Reflections and Conclusions on Media Coverage of Vladimir Putin

Two months ago, I began reading newspaper articles about Vladimir Putin and taking haphazard notes. I wanted to see how he was portrayed by American news media over the years, and I had a hypothesis. I already knew the events of his reign pretty well, and that they were, from the beginning, frequently authoritarian or cruel. I assumed, though, that we could see this fact in hindsight but that it would not have been so clear at the time. I thought that in 1999, there would have been some hope, that this refreshing new face would have seemed a possibly beneficial change. Over time, I believed, that perception would shift, on a gradual downhill trajectory.

What I found did not fully support my assumptions. From the first, the papers I read, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal condemned Putin. There were several things I had not taken into account in my initial hypothesis. I wasn’t fully aware of the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and I didn’t know with how much skepticism someone hand-picked by Yeltsin would be viewed. Additionally, when Putin became president, the Russian Federation was still so young. As someone born after the fall of the Soviet Union, it is hard for me to imagine myself in that time, but the idea of a Russian leader taking the country forward into democracy was still met with skepticism by many. And finally, maybe most importantly at the time, Putin first made his name with the Chechen War, a brutal and ugly conflict that was resoundingly condemned. So in the year 2000, there was not much hope for the man, and my hypothesis was immediately disproven.

What I can say is that the trajectory was as I predicted: the papers started out knowing he wasn’t great, and things only got worse from there. The most telling events, with each one indicating another downhill turn, were, I believe: the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Beslan School crisis, the deaths of Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, the 2011 street protests, the crisis in Ukraine, and intervention in Syria. I was able to get in touch with Andrew Roth, current Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, who had a similar view on the most significant events, and added that human rights concerns, like activists’ deaths and the handling of terrorist attacks, had a significant impact on our relationship with Putin, more so than the lack of democracy.

I also got in contact with Gregory Feifer, former Moscow correspondent for NPR. He views the first several years of Putin’s rule as “dismal,” in terms of news coverage, saying few saw what Putin was really doing. It is true that when not denouncing Putin’s actions in Chechnya, the papers sometimes had kind words for Putin, especially when it came to the economy. Mr. Feifer also pointed out that the image we receive of Putin, the image that even our media presents, is carefully crafted by Putin himself and that “Western reporters tend to make the mistake of taking Russian institutions and rhetoric that are meant to deceive outsiders at face value.” One of the things taken at face value, he said, are the ludicrous PR photos we often see of Putin.

A year and a half ago, in my high school Comparative Government class, we got to the section on Russia. Intrigued, I read Masha Gessen’s excellent book, The Man Without a Face, about Putin’s rule, and I learned about all the ways in which he has suppressed and harmed his own people while enriching himself and his friends. I was mad. And then one day in class, a classmate talking about Putin laughed and said, “He’s such a bro!”

Well, I was angry and I was disgusted. And when it came time to pick a research topic for this summer, I remembered his words, his attitude, his laugh. And I wondered why: why do so many people think of Putin as a caricature, even a harmless one?

I don’t know that I necessarily found an answer to that particular question this summer. I think that would involve diving more into TV portrayals of Putin and online depictions. But what I did discover is that the news media has been condemning Putin for sixteen years, but are still constantly surprised when he does something reprehensible. I think perhaps that shock, combined with over attention to Kremlin-ordered PR, is what lets people still see Putin in cartoonish terms. We can be mad when he does something terrible, but if the media presents it as surprising, we can still see it as anomalous. And if two weeks later, the next big story about Putin involves him fishing shirtless, maybe we forget about the horrendous things he’s done.

Thank you to everyone who’s been reading my (admittedly, rather long) posts, and to everyone who hasn’t been reading them but has to put up with me ranting about Putin anyway. And thank you especially to the Charles Center for this research opportunity. I’m grateful to have been able to delve into research this summer, even if it put a temporary dent in my optimism.

 

Comments

  1. baphillips says:

    I think your point about just how foreign the idea of the Soviet Union and the Yeltsin years is to our peers and the tail end of the millennial generation is a significant one. Many of the current congressmen and women can clearly remember the years of the cold war and active Russian expansionism, but to many young people, that’s a couple of chapters in history and government text books. The War on Terror and 9/11 have significantly pivoted our national defense focus to the nearby middle east, but what with Putin’s rather overt moves to restart the Soviet war machine and regain the satellite states, projects like this and people like you are going to regain the importance to our national defense strategy that they probably should have had all along. Great project and a great read. I’m jealous you got to meet both of those reporters!

  2. Hi Catherine! I’m so glad that you took the time to look into Putin’s authoritarian sprees in Russia. It’s really important to look at how the media depicts previous trends in leadership to predict future actions, especially with Putin being at the center of media news attention. Do you think that with growing international pressure and his own aging, he’ll change his governing strategies or viewpoints? I wonder how the media would portray that kind of change. What do you think will be the long lasting implications of his current media coverage? I imagine with all the discontent and skepticism in the region that things are likely to change when Putin leaves power (or dies, whichever comes first). I’m excited to see where this research takes you in the future!

  3. jbistransky says:

    These posts were interesting to read, if thoroughly depressing. I was (pleasantly) surprised to hear that coverage was generally negative from the beginning – I wonder if my perception that negative coverage of Putin is a relatively new thing is because of the ‘reset’ climate also being the first period in which I was actually paying attention to politics.

    Your high school classmate’s reaction to Putin is unfortunately not an uncommon one, and I do find it strange that so many people fall so easily for the macho man routine (I mean seriously, he’s 64). But I would say that it probably has something to do with the fact that views on Putin in particular have been politicized in the US since before the 2016 election. Your analysis focused primarily on reputable, mainstream sources, but certain other news channels Putin has been praised for a long time (at least as long as I can remember) for being a ‘strong leader’, usually to draw a contrast with President Obama. I don’t know what they were complaining about, given that if Obama had been as strong a leader as Putin those talking heads would probably not have heads anymore, but that praise has evidently filtered down into real popular admiration for Putin, unfortunately.

    Your last paragraph about the media always acting surprised when Putin does something terrible is a good way to put it, and a way I hadn’t thought about before. I had always perceived that just as people’s attention spans for Eastern European politics being close to zero, so every time something happened it was big news, but it also could just be classic sensationalism. Either way you’re right in that when placed in the context of the ‘macho man’ routine it does contribute to misperception of him.

    If I could ask (not to make another dent in your optimism), having read all of the historical coverage, how do you think future coverage will be affected by Russia becoming a ‘mainstream issue’ after the election? Do you think the media will stop treating things like political enemies disappearing and the like as ‘surprising’?

  4. catherine says:

    Hey there! Thanks for the comment and for reading!
    I find it very hard to imagine Putin changing. I would say that his aging would make that less likely–I think he just grows more entrenched in his ways. The thing about international pressure, as I see it, is that as of yet it has had little impact on him. There was a lot of tough talk on him starting with the Chechen war, but I think that he’s seen that most if not all foreign leaders are hesitant to take real action to stop him.
    I’m not sure what the long-term implications of his current coverage is. I think that in reading two well-respected newspapers, I saw how Putin is presented to a certain portion of American media consumers, but that a lot of us in reality don’t often get around to the international pages of the Journal or the Post. In reality, I think what would have the most impact in terms of our cultural idea of Putin is TV and online news, which may frequently portrays him differently than the print media.

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