Democracy Hypocrisy

Propaganda at Home and Abroad


by Matt Taibbi

About two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a piece by correspondent Steven Lee Myers blasting the Russian media for its slavish surrender to the political demands of Vladimir Putin. The thesis of the Myers piece is that the death-by-a-thousand-cuts effort by the Russian executive at seizing control of the state’s major television news media has made political plurality impossible. It especially bemoaned the experience of minor-party candidates, quoting Irina Khakamada, the candidate for the West-leaning laissez-faire Union of Right Forces, as saying of Russian tv: "It’s all propaganda."

Really. No shit.

I am not going to get into a long discussion of ancient history here, but it’s worth taking a moment to put Khakamada’s comments in perspective. Khakamada’s party, known as SPS, is one of the most despised political parties in Russia. The party was created by a small group of notorious America-friendly politicians, including former deputy prime minister and privatization chief Anatoly Chubais and former prime ministers Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Kiriyenko. These smash-the-state capitalist revolutionaries received the enthusiastic support of the American media, in particular the New York Times, back when they started the ball rolling on the whole process of state censorship in the mid-1990s.

I had a front-row seat for this process. In 1997, a good friend of mine, a reporter named Leonid Krutakov, published a sensational article in Izvestia entitled "Kreditui Ili..." ("Give Credit or..."). The article detailed a scheme involving Anatoly Chubais, who had recently been brought back into the Yeltsin government after successfully running Yeltsin’s reelection campaign. Chubais, Krutakov exposed, had received a $3 million loan from a bank called Stolichny shortly before overseeing the auction of a state agricultural bank called AgPromBank that was won–surprise, surprise–by Stolichny. Essentially the article argued that Chubais had received a bribe in return for turning over the handling of the state’s agricultural accounts to Stolichny, which was run at the time by a notorious gangster named Alexander Smolensky.

The story of the difficulty Krutakov had in getting this article into print is an epic in itself. Before he even got to Izvestia, he was fired by his Chubais-friendly employers at Komsomolskaya Pravda, was rejected by the excellent city paper Moskovsky Komsomolets (run at the time by Chubais-friendly MOST-Bank) and had the piece spiked at the last minute by a muckracking journal called Top Secret after Artem Borovik, the editor of that normally feisty rag, got a call from Smolensky just prior to publication.

The punchline to all of this was that after Izvestia ran the story, its editor, Igor Golombiyevsky, was fired under "pressure from above" (read: Chubais). Krutakov himself was brought in and interrogated by agents of the Russian secret services as well as aides to Chubais, who were anxious to know the source of his story. The incident was widely considered the Alamo for the Russian free press. Subsequent to that incident, it became a widely accepted fact of Russian journalism that sensational exposes could only be published at the behest of a powerful sponsor who had the juice to back it up. And with all of the major press organs by then owned by oligarchical businessmen with ties to the state, the nut of Russian civics became nearly impossible to crack on the big stage.

The Times not only failed to cover the Izvestia incident, but the paper remained an enthusiastic sponsor of Chubais even after he was tossed from government for accepting an improper book advance by yet another winner of state auctions, Oneksim bank. At the news of his firing some six months after the Izvestia debacle, the Times ran a story by Alessandra Stanley suggesting that the poor hero had been unduly hounded from office; the piece was earnestly headlined "The Burning of a Russian Crusader," suggesting that he had been purged in the manner of a Salem witch. Here is how Stanley described the victimized Chubais:

"Determined to destroy the last vestiges of the Soviet command economy, Mr. Chubais helped create the crony capitalism that grew in its stead. He then tried to use Russia’s corrupt oligarchy, figuring he could tame it and replace it with a more open, free-market system. But he badly underestimated the bankers’ resistance to change–and his own vulnerability."

It was the Times’ view that bribery and media manipulation was acceptable in the context of creating a "more open, free-market system." Operating under purely Stalinist logical presumptions, the Times argued that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.

The paper is freaking out now because the system of manipulation-through-mafia-surrogates designed by Chubais has been replaced by more or less direct state censorship. In the Myers piece, entitled "On Russian TV, Whatever Putin Wants, He Gets," the paper quoted Vladimir Grigoryev, the deputy press minister, as saying:

"It’s like a pendulum.... Once you had irresponsible businessmen manipulating the media. Then it went the other way, with the state in control. There should be a balance."

This Myers piece is so amusing because it comes at a time when the Times itself has been roundly ignoring minor-party candidates in the American elections. Just days after the Myers article, the paper ran an editorial called "And Now There Are Two," effectively eliminating Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich from the process. Last week, in its endorsement of John Kerry for the New York primary, it described Kerry and John Edwards as the last "serious candidates" and refused to even mention Sharpton or Kucinich by name.

It would be interesting to hear the Times’ explanation for why the Khakamada’s SPS deserves press coverage, while Kucinich and Sharpton do not. If poll numbers are the standard, I would point out that in the last parliamentary election, the SPS ran neck and neck in the low single digits with that surging phenom of Russian electoral politics, "Against All Candidates."

The gripe that the Times has with Putin is twofold. One is that his deal is naked state censorship, as opposed to the American system, which is nebulous and corporate. When the press was being manipulated to serve the interests of privatization, the gutting of social welfare programs and sweetheart deals for U.S. companies seeking Russian raw materials–that was cool. Now that we have state corruption on behalf of a dictator intent on controlling his own country’s assets–not cool.

The other is that his method is not sufficiently subtle. In Russia, deference is given to one man and one party, and no one can have any illusions about what’s going on. In America, deference is given to two essentially identical parties with superficially plausible cosmetic differences. There is the appearance of fairness and of a free press, just as there was, to a far less sophisticated degree, in the "balanced" Yeltsin era, when the dirty work was done by gangsters running the press organs.

The flap over Janet Jackson and Howard Stern and that Florida Love-Sponge asshole really serves to conceal a much larger issue. We have a system of media domination in this country, but it operates according to a completely different paradigm than the traditional bald censorship of Josef Stalin. It’s achieved by drowning out minor voices in an overwhelming quantity of mainstream media output, and through the relentless mass marketing of a charade of political plurality and diversity that carefully excludes or consigns to the edges any uncomfortable content–like Kucinich and Sharpton.

Then there is the campaign of emotional body blows designed to ravage the ordinary person’s pride in his own humanity. The average American sees more than 30,000 commercials a year, most of which show human beings participating in a humiliating orgy of self-abasement. There’s the poor sap singing and dancing with joy over his OfficeMax supplies, the gushing woman at lunch with her girlfriends who confesses, "It’s not love–it’s my Crest White Strips!"

We have millions of those choices. We can thusly act like an idiot with any one of millions of culturally acceptable accessories. But in the area of acceptable political choices, we have two. Not one, but two. That is the kind of freedom the New York Times demands for Russia, and for us.


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