Chicago Tribune editor Jack Fuller used to speak of the mainstream news business as being among the “truth disciplines,” its aim being “at most a provisional kind of truth, the best that can be said quickly.” Science was older, slower, more firmly grounded. There were many related fields. As a newsman himself, Fuller didn’t spend over much time on the nature of truth, but most people know what he meant.
He was concerned with matters on which all those who took pains to inform themselves could agree. These were names, addresses, ages, places, details, to start; then assertions of all sorts, carefully attributed, not piled on willy-nilly but carefully connected in logical chains, accumulating in hopes of producing the goal, impossible in all but the simplest matters (was he alive or dead?), of consensus.
An interesting example of just how unsatisfying routine news can be could be heard last week in an imaginative, ambitious but ultimately disappointing venture undertaken by National Public Radio, a member-supported media network enabled by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. NPR’s’s Morning Edition host David Greene traveled to Moscow to report live on Friday, June 9 and Monday, June 12 – at the very moment that testimony of former FBI director James Comey was dominating the news in Washington and New York. His dispatches were supplemented by reports from NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly and Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim.
In one segment, Greene interviewed Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. Government-funded RT insists that it is a global news network much like the BBC or France 24 or Al Jazeera, offering news and opinion from a distinctive Russian point of view in both Russian and English. Many Western governments (and news organizations) regard RT as “the slickly produced heart of a broad, often covert disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about democratic institutions and destabilize the West,” as Steven Erlanger recently put it in The New York Times.
Simonyan, 37, is well suited to her task. She spent a year in high school in Bristol, New Hampshire, in 1996, and traveled widely afterwards as a Russian journalist. Greene asked about the telephone on which she is said to take orders from the Kremlin. “Yeah, it’s right here,” she said, laughing. “I use it whenever I have to discuss something [for which I need] a secure line…. Just today I talked to the Russian central bank, discussing some issues of RT finances that probably shouldn’t be discussed on an open line.”
Greene asked if she had an opinion about Putin and his policies.
I have tons of opinions….To understand Russia’s fascination about Putin – and I think this is something that is completely not being understood in the West and in the mainstream media. And the reason why it’s not being understood is because people didn’t live here through the ’90s.
In a town like mine, I probably, at that time, wouldn’t name a single person whom I personally knew who wanted to stay in Russia. Can you imagine that? All of the people I knew wanted to leave because we saw our country as something horrible, falling apart, that will only continue to fall apart. There were numerous wars going on. And then came Putin, and he stops all that. And we saw it in our lives. People around started – first of all, they stopped being hungry. Then they stopped having one pair of shoes for both my sister and me, you know, and wearing them in a row – and my mom. So for three of us [laughter], one pair of normal shoes – that all stopped. It all seemed magic….
Not just mine – it’s everybody I know. And when I’m saying – I want to underline this. It would be an extremely difficult task to find a single person who lived worse before Putin than now, very difficult.
Careening along to stay within the bounds of his allotted time, Greene asked the next question: “If investigations revealed things about Vladimir Putin that could ultimately lead to him leaving office, would you be ready to carry out an investigation like that to its fullest here?”
SIMONYAN: If I really sincerely thought that what Putin is doing is harmful for my country and for my people and it needs to be stopped, I wouldn’t hesitate to do that.
GREENE: This – that’s not – I think you recognize this. That’s not your image or RT’s image on the outside.
SIMONYAN: I understand that. I understand that. What are you going to do, you know, when the mainstream media, again and again and again, publish stories about us that are completely false? You know, that’s the image [they have of us]. Why do they do that? You tell me. I don’t know.
I don’t spend much time with RT itself. I scan the email version of the compendium of English-language news about Russia published nearly every day as Johnson’s Russia List, by independent journalist David Johnson. I skim most of what US and British newspapers are saying, and a fair amount of RT content as well. I am occasionally startled by what the Russian network is reporting that the Western papers are not, as was the case last week, when RT published Putin’s remarks at a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Megyn Kelly, of NBC, was serving as his interlocutor, to good effect. It was at a sidebar news conference that Putin suggested that “patriotically-minded” Russian hackers might have meddled in US politics. JRL, I find, is a far better guide to developments in Russia than the coverage of any single newspaper.
As for the point that Simoyan sought to make on NPR about Putin’s popularity in Russian public opinion polls, it was made at much greater length and depth, in Second Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2013), by Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. The author’s earlier works include Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997); Zinky’s Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992); The Last Witnesses (1985), recollections of Russians who were children during World War II; and War’s Unwomanly Face (1982), about the experiences afterward of Russian women who fought in World War II.
Alexievich, 69, was recognized in 2015 with the Nobel Prize for Literature – an award that, like many other distinguished prizes, is among the truth disciplines that Fuller had in mind. Seeking to explain Putin’s popularity, Alexievich last year told Rachel Donadio, of The New York Times, “In the West, people demonize Putin. They do not understand that there is a collective Putin, consisting of some millions of people who do not want to be humiliated by the West. There is a little piece of Putin in everyone.”
What, then, about Putin’s repeated denials that his government backed various attempts to interfere with US elections in 2016? In Washington last week, that still seemed a question worth asking. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked former FBI director Comey, “Was the Russian activity in the 2016 election a one-off proposition, or is this part of a long-term strategy? Will they be back?”
“Oh, it’s a long-term practice of theirs,” Comey responded. “It stepped up a notch in a significant way in ’16. They’ll be back. There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever,” Comey said. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts.” Later, he returned to the topic:
The reason this is such a big deal. We have this big messy wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. And that’s wonderful and often painful. But we’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion, lots of other methods tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act. That is a big deal. And people need to recognize it. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them. So they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. That’s what this is about and they will be back. Because we remain — as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill. And they don’t like it.
Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report on all aspects of Russian interference in the US elections will go about as far as can be hoped in resolving doubts on this particular issue – diminishing the “fuzz” and confusion surrounding it. Clarity with respect to Russian hacking is one thing. Determining its effect on the 2016 election will be difficult, probably impossible, to resolve.
As for that cherished image of a shining city on a hill? As my fiend Richard Pitkin says, there is a little city-on-a-hill in all Americans. It is a complicated sort of truth about which even Russian journalists and scholars may have a say.