August 28, 2017

GOROKH | On Free Press in Russia

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When the Iron Curtain fell and waves of Russian emigrants washed upon the American shore, a famous musician you’ve never heard of wrote a song titled “Good Bye America.” It is about the America that existed in the collective unconsciousness of the deprived Soviet population, a country that achieved happiness via abundance and freedom. It is about how this imaginary kingdom collapsed once faced with its real-world counterpart.

Sometimes I think Americans never experienced this healthy disillusionment in regards to their Cold War buddy: few of them ever traveled East, and russian pop culture never made it into the states, unable to compete with Hollywood. In their views on modern Russia, U.S. citizens don’t have much to go on other than event- and gore-driven journalism.  For example, you may have heard in that 30-second segment on The Daily Show that a journalist was killed or blogger was sent to prison. It sounds bad and, indeed, every such occurrence is a disgrace to the nation. But how much can one infer from those incidents about an issue as systemic as freedom of press? I want to take this particular example and dispel some potential misconceptions.

When thinking about the issue of free press, we must address two separate issues: firstly, how much effort does it take for a motivated individual to get access to reliable information and diverse opinion; and, secondly, how informed the typically unmotivated population really is.

When it comes to availability, I submit that Russia does not lag too far behind the West. You can buy a boring newspaper that can output an in-depth 30-pager on the corruption schemes at a top university and Putin’s daughter’s involvement in it.  You can subscribe to social network groups with millions of followers that produce more digestible tweetlike news bits and mock the government with the power of the meme. One of the biggest radio stations in Moscow casually invites most outspoken opposition to blast Putin and his underlings, all available to you during your insufferable morning commute, if you are willing to listen.  All of these organizations will occasionally clash with government officials, but it is extremely rare for the state to aggressively interfere with their operation: all the sources I use personally have stayed afloat and untouched even as the screws of censure have tightened steadily since  2011.

You might have noticed that one item I am leaving out of this summary is television, the medium of the passive and disinterested. Controlled by the government, television tragically has a near-monopoly on facts and thought:  for 60 percent of Russians (versus 25 percent of Americans), TV is the preferred and often the only way of finding out what is going on.

But government-controlled TV may not be what you think it is. Perhaps you are picturing Orwell’s Ministry of Truth public announcements or Hugo Chavez ranting live for hours straight on the villainy of American imperialism. I want you instead  to think of Fox News. The analogy is surprisingly apt and I suspect not coincidental.

The similarities are numerous. In news reports, anchors never really have to outright lie when relaying facts to the population. Careful and subtle omission is the only tool required to perform a remote lobotomy, and only amateurs resort to reporting factually false information. Then there is a Bill O’Reilly-type show where the host would give his personal take on the recent events in a pseudo-intellectual manner that makes you feel you’re smart for following his convoluted conspiratorial explanations.

But a personal favorite TV gimmick of mine is the  panel discussion — whoever invented this genre was a genius! You can present your radical viewpoint as moderate by inviting to the show someone outright insane and you can pretend you are being fair to the other side by inviting them to participate, and then cutting them off after five seconds. You don’t need to act unprofessionally by making unbased claims — you can instead let your guests do the job. Finally, what can be better for ratings than the engrossing drama of spit-n-shout arguments which are oftentimes misconstrued  as debate? The crazy thing is, if you listen long enough, even while disagreeing with every word and making fun of moderator’s style choices, you will walk away with your point of view nevertheless ever so slightly shifted; like uranium radiation, propaganda poisons you regardless of whether or not you choose to believe in it.

The bottom line is that information in Russia is abundant but unwanted. And the main obstacle to improving freedom of press is not the imprisoned bloggers but the pathological and irredeemable ignorance and addiction to television exhibited by  my compatriots. Chances are, neither of those things sound foreign to you, reader.


Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics at Cornell University. He can be reached at [email protected]Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.