Balance

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.

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15 thoughts on “Balance

  1. ramendik

    “the Russian “alternative,” whereby we replace structural and unintentional biases with deliberate bias and propaganda is not an alternative”

    Wasn’t that already tried anyway? In 1999, before people not interested in Russia’s internal cogs heard the name Putin, there was that little matter of “ethnic cleansing” and a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Kosovo entirely manufactured by Western media. Out of whole cloth. By that time Russia did not know how to do this stuff yet.

    So, Kiselyov had good teachers.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Oh good, some whataboutism! The only tactic folks like you have.

      First of all, while there certainly were distortions and failures in the media in 1999, the hard facts show that yes, the Serbian forces had committed war crimes and atrocities against civilians in Kosovo. Of course the solution to this wasn’t NATO bombing, as we can see since then.

      The point is that no, nobody “manufactured” a story “out of whole cloth.” It was a failure due to those problems that plagued a consolidating old media. They would rear again in 2002-2003 with the Iraq War. Of course that was not only a major turning point, but it was also a time when the internet finally started gaining on the old media.

      Reply
      1. ramendik

        There might have been some crimes committed by the JNA. But what CNN was showing was a full-scale expulsion of Albanians based on their ethnicity. It never really happened, and that is what I describes as a story manufactured out of whole cloth.

        So exactly what you named, “deliberate bias and propaganda”, was present in Western mainstream media at the time – and this was *before* this kind of like was taken for centralized Russian media. (Note – it’s not the same as “censorship”, I know nobody has been prosecuted for presenting a “Milosevic is right” line, but it was still deliberate bias and propaganda).

        Yes, I do have a personal axe to grind regarding the aggression in Yugoslavia – I was very pro-American before that, to the point of knowing more about some parts of American history than the American expats I met. At that time it actually surprised me, but it probably won’t surprise you that most expats are not exactly well versed! And of course, in Russian, I’d argue vigorously against what they call vatniks now. When Yugoslavia happened, I actually thought this was just Clinton at first – I even had some correspondence with reagan.com , they were taking an antiwar line. Yes, that time when Republicans were antiwar – would anyone believe it these days? Of course Bush promptly crushed that hope. Then Obama crushed the hope that free speech and the antiwar vote could do something about it.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        “So exactly what you named, “deliberate bias and propaganda”, was present in Western mainstream media at the time – and this was *before* this kind of like was taken for centralized Russian media.”

        Except it wasn’t deliberate. It was due to the typical problems associated with a cut-throat media, particularly reliance on official sources. In spite of this, there were plenty of alternative voices challenging the Clinton administration’s line on Kosovo. Arguments ranged from questions about the veracity of evidence regarding atrocities and ethnic cleansing to warnings about getting involved in another country’s civil war.

      3. ramendik

        Well, we obviously disagree on it being not deliberate. They showed images of mass exodus, knowing it was not really all that mass. How is that not deliberate? I say it was exactly as deliberate as Kiselyov on Ukraine now, and for the same reason too. What’s the reason that you think it was not deliberate – apart from Western being Western?

        And where were the alternative voices? This was before the Internet came into daily mass usage, and where were such voices that would be available to people? On some radio shows, yes – I mentioned reagan.com and I presume Michael Reagan’s show did ask the questions, and I would hazard a guess so did Pat Buchanan. But was the reach in any way comparable to CNN?

        I now checked and apparently Fox News already existed. I did not follow it at the time. If Fox did present an alternative voice that was at least something, though at that point it did not reach anywhere near parity with CNN, or did it?

      4. Jim Kovpak Post author

        That’s difficult for me to comment on without seeing the actual stories you’re referring to. Usually the problem has to do with sources. Cost cutting cable networks don’t have a lot of foreign correspondents and as you might expect, Albanian speakers are rare. It’s very easy to get biased information from local fixers, for example.

        A lot of the opposition you would hear at the time (though it was often not principled), was through AM talk radio, which had a lot of popularity in the 90’s.

        As for arguing over the audience, this is irrelevant. It doesn’t make it the equivalent of the Russian system.

        And even if we just pretended they both have severe problems and ignore key differences- what is the point? Should we just say they’re both bad and stop talking about them, letting them both be bad- or speak out consistently?

        You keep coming back to Kosovo but you forget that this was also pre-Iraq, the darkest moment for the American media (other Western media was better on this). There has been a lot of improvement since then. At the same time, as we’ve discussed before the Russian media got much worse and continues to do so.

      5. ramendik

        I saw a lot of those stories back in 1999. I googled now and immediately recognized the name Christiane Amanpour. The CNN person who was there. I found one story of hers on the CNN website and some important claims are there, though the mandatory ad is very annoying: http://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/09/11/pkg-1999-kosovo-refugees-amanpour.cnn

        So what’s the difference between Christiane Amanpour and the Lifenews teams in Donbass? I’ve checked out her Wikipedia page – it is likely from her other antics that she was acting out of deep conviction, that the bias is personal as opposed to institutional in her case, but CNN, with or without government guidance, chose to employ her and not balance her coverage with an equally pro-Serbian correspondent.

        As for changes in time – I already pointed to the striking bias in coverage of Aleppo, and that was just a few weeks ago. So the bias is there right now.

        The reason I keep coming back to Kosovo is twofold – it was the moment that broke my dream of the US and, also, it was a very low point specifically for Western European media, and I’m in Western Europe now.

        I agree about speaking out consistently, though.

      6. Jim Kovpak Post author

        First, you’re talking about one person from one network. CNN was already losing ground back then to, sadly, Fox News. Second, I did some checking and found that the UN Security Council had received reports of 250,000 displaced people prior to the NATO intervention. So the idea that mass exodus wasn’t happening doesn’t hold water. Sure, the UN could have got things wrong, but it’s quite understandable why media would trust UN reports.

        And I can understand what you mean about the personal resonance with the Kosovo campaign because that was a major factor in my political awakening and disillusionment with America. But to make this the cornerstone of a worldview, to lump all the Western media together and equate it with a state run propaganda bullhorn that doesn’t practice what it preaches, come on- this is ludicrous. Hell, Serbia’s on its way to EU membership and it’s about 50-50 toward joining NATO. Since Montenegro (which was part of FRY at the time) has been invited and will probably join, Serbian membership will probably soon follow. More than 10 years ago they got a raw deal, but now they’re joining the club.

        And besides, as far as I understand you’re not even Serbian. It’s not a good idea to hold a torch for some other people for so long without any meaningful connection. Trust me, I’ve been there.

      7. ramendik

        Sadly I can’t work out what Fox reported back then. When I try googling for Fox on Kosovo I get a much later video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yBHo6EpgJ8 . I tend to like this one, but it does not really tell me what they were doing nine years ago.

        And the issue is not just Serbia. And not just Libya. And not just Syria. The issue is a pattern. There is one force going rogue throughout the world and threatening to unleash World War III by some accident, and it is not Putin. There are several forces destabilizing places outside their borders and the first one was not Putin. (Actually I can’t even name a place that Putin “destabilized”, as in Ukraine and previously Georgia he used existing instability; on the other hand, I would argue that at least in Libya nothing major at all would have happened without Western influence and the possibility. and then reality. of intervention).

        And yes, context is important. To avoid Godwin’s Law, take World War I. Is it meaningful to talk about Entente bloodshed without mentioning what the Germans (that’s WWI Germans, the Kaiserreich) were doing? Or vice versa?

      8. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Neither in Syria or Libya is there a danger of WWIII breaking out. There never was. Nor did the US destabilize these areas. Keep in mind that Arab Spring started in Tunisia and then Egypt- both US client regimes, the latter being very important. What happened in Libya and Syria was inevitable because like I’ve said before, when you monopolize power and don’t give people other alternatives, they have little choice but revolution.

        You’re right about Putin not destabilizing anywhere outside of Ukraine (unless you count Syria but that was already fucked)- Yeltsin was responsible for Moldova and Georgia. But that just shows how much leeway the West gave Russia. They say that the West liked Russia when it was weak- okay then, why not finish it off when it was “weak?” Stop it in Moldova and Georgia and recognize the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (which might have then led to independent Tatarstan as well)? None of this happened because the US wasn’t interested in destroying Russia. Russia imploded.

        It’s obvious that the US has severely curtailed its military adventures around the world compared to during the Bush administration. This is a good trend that should be continued. But the same applies to Russia. We don’t need another Bush, even if he’s just a neighborhood bully.

        Actually though I find that irrelevant personally. Closer to home my problem with Putin is what he’s doing to Russia by all of this. He’s robbed the country of its future and is driving it towards a much worse 1991.

      9. ramendik

        I guess the “by all of this” part is the place I disagree with you, because in context “this” seems to mean foreign policy.

        A few months ago, right at the peak of the Syria campaign by the Russians, someone here in Ireland asked me what I think of Putin. The context called for a brief reply, so I quipped “he is right in Syria and wrong in Russia”. (Note: I do not consider the Donbass a part of Russia.)

        I have a lot of time for his *foreign* policy, but the economy and civil society is a different kettle of fish. And I don’t think it’s about sanctions. But the sanctions could be weathered much better, too, if he continued his (or Medvedev’s) wonderful 2008 line.

        You know, 2008, the year when Ireland nationalized bank debt, plunging the country into a recession when it could have let banks go bust instead (paying out deposit insurance and burning bondholders). The Medvedev-Putin tandem played a different game at the time, keeping sovereign debt low and letting semi-states borrow on foreign markets. This gave the taxpayer a line of security in case things go pear-shaped later. I was a fan back then, the comparison was very clear.

        A few years pass, oil price goes down, the sanctions come, and long-term borrowing is closed off for many of the semi-states. So why not use that line of security, why not let the affected semi-states default? Heck why not PREVENT any company whose access to credit is cut off by sanctions from paying back the sanctioned types of credit?

        Instead – state guarantees. The very Irish trap, and that while it’s known what happened to Ireland. I have no words bar “WTF”.

        How’s that for some Putin-bashing? And I got more about the economy, and as for censorship, well Snowden generally phrases it best. And to top it all, he maintains conscription, a modern form of slavery that does not tend to win a technology-based war, even as he sees its disastrous results in Ukraine.

        But sorry, I can’t blame him for fighting Islamists in Syria (as long as no conscripts are involved) or for supporting counter-revolutionary insurgents in the Donbass.

        The latter is a matter of personal connections; I just happen to know that the people supporting the rebels, the people whose towns were shelled by the Ukrainian army, are not terrorists nor all the other stuff Ukrainian propaganda pushes out. Also, Kiev is just as guilty, if not more, of censorship. I don’t think Russia has actually jailed any journalists (as opposed to bloggers) over “extremism” yet, Ukraine did, starting with Kotsaba.

        Re the former, in my opinion, there’s only one way to deal with armed adherents of Jihadism (a radical political ideology, not to be confused with Islam, so “Islamism” is probably a bad term) and that’s “kill them dead”, which is what Assad was doing and what Mubarak should have been doing and what al-Sisi finally did after the alleged democratic revolution in Egypt revealed its true Jihadist nature. Same applies to Gaddafi, too bad Russia did not help him at the time. Same applies to Nigeria, to Kenya, to basically every place they show up. (Whether the KLA was/is Jihadist is debatable). And I am from Russia and at the time of Nord-Ost and Beslan, I lived in Russia. So this time you can’t say I’m holding the torch for an unrelated people. I just see the Jihadists as one force – the same as they see themselves. And no I do NOT think that most Muslims living in the West, or in Russia, have anything to do with them.

        Unfortunately the USA has a long history of repeatedly helping Jihadists and repeatedly reaping attacks on itself. Afghanistan was the start. Arguably (but not assuredly) Kosovo was that too. Iraq, Libya, Syria – check. Now that I wrote it, I do wonder if Jihadists ended up benefiting from the early 90s US presence in Somalia too, just to complete the pattern.

      10. Jim Kovpak Post author

        First of all, Putin’s foreign policy of non-intervention might have been admirable were it not from the fact that he has benefited immensely from American interventions (in Iraq, for example) and more importantly- he’s more than happy to interfere in other nations’ internal affairs if it suits him. If he were consistent, that would be better.

        Now as for Syria, Assad had worked with jihadists prior to the revolution and once it broke out, he focused all his efforts on fighting the democratic, moderate rebels. He had a so-called unspoken truce with ISIS for years, which is why they went and took over parts of Iraq when they could have easily pushed on to Damascus.

        Same thing with the Russian bombing. They concentrate on the moderate rebel side because Assad’s strategy for survival is to force the other world powers to choose between him and radical Islamists. And as bad as fundamentalists are, he’s killed far more people and created this refugee crisis (some refugees flee so as not to be drafted by his dwindling army).

        In spite of this I have always been much softer on Putin over Syria. That was broken when he got there. My main argument against this is that it’s a ridiculous military adventure done for short-term propaganda goals and it’s costing Russia millions at a time when people are rapidly slipping under the poverty line.

        As for censorship in Ukraine, I wouldn’t say that it’s equal. In terms of cases it’s much more widespread in Russia, but in Ukraine some cases exceed Russian ones in sheer idiocy. Those related to the de-communization law are a good example (some examples can be found on the khpg.org site). There is an important difference though- Ukraine is moving towards European standards and thus needs to live up to the expectations of its partners. This means that sooner or later some defendant in such a case is going to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights and they will almost certainly win.

      11. ramendik

        We have a question of scale here – where is censorship more widespread, Russia or Ukraine?

        Upon some thinking, the answer might depend on the threshold. If you include instances of blocking websites, Russia is probably in the lead, with some cases showing a level of idiocy not seen even in Ukraine. I mean. they blocked a VK group with pictures of catgirls. Yes, seriously. Russia has banned catgirls. No, they were not naked and nor were they political. Also there is the entire matter of “ghey propaghanda” (which is probably why the catgirls got hit, too, as some of them were drawn in pairs).

        I was thinking of commissioning a picture of a catgirl (or pair of catgirls) with a red flag and a Lenin quote, just to create an image qualifying for a ban in both Russia and Ukraine.

        However, the higher the threshold, the “stronger” Kiev’s position. And if you go all the way to “people actually jailed for words”, from what I know Kiev will have more, even if you count Stomakhin.

        To top it all, regarding blocking, the race might get a new contender. The EU is considering a rule requiring ISPs to block “offensive” content proactively without due process: https://www.accessnow.org/edri-access-now-withdraw-eu-commission-forum-discussions/ . The result will, of course, be a move of that content outside the EU, notably to the US and Russia. And this might put the Eurocrats in the position of requiring Russia-style site blocking – just imagine RT’s inevitable gloat over the subject. (I do support the EU as an idea – hard to do otherwise with my own career in Ireland being a result of it – but some things they do are, well, not good).

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