Sunday, March 16, 2014

4 American propaganda machines for Putin

Now that Crimeans have voted to leave Ukraine for Russia, it's worth pointing out what some of Putin's English-language supporters have said...and their motivations.

1. Russia Today
Judging by interviews with seven former and current employees, Bivens’ story is typical. RT, the global English-language news network funded by the Russian government, has come into the spotlight since the Russian invasion of Crimea, which the network has defended tooth-and-nail. The invasion has led to two high-profile rebellions within the ranks: first, an on-air condemnation of the invasion by RT America host Abby Martin, followed days later by the live resignation of another host, Liz Wahl. Martin, who hosts an opinion show, said that Russia’s actions were wrong; Wahl, a news anchor, went one step further, saying that she could not work at a network that found Russia’s actions acceptable.

The public shake-up and skewed coverage of Ukraine has pulled aside RT’s curtain, exposing the network’s propaganda apparatus, which relies on a number of Western reporters and producers. Former and current RT employees from both the Moscow headquarters and its D.C. bureau, which heads a channel called RT America, described to BuzzFeed an atmosphere of censorship and pressure, in which young journalists on their first or second job are lured by the promise of a relatively well-paying position covering news for an international network. Except for Bevins and Wahl, all spoke on the condition of anonymity — some because they didn’t want their name associated with the network or were afraid they would face repercussions in their current jobs.

Soon after joining the network, the current and former employees said, they realized they were not covering news, but producing Russian propaganda. Some employees go in clear-eyed, looking for the experience above all else. Others don’t realize what RT really wants until they’re already there. Still others are chosen for already having displayed views amenable to the Kremlin. Anti-American language is injected into TV scripts by editors, and stories that don’t toe the editorial line regularly get killed.
2. Ron Paul
Paul and his supporters used to complain that the American media and political establishment never gave him a fair shake in his various presidential campaigns, so it is a little odd to see him and his denizens providing a democratic gloss to Sunday’s “referendum” on Crimea’s status. The referendum on the Crimea is happening quite literally at gunpoint as Russian forces have occupied the entire peninsula and offers no option for Crimeans to maintain their current status within the Ukraine. Instead, voters can either vote to allow Russia to annex the peninsula or "reunification of Crimea with Russia" in the parlance of the ballot or to "restore the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine." (Early exit polls show 93% of Crimean voters chose to join Russia.)

The referendum -- which has been denounced as illegal by outside observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- was only scheduled by the Crimean parliament after armed men occupied that body in late February. Those gunmen installed a pro-Russian figurehead as the region's Prime Minister, as well – a guy named Sergey Aksyonov, the alleged criminal leader of a miniscule pro-Russian political party which has never earned more than 4% at the polls.

But for Ron Paul and the acolytes at his think tank, a motley crew of Putin apologists and admirers of post-Soviet thugs, Sunday’s sham election is all about the spirit of 1776. He recently wrote that "The only question that remains is whether there will there be an honest election, and I don’t see any reason there can’t be.” He did this on the website of his Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, which, in light of current events might be better called the Ron Paul Institute for Russian Aggression and Economic Exploitation (Its director, Daniel McAdams, has referred to the American ambassador to Ukraine as an “outlaw.”)
3. New York public reations firm, Ketchum 
The firm also placed an op-ed by Vladimir Putin in The New York Times in September in which the Russian President wrote that he wanted "to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders" and urged caution as Washington was considering a military strike against Syria. (In the PR world it was quite a coup, and although Ketchum's role was well understood, the firm seems to have only really acknowledged it in January, with its report to Justice.) In the Times piece, Putin wrote: "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it." That might look strange in light of recent events, but it worked out well for Ketchum, landing the No. 5 spot on the list of most-visited content on for 2013.

And it paid well, too. Ketchum reported bringing in $1.6 million for its work for the Russian Federation for the six months that ended on Nov. 30, 2013. More than a million of those dollars stayed with Ketchum, but $476,000 was used to cover expenses and fees paid to others to work on the Russians' behalf.

Thanks to the details required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act, we know where that half a million dollars went. There was $138,553 to maslanksy + partners, a communication firm that says it finds "the right language so people hear what you're trying to say." Um, okay. In an earlier iteration, this was longtime GOP strategist Frank Luntz's company, but he left in 2008, according to a corporate history on the firm's Web site. Another $100,000 went to Alston & Bird, a Washington law firm. And there are smaller payments, too, like $34.22 to FedEx and $137.28 to RMA Chauffeured Transportation, based in Rockville, Md.
4. Stephen F. Cohen
Many of Cohen’s arguments about post-Communist Russia are legitimate subjects of debate, and his scholarship has been serious enough to draw praise from the likes of Robert Conquest, the British historian and author of The Great Terror. And yet his Putin cheerleading increasingly crosses the line into denial or outright recycling of Kremlin propaganda. Last October, at a New York University symposium, Cohen asserted with a straight face that the game of musical chairs between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev (who was handpicked to succeed Putin in 2007, then stepped aside for his mentor four years later) was not a carefully orchestrated ploy to circumvent the Russian constitution’s ban on two consecutive presidential terms but a genuine, though unsuccessful, “tryout” for Medvedev. “I don’t believe that Putin’s return was agreed upon in advance,” said Cohen—flatly contradicting Medvedev’s own statement to the media in 2011 that he and Putin had “long ago” agreed on the power arrangement.

In a 2012 Reuters column, Cohen complained that Putin is often blamed for the 2006 murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, even though “the editors of Politkovskaya’s newspaper, the devoutly anti-Putin Novaya Gazeta, believe her killing was ordered by Chechen leaders, whose human-rights abuses were one of her special subjects.” He forgets to mention that the Chechen leader in question, Ramzan Kadyrov, is Putin’s best buddy—or that Novaya Gazeta has also asserted that the actual killers are connected to Russian special services and protected by the government.

But the disconnect from reality is most glaringly evident in Cohen’s Newsweek interview. Take this gem: “We don’t know that Putin went into Crimea. We literally don’t know. We’re talking about ‘facts’ that are coming out of Kiev, which is a mass of disinformation.” Cohen must be the only person in the world who thinks there’s any doubt that the armed men who are all over Crimea wearing Russian army uniforms without insignia and wielding Russian weaponry—“little green men,” as irreverent Russians call them—are actually Russian soldiers.
Of course, pro-Putin outlets would simply accuse these writers (and me) of shilling for Western interests.

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