Tag Archives: media bias

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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On Deaf Ears: The Wasted Potential of Russia Today

Finally I have had the time to write my response to Peter Pomerantsev’s article in The Atlantic, entitled “Russia and the Menace of Unreality.” The author examines the nature of Russia’s new media, and how there is no longer any concern whatsoever as to the credibility of their coverage. Russian media, particularly that aimed at foreign audiences, isn’t concerned so much with presenting an alternative point of view, but rather a myriad of different points of view until the waters are sufficiently muddied. Instead of presenting a lie as truth, the strategy seems to be to make truth unknowable by bombarding audiences with multiple, sometimes mutually exclusive theories or claims.

The downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine was a perfect example of this. RT and other Russian media sources posited numerous different explanations of the event, including:

-The first claim, that Ukrainians shot down the plane believing it to be that of Vladimir Putin. Of course no evidence was presented to support this theory and it was quickly taken down.

-Another claim, from the Russian defense ministry, alleging that a Ukrainian military plane shot the airliner down. Oddly enough, they claimed that the plane in question was a SU-25, a ground attack aircraft and not an interceptor. Why any military aircraft would have been sent to intercept a plane which had spent some time in Ukrainian airspace and flew in from the West was never really dealt with.

-A claim that the airliner was indeed shot down by a Buk SAM system, but that it was the Ukrainian army’s SAM and not that of the rebels.

-A claim which admits that the rebels shot down the plane, but only because it was being escorted by Ukrainian fighter planes, implying that they thought it was a military flight.

All of this serves to distract from key questions such as how the rebels managed to get their hands on this system and operate it in the first place. If they did have the know-how to properly operate it, it suggests Russian military involvement. If not, then they were negligent.  Even if we accepted the unlikely idea that the Ukrainian military downed the plane, this would not change the fact that the rebels were responsible due to a conflict they started and continued even after the first cease fire and the offer of peace talks which went unanswered.

So it is with Russian media. Rather than actually present some coherent, alternative message, the new direction seems to be aimed at merely confusing every new story until nobody has a clue what is going on.  If Russia is called out for wrongdoing and they can’t concoct any conspiracy theories to explain the accusations away, the response is typically whataboutism- not because the Russian government is terribly concerned about the rights of people living in Detroit or Ferguson, but simply because they trying to say, “Yes, we are bad, but everyone else is bad too, so we should all just mind our own business and continue being bad.”

Of course the obvious parallel to RT, in the US at least, would be Fox News, but this is somewhat inaccurate. First of all, while Fox is known for neck-breaking political line shifts from time to time, the overall message is pretty much always consistent. Fox is a conservative network. It champions supply-side economics, deregulation, and neo-liberalism by gift-wrapping these concepts in patriotism, nostalgia, “family values,” and other trappings of American conservatism. How radical Fox News can be seems to be based on the party of the administration in the White House, but there has always been limits for Fox. The network will only follow libertarian populism so far. Its pundits have publicly repudiated birtherism.  Fox News promotes a sort of worldview which is, while invincibly stupid, quite simple and coherent. It generally consists of the following concepts:

-Liberals are destroying America and undermining its values.

-Religion, particularly Christianity, is under attack by secular humanists.

-The world is full of evil people who are trying to kill you, rape you, or possibly invite your daughter to a rainbow party.

-Look at this outrageous act that some liberal did!

-Certain people(wink, wink) are trying to cheat you by leeching off welfare. Also they like to play the knockout game.

-Guns are awesome and owning them makes you manly.

-MUSLIMS! OH NO!

I could go on, but by this point you could probably fill in the blanks yourself at this point.  Sure, Fox can be contradictory. When Bush was president we were told it was wrong, if not treasonous, to criticize the president during wartime. It was wrong to question the expansion of government surveillance; if you had nothing to hide there was no reason to worry. And anti-war protesters were limp-wristed cowards who wanted to see our troops lose. Then Obama was elected and the line reversed. It was patriotic to criticize the president. We were only a few precarious steps away from a full-on dystopian tyranny. And the pencil-neck hippies of the Bush years suddenly transformed into goose-stepping union “thugs” who were poised to form Obama’s new paramilitary force, designed specifically to root out Christians and strip them of their firearms.  Contradictory, indeed, but look closely. Positions shifted, but the general line is intact. Conservatives are under siege by godless liberals and their Muslim allies. They went from defense of Bush’s administration to an offense against that of Obama, but the narrative remains consistent.

Not so with Russia Today. RT’s line often varies from story to story. There is only one consistent feature. Everything is anti-Western. Whereas Fox News at least claims to stand for something, RT and much of Russia’s media, if not the Russian state itself, can only present itself as standing against things. None of these institutions actually stands for anything. Even when its ideologues babble on about “Russian civilization” or the “Russian world,” the words have no meaning. A few years ago it was “Eurasia” or “Russia’s special unique path.” Whatever the words, it’s always the same. They all boil down to being “anti-something;” it’s never about what Russia actually should be, but rather what it shouldn’t be. When you take that message to foreign audiences, you are setting yourself up for problems. This is particularly so in Russia’s case, where the type of propaganda which is needed to woo Russian citizens tends to clash ideologically with RT’s main foreign audience.

It’s no secret that RT mainly appeals to conspiracy theorists, right wing populists, neo-Nazis, fascists, and terribly confused leftists. Each of these groups sees in Russia some kind of champion for their cause against their own government, which they hate. From RT’s point of view, as well as those in the state who hold the purse strings, this seems like success. Nobody can deny the success of the network in terms of exposure, ratings, views, and followers. But as is the case with so many Russian government ventures, short term, low-value gains are favored over real substance. In other words, RT sets the bar low to attract masses of people who are largely useless to Russia’s interests, while simultaneously turning off anyone in the West who could exert influence on their governments in a manner more conducive to the interests of Russia.

RT’s main audience is numerous indeed, but largely ineffective, marginal in their own society, self-defeating, self-isolating, and ultimately impotent. On the internet, these people tend to be extremely vocal and active, creating the idea that there are masses of fed up Americans, Canadians, and Europeans who will at some point exert pressure on their governments. It has been theorized that some ideologues in Kremlin circles believe that they can create enough dissent in Western countries so as to bring down governments or at least highly cripple them and prevent them from blocking any sort of Eurasian ambitions of Russia. If they indeed believe this, they are at best naive, and at worst totally delusional.  For as loud as those “dissidents” are on the internet, I can say from experience that the vast majority of them are totally worthless from a political point of view. Think about it- If someone has thousands of posts and comments on multiple forums, often carrying on endless debates and arguments with random people from around the world, how much time do you think that leaves for real world activism. HINT: None.

Most of these people don’t get out in the streets, and they often have a myriad of excuses as to why. If they do anything in the real world, it usually involves joining some organization which inevitably consists of a handful of men who meet at a local restaurant once a month to bitch about how the world is screwing them. They feel marginalized, and they act marginalized. Some of them have achieved modest financial success, but a great many of them are either unemployed or work in dead-end jobs. Now I want to say at this point that I am not pointing that out in a pejorative sense. Whatever their beliefs and however abhorrent we may find them, the fact is that these people are highly alienated by life and that alienation is often what attracts them to bad ideas in the first place. But I point out their economic status because let’s be frank- We live in a capitalist society which puts more faith in the words and ideas of financially successful people than it does in those of people who work at Subway.

The other failure of RT is ideological. One thing about RT that I always found to be hilarious is that it is so beloved by libertarians in spite of being a state-run TV network. Libertarians have often served as guests on RT, and some even had their own segments. Libertarians as a whole reject the free-market, corporate-dominated Western media, preferring instead the state run network of a country which has a massive state sector, lots of government regulation, and even state-owned enterprises. Now I realize that any libertarian could simply say that it isn’t their concern as to what system Russia actually has, but this does not change the fact that they prefer what must be, according to their definition, a product of a “socialist” society. Furthermore, the libertarians and similar ideologues who so deeply adore RT do not acknowledge the contradiction between Russia’s system and their beliefs.

These people will typically dismiss any talk of Russia’s lack of freedom as propaganda, and then go on to insist that living in the US is real tyranny. Look, I’m the last guy who likes throwing the word freedom around without qualifying or defining it, but Russia is objectively less free than the US and many other countries. People have been investigated and sometimes arrested here, simply for writing the most innocuous things on their personal blogs. Some unfortunate individuals have been actually jailed or beaten by unknown assailants. I’m terribly sorry but this generally does not happen in the US or other Western countries. The Westboro Baptist Church enjoyed the protection of the First Amendment. The National Socialist Movement has often enjoyed police protection for its marches on dozens of occasions. Alex Jones runs a highly successful business based on telling people to prepare themselves to resist the government whenever they get around to implementing martial law and rounding people up into FEMA-run concentration camps. The two dipshits who made Loose Change, essentially accusing the government of murdering 3,000 people on 9/11, are still alive and well.

Meanwhile, in Russia, an activist was jailed for running a social media page demanding the same federalization rights that the Donbass rebels demanded in Ukraine. That’s right, you can be jailed for demanding the same kind of autonomy Russia was demanding for the Donbass and the Crimea, according to a law that was actually approved after the whole separatist mess started.  So no, I’m terribly sorry Mr. RT viewer, but it isn’t the same in America. As far as I know, nobody from the anti-government militia known as the Disciples of the New Dawn has been arrested for their Facebook page, one of many anti-government militia pages on the social network. None of them will be arrested until they actually break a law.

Props to Russia for not putting up with bullshit like this.

Props to Russia for not putting up with bullshit like this.

Another ideological conflict comes up when it comes to treatment of the Soviet Union. In Russia, the authorities haven’t managed to fully come out against the USSR. Of course their reasons for this have nothing to do with sympathy towards socialism. On the contrary, Russia has a reactionary regime with staggering wealth inequality and workers have few avenues to air their grievances. The government treats ordinary people with utter contempt. What they glorify in the USSR is the authoritarian side, the Cold War, and basically all the bad sides of the Soviet Union which eventually compounded until its demise. Of course this glorification creates unease with RT’s mostly right-wing audience, many of whom aren’t just anti-Communists but open neo-Nazis. If it weren’t for the tragedy that has taken place in Ukraine, one would almost be amused at the utter confusion of Western fascists as they observe the ongoing conflict with absolutely no background understanding of the two factions or their history. Indeed, watching them discuss it calls to mind a group of people watching a foreign film with no subtitles, in a futile effort to determine what is really happening. Which side do they choose? Sure, the Western media is always bashing Russia, meaning Russia must therefore be good, but then again Russia glorifies the Soviet Union and claims to be fighting fascists, specifically fascists who wear their old anti-Communist symbols and even Waffen SS insignia in some cases.  But Russia is, of course, bigger, and it’s anti-Western, anti-EU, anti-NATO. Which country is run by Jews, Ukraine or Russia? Which one is more under the control of Jews? And one need not be a neo-Nazi to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the Soviet Union and Communist symbols. Indeed, it must take a great deal of fortitude for many RT viewers to side with the country that laments the destruction of Lenin statues and Red Army monuments, both being symbols that they hate.

All in all, RT’s audience consists largely of an incoherent mob; it is an alliance of convenience and little else. Russia has staked a lot on RT, and does seem to be putting more into its foreign news services, and therefore it is all the more tragic that these resources are so readily pissed away. RT could have been a decent alternative to networks like CNN or the BBC, which quite frankly are often biased on many issues.  Most American networks, for quite some time, have become utterly enthralled to the official press release, and there is a genuine fear, at least in the US, of challenging official information lest a network’s reporters be cut out of the loop for asking too many difficult questions. Up until recent times, Russia was an up and coming player in the world, with legitimate positions to put forth, and RT could have been the vehicle to articulate those positions. In the end, RT could have reached a new generation of movers and shakers, people seen as successful and influential in their respective societies, as well as people who are perceived to be intelligent by their peers. RT could have also broadcast a more realistic view of Russia, its problems, and its potential for success.  What a pity that this isn’t what we got.

No, what the Kremlin got for its money, indeed what they got for the Russian taxpayers’ money, is the network which willfully and enthusiastically chases the most useless, ineffective people. Worse still, it doesn’t offer anything to enlighten those people. It doesn’t present an alternative viewpoint, but rather it just spreads utter confusion among an audience consisting of people who spend most of their time on the internet and who are constantly angry about anything and everything. They are not critical thinkers, nor are they people with any influence, much less influence which could help Russia in some way. They certainly do not “question more,” to use RT’s motto, as they unquestioningly swallow anything that confirms their prejudices and is presented to them as counter-mainstream.  Hence, RT’s potential to benefit Russia was wasted when it could have been useful, and now it looks as if it has passed a point of no return. It will still rake in the ratings, the views, and the likes, but none of those loyal fans will be there to save the regime’s ass when the inevitable collapse happens.

Also…This.

Meanwhile, in Bosnia

Since I don’t live in the US, I have to use alternate means to stay abreast of how the Western press reports the news. One effective method is using sites like Yahoo, which have a long list of AP, AFP, and Reuters stories just under front page articles with titles like “Can dogs think?” or “5 Signs that your man might be cheating on you.”  During the height of the Evromaidan protests, there were plenty of prominently displayed stories about the protests. As usual, most of them either completely ignored the right-wing, fascist role in the protests or they at least severely downplayed it.  

By contrast the recent protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which began in the city of Tuzla, have garnered little attention, and it seems zero on Yahoo at least. In fact I’m hesitant to report more on the topic just because I was only recently made aware of these protests via activist friends on Facebook.  Why aren’t the demonstrations, which are every bit as radical as those in Kiev, getting so much media attention?  Well for starters the Bosnian protests have a decidedly working-class character and are aimed largely at social demands regarding unemployment wages, etc. Perhaps more importantly, Bosnia and Herzegovina has for some time been a country well within the sphere of the EU, dominated by EU countries, and even occupied by the troops of EUFOR Althea, which replaced NATO’s IFOR contingent.  In other words, Bosnia’s mess is well within the EU’s back yard. This has nothing to do with Russia and as far as I know the Russian government hasn’t expressed any noteworthy opinion, if any at all, about it.  Lastly, this is all happening at a time when the EU is trying to tempt Ukraine’s more moderate yet naive population into thinking that greater integration with “Europe” will magically solve Ukraine’s deep-rooted problems.  While the recent crisis-driven problems of EU members Bulgaria and Romania failed to take purchase in Ukrainian memory, this flare up in Bosnia is most inconvenient for the leadership of the EU.  If publicized widely enough, it would contribute to the world’s memory of the protests in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc., and then in comparison the Evromaidan protests, even in the whitewashed way the media presented them, would look hilariously stupid. The world could look back to 2008 and see virtual uprisings all across the supposedly stable, successful EU, and then here we have these naive people in Kiev foolishly believing that a trade agreement with the EU will get them a piece of something many Europeans apparently don’t want.  Of course to be sure, that is leaving out the right-wing, nationalist roots of Evromaidan violence, but we’re talking about a media narrative and not reality here.  In short, the Bosnian protests, due to their timing if nothing else, would expose Evromaidan as a farce and thus they need to be downplayed if not ignored.  

Of course that’s not all that’s being ignored. Remember when, in response to Evromaidan violence, Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia would be increasing its military presence in the naval base at Sevastopol and massing troops along the Ukrainian border?  Oh you don’t remember that?  That’s probably because it never happened.  What you also probably haven’t heard, is that the Austrian High Representative for Bosnia and Hercegovina has in response to the protests declared that Austria will be increasing its troop deployments in Bosnia and the EU may send additional troops as well.  To date Yanukovich in Ukraine has yet to call out the Ukrainian army, but the European Union is happy to use regular military troops in response to demonstrations after less than a week.  European values in action! 

There is one last reason why the Western media’s failure to adequately report on these demonstrations is such a travesty.  In one of the reports from an eyewitness I read, it was said that in Tuzla local Serbs joined the Bosnian(no doubt mostly Muslim) protesters in solidarity, and that signs could be seen with the slogan “JEDAN NAROD”, meaning “One People” or “One Nation.”   If one is well educated in the history of Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Hercegovina, one will no doubt recognize the significance of those two words.  These actions represent the healing of wounds, the possible end to one of the Balkans’ bloodiest cycles of violence.  We may very well be watching one of the most significant reconciliations in European history and yet the Western media is practically ignoring it because it doesn’t fit their narrative, nor does it please the capitalists of the European Union.  

No, the EU and its media lackeys would much rather support the hate and petty rivalries which drive Evromaidan, whatever the future consequences may be, rather than publicize a potentially historic reconciliation between peoples who were once bitter enemies at the end of the last century. If need be, the self-proclaimed bastion of democracy is, within one week of unrest, willing to deploy regular military forces to intimidate the people in its virtual colony. I have not a doubt in my mind that if this continues, pro-EU forces will happily attempt to reignite inter-ethnic hatred so as to split the movement, but I’m optimistic that it won’t work.  This is why Evromaidan is totally illegitimate. The supposedly non-nationalist, liberal side of the protests in Ukraine not only refuses to repudiate or cut ties with the fascists with whom they stand shoulder to shoulder, not only fails to bring up any working class or social issues, but they enthusiastically cheer for this obviously imperialist and undemocratic bloc that is the European Union. Meanwhile the multi-ethnic people of Bosnia heroically join the ranks of the Greeks, the Italians, the Portuguese, and the Spanish.  They deserve your support and if the media won’t properly inform you of their struggle, there are always sources at your fingertips.