"Freedom of speech doesn't really guarantee objectivity and the reliability of information and in and of itself doesn't add to a journalist's intelligence, taste or talent." That's the first line on the website of Vremya, the most watched news show in Russia. It almost defies commentary; obviously there's a pretty serious gap between what Russian audience and Western audiences look for from their TV news. While leftie Americans scorn Fox News' "Fair and Balanced motto," what angers them the most is the hypocrisy rather than the actual propaganda. Saying freedom of speech is overrated, well, now that's a horse of a different color.
Actually, it's a fitting epigraph for the show, in that it doesn't say anything explicitly about Vremya's mission or values. I just spent a week watching Vremya every night at 9pm, along with Russians in every village from Kaliningrad to Nakhotka, and nothing could better summarize the show's philosophy than that motto. Vremya doesn't have a vision; instead, it is a (usually) well-produced, sleek show that deals less in information than in an image that the Kremlin wants to project. But, equally importantly, Russians who watch it aren't looking for "fair and balanced." They're looking for stability and a well packaged show.
For example, last week during Putin's live call-in show, in which prescreened "ordinary" Russians were given a chance to ask the president questions, one peasant from the Stavropol oblast called in to complain that not only did her village not have water, but that she had complained about the same issue to the president four years ago, during his first live call-in show. Putin blamed local authorities and said that the governor wouldn't receive the Kremlin's approval to get endorsed by the regional parliament until he solved the problem.
Then, this Wednesday, the governor, Aleksandr Chernogorov, staged a photo-op of a new water pipeline being built into the village, with trenches, tractors and the works. Vremya did a segment on it, and then the reporter mentioned that some village residents were still unhappy and wanted other changes, too. When I saw the same story covered on RenTV, there were villagers standing around the well accusing the governor of staging the whole spectacle and claiming that the water still wasn't running! If that's true, well, it's a pretty big detail for Vremya to miss.
Whether or not that pipeline actually will end up delivering water to the village is immaterial; this is a typical ORT tactic. While the channel won't ever ignore a big story, the end report is so heavily spun and edited for content that it bears no relation to reality. The line between the state and the channel is so poorly defined that one Vremya anchor, when talking about the Russian pilot being held in Lithuania, ended the segment with, "And so, we won't abandon you," implying not only the pilot, it seemed, but the entire Russian nation.
But, like so much in Russia, Vremya is ready to sacrifice the truth for stability, and they never tire of reminding its viewers of the dangers of instability. Take their reporting on the recent political upheavals in Ukraine, which gave them a great chance to take potshots at the Orange Revolution in Kiev, just in case Russians might think about having one of their own. The reporter claimed, improbably, that after the recent political upheavals in which the prime minister was sacked, Yuschenko's ratings were the same as disgraced ex-president Kuchma's were during the Gongadze scandal, when an opposition reporter's headless corpse was found, and Kuchma was busted on tape revealing his involvement. Vremya also featured segments on the Orange and Blue capitals, Lviv and Donetsk. In Lviv, the segment featured a small group of teens from the fringe group Bratstvo half-heartedly practicing paramilitary maneuvers, while in Donetsk they showed an orderly metropolis with a tent city on the main square. The tent city wasn't occupied, but was maintained just in case it became necessary.
It's pretty clear what they were trying to say about the opposing factions. The anchor concluded by saying, "Russia's role is limited to that of a spectator in these struggles, because Ukraine is an independent country." To highlight this, he pointed out that the average Russian citizen is five times richer than their Ukrainian counterpart. Perhaps if Russia played a more active role, Ukrainians would be better off:
While watching Vremya, I felt like the CIA agents who would pour over every broadcast to determine which apparatchiks watching the parade on Lenin's mausoleum were on the assent by analyzing their proximity to Brezhnev; I was watching for signs of state policy between the lines rather than taking the reports at face value. Deputy PM Zhukov's getting a lot of positive air time? Must mean his star's on the rise! I'll call my bookie and put a hundred on his nose for president in 2008.
Of course, Vremya has adapted itself somewhat in the era of competition and virtual democracy, and its propaganda is neither as crude nor as boring as Soviet reports were about ever-increasing grain production. Nor is it as sophisticated in its propaganda approach as, say, Fox News. It doesn't have to be. As they boast on their website, for as long as there's been TV in Russia, the population has had a "conditioned reflex" to switch on Vremya at 21:00. And it's not only because ORT transmits to every wretched village across the whole of Russia, from Arctic settlements to Siberian posyolki. Most Russians keep switching on Vremya for the same reason that you can feel certain that your middle-aged gypsy cab driver in a Lada will be listening to shanson. When you ask him, he'll tell you he doesn't like it, but rather listens to it because, well, it's there. And Vremya knows it.
All competition has really done is shamed ORT into not completely avoiding some obviously big stories. ORT, like everyone else in the media world, is prone to media circuses these days. If, back in the glory days, Vremya was the only news available, now they have to follow the herd to some degree. For the same reason Fox's obsessive reporting of that girl's disappearance in Aruba turned it into front page news everywhere, ORT can't ignore media events. It's hard to imagine them trying a repeat of the silence after Chernobyl - that's not their style, because it would be too crude, and too obvious.
Andreeva as off-camera babe...
Anyone who's ever watched an episode of Vremya under the Putin regime probably is able to identify most of the program's recurring themes. A couple of years ago, while living in Tynda, I used to watch it nightly for several months, and they've hardly changed an iota. Stability, it seems, is valued above all. Rather than reporting on what's happening, ORT fits events into its pre-formed categories.
Just about any half hour show will start with a liberal dose of Putin. If he's abroad, he'll be warmly shaking foreign leaders' hands and saying that relations between the Russians and whatever country he's in have never been stronger and that they have common interests, like energy and terrorism. If he's in Russia, he'll be sitting at his desk receiving reports from a minister about some aspect of state policy, and asking all the right questions. This is the single most familiar image on ORT - Putin gets more airtime than the show's anchor babe Ekaterina Andreeva. Andreeva, who is Vremya's weekday anchor, could be beautiful if she ever let her hair down. As it is, with her hair pulled back tightly, joyless countenance and a staccato delivery, she looks like she should be holding a riding crop in a German porn flick.
... and on camera stabilizer.
Every day there's a cabinet meeting televised, as if showing Putin talking with his ministers in an obviously stage-managed (if not scripted) performance somehow is tantamount to transparency. Sometimes he'll dress them down, like when he chided regional leaders from the North Caucuses about corruption two Fridays ago. In these situations, the report will then cut to a sound bite containing relevant statistics from a trusted adviser, in this case Dmitri Kozak. The leaders looked like repentant schoolboys, scribbling down the president's directives furiously.
This type of dressing down might surprise anyone who's only read western reports about Russian media, as it doesn't correspond with the image usually reported of a tightly controlled media that portrays a peachy picture of Russia. In fact, even Vremya, the most loyal news show to the Kremlin, deals with issues of corruption and mismanagement in Russia. Corruption and social decay are so apparent in Russia that they don't even try to cover it up. So instead, they've fallen back on a long-standing Russian tradition that dates back to the Tsarist days: the notion that, if only the leader knew how his subjects were suffering at the hands of corrupt local officials, he would alleviate their suffering. In fact, when Vremya rebroadcast the woman from Stavropol's call, she said as much, saying, "Mr. President, I understand that you want to help, but one man cannot do everything." The message is that the country's being ruled by a competent man, but the armies of chinovniki get in the way of reforms being implemented. Of course, there's no mention of the fact that chinovniki have amassed more power under Putin than ever before.
Before I return to ORT, I want to say a couple of words in defense of some of Russia's other channels' news shows. Obviously they're not as well financed as ORT and there are topics that are taboo, such as criticizing government policy. However, several channels, including NTV, RenTV and TVTs, have taken to mimicking eXile guerilla tactics. These stations are chock full o' reports of petty local corruption and vicious details of the authorities' incompetence. While Vremya also addresses corruption and petty sheisters, it lacks the cynicism of these other channels, which often pursue stories that deal with the bungling of federal priorities.
The best example I saw recently was on NTV when a couple of villages were quarantined after an outbreak of Asian bird flu. During the day, every vehicle leaving the village had to drive through a pit of sawdust and get mopped down. When the correspondent asked how effective these clearly Mickey Mouse precautions were, the military officer in charge curtly said that no car would go un-disinfected and that the situation was under control. After nightfall, the camera crew returned to the post and all the guards were gone. The reporter implied that the guards were all passed out drunk, opened the gate effortlessly, and had his van drive through, un-sterilized.
This Wednesday, NTV had a segment about the return of a famous faith healer Anatoly Kashpirovsky, who got in trouble as a conman some years ago. He's been attracting crowds in Petersburg and selling them photos of himself for R200 as a necessary part of the cure. One babushka said, "The photos are kopeks. Think about how much we'd otherwise spend on medicine!" Another segment was about a teacher who teaches at a Yaroslavl prison because it pays better. By his own admission, he thinks it's a stupid idea, and he said, "What do I need a smart thief for? So he can steal from me with intelligence?" RenTV featured a brutal segment about the water pipe in Stavropol. It's as though these channels' journalists are saying, "Maybe we can't criticize the president or how he handles crises, but you can't keep us from pointing out that things are as screwed up as always."
ORT tends to be much softer in its criticism, and much gentler in its handling of Russians. With other channels, there's often a thinly veiled contempt for Russians, like in the faith healer segment, while ORT generally tries to frame its shots to present Russians' best side. One way they do this is with the theme "U nas ne khuchshe," or it's no worse in Russia. There are two tactics that this framework relies on. One is showing ground-breaking work being done in Russia, and the other is showing something screwed up happening in the West, preferably in America.
An excellent example of the former was Saturday's show, when they concluded with a segment about a tiger cub that was nearly blinded by cataracts in Krasnodar. It was a typical feel good story that probably left babushki all over Russia feeling warm inside - in an unprecedented operation, a group of Russian eye surgeons applied a method that had only been used on humans to date. Or at least according to Vremya's internet searches. Forget, for a second, that rich Americans routinely put their pets on dialysis machines and don't blink twice before ordering a ten thousand dollar kidney transplant for a favorite pug. Let's say this was indeed the first time an animal had a cataract removed. The report's happy ending was that, after the successful operation, the tiger could now perform in the circus! That's right - it's free to be whipped hairless by a sadistic animal trainer. Krasnodar children can clap with joy! What a fairytale ending!
One other thing that segment highlighted was the reliance on cheesy effects for some reports on the otherwise professional-grade show. The camera was left out of focus for a couple of seconds and then focused to demonstrate what the cub saw before and after the operation.
Another gimmick was during a report on a love-affair between a deaf guy and a non-hearing-impaired girl. At the end of the report, they muted the sound for several seconds while filming the Metro and then a goal in a soccer game, apparently to show the viewer what it's like to be deaf. (And to be scoring with a chick while deaf:)
The other aspect of the "u nas ne khuchshe" segments, of course, is showing bad things happen in the West. Not surprisingly, terrorism always gets prominent billing, so as to perpetuate the idea that the Chechens are part of a worldwide Wahabbite movement. But Vremya also gets a kick out of highlighting America's failure to pacify Iraq. I remember once about a year ago, there was a particularly bloody day in both Chechnya and Iraq, with about 10 soldiers dying in each place. Vremya devoted much more time to the dead Americans, only mentioning the Russian causalities in passing.
Likewise, they loved hurricane coverage. It differs somewhat from American sensationalism, where the reporter leans into the wind and shouts into the camera, "It's very dangerous out here - you'd have to be crazy to be caught on the street. The water level, it's rising and carrying everything with it! This is Paul Givens reporting for CNN!" Instead, ORT seemed to revel in showing poor blacks and the shacks they live in, emphasizing that the US is the richest country in the world. When I was watching last week, in the absence of large numbers of victims from Rita, they spent a disproportionate amount of time showing that bus full of pensioners burning in Houston. No need to scratch hard to find the subtext here: Russia's not the only country that can't take care of its own citizens.
The most dominant theme in international coverage is the so-called near-abroad, or former Soviet states. Like the "u nas ne khuchshe" reports, this one takes two forms, positive and negative. The biggest news of the week was the downed fighter pilot in Lithuania, but there were several other reports that fit into this category. The positive reports are about people in the near-abroad wanting closer relations with Russia. In the week I watched, they had segments on the growing demand for Russian language schools in Tashkent, the joint Uzbek-Russian training exercises (which featured Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov doing his best Bush-in-aviation-suit imitation, wearing a striped "tilnyashka" army shirt and beret) after the Americans pulled out, an Azeri region in southern Georgia demanding autonomy and closer relations with Russia, and Southern Ossetia wanting the same thing.
The negative ones focused on state-sponsored discrimination against Russian-speaking groups. There was a small demonstration in Riga for the right to study in Russian, a segment about how Ukrainian courts were facing intense backlogs after a presidential decree that all papers should be filed in Ukrainian, and a report on how, during the live call-in with Putin, a group of Latvians were at the last minute denied the right to gather in a public square and therefore forced to broadcast from the roof of a Russian-owned building.
The downed Su-27 also fits well into this category. ORT is constantly updating viewers on the condition of the pilot Valery Troyanov, who is still being detained by Lithuanian authorities. Along with the quote mentioned above, the Russian reporter offered the following aphorism about the Lithuanians: "They're not right, but they have the right." This report gave ORT a chance to show off its fancy computer graphics, which reconstructed the crash. ORT also got to plug itself as the Voice of Russia when Troyanov said on camera that watching Vremya had calmed his nerves because it reassured him that, "Russians don't abandon their own." Unless they live in Russia and aren't politically expedient, he might have added.
Another mainstay on Vremya is highlighting how Russian life is steadily improving under Putin's stewardship. While this doesn't really jive with reports I hear out of the provinces, it's a recurrent theme on ORT. Almost every show features something like the water pipeline story above. When I was watching, they featured a new helicopter bought for rescue teams on El Brus, Fradkov visiting a mine to investigate new safety measures, Putin mentioning that Russia now for the first time spends more on arms purchases than it exports to other countries, a child who got expensive heart surgery and treatment. In short, the problems are surmountable and are being tackled.
One of the most annoying habits on Vremya is the constant tie-ins to ORT's other shows. There's no attempt to keep the news division separate from the entertainment division, and the anchors always finish the evening by telling the viewers what's on next. When a new show premieres, they do interviews with the writers and stars, and are pimping their programming constantly. I'm always half expecting Andreeva to pull out a glass of Moya Semya juice and say, "Now that's what I call a juice!" like the hosts of ORT's various game shows constantly do.
Watching ORT can be informative, however. For example, when Khodorkovsky's lawyer Robert Amsterdam had his visa revoked, the Western press said that it was done without explanation or legal pretense. In fact, as ORT showed, it was perfectly legal and could happen to most expats at any time. ORT scored an interview with the head of "Global Consulting," the shell company used to get Amsterdam his visa. Most foreigners who use visa services prefer these services to figuring out how to get their actual place of work to issue a legitimate visa. For a fee, these companies offer business visas to "consultants," but it's an open secret that these consultants don't even know where their ostensible employers' offices are.
ORT's reporter interviewed the unshaven, shabby director of "Global Consulting" in a rundown smoky office that lacked even a computer. According to the director, Amsterdam didn't come to the consulting meeting that he was supposed to and so he alerted the FSB. Everything was perfectly legal - Amsterdam was issued a visa on false pretences, and therefore it was revoked. It's like a microcosm for the whole YUKOS affair - they weren't doing anything any differently than everybody else, but they were still breaking the law. The reasons for YUKOS' fall were political, but that's not the same as claiming that YUKOS didn't do anything wrong. Everyone here is doing something wrong, but the ones who get caught are the ones who piss off the wrong people.
There are also reports about some of the serious issues confronting Russia, like the country's falling population and the threat of inflation. The story about the kid with heart disease mentioned that there are some 30,000 kids in Russia with similar problems, in need of similar treatment. But these issues are always handled as if they are being dealt with, as if the government has a grip on the situation. In general, watching Vremya is like watching Putin's performance during the live call-in show.
In fact, the day of the show, they merged, and Vremya devoted its entire half hour to re-broadcasting highlights from the three-hour show. They even played a clip of Putin joking about his not wanting to have his face on TV for all of eternity when talking about the possibility of a third term. The only other news item was when they talked to Fradkov from the Shanghai Group meeting in Dushanbe about his reaction to Putin's performance.
Putin's performance was indeed impressive and he showed a willingness to address some of Russia's most serious problems. But, like Vremya in general, that misses the point. They've both proven that they are willing to admit to some problems, but they only address them on their own terms, which have no bearing on reality. Putin can claim that the war on corruption is an issue, but that doesn't change the fact that corruption is by all accounts on the rise. He can say that mandatory service in the army is in the process of being reduced to one year, but he avoids the real issues facing the military, which are unbearably brutal hazing and the war in Chechnya.
Really it all comes back to the Stavropol water pipeline, which may or may not be pumping water by now. In the worst case scenario, it was all a photo-op and nothing changed. In the best case scenario, the village now has a well, Governor Chernogorov will receive the Kremlin's blessing, and: the people of the village will still be shitting in outhouses for the rest of time. Thank God for stability!