I’m not an avid reader of Kyiv Post, but this recent article by their editor Brian Bonner really struck a chord with me. Bonner is writing about Charlie Rose’s interview with Putin prior to today’s speech at the UN General Assembly, and spoilers- it wasn’t good. One refreshing thing about this article is that Bonner isn’t a total dick to Rose. He begins with some “digressions” which soften the blow, for example.
What I’m interested in is his thesis that Rose didn’t know how to treat Putin. When you read the questions, you see exactly that. What does it mean to say Rose and other Western journalists don’t know how to treat him? Bonner has his own opinion, but in my own view it’s essentially a matter of Western journalists buying into Putin’s mystique and then asking questions which essentially perpetuate that myth. Take a look at this one, for example:
“Rose: “Maybe you’re an interesting character. They see these images of you — bare-chested on a horse — and say there is a man who carefully cultivates his image of strength.”
This and other ego-stroking questions by Rose reminded my of this article by Will Wright in Russia! Magazine, where he talks about Western acceptance of the Putin mythos. What’s interesting about this article is that the author is talking about the way Putin is portrayed in entertainment media, specifically the TV series House of Cards. Of course Putin himself isn’t portrayed- rather we get a fictional Russian president who is nonetheless obviously based on Putin. This connection is reinforced by Kevin Spacey’s personal connection to Pussy Riot, who made a guest appearance in the series. The point here is that we have a portrayal of Putin, albeit in fictional form, by some people who could realistically be described as anti-Putin, and yet even they manage to inadvertently feed into the image of Putin as a stone-cold, ex-KGB spy, and most of all, a masculine, calculating strategist.
Another major cock up on Rose’s part was this question:
Rose: “You’re much talked about in America.”
Putin: “Maybe they have nothing else to do.”
Rose: “Maybe they’re a curious people.”
Um no, he isn’t “much talked about in America.” One thing that many Russian “insta-patriots” simply cannot stand is that the average American not only doesn’t think about Putin, but they do not even think about Russia. As I’ve said before- if this were otherwise, my email and message inboxes should be overflowing with questions about what’s going on over here from concerned family members and friends. After all, Russia is often featured in international news these days, yet I literally go months at a time without getting so much as a single question about what’s going on here from outside the country.
This is the sort of thing both Putin and his followers crave. They’d like to believe that they’re in the middle of a two-way fight, and that the average American is once again worrying about being nuked by Russia as they were during the Cold War. They relish this idea because they are unable to conceive of any way Russia could truly become great, and in the case of Putin, there is no way Russia could accomplish that while still preserving his kleptocratic system. Hence the bizarre fetish with imagining that Americans obsess over Russia as much as Russians do about America.
One other funny point about this is that many Russians love to make fun of Americans’ ignorance about the world, never considering that this ignorance is largely the product of not giving a damn. If I were to ask random Americans on the street some basic questions about Russia, most Russians would probably laugh at their answers or lack thereof (and possibly justifiably so). Yet does it make sense to believe that these same people who can’t name the capital of Russia or its president are also simultaneously discussing Putin and very concerned about the superpower aspirations of Russia? Of course not. Most of them don’t know because they don’t care, and they don’t care because there’s no reason to care.
Getting back to the overall theme of this post, what exactly went wrong with Rose? Well when it comes to lobbing softball questions, I think the US domestic media, particularly TV, has to eat the blame for this one. One of the things I found surprising when I moved abroad and started watching British TV is that interviewers didn’t just challenge their guests, they seemed to be challenging them for the sake of challenging them. It’s as if it was just expected- you’re a journalist, your job is to grill your guest and put them on the spot. By contrast, it seemed to me that American TV interviewers were much more inclined to be polite and lob softball questions, possibly out of a fear of losing access and or being accused of “ambushing” a particular figure. For example, Sarah Palin was supposedly “ambushed” by Katie Couric, when the latter asked her about the publications she reads to stay informed.
The other problem, somewhat alluded to above, is that Western journalists who aren’t long-time Russia correspondents/watchers are prone to falling for Putin’s facade (or any foreign leader’s facade, for that matter). It would probably help immensely if only reporters who specialized in a certain region conducted major interviews like this.
If the media doesn’t wake up to these facts, they’re going to get played again and again just as Putin played Rose.