This week another outrageous media scandal happened in Russian, which made me think about something we talked about in class earlier this semester.
Global Voices has the story. In short, Aleksandr Plushev, a radio host for Echo of Moscow, one of the leading — and most objective, albeit controversial — Russian news radio stations, was fired for posting an inappropriate tweet about the death of the son of Sergey Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff.
(Of course, there’s much more context to it, such as: a) Ivanov’s son had a notorious reputation and allegedly get away with a hit-and-run that resulted in the death of a woman; b) Echo of Moscow’s editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov personally knows Vladimir Putin, and many people think that the Russian president guaranteed a certain degree of freedom to the station.)
Was this tweet really inappropriate? In my opinion, yes. How evil Ivanov and his son might be, it’s irresponsible for a journalist to imply that a person’s death was a “proof of God’s existence or cosmic justice”.
But here comes the difference between Russia and America. The journalist wasn’t fired by his editor-in-chief. In fact, it was Mikhail Lesin, head of Gazprom-Media, the main shareholder of Echo of Moscow, who made the decision without even noticing the editor-in-chief. Which, of course, is completely outrageous and also illegal. And many people believe that this situation is just a pretext to get Venediktov, who refused to agree with Lesin’s decision, fired, too.
This is a good example of the importance of editorial independence, I guess. Yes, it is obvious that, when it comes to journalists being on Twitter, the border between a private opinion and a professional one is blurred, and pretty much anything that a reporter tweets publicly can be inflammatory for his organization. But it’s up to this organization, and not its owners or government officials, to decide whether a reporter crossed the line and whether he should be punished for that.
Unfortunately, I was able to attend only two out of six master classes. Not my fault, though. Just schedule conflicts. I mean, whose idea was it to hold the lectures by James Ball from the Guardian and Mark Robinson from Wired at the same time?! It was cruel.
Anyway, one of the classes I managed to attend was given by two editors of Kyiv Post, a Ukranian English-language newspaper. Obviously, they talked about covering the dramatic events that have been happening in their country for the last year.
You can probably understand why I was interested. But I won’t get into the whole argument Maidan, Crimea and the war in Lugansk and Donetsk right now — this is too complicated and, admittedly, sometimes even painful.
I’d like to concentrate on one particular aspect of the master class here. I even asked the Kyiv Post’s editors a question about it. When Katya Gorchinskaya, the deputy editor of the newspaper, was talking about the importance of retaining objectivity even when one side of the conflict seems to be pure good and other pure evil, I asked if their reporters actually went to Maidan to express their views as citizens.
She said no. And that got me thinking about my own experience in that kind of situation, which was completely opposite.
As you may or may not know, in the winter of 2011-2012 we had our own Maidan in Moscow — well, kind of: it was far less violent, which is good, and ultimately unsuccessful, which is bad. From December 2011 until May 2012 there were a lot of massive protest demonstrations against election frauds and the Russian government in general, but, since the opposition didn’t win (honestly speaking, they never really tried), eventually things got even worse, leading to the ultraconservative revival we can see now in Russia.
Anyway, Russian liberal media played an important part in this so-called revolution. Many journalists participated in the demonstrations themselves — as citizens, not reporters. It just felt natural; for the first time in our lives my generation, it seemed, had a chance to speak up and make a difference, and why should journalists stay away in such extraordinary circumstances? We didn’t even have any discussions about it. Now I wish we did.
Moreover: right before the first massive protest demonstration that happened December 10, 2011, we decided to publish on our magazine’s website several op-eds in which our reporters and editors explained why they are going to participate in the protest. I contributed to this story, too. Now I regret it.
All these questions have been bothering me ever since, and they won’t go away, and I’m not sure they have any right answers. Did we do the right thing? Shouldn’t we have retained our principles even when we thought there could be a revolution, and we can contribute to its cause? And didn’t this revolution fail, at least in part, because journalists abandoned their principles, thus in a way mirroring the actions of the government who abandoned its commitment to listen to the voice of Russian citizens?
I don’t know, but I kind of feel ashamed that I started asking myself these questions only afterwards, when it was already too late.
I found out this week that Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, two women that were — and, as a matter of fact, still are — members of Pussy Riot art-band (using this word I imply that PR were neither a proper music band, nor an art-group — but something in between) started a new project. And it’s a media.
Why do I find this information relevant for the purposes of this blog? Well, let’s see. Pussy Riot is indisputably the most famous Russian cultural brand right now — and probably the most famous in a long time. Of course, we have to “thank” Russian judicial system that put these girls in jail for two years for their two-minutes protest performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior (and just to be clear: I think that no performance can be considered a felony, even if it offends a large group of people). Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova paid a tough price for their fame. But still. Now they hang out with Madonna, Henry Rollins and Yoko Ono; they’re deservedly welcome by Western politicians and charity institutions. For their next project they could choose whatever came into their minds: a performance, an art exhibition, a fundraiser. But they went with media, the purpose of which is to inform the public about what’s happening in Russian prisons and penal colonies (it’s also worth noting that MediaZone is officially founded by ‘Zona Prava’, a human rights organization started by Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova several months ago).
That, I think, proves yet again: media are important, because there isn’t a more convenient way to tell the truth to the people. Art can be powerful and influential, it can pose serious questions about our life and the reality we live in. Politics can be instrumental to accomplishing important humanitarian goals (not in contemporary Russia, though). But if you want to find information and to get it to the audience, journalism is still your best choice.
Of course, the credibility of Russian media is seriously compromised by lots of lies and deliberate manipulations. But I still think that the launch of MediaZone is of great significance — if for no other reason than because of the fact than no other Russian media reports about the state of prison system and about the life of prisoners. And their life is unbelievably harsh. In fact, as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova once put it — and, mind it, she spent two years in a penal colony — Russian prison in terms of its power structure and the relationship between those who are in charge and those who take the orders is a sort of miniature of Russian life itself. And by understanding the first better — and by fighting the injustice, — we can know a lot more about the life of our country.
MediaZone seems important also in terms of the diversification of media that we can observe anywhere nowadays. Of course, many Russian news outlets don’t report about prisons not because they deliberately ignore this problem, but because there’s so much going on that they just don’t have resources to address such issues. And that’s when niche media can come into play. Certainly, MediaZone is a non-profit news organization, but, generally speaking, it provides a model for many other media that can probably be even profitable, if properly realized.
The biggest story in the Russian media this week? Surely this: Russian soldiers who may or may not have been sent by the government to fight Ukranian troops near Donetsk and Lugansk, who may or may not have been killed there and who may or may not have been secretly buried by their families in their hometowns.
Well, er, two small corrections. First: unfortunately, at the moment it seems fair to state that these soldier are in fact dead. There has been enough evidence to support this claim in the past two day. Second — and more important in the context of this blog: this story is actually NOT appearing in the Russian media.
(Disclaimer: I absolutely don’t intend to engage myself in the discussion about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This issue is too complicated, completely irrelevant to the topic of this blog and, admittedly, very painful. My interest here is in how the media works — and what might be the consequences when journalists fail to do their job.)
Here’s the story — I’ll try to tell it as briefly as possible, so certain shortcuts are unavoidable. Earlier this week strange and concerning posts started popping up in the accounts of three airborne soldiers from the division quartered in Pskov, a city in the North part of Russia. These posts basically said that these soldiers are dead — presumably, killed in battle while fighting against Ukranian troops in South-Eastern Ukraine. The latter could be easily deducted from context and from their previous posts, but surely needed to be confirmed — if not by the government (as you may have heard, the Russian government isn’t very eager to confirm anything related to Ukraine), then by journalists, for whom it was an obvious opportunity to investigate the story of national — or even international — importance.
How many Russian media outlets jumped on this story? Well, a handful. And I mean — literally, you could easily count them on your fingers. Several independent newspapers and websites generally considered to be opposition. TV Rain, an independent news channel. Echo of Moscow, a controversial, but still relevant radio station. And, basically, that’s it. National TV channels? Lifenews and lenta.ru, probably the most popular news websites? Kommersant, the most influentialRussian daily newspaper (well, at least it was the most influential Russian daily newspaper for many years)? None of them didn’t say a word about it. They didn’t try to prove it (which, by the way, was really hard to do, considering that there were tough guys guarding the graves of the soldiers and even impersonators answering their cell phones — no kidding!). They didn’t try to disprove it. They just ignored it and pretended there was no news at all. In fact, this picture made by Kashin.guru, an internet publication run by Oleg Kashin, a former Kommersant reporter who was nearly beaten to death by some strangers 4 years ago in Moscow (case still unsolved) and who is now living in Switzerland, sums it up perfectly.
(On the side note: as long as mr. Kashin obsessively follows any mention of his name anywhere — hi, Oleg, greetings to Geneva from Missouri, you’ve done a really great job this week.)
The translation: 66 percent of the most cited Russian media (according to the survey done by might that have been? A possible hint: almost all of these media outlets are owned by government — or by business corporations closely affiliated with the state. And those who are technically independent — like Lifenews, the biggest Russian tabloid publication both online and offline, — repeatedly swore allegiance to the government and personally to Vladimir Putin. The founder of Lifenews once said that there were two people completely untouchable for him — the President and the Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church — and that by any means he would avoid criticizing any of their actions. Well, that’s principle.
And now, as you may have seen on the New York Times front page, we have more than enough evidence that Russian soldiers in fact were killed — or, in some cases, captured by their enemies — while fighting in Ukraine.
Again: I don’t want to take any sides here, I don’t want to argue for or against anyone’s cause. My point is simple: it is unacceptable for the media to behave this way. Under any circumstances. When you ignore a story — and especially when you ignore a story like this one, — you lie. And you have to face the consequences. And I don’t mean any future retaliation. You can see those consequences right now. There are people who died, probably believing that they were fighting for their country. And the people of this country just don’t care about them. Because they simply don’t know. And this burden lies on the shoulders of journalists who remained silent.
Before we begin, I believe I should introduce myself.
My name is Aleksandr Gorbachev, and I’m a first year Graduate Students (MA program) in J-School at Mizzou. I am from Moscow, Russia… Well, not exactly: originally I’m from Obninsk — a small town near Moscow which you may have heard about because the very first nuclear plant in the world was launched there in 1956, — but I’ve been living in Moscow for the past 15 years. I didn’t like it very much at first — and to be honest at times I still struggle to love it wholeheartedly, — but still: Russia is a very centripetal country. If you want to try to achieve something, you have to be in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. And I wanted to try indeed.
I graduated from Russian State University for the Humanities with a degree in Russian Literature in 2006, but by that time I had already been involved in music journalism — and I decided to pursue a career in it. I started writing several years before that — just for myself at the beginning: I just thought at some point that the best way to sort out my relationships with certain bands, albums or songs — and to better understand them — would be to write about them (since I was young, I have seen the world as a text to be written and analyzed, so it seemed logical to apply this concept to my own perception of music). Then it became a passion. Then a job.
In 2005 I began working at Afisha, a biweekly Arts & Culture magazine that at the time was — and still is, I dare say — one of the most influential cultural publications in Moscow, if not the entire country. I was its music observer, its junior editor, its senior editor, its executive editor and — for the past year — its editor-in-chief. 9 years is a long time, as you can imagine, and in that time I’ve done a lot. As a music writer I helped a whole new generation of young, independent and globally oriented bands emerge and establish themselves as a cultural force worth paying attention to. With my help and under my supervision the music section of Afisha has become probably the most influential music media in Russia — in fact, what at the beginning was just my own music blog at the magazine’s website eventually evolved into a separate media outlet, a webzine called The Wave that we launched last November. As an editor I took part in developing a new concept for our magazine, shifting its focus from culture towards social and even political matters and completely redesigning it — making its centrepiece a main feature which is a profound journalistic research of a particular topic, be it the history of contemporary Russian cinema or the Pussy Riot trial (such features could be up to 200 hundred pages long, so we basically had to write and publish a book every other week). As an editor-in-chief I put girls from Pussy Riot and Alexey Navalny, the most promising Russian opposition leader, on the cover of the magazine — causing something of a public opinion fuss. I also… Well, I think I’ve already showed off too much, and this paragraph is definitely too long. You probably get the idea.
The obvious question follows: why did I leave all this to study in the US? Well, several reasons. First: at some point I realized that I really missed education. I wanted to be able to study again — to go to classes, to sit in the library, to do some research; I felt like I needed a complete change of my daily routine — and when the Fulbright program (which I am a fellow of) provided for such an opportunity, I seized it immediately. Second: considering the current state of Russian media (which isn’t so good, to put it mildly) and the constant decay it has experienced in recent years, I felt that it might be good to study practices, policies and traditions of American journalism — which seems to be the strongest in the world, at least as regards to its values and diversity — from within. And then, maybe, to try to make a difference by bringing these policies and practices to my homeland. Third: journalism today faces so many challenges, and some of them, I think, can’t be addressed if you have to put a magazine out every other week — there isn’t so much room for study and research. At least not so much as we’ll have here at J-School — and I’m very eager to address and analyze issues that concern my profession. For example, I’m interested in studying how printed magazines can remain relevant in a digital era and what their business models can be. Last (but, as they say, not least): I really wanted to live outside Russia for some time. If you watch the news, you know that the situation there gets more and more difficult, and being a journalist in Russian now — and I mean a journalist, not a propagandist — is one of the fastest tracks to depression, I believe, even if you write about music and culture. At some point I though it would be better for me to pull out of it and to watch everything that happens from a distance. That surely doesn’t sound patriotic, but that’s how I feel.
Nonetheless, I will probably still write a lot about what happens in Russian in this blog, because I still read the news and more often than not feel some obligation to react. What’s more important, though, is that the current situation in Russia with all its complications has a lot to do with the power of media — it basically shows us that this power can be used for very unpleasant purposes, that the media, if not controlled by civil society, can transform this society into a totally uncivil one. So my reflections here would probably be not so much about Russian politics, but more about journalism in general, its principles, its values and its consequences. Oh, and I’ve never ever written in English, so mistakes are inevitable — and I am already sorry for that. And mind it: I spent many years writing about music — that means song quotes are inevitable too.