You compared Donald Trump’s January 11 press conference, the day after CNN broke the news of a leaked dossier containing alleged ties between Trump and the Putin regime, to a “Soviet press conference.” Why?
If I recall, it was a joke made while the press conference was still going on, and I was struck by all the flags around him and the scripted questions early on. It was his first real press conference as president-elect, and it was all show and campaign-style rhetoric, despite the large backlog of important policy questions that he faced. To be fair, he actually did answer a few questions that weren’t staged, which never would have happened in the USSR. But while all traditional politicians understand the importance of messaging and perception, they realize that avoiding substantive questions only leads to more of them. During the campaign, and during his presidency, Trump has attempted—with considerable success—to transcend that norm, as with so many others. He responds instead with counterattacks and bold statements and accusations, knowing they will get more attention than subsequent fact-checks. It’s one of many ways that Americans are learning from Trump that much of their democracy was run on the honor system, on agreed standards, not laws, and now there’s someone who isn’t going to play by those rules. It has very dangerous implications, especially since this is a theme that plays well with many of his supporters.
Does the term “fake news” have a Russian equivalent, and if so, what is it, who uses it and, in your experience, why?
My honest reply to this is that the word for “fake news” in Putin’s Russia is simply “news.” There isn’t a syllable uttered or printed in Russia without its author being very much aware of what the regime thinks of it and what would happen to him if he crosses a certain line—except perhaps the weather! Often those lines are explicit, sent out in memos about new topics and how to promote or spin them. But by now, after 17 years of Putin, everyone knows where the lines are. Under those conditions, what can news be except fake? Even if nearly everything that is published is, in and of itself, true, there is an ocean of falsity in what isn’t said, what isn’t asked, and how basic facts are presented. This is the story of the media in a modern dictatorship. It’s not like Pravda, with one official storyline that everyone knows is probably BS. There are hundreds of layers of carefully calibrated propaganda and censorship in Putin’s Russia, creating the illusion of freedom. One outlet says Putin is great 100 percent of the time about everything. Another only 80 percent, about, say, the economy or security. One writer can complain a little about education, while another is allowed to criticize the regime on one or two specific things, etc. It’s like the Matrix, a complex illusion. And since almost all Russians still depend on television news, it’s very effective.
Americans are learning from Trump that much of their democracy was run on the honor system.”Putin and Kremlin organs do use this method of calling anything they don’t like from abroad “fake” and have for some time. Everything reported about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea was denied vehemently—at first. Eventually, everything was proved true, and even admitted in some cases, because the point is to distract and confuse the issue with denials and obfuscation, to delay the response, and to provide plausible deniability to Western leaders who are always looking for any excuse not to stand up to Putin.
The methodology of fake news isn’t to convince anyone exactly what the truth is, but to make people doubt that the truth exists, or that it can ever be known. People are starting to sense this trend in the free world as well, as Russian disinformation campaigns spread globally and these techniques are adopted. That’s probably why I still see this tweet of mine from December going around:
You told Fox News last October that you believed Putin was “absolutely” behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other attempts to sway the November election. But you also said, “It’s not just about Trump winning. It’s about … destroying the integrity of US democracy worldwide.” What did you mean by that?
That while Putin clearly preferred Trump to Hillary as the next president, his other goal is chaos and weakness in his rivals, and his greatest potential rival is the most powerful country in the world, the United States. Discrediting Americans’ faith in their elections, in their country, leaders, and institutions, and fomenting divisiveness, anger, and hatred, are all key elements of Putin’s propaganda and hacking efforts. It also has a useful effect for him back in Russia, so he can say “Look, American democracy is also a sham, a cheat, chaos. You are lucky to have me, strong and stable.” This also helps other authoritarian regimes in their own domestic and international propaganda efforts, much as how they delight in any real or imagined human rights abuses by America, so they can cry hypocrisy when their own practices are criticized.
Putin has long used social and state-funded media such as Russia Today, or RT, to control his image at home and abroad. The Kremlin argues that state-funded doesn’t mean state-controlled, and says RT is similar to the BBC in this regard. Do you agree? And if not, why?
This comparison is the sort the Kremlin is very good at. But as I’ve said in the past, it’s like saying a surgeon is like Jack the Ripper because they both cut people with knives. Listen, every news outlet, every human, has bias and prejudices in a million different ways. So the focus is institutional, and has to be on the facts, on good faith, and trying to educate your audience about what is happening in their lives and in the world. Russia Today’s focus, like Putin’s other global propaganda outlets like Sputnik, has nothing to do with that at all. It has a clear, overarching agenda to promote the objectives of Vladimir Putin.
You can complain about the BBC leaning left, or about Fox News leaning right, and occasionally even of promoting the agenda of a like-minded president or prime minister. Fine, but in the case of Fox or CNN, they aren’t state funded. And in the case of the BBC, you can hear more criticism of 10 Downing Street in 10 minutes than you would hear of Putin in a year of Russia Today. If the BBC were seen as pushing propaganda, it would ruin their credibility very quickly. Also, RT routinely fabricates news and spreads rumors and fakes. Again, it’s not Pravda of the USSR days; it’s much more sophisticated. They apply shades of gray in order to appear more objective. This is why it’s dangerous and successful as a propaganda effort.
Is Putin attempting to manipulate the elections in Holland, France, and Germany this year in the same way he did in the US last year, through hacking, RT, social media and so-called Internet trolls?
Absolutely, and it’s already been demonstrated, especially in France and Germany. The sites and social media accounts that were pro-Trump or pro-Sanders are rebranding as pro-Le Pen and pro-Wilders, just as they were pro-Farage and pro-Brexit before Trump. And why not? It’s easy, it’s effective, and it’s cheap and low-risk. It doesn’t have the potential downside of a military adventure, especially since so far the free world has shown a pathetic level of resistance to these hybrid attacks and cyberwar tactics. The aggressor has the advantage in a new battlefield, and democratic institutions are notoriously slow to adapt and defend themselves. New laws, which may conflict with press-freedom guarantees, take time and can also be lobbied against effectively. Putin has plenty of allies already in office—and in lobbyist offices—around the world. Deterrence is the only way to stop these attacks, and as long as there are people saying you have to be 100 percent sure before responding, nothing will get done and Putin will continue, bolder and more convinced of his impunity than ever.
What worries me most is that Trump and his gang seem entirely incompetent and yet they still won the US presidency and have much of the GOP cowed.”But the good news is there is also a backlash against this interference, and greater awareness of it thanks to Trump’s shocking victory and all the Russia-related revelations. Europe may be waking up in time. Being the candidate of Putinism is a double-edged sword; now they also have to balance whether being the candidate of Trumpism is good or bad. Last week’s Dutch election, with Wilders’ poor showing, may be the first sign that the needed nationalist backlash is underway.
We’ve heard a lot about the murders of Paul Klebnikov and Anna Politkovskaya and scores of other Russian journalists. What is the state of independent journalism in Russia today, and what effect does it have on journalists in Russia when the president of the United States calls the press “the enemy of the American people”?
First, I don’t wish to insult the many individuals who are still trying to perform journalism in Russia within the allowed boundaries. Some of them are honorable people, and it is not my place to say they should all abandon their professions and become taxi drivers in protest. Many are still in denial, others are hopeful of an eventual thaw, others try to ignore the political situation and do the best they can to inform their audiences. And there are still a few outlets with some real criticism of the government, allowed to exist as a sort of zoo so that the regime and its defenders can say, “See, look, journalists aren’t extinct!” Still, everyone honest knows what the real situation is today, and that they are collaborators in a propaganda operation. If you write something that crosses the line, it will disappear and you might lose your job. If you do it again, you might disappear, too.
Trump’s regular echoes of authoritarian leaders in his rhetoric, especially his attacks on the free press and US electoral integrity, are much appreciated by real authoritarians everywhere. The US is supposed to be a standard-bearer of these rights and practices, and still is despite a steady decay since the end of the Cold War. So to have the US president himself making these charges is a gift from heaven to America’s enemies and critics. As when Trump defended Putin by saying that the US had done bad things, too. Okay, yes, but truly to compare America to a brutal dictator, and from the president’s own lips! Moral relativism, “whataboutism,” has always been a favorite weapon of illiberal regimes. For a US president to employ it against his own country is tragic. Trump repeating Putin’s words—and nearly Stalin’s—by calling the press the enemy of the people, has repercussions around the world. Of course the autocrats and would-be autocrats would do as they like anyway, but it’s a boon to the Erdogans and Maduros, who still have to navigate the remnants of democracy and a free press. For them to be able to say that the American president considers the press a dangerous enemy of the people is potentially lethal for journalists in those countries.
In your 2015 book, Winter Is Coming, you write: “It is difficult to promote democratic reform when every television channel and every newspaper shows image after image of the leaders of the world’s most powerful democracies accepting a dictator as part of their family. It sends the message that democracy and individual freedom are nothing more than the bargaining chips Putin and his ilk always say they are.” What do you mean by “bargaining chips”? And how can the foreign press do a better job of covering Putin and his actions at home and abroad?
Putin and his kind have always had the same message about democracy and human rights when speaking to their own people. That these are Western tricks, used for nothing more than negotiation leverage. So the challenge for the free world has been to disprove this, to treat these things as sacred, and to back it up by not bargaining them away. That is, do business, make treaties, etc. if you must, but don’t back down from telling the truth about rights. If an American president, or any free world leader, agrees not to mention democracy or human rights when negotiating with the world’s most brutal regimes, as has become normal, even considered pragmatic and responsible, they confirm the dictator’s message that it’s all a hypocritical show.
I hope the foreign press can take the lessons they are slowly learning about covering Trump and apply them to Putin and other dictators. Call things what they are. Lies are lies. Facts are facts. Dictators are dictators. The tell-both-sides media attitude that generally works in the free world falls apart completely when dealing with a dictatorship that doesn’t operate in good faith, that lies and actively fabricates constantly. The US media are now learning this with Trump, to treat his administration like a hostile witness, or at least an unreliable narrator. Russia’s elections are a complete joke. Putin isn’t an elected leader any more than Kim Jong-un at this point, so why play along with the charade? To be “objective” or “fair”? This is how the bad guys win, because the free world’s leaders and media want to play by rules that assume fair play and a degree of scrupulousness that doesn’t exist for people like Putin, who see this tendency, accurately, as a weakness to exploit.
My former colleague at The Wall Street Journal, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Bret Stephens, recently wrote, in a tribute to the slain WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl, that “the essence of intellectual integrity” is “not to look around, or beyond, or away from the facts, but to look straight at them. … To believe in an epistemology that can distinguish between truth and falsity, facts and opinions, evidence and wishes. To defend habits of mind and institutions of society, above all a free press, which preserve that epistemology.” Do you think Trump and his administration’s use of terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” are a threat to that epistemology?
Yes, of course they are, and this is part of the point, even if it’s done by Trump and his gang more instinctively than in a coordinated, strategic sense. They understand that when the facts of a certain matter aren’t on your side, you benefit when all facts are devalued in general. Go instead with emotions, appeal to instincts, what people “feel” is right. Every charismatic politician does this, of course, but usually without such a frontal assault on reason as Trump displays. He dares the media to beat him at this game, an asymmetrical battle of facts versus feelings. This is very uncomfortable for the American press, unused to such direct attacks or dealing with someone for whom facts are irrelevant. It also involves new terrain technologically, with social media and the borderless Internet allowing hostile states and other outside influences to participate.
What worries me most is that Trump and his gang seem entirely incompetent and yet they still won the US presidency and have much of the GOP cowed. It’s early, so we can expect them to improve their performance just as the media improves at covering them. This could be good or bad. Trump could correct and let qualified people run more things, or they could just get better at covering up and messaging.
Americans have taken their democracy and their affluence for granted for so long that they were vulnerable to someone like Trump.”Imagine what a more disciplined, more capable individual and team will be able to do using these techniques. Or imagine a leftist Trump—a younger, modern Bernie Sanders—someone who will have the natural ideological affinity of most members of the American press but may still have little respect for democratic institutions or free markets. Would Trumpian, autocratic rhetoric be so quickly condemned if it were in favor of universal health care and directed against Fox News? I’m skeptical. I’m afraid that a populist touting all items on the liberal policy wish list wouldn’t face nearly the level of resistance in the press even if their attitude about executive power and the Bill of Rights was like Trump’s. This is why my focus is less on Trump himself and more on strengthening the democratic institutions he attacks, and that will be needed even more against the next Trump, whether [he or she comes] from the right or the left or both at once.
This is what we failed to do in Russia: We allowed Yeltsin to weaken the institutions because we were so worried about the Communists getting back in power. Then, when the ruthless and capable Putin came in, with none of Yeltsin’s democratic instincts, the system was far too weak to resist.
What do you see as the greatest threat to press freedom right now in Russia and the US?
There’s no press freedom in Russia as the term is understood in the free world. It’s just layers of censorship, self-censorship, and chilling effect. Cracking down more on the Internet—my own news site is one of those banned in Russia, by the way—is definitely on Putin’s agenda. It’s already tightly monitored, and people know that a wrong word on a blog or in a tweet can land them in the prosecutor’s office. But if that becomes too laborious, a shift toward a more Chinese-style online censorship will be ready to go. This will further isolate Russians from the world and make Russia even less prepared to recover from Putin.
As for America, the greatest threat is apathy. Trump may end up saving American journalism for a generation, indirectly of course, much as the resistance to him is already educating Americans about the separation of powers and why participating in politics matters even in the affluent free world. Market forces worked against quality journalism in the US because civic responsibility has been waning for decades. The extremists, the entertainers, and polemicists, were winning that free-market battle because the stakes in quality journalism were seen as very low by a majority of Americans. Suddenly the stakes have been raised very high, and I hope this means US citizens and institutions will continue to react by defending democratic institutions like the free press, and not by polarizing even further. Americans have taken their democracy and their affluence for granted for so long that they were vulnerable to someone like Trump. You can say the same for the media, which is still figuring out how to report on Trump accurately. If they don’t figure it out, Trump will only be the beginning.