I’m reporting today from the twisted loins of the Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles, the site of this year’s national conference for the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES, formerly “AAASS,” or ‘triple A, double S’). ASEEES/AAASS, aside from being a hopelessly anal-sounding phenomenon, is perhaps the largest gathering of the world’s Russia experts. This annual march of the Slavicists brings together hundreds of bespectacled historians, political scientists, journalists, government representatives, and so on (not to mention hordes of impoverished graduate students) — all to discuss topics as arcane as “Varieties of Dialogism: Dostoevsky in Southeastern Europe” and broad as “Language Policy and Identity in Russia Over Time.”
Today, I’d like to offer my thoughts about a roundtable that took place Friday, November 19, 2010, titled “Old and New Media in Russia Today.” First to speak was Mikhail Mirny, an IREX representative, who addressed the overall state of Russian news media. His remarks were exclusively about “old” media, which is to say television and newspapers — the primary takeaway being that “there are almost no independent media outlets in Russia.” Next up was Professor Elena Vartana of Moscow State University (from the journalism department, no less — the source of those infamous, erotic calendars from a couple of months ago). Professor Vartana rather vaguely philosophized about the risks of citizen-led journalism, i.e., new media. Her main concern was the lack of professionalism among bloggers, whom, she worried, can’t be relied upon to uphold standards of objectivity or fact-checking. The third speaker, apparently added at the last minute, was by far the least informed. Professor X (I don’t remember her name and she wasn’t on the program) from Columbia University arrived late. Long pauses in her sentences indicated (to me anyway) that she either hadn’t given her presentation much thought, or considered the issue of Russian media so clear-cut and obvious that it warranted sighs and “know what I mean?” insinuations. In an attempt to instigate a discussion about the Russian blogosphere, Professor X referenced Harvard’s Berkman Center study, “Mapping RuNet Politics and Mobilization,” except she confused the study’s conclusions, mistakenly announcing that the research had discovered that Russian LiveJournal blogs are more polarized than American political blogs. Here’s what the report, which itself is hardly a breakthrough, actually says:
Taking into account the caveats mentioned above, we see enough evidence to hypothesize that the Russian political blogosphere is less polarized than the U.S. political blogosphere, both because there is less homophily among highly politicized Russians bloggers and because there are many active Russian bloggers who engage on political topics without ‘choosing a team.’ In fact, our qualitative view is that most Russian bloggers prefer to declare an independent intellectual posture, and eschew group affiliations. In contrast, most politically engaged U.S. bloggers are willing if not proud to declare affiliation with a recognized collective political identity.
Nobody corrected her, presumably because either no one had read the Berkman study or because no one actually cared about “new media.” The final speaker, Nadezhda Azhghikina, represented the Russian Union of Journalists. Ms. Azhghikina waxed nostalgic about the late perestroika period, when she first attended AAASS. “We knew that we [journalists] had won [the battle for free speech],” she said, to which she added, “but we didn’t win anything.” This introduced a long, sorrowful retelling of an aborted renaissance in journalism that visited Russia in the 1990s. She ended with an interesting synopsis of the paintball scandal in Chechnya from June earlier this year, when Grozny hooligans (perhaps members of law enforcement) drove around shooting paintballs at women who weren’t wearing headscarves. Azhghikina called the affair a successful merger of new and old media, wherein bloggers publicized the story initially (including posting video of the attacks), and traditional newspapers (first in the West, she said) picked up the story and made it such an issue that authorities launched an official investigation.
The audience’s questions revealed that most attendees (about ten people altogether) were themselves members of the (old) media. The first question was about Oleg Kashin, the unified support that rallied behind him, and the reality that the wider public doesn’t really care about journalists who are beaten up or killed for their reporting. Mikhail Mirny bizarrely responded that Kashin represented a kind of “every man” reporter, explaining that someone like Anna Politkovskaya was a “superhuman journalist, someone who was levels above everyone else.” Kashin, however, “is just like us.” This, I suppose, was meant to be some kind of praise for the bruised and battered Kommersant correspondent, who many would argue is a far more talented (though perhaps less ‘daring’) reporter than the murdered Politkovskaya.
The next question was about journalists who maintain blogs, and the dangers of airing personal opinions in the public space. This second question clearly captured the interests of the panelists, as they spent roughly thirty minutes debating the dangers of journalists polluting their work with revelations and diatribes about private beliefs. Professor X complained that these dangers prevented her from recruiting various American journalists for an ongoing Columbia project. Professor Vartana made the poignant observation that the risks of blogging are less in Russia, where openly opinionated journalism is already the standard.
The last question (which was more of an open-ended comment) came from a reporter at RIA Novosti (who, for some reason, circulated a questionnaire before the event asking people what they thought of russiaprofile.org). He shared an anecdote from his life in Russia that was meant to demonstrate the peril of Russian journalism. His story involved a Russian stable girl telling him that being a journalist meant “knowing a lot about celebrities,” meaning that Russians understand the media only in terms of the tabloids. Everyone laughed, and this started a twenty minute group lamentation about the trouble with infotainment.
I asked a question at this event, too. But before I get into that, let me lay out my criticism of the discussion more generally, so the reader understands the context. Every panelist basically preached gloom and doom for the present and future of journalism in Russia: Mirny openly claimed that there are no independent newspapers in Russia; Azhghikina got weepy about the journalists’ great defeat; Vartana cast aspersions on bloggers’ professionalism; and Professor X boldly misreported the results of scholarly research.
Describing the Russian media in these terms is fairly typical, but it was only during this two-hour event that I realized how the terms of the general discussion inevitably predetermine this alarmism. There was a rhetorical subtlety at work in this roundtable and it functioned like this: the speakers began by mourning the weak distribution numbers of Russian media outlets. “There is no newspaper with a national circulation,” one of the panelists reported. Claims like these induce the fear that access to information in Russia is weak. The remedy, presumably, would be to expand either the printing and availability of existing sources, or promote new publications to better link and inform the peripheral areas of the country. It’s to this initial point about limits to circulation that alarmists slyly add a second anxiety: that independent media is ineffectual. What this means is that journalists have difficultly influencing public opinion, which in turn robs them of the power to influence and manipulate the authorities. This, it turns out, is the real battle-cry of concerned journalists. The problem, I would argue, is that this position assumes the media’s fundamental purpose is some kind of missionary activism. When people ignore the work or the plight of — let’s say — the bus drivers, few would question the health of society’s democracy. The fact that Russian journalists are largely ignored and disrespected, however, does provoke such declarations about Russian democracy. This is because reporters think that their influence is the backbone of civil society, and nobody thinks this about bus drivers.
My point is specifically that reporters are less interested in circulation than they are influence. These two concepts are often conflated, as the former is a steppingstone to the latter, but they are distinct. Azhghikina’s remark about the media’s success in the Chechen paintball scandal is a perfect example of what represents reporters’ ultimate ambition: forcing the authorities to respond. It was on this note that I raised my question, which asked why the panel adopted its particular definition of journalism (which seemed more accurately describes civic activism). Citing the Chechnya paintball case, I wanted to know if a different example where the authorities did not react to the media was necessarily a failure. For instance, what about Alexandr Naval’nyi’s massive exposé about the $4 billion fraud at Transneft? Like the Chechnya paintball story, this was something uncovered by “new media” and afterward discussed and disseminated by “old media.” The news made it all the way to Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, who promptly told reporters to buzz off. Mirny was the only panelist to respond. He said it was a “qualified success,” emphasizing that more people learned about the issue (which was good), and concluded by saying that this didn’t contradict his position on what constituted successful journalism.
There wasn’t time for follow-up questions, but I’d like to argue here that, while Mirny may not have been contradicting himself, he was shifting the terms of the discussion when it suited him. The panel — Mirny especially — made the political weakness of Russian journalism its primary complaint. The issue of dissemination (“not enough people have access to independent reporting”) is basically a subterfuge for an agenda of influence and power. Journalists don’t just want readers: they want to be able to incite and mobilize their readers. They’re megalomaniacs, in a sense: driven to function as watchdogs of others with power, and deeply offended when people ignore their investigative reports, their op-eds, and their revelations. And they’re not fools. Ask them if it’s still good journalism when a story (like Naval’nyi’s expose) amounts to lots of chatter and no hard politics repercussions, and they’ll tell you (as Mirny told me) that — sure — it’s still good. You’ll get a line about distribution and circulation, with the implication that reporters just want important facts to be public information — that power and influence aren’t the aims of the media.
After the event ended, I approached Mirny to ask him how he could say that Russia has no independent media. I started to list the various online and print publications that regularly churn out oppositionist or otherwise irreverent material, and he interrupted me to declare, “Okay, I suppose there are about seven independent news organizations in Russia — but no more than ten.” He then said that these papers are largely economically nonviable, explaining how Novaya Gazeta, for instance, relies heavily on the private wealth of Alexandr Lebedev and Mikhail Gorbachev. This led to his recalling a small local paper in a provincial Russian town (I don’t remember the name), where he said a single newspaper was successfully launched with the help of an Arizona professor (he said this paper was one of the 7-10 “truly independent” media outlets in Russia). I asked Mirny how repressive the newspaper environment in Russia could really be if prominent members of the opposition (like Vladimir Milov) are able to score interviews and regular articles in an “elite” printed paper like Vedomosti. “Ah, but someone like Kasparov is published in The New York Times five times more often than in any Russian paper,” he answered. Not wanting to debate whether or not his math was accurate, I just asked him if he thought that said more about Russian or American journalism. “Of course about Russia’s!” he replied. “If more people in Russia could read his perspective, they’d undoubtedly take a greater interest.” He then denied that this was an ideological position, stating that he only sought the freedom of information. “It’s in the best interests of everyone that people like Kasparov and Milov reach a greater audience,” Mirny protested, adding, “and of course it’s in the interests of Kasparov and Milov, too.”
At this last comment, I nodded, for once in agreement.