Well, methinks I’ve collected enough sins of Russia-writing now to build an Alighieri-esque multilevel Hell in my backyard. Any suggestions for who I should banish there first?
7(+3) this ain’t – sins 18-24 are more serious and hence I couldn’t insert as much humor as I wanted. While my first set of Russia-writing sins came from books and the second from general discourse, most in this set are pulled from journalism.
The U.S. doesn’t have a Russia problem, it has a Putin problem.
Not so long ago, some politician (I think it was President Obama, but so many others have echoed the view since then that it’s hard to remember who said it first) named the top three threats to U.S. national security as ISIS, Ebola, and Vladimir Putin.
This may just look like an interesting choice of phrasing, but don’t underestimate the reason behind rhetoric. One could argue that international relations is personalized to some extent and that states tend to get along when their leaders do. However, linking a national leader with the whole country and then ascribing to them all actions of said country serves but one purpose: to dehumanize the leader and the people of that country. Simultaneously, it propagates a generalized version of how Russian politics works. Russian intervention in Syria isn’t rooted in any kind of national security objective – it’s because Putin hates the U.S. and wants to annoy it with his airstrikes and support of the Assad government. President=country also feeds the idea that if we get rid of the leader, then the country in question will be more open to U.S. interests. My personal view is that this kind of thinking is erroneous – Russian history suggests that Putin’s leadership is anything but an oddity and he pursues security dilemmas in the same manner as many previous occupants of the Kremlin. Whoever succeeds him will likely follow a similar policy path.
President=country might be good for creating a cartoonish Other, but it’s not good for much else. So the next time you write about Russia, remember that it’s not spelled P-U-T-I-N!
#19: Obligatory end-of-article bashing
An easy sin to spot. Obligatory bashing usually appears at the end of logical Russia articles that don’t immediately treat their subject with emotional appeals or moralizing. To demonstrate that they are not Kremlin Stooges (see #23 below) and can still be trusted by the Establishment, some writers pepper their work with familiar denunciations. For a particularly vivid example, see Matt Taibbi’s article “Something About This Russia Story Stinks” in Rolling Stone. For most of the article, Taibbi carefully builds his argument for why we should approach the ongoing Russia scandal with a critical eye. But then, in the second-to-last paragraph, we get this:
I have no problem believing that Vladimir Putin tried to influence the American election. He’s gangster-spook-scum of the lowest order and capable of anything. And Donald Trump, too, was swine enough during the campaign to publicly hope the Russians would disclose Hillary Clinton’s emails. So a lot of this is very believable.
Note the absence of any evidence to support these claims and the complete tonal shift from preceding paragraphs. “Gangster-spook-scum of the lowest order?” “Swine?” This turn of phrase is so jarring that it feels tacked-on. That’s because it is.
In my opinion, obligatory bashing reflects poorly on the denouncer and often undermines their argument. But in fairness, the current political climate might be forcing them to do it. Writers must repeat familiar criticisms (“Putin is a thug/murderer”, “Russian aggression”, etc.) ad nauseum to fend off fellow thinkers who are quick to brand any deviation from the norm as “apologia”, the Gessens and Mensches of the world. With so much of the political and media elite holding the same views about Russia, being labeled an “apologist” could kill one’s career, at least in the MSM. But over time, repeated denunciations lead to the buildup of a hidden bias in one’s work. Case in point: the sad story of Mark Adomanis, as chronicled in The Ironic Double Gap.
I should add that 9 times out of 10 obligatory bashing isn’t even necessary: the writer’s even-handedness and consideration of all the facts as displayed in earlier paragraphs is enough to signal to any thinking person that the writer isn’t a so-called “Kremlin stooge”.
(Maybe that’s the problem right there. Not enough “thinking people”.)
“But J.T.,” you ask, “what if the writer genuinely dislikes Russia?”
That’s perfectly fine; every person is entitled to their own opinion, but there are more sophisticated ways to express disagreement with Russia’s actions – such as weaving it into the fabric of your argument.
#20: Quoting anonymous experts, officials, or “sources close to the Kremlin”
With all that’s happened in the past seven months, how could I write about a new batch of sins and NOT include this in the lineup?
I’m not including a concrete example for this sin. Just refer to, like, every “Russian hacking”/elite-struggles-in-the-Kremlin story ever.
In short, unknown intelligence officers or politicians produce unsubstantiated claims, based on evidence which is unavailable to the public and uncorroborated by independent experts. Readers are left to take the info on faith because it’s all they have, and – if we’re talking about anonymous US gov’t leaks – the media seems to embrace it as the Gospel Truth (despite journalists traditionally being skeptical of official claims…).
Yes, I’m fully aware of the need for intelligence agencies to protect their Sources and Methods ™, as well as the argument that those anonymous officials might be right. But doesn’t anyone else see this over-reliance on AOs as irresponsible at best and risky at worst?
Because the source is not provided, there’s no way to assess the assertion’s validity. Add in the fact that many, if not most, of those unnamed officials have concealed agendas (how else would you explain the timing of these leaks), and you get a group of people free to issue completely false claims without the slightest concern of repercussions. Sometimes journalists use the vague “some experts say” to insert their own opinion on a subject, instead of plainly stating that this is their interpretation of an event or issue. In both cases the result is the same: readers might come away believing incorrect information, or taking comment for fact. This services no one except the outlets disseminating the information or the elite who sanctioned it.
I’d suggest being wary of anything coming from anonymous sources.
#21: Russians as default spy novel villains
I appreciate your laziness. I really do.
#22: RT and Sputnik: perfect little punching bags
Two examples immediately come to mind: Weiss and Pomerantsev’s Menace of Unreality report (2014) and Annex A to Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections”. But in no way are these the only two examples.
These reports greatly overstate the influence of Russian news outlets RT and/or Sputnik to argue that there’s an “information war” going on. There is an information war – I’m not challenging that. But the sin here is in overstating – and scapegoating, when the influence of RT is used to “explain” events such as Brexit or trends like declining public trust in the media. You’ve got a problem? They’ve got propaganda. Done!
Annex A of the ODNI report, in an effort to show Russian propaganda influence on the 2016 presidential elections (and using information from 2012, BTW), cites RT’s own estimate of audience – 550 million people worldwide and 85 million in the U.S. What the report fails to point out is that these numbers are imaginary. They refer to potential audience – households that can receive a signal if and only if they bother turning it on. But people don’t. Nielsen analyzed the top 94 cable news programs, Dec 2014-Mar 2015 (cable news only and excluding the TV news giants), and RT didn’t even make the list – a list which ended with a fraction of a hundredth of a percent. The audience is estimated to be <0.1% in Europe.
Throw in the fact that funding for major outlets (CNN, BBC, etc.) exceeds funding for RT/Sputnik several times over and an estimate by research scholar Ellen Mickiewicz that only 1% of RT’s total exposure on YouTube are political videos and, well, “Russian propaganda” looks less and less like the behemoth some analysts are making it out to be.
Pinning decreasing public trust in traditional media on “Russian propaganda” robs people of their agency (in this case, ability to think for themselves) and fundamentally misreads the reason why people are tuning out in the first place: they question the traditional media’s ability to relay information in a reliably balanced, relatively unbiased way. So instead of lamenting the “menace of unreality”, how about we indulge in a little self-reflection and reconsider how we report the news?
Nope! Too hard to do! And besides, something’s got to keep the money flowing in to struggling think tanks…
#23: “Kremlin bootlickers” and “fellow travelers”
In early 2016, The Daily Beast branded the American Committee for East-West Accord – an organization arguing for “new detente” and co-founded by Stephen F. Cohen with former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Jack F. Matlock, Jr. as a board member – “Putin’s New American Fan Club”. Meanwhile, on the less visible interwebs (and in online articles’ comments sections), users (including yours truly) have been branded with such charming names as
Amoral Putin lackey, Russophile trash, Ivan, fellow traveler, useful idiot, propagandist, kremlebot, Russia sympathizer, Putin apologist, bydlo, vatnik, Kremlin shill, puppet, Putin’s lapdog, paid troll, FSB agent, know-nothing, RT-lover.
I’m not denying the existence of 100% pro-Kremlin voices. The problem is that more often than not, “Putin’s bootlicker”/”Russia sympathizer” is used to smear people who hold dissenting or nonconformist views on the Russia issue (i.e. no regime change in Russia, cooperation in the Middle East is desirable, sanctions harm Europe as much as Russia). I think the effectiveness of such smears is tied to their appeal to patriotism; if you’re not saying things against the Russians then you must be for the Russians, and if you’re for the Russians then you’re a traitor; nobody wants to be a traitor. In reality, the subjects of smears simply disagree with the dominant analysis of international affairs, and feel that their own country’s interests are not well served by confrontation with Russia. That’s a perfectly reasonable point of view, and there’s nothing subversive or treasonous about it at all.
Throwing around “fellow traveler” is not good argumentation, nor is it healthy for debate. For one thing, it attacks the person’s character rather than the tenets of their argument. And for another, everyone being willing to call one another “Russia sympathizers” (perhaps in the hopes it will shield themselves from denouncement?) leads to a moral signalling spiral, at the end of which is a discourse where only one side – the ideologically “correct” side – is heard.
This sin has an easy fix – instead of simply denouncing people for having “unacceptable” opinions, just argue rationally with them instead.
Easy in theory, at least.
#24: Playing fast and loose with facts
One could argue that this has been going on for a while, but for me things got bad beginning with the infamous “dossier” leaked by Buzzfeed. Then Newsweek concludes that Flynn was connected to Russia simply because he attended a reception hosted by RT. Then Politico publishes an interview with a former CIA official claiming that Trump could easily have been recruited by Putin simply because Putin served in the KGB. WaPo reports that Russian hackers attacked a power plant in Vermont, then has to retract the story later when the power plant itself intervenes. Congressman Mike Quigley says in an interview with CNN that if one meets with any Russians, then they are meeting with Russian intelligence and therefore Vladimir Putin.
I really don’t need to elaborate on why fudging facts is detrimental to the Russia Debate. Instead I cast the sinners into the frigid depths of Russia-writing Hell, to be chewed and rended for eternity by the hulking, demonic, three-headed pseudoPutin their selective use of facts helped create.
See, The Inferno would’ve been much more interesting had I written it.
But all jokes aside – not to sound alarmist or anything, but we’ve reached a point in the Russia Debate when committing one of these sins can have serious consequences. Ones that reach far beyond having to retract an article. It’s critical that when we write about Russia, we get it right, and not stick to familiar cliches and tropes, comfortable as they might make us feel. It’s difficult, but can be done. And all sides would benefit from more of us trying.