I don’t usually post on weekends, but there’s something that came up recently that I have to comment on. Yesterday I was in an impromptu “debate” with Anatoliy “Da Russophile” Karlin on Twitter, and one thing that stood out to me is that he raised an argument about media bias that was nearly identical to something I had been saying in 2011-2012. In fact, I actually made this argument face-to-face with ex-VOA Moscow bureau chief Jim Brooke after a lecture he gave here. Basically the question is why the “Western” media focuses so much attention on the small opposition while virtually ignoring the “official opposition,” which is of course much bigger.
When I was pointing this out, my understanding of politics in Putin’s Russia wasn’t yet fully formed. I’d had a lot of interactions with people from the KPRF or affiliated organizations and to me their opposition to the government, at least in the ranks, seemed genuine enough. And indeed, you will find actual competition among parties at lower levels. My suspicion was that the outside media was focusing their attention on figures like Kasparov and Navalny because they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that Russia’s biggest opposition party, which was heavily represented in the protest marches I’d attended, is a “Communist” party. The radical conservative LDPR party is the next largest opposition party, and it is also less savory to Western eyes.
Later on, however, the falseness of these opposition parties became clearer to me, especially in 2014. In case you weren’t sure, on one occasion Vladimir Zhirinovsky publicly declared that elections should be done away with and Putin should be given the title of Supreme Commander. Keep in mind this is supposed to be Putin’s presidential rival. Given the utter lack of real political struggle at the federal level, is it any wonder that the outside media is attracted to opposition figures, especially when they end up getting harassed, jailed, or in the case of Nemtsov- killed?
Furthermore, I’m quite certain that if either major opposition party did mount significant opposition to one of the president’s initiatives, the foreign media would be all over it. After all, this would be a rare case. Imagine that- Putin puts forth a new law and finds his initiative blocked by staunch united opposition from KPRF and LDPR, something on par with the GOP resistance to Obama’s healthcare bill. That’s definitely newsworthy.
On the other hand, sometimes Western media bias can come in the form of undue attention to these parties or their actions. For example, LDPR leaders and deputies constantly make bombastic public statements. Russians typically ignore these statements because well…it’s LDPR. This is what they do. But what impression does a non-Russia watching reader get when they see a headline saying something like: RUSSIAN POLITICIAN PROPOSES ANNEXING FINLAND. Sure, the article might mention his party affiliation, but how likely is the reader to know how much influence this person actually has? They probably have no idea what the ruling party in Russia is called, if they can name any parties at all.
Another example of this is all those stories you hear about some town in Russia putting up a bust of Stalin or some other Stalin-related material. Many times these are initiatives undertaken by local KPRF officials, not the ruling party and certainly not Putin. But most readers outside Russia understand its politics in an oversimplified way. Putin is in charge of Russia. Government officials put up a bust of Stalin. Ergo Putin is bringing Stalin back! Well no, he isn’t really. It’s actually an opposition party doing those things.
Lastly, we see that even in the West, media likes to focus on extreme groups. When we think about mainstream media coverage of conservative Republicans, for example, what do we tend to see? Do we see the moderates, the secular Republicans who don’t give a damn about gay marriage but just believe in tax cuts and cutting spending? Or did the media focus on the Tea Parties back when they were popular? From a news point of view, things from the fringes are interesting. Protests are interesting.
Discussions like this one remind me of an interesting type of cognitive bias I recently read about called the Hostile Media Effect. Naturally this is of great interest to me. In short, it’s this tendency to perceive that the bulk of the media is opposed to your views. I think we’ve all had this feeling at some point, if not most of our lives. This why you get people asking questions like “Why doesn’t the mainstream Western media ever criticize their governments,” to which the best response is usually “Why can’t you use Google?”
When it comes to people complaining about anti-Russia bias, I often wonder why they don’t leap to defend the reputation of dozens of other countries for which most news tends to be negative. There are plenty of negative stories about African countries, many of which contain incorrect information. Meanwhile the warriors against media bias will scream about a negative but true story about Russia, insisting that it is deliberate propaganda or information war.
This is not to say that the bias is only in our heads. There is always going to be bias in news. Media awareness helps us not only correctly identify it, but also navigate around it to find the truth. In this case, I think two important points are:
-Understand how news is actually made to see where bias becomes a factor. If people understand the commonly accepted methods of journalism and style, they’ll understand why some articles appear more or less biased than they actually are.
-Understand that a lot of bias is not intentional. It can be unintentional or even out of the hands of the journalist or the editor. Or it can be driven by bigger, structural problems that don’t point to some kind of specific agenda.
Whatever we do, the Russian “alternative,” whereby we replace structural and unintentional biases with deliberate bias and propaganda is not an alternative. It doesn’t help us counter-balance the biases we see in our own media, rather it just means fewer and fewer people actually tackle the problem and instead open their mind to propaganda whose production value and quality rapidly degrades over time. This is that “menace of unreality” people like Pomerantsev warn us about. It’s attractive because it’s easy and doesn’t require a lot of thought, but in the long run we become cynical to the point of total inactivity.