Changes in Russian TV Propaganda Landscape
My friend, a veteran journalist from Eastern Europe, can hardly be called a Kremlin sympathizer. То the contrary, his credentials as a veteran anti-communist and defender of press freedom are impeccable. He never had a chance to have his writings published in the old USSR (until 1989 mostly writing for Western magazines), or for that matter in Putin-controlled media, nothing to say about being on Russian prime time TV. That is – until recently.
Now, welcome to the new Kremlin TV propaganda reality. Being stonewalling and often ridiculed by major Western media, the new Russian government propaganda machine began to change, modernizing its approach. It started with the overhaul of Kremlin foreign language programs. What used to be rather dull and rhetorical “Inoveshchanie” radio broadcasts, have been replaced by a very modern and slick television outlet – Russia Today (which is now called RT).
Domestic TV fare has undergone a longer evolution. Politicized and often controversial programming of the 1990s gradually changed to endless serials, reality TV and sitcoms. Many, if not most, of those had been domestic versions of the US TV shows (Wheel of Fortune, Dancing with the Stars, etc.). However, after all Russian language independent broadcasting disappeared in the first years of Putin’s rule, most of the political fare for the domestic television audience was filled with familiar talking (and often screaming) heads following the Kremlin line. Hardly any dissent voices were allowed.
Over the last 3 or 4 years, this situation started to change. As the Russian TV viewers were becoming tired and bored of the same guys and gals tooting the official line and trying to compete in who is the most anti-American or most hard line “Putinist”, the powers that be with the TV propaganda cohorts have decided to make their fare more interesting or even “entertaining”. For that they needed live, and not imaginary enemies, who could be publicly defeated and become whipping boys.
This new format was first tried by a notorious propaganda scion, Vladimir Solovyov who started inviting one or two democratic opposition members for the carefully choreographed “talk shows”, where they were summarily “defeated” by a much larger number of the pro-Kremlin politicians. These included nominally pseudo-opposition figures such as liberal-democratic “party” leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian Communist party chief Gennady Zyuganov or ultra-nationalist writer Aleksandr Prokhanov. To make sure that the “good”, i.e. pro-Kremlin, guys always “win” in these debates, they were not broadcasted live, with recorded versions being heavily edited.
Enter the new TV shows that first were introduced during and in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. While most of Solovyev’s early programs included only members of domestic democratic opposition, the new format shows began extending selective invitations to foreign journalists and politicians as well.
Vladimir Solovyev receives a state decoration from Putin
First, there was a Channel RTR program called “Special Correspondent” anchored by Arcady Mamontov, where he introduced a format in which specially invited guests, after watching documentary footage, were offering their comments. “Special Correspondent” usually invited a few foreigners who were offered limited time for their comments and a lion share of the program time was given to pro-Kremlin guests. However, this particular program was directed against the domestic oppositionists and had very few international topics.
A new talk show called “60 minutes” on the government RTR channel has been recently introduced in primetime ( 8PM), which underlies its importance. One of its anchors, Yevgeny Popov, came from “Special Correspondent”, which incidentally had been cancelled in October 2016. He was joined by a young (31) hostess, Olga Skabeyeva, who happened also to be Yevgeny’s wife. Unlike her husband, Yevgeny, who worked a number of years in the US as an RTR New York-based correspondent, Olga spent all her career in Russia, where controversial anti-opposition reports earned her the name of “Putin’s TV iron doll”.
Skabeyeva and Popov – a duo of the RTR “60 minutes”
Needless to say that RTR «60 minutes» has a very little to do with the CBS original. This program is specifically designed to present its audience a government version of foreign events. It is done by selectively showing edited Russian and foreign media reports that draw a picture of events abroad in a very peculiar light. The world of the Russian “60 minutes” is clearly divided into “good guys” who sympathize the Putin regime and “bad guys” – virtually everybody else. For that, apart from carefully edited footage, “60 minutes” uses the cohort of invited guests (which include foreigners) and so called “experts”.
Since its launch in September 2016, the talk show’s dominant subjects have been American elections and situation in Ukraine. The last 5 shows were exclusively dedicated to Ukraine. The following are their titles that should give a reader some ideas about the program:
- “The Night of Nightmares: the night of troubles in Ukraine” 03.02.17
- “Breakfast with Trump: what Ukrainian politicians are going to ask?” 02.02.17
- “Coffins on the Maidan, why Kiev is silent about their losses?” 01.02.17
- “Poroshenko New Lies: why the Ukrainian president interrupted a visit to Berlin?” 31.01.17
- “This is Victory: How Kiev celebrated the victory over the “Muscovites” 30.01.17
The structure of “60 minutes” is quite simple: anchors announce its title, then give a floor to the invited guests, bring in the experts over video links and occasionally poll the audience. Invited guests are also clearly divided in familiar “good” and “bad” categories. The former category includes senior State Duma deputies, such as Vyacheslav Nikonov, Leonid Slutsky, Sergei Zheleznyak and Leonid Kalashnikov, as well a variety of pro-Kremlin politicians from the “near and far abroad” (including the ones from so-call DNR and LNR separatists); the latter category includes liberal Russian politicians, such as Sergei Stankevich, Boris Nadezhdin, Leonid Gozman and Ukrainian political scientists, such as Vyacheslav Kovtun and Vadim Karasev. What is really new for Russian government controlled TV is an inclusion of the number of Russian-speaking independent foreign journalists who express opinions mostly critical of Kremlin policies. The regulars include American Michael Bohm (formerly with The Moscow Times), Owen Matthews from the U.K. and some of their Eastern European colleagues. Finally, there are regular talk show “experts” who are known for being Putin sympathizers, such as a publisher of the U.S. “National Interest” magazine, Dmitry Simes, and German political experts and Gazprom consultant Aleksandr Rahr.
“60 minutes” show layout
American journalist Michael Bohm
The way a husband and wife “60 Minutes” team fulfills its show mission is by opening discussion with longer statements from pro-government guests who are given as much time as they need. It follows by much shorter slots allowed for the “bad guys” group, which is often interrupted by both the “good” guests as well as the anchors. Quite often discussion turns into a shouting match where those who support the pro-Moscow position are always in the majority with compliant audience applauding at the chosen moments. Of course, commercial breaks can always be launched at convenient times. Despite some announcement to the contrary, the show never runs live, giving additional options for skillfull editors.
What are Kremlin propaganda designers are trying to achieve by introducing shows like “60 minutes” and alike? On one hand, it is to discredit Western criticism of their policies and, at the same time, eliminate “forbidden fruit” attraction that independent foreign media may still have for the Russian audience. This is a rather clever move that seems to have at least limited success. Instead of following a failed Soviet policy, which has been like: “I did not read Pasternak’s novel, but denounce it”, modern Putin tactics aims at presenting Western ideas and ridiculing them at the same time. Foreign guests are allowed, even encouraged to present their position and then the chorus of pro-Kremlin voices starts to ridicule it without giving the opposite side much time to respond.
Quite often, program leads are used for promoting Russian government foreign policy positions where good old dezinformacija techniques are being utilized. For example, in one of the first “60 minutes” programs the audience was asked a question: “Does Clinton fainting means Tramp’s victory?” Footage compiled by program editors showed Hillary fainting, stumbling while boarding a plane, coughing uncontrollably, etc. Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov began guessing on possible diagnoses: “Parkinson’s, stroke, Alzheimer’s or just fatigue?” Mrs. Clinton’s ill health condition was then supported by the opinion of the infamous former chief of Russia’ medical and sanitary inspection services, Gennady Onishchenko. Vladimir Zhirinovsky was absolutely sure that the US presidential candidate is mentally incompetent. This discussion was ended with the viewers’ poll results: 67% supporting that Clinton’s fainting means victory for Trump and 33% not sure. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, summing it up without any interruptions from the anchors, declared: “Hillary is snake in the grass, a witch. We need Trump, we must fight for it! We must choose the lesser of two evils.”
How effective is this new Kremlin propaganda? Is this element of the “Hybrid war” worthwhile? “60 minutes” has a relatively high rating and continues to come out 5 days a week during prime time. It seems that it’s relative lively (albeit carefully choreographed) discussion format and presence of foreign guests, who express opinion that contradicts official government line, attract general audiences. It is clear that those few relatively free of government censorships media that exist in Russia clearly despise this program and its producers. For example, “Echo of Moscow” radio station TV critic Irina Petrovskaya characterized Olga Skabeyeva as a “Spetznaz correspondent” and added that she expects from Skabeyeva words like: “Death to the mad dogs!” or something similar to that. It also true that this program is one of the very few places on a primetime TV where Russian viewers can hear political views dissenting from official Kremlin lies. In fact, this is why some, if not most of “60 minutes” invited foreign guests agree to in fact play the role of “whipping boys”.
Finally, a little piece of “Kremlinology”. One can use “60 minutes” as an indicator of changes in the official Kremlin foreign policy line. It is when some of the Western guests or Russian “bad guys” views are allowed to be presented without usual interruptions and editing. For example, in the show of February 2nd, an opposition politician, Leonid Gozman, openly declared that all Russian people are responsible for the continued warfare in Ukraine. In fact, said Gozman, if Russia wanted, this war could be ended in a few days without any bloodshed: it’s just enough to stop supporting corrupt separatist leadership. He gave as an example the town of Slavyansk, which was originally taken by separatists headed by infamous GRU colonel Igor Strelkov. After being retaken by Ukrainian troops, Slavyansk has returned to a normal, peaceful life. This seemingly controversial and anti-separatist statement, unexpectedly, was allowed on the show unedited. Thus, from this, Kremlinologists could surmise that Moscow is getting ready to sacrifice LNR and DNR leaders for certain Western concessions (lifting sanctions?).