Thursday, January 5, 2017

Russia Direct: The Rebirth of Journalism or Just Another Cynical Putin Ploy?

by Nomad


Monologues vs. Dialogues

Here's an interesting podcast about the Russian government attempts to promote fair and balanced journalism inside America. Or maybe it's just a new Russian offensive against the West.

The motto of Russia Direct is "turning monologues into dialogues" and seeks to reach out to "well-educated Americans."
The target audience is Americans who are "skeptical" and open-minded. Cynics would say that those are precisely the kind of people that would be most accepting of Russian propaganda. Especially in light of the election of a president of the US is casting aspersion about US-based intelligence agencies and news sources that do not match exactly his own way of thinking.

Founded in 2013, Kremlin-financed Russia Direct features original reporting which, depending on your perspective either represents the possibility of breathing new life in journalism or just another attempt by the Russian government to subvert the West with phony journalism.
(Not a particularly rare commodity in the West as it is.)

Pavel Koshkin Russia DirectIn the podcast, the Public Radio International (PRI) interviewer pulls no punches. He points out to the editor of the outlet that Russia Direct's headquarters is actually located inside the government national newspaper.

Russia Direct openly admits on its website that it receives financial support from Russia's leading daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a Russian government daily newspaper of record which publishes the official decrees, statements, and documents of state bodies. 

Pavel Koshkin, the editor-in-chief of Russia Direct, doesn't deny that this is true, however, he claims that there is no governmental influence with "totally separate editorial teams."

As young as he is Koshkin has contributed to numerous publications, including Kommersant, the Moscow bureau of BBC and Russia Profile, specializing in politics, society, education and international affairs (specifically, Russia-U.S. relations).

The Russia Direct website is extremely well-crafted (some would say "slick) The staff net-savvy and young. (This is and audience that executives at Fox News never quite understood or set their sights on.) The reporters on the Russia Direct's video introduction ooze freshness, sincerity, and seriousness. 
Critics would say this is simply the shiny, scrubbed face of a new Putin offensive.

The PRI interview becomes more interesting when Koshkin is confronted with specifics. Why did Russia Direct the use of the word "incorporation" to describe the military intervention in Crimea? Koshkin explains that this phrase is used by the experts (Putin's selected experts, that is to say) and it is a matter of "straddling between two extremes."
Is objective truth really just a matter of semantics? "Incorporation" is a legal process, invasion of a sovereign nation with soldiers and military hardware is an illegal process.

To understand Russia, you must understand that, for most people there, the truth depends on the way things are defined and presented. Words can be re-defined and suddenly what is false becomes true.
And yet, is this not also true for Western journalism? We are growing more and more accustomed to news being spun like cotton candy. 

Tricky Tightrope

Koshkin acknowledges, given the present climate, that absolutely unbiased journalism is a difficult proposition. Probably impossible. It's a tricky tightrope for any Russian journalist. (That professional dilemma is not limited to Russia, of course.)

Yet, he demonstrates a great deal of courage when asked whether or not Putin has autocratic tendencies. He admits that Putin has displayed such traits. 
Koshkin's opinion of Putin?
"I don't defend him. I just try to understand his motivations. If you understand his real motivations, in the future, it might be easier to deal with him. To come up with some compromises or not."
The test of journalism is, of course, its independence, whether that mean independence from corporate influence or independence from government pressure; meaning, what things can and cannot be reported. Which news stories require obedience to the party line or adherence to the corporate sensitivities.

Certainly, at first glance, Russia Direct seems to be far less of a propaganda machine for Russian interests than, say, Fox News for the far right, or CNN and MSNBC for corporate America.

As Katharine Graham, a one-time owner of The Washington Post, once said that “truth and news are not the same things.” 

The question is, then, when does news, with varying degrees of truth and lies, become propaganda.

definition of Propaganda

A World Without Truth?

However flawed its model, Russia Direct is, at least, actually thinking about the subject. The same cannot be said for many Western media outlets. In the post-Fairness Doctrine world of American media, anything goes and sure enough, when it came to journalistic ethics, everything has gone.

According to Koshkin, this denial of objectivity too can lead to problems. With this view, journalism can end up becoming simply a battle between two sides pointing fingers and making accusations.

Koshkin makes this point in summation. The widespread use of propaganda might lead, inadvertently or not, to grave implications for society and a nation in general.
If it spurs hatred, violence or hostility, be it anti-Americanism or Russophobia, if it fuels fears about a future possible war, if it oversimplifies and it dangerously manipulates the facts, if it misleads and spreads, it might create new problems and challenges.
Coming from an editor who has no qualms about taking government support, Koshkin's words might strike many people as strange. Putin has been noted for his own mastery of propaganda.
Maybe it's not so strange. Very few reporters like to think of themselves as propagandists. It is, as the Brits say, "off-putting." (off-Putin?)

Ultimately, the true amount of editorial independence will become clear. One day, a line will be crossed, a call will be made and the illusion of independence will be gone forever. Then, for the writers and editors, what to do next will become a matter of personal integrity and commitment to their ideals.

The gravest threat to journalism in an authoritarian state is the process of self-censorship which offers the less cynical-minded an illusion of independence. That illusion can affect journalists too.   Despite their most noble intentions, they can easily become the tools of the state. Just as easily as they can become lapdogs to corporate masters.
Whether that's true in Koshkin's case, time will undoubtedly show.

Here's the podcast. You can decide for yourself. It isn't long and well worth listening to.