation against the Russians.
The American mainstream also failed to show skepticism about a special declassified intelligence report on Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. elections, despite the report’s lack of new information and failure to offer concrete evidence proving that Vladimir Putin wanted to undermine American democracy. Instead, most of the report consisted of an annex devoted to the Russian television channel Russia Today (RT).
Despite these shortcomings, however, much of the U.S. mainstream media hailed the document as a smoking gun against the Kremlin.
Another example of this sensationalism is a report published by The Washington Post, titled “Russian Propaganda Effort Helped Spread ‘Fake News’ During Election, Experts Say.” This article was based on the work of a research team that calls itself “PropOrNot.” Other American news outlets would later savage the Post’s shoddy work on this story.
For instance, PropOrNot experts decided that virtually any criticism of Barack Obama, NATO, or the European Union was a sign of Russian propaganda. As a result, one of America’s oldest right-wing news websites, The Drudge Report, made it to their list of “Russian propagandists.” After this, The Washington Post added a clarification to the story, but editors refused to change the headline.
This, by the way, is one major strength of the U.S. media: there are so many different outlets of so many types that there are always publications that will pounce on dubious reports. The website The Intercept and its chief editor Glenn Greenwald — the person Edward Snowden approached with his NSA documents — have paid particular attention to the American media’s demonization of Russia.
On February 22, the American edition of the British newspaper The Guardian published Keith Gessen’s article, “Killer, Kleptocrat, Genius, Spy: The Many Myths of Vladimir Putin.” The author ironically writes about his colleagues who suddenly became experts on Russia, but at the beginning of the text he allows himself the following statement: “The first sight many Russians got of Vladimir Putin was on New Year’s Eve, 1999, when in a remarkable turn of events, a clearly ailing Boris Yeltsin, with six months left in his term, used his traditional televised end-of-year address to announce that he was resigning the presidency and handing the reins to his recently appointed, younger and more energetic prime minister.”
This statement doesn't pass even a cursory fact check, considering that Putin was prime minister and Boris Yeltsin’s official successor since August 1999, and that by December his election campaign was actually in full swing. The thesis that many Russians saw their future president for the first time on New Year’s Eve is highly debatable.
The publication of the dossier was a major event in American journalism. Most publications disagreed with the decision made by Buzzfeed’s editorial board. Nevertheless, the dossier’s release to the public was a catalyst for small, unjustified allusions to Russia throughout the U.S. media, and distortions of facts now appear all over. For example, during an interview with Donald Trump, Bill O'Reilly directly called Vladimir Putin “a killer,” indifferent to the lack of evidence that the Russian president has ever been personally involved in the elimination of his political opponents. Newsweek magazine concluded that (now former) national security adviser Michael Flynn was connected to Russia simply because he attended a reception organized by the TV channel RT. Without even contacting the company in question, The Washington Post reported that Russian hackers cyber-attacked a power plant in Vermont. Politico published an interview with a former CIA official claiming that Donald Trump could easily have been recruited by Putin, simply because he served in the KGB. Though the website Vox called this statement absurd, it then published a manifesto about how Vladimir Putin skillfully used the American media to achieve his goal of a Donald Trump victory in the 2016 election.
Contentious little claims like these can help certain facts — like Russia’s possible meddling in U.S. politics — become part of a full-fledged myth. For instance, in late December 2016, a YouGov survey found that half of the people who voted for Hillary Clinton are sure that Russia somehow hacked into the voting machines to guarantee a Trump victory, although both Barack Obama and Clinton’s staff stated plainly that this information cannot be confirmed in any way.