Henry Jenkins is the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at USC Annenberg, and previously of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also presents the How Do you Like It So Far podcast.
I was watching the press conference after the Helsinki summit, the would-he-wouldn’t-he summit. I didn’t really have much of a choice, other than turning off the TV, because I was in Russia, still on holiday and that press conference was being carried live on basically every single major TV channel, including NTV and Rossya 1, as well as all the news channels.
That’s not like it being carried live on CNN and Fox News, that’s the equivalent of it being carried live on ABC and CBS and NBC and Fox, all at the same time. And one thing to know about what goes out on Russian TV. If you’re in Russia watching TV, you’re watching what Vladimir Putin wants you to watch. There is absolutely no pretense of press freedom.
Most of the TV channels are outright owned by the government, the Kremlin hires and fires the editors, and the content is developed in consultation with Putin’s team, designed to do nothing but serve his interests.
This is not new to Putin, it was true, if not so strictly enforced, under Yeltsin rule in the 1990s, and of course under the communists before him. But under Yeltsin new TV and other independent media sprung up offering a range of voices. It wasn’t what we would recognize as a totally free first-amendment-protected press, but they weren’t just regime mouthpieces.
When Putin took power in 2000, that trend reversed, and particularly since 2012, when Putin returned to being president after a short hiatus as prime minister, all independent broadcasting and press evaporated. The basic operating method to get independent news off the air was for a crony of Putin to offer the owners to buy the channel. Most complied. Those that didn’t were hit with massive tax bills, far higher than the total value of the enterprise, forcing them to sell up. Others had greater and greater restrictions placed on their broadcasting licenses, and their owners and journalists were harassed until they complied.
Once ownership was transferred, independent-minded journalists and editors were typically fired en masse, and either news content was cancelled completely or it was replaced with slavishly-obedient coverage.
Within a couple of years, the operation was successful. There is now no TV coverage in Russia which doesn’t take direct, detailed editorial instructions from the Kremlin. It’s know that at least some journalists publish material verbatim under their own names which they get emailed directly from the Kremlin. So when you see the Helsinki summit broadcast live on all the major channels simultaneously, you know that you’re seeing that because Vladimir Putin wants you to see that.
And Vladimir Putin clearly desperately wants to be seen as an international statesman of renown, meeting the President of the United States on equal terms. Russia, by the way, has a GDP that is far less than the state of New York.
Donald Trump went to Europe. He deeply insulted the UK prime minister Theresa May, with her by his side, in front of the world’s lenses, he praised the man who had just quit her cabinet calling her incompetent, and said that her rival would do her job better than she would. He questioned the U.S. commitment to its NATO allies. He called the EU ‘America’s foes’. Any one of those would be a diplomatic incident in normal times. But since this is continuous, since we don’t get any break, we can hardly say incident. Donald Trump is one long diplomatic … I don’t know, drama? Farce? Tragedy?
But Donald Trump did not attack one leader he met. Just one. He clearly thinks that Vladimir Putin is his friend. He clearly thinks that Vladimir Putin is someone who would or wouldn’t stoop to meddling in a U.S. election, regardless of the conclusions of the FBI and the CIA.
Vladimir Putin is someone who came to power on the back of a brutal war against the tiny autonomous region of Chechnya, which was, supposedly, provoked when Chechen separatists bombed a series of apartment buildings murdering hundreds of civilians in cities around Russia. Chechen separatists have never before or since used these tactics, never before or since shown the capability to launch this type of attack or use this type of explosives, or launch sophisticated operations so far from their home base. And they have never varied from their line that, though they carried out other terror attacks, they had no hand in the apartment bombings.
Any suspicion that the bombings were organized to give Putin a war, and a platform to launch his presidency bid could be dismissed as conspiratorial paranoia, if it weren’t for the fact that Putin loyalist, and then speaker of the Duma, the Russian parliament, Gennadiy Seleznyov announced on September 13, 1999 the bombing of an apartment building in Volgodonsk, a small little-known city near the border with Ukraine. Seleznyov got all the details right, except for one, the timing.
The bombing happened on September 16, three days after he announced it. Opposition politicians who queried this were quickly silenced.
Journalists, opposition leaders and others who oppose Putin have a habit of being murdered, often in a spectacular way that is clearly designed to draw attention to the killing. Boris Nemtsov, shot on the streets of Moscow in 2015, while on his way to an opposition rally. Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer shot in 2009 by a masked gunman right by the Kremlin, and Anastasia Baburova, an independent journalist shot when she ran to help him as he was dying. Natalya Estemirova, a journalist who investigated goings-on in Chechnya, kidnapped, shot, and her body dumped in 2009. Just like Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006.
The same year millions of dollars worth of polonium was used to poison the defector Alexander Litvinenko, who died in agony weeks later, after his killers were safely back in Russia. Officially Russia denies government involvement in these murders, but they barely keep a straight face. Putin jokes how he is concerned for the ‘health’ of those who cross him, but the more enthusiastic commentators on those TV channels he controls don’t show any coyness. They openly celebrate the murders, and are not contradicted, much less reprimanded.
Russian troops are currently occupying territory of Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia and possibly also Azerbaijan. Those countries have little hope of restoring their territorial integrity, which is exactly the purpose of those occupations.
Putin has never held a private sector job in his life, but he has a vast unexplained wealth. He wears a series of watches each worth far more than his official annual salary. In reality, he’s certainly a billionaire many times over. It is quite likely that he is the world’s richest man. For sure, he’s far richer than Trump.
It’s normal that allies would have their differences. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Theresa May is not a good prime minister for the UK. It’s true that NATO has leaned too heavily on U.S. expenditure. It’s true that the EU promotes its economic interests when it can, just like any other trading bloc, and it’s normal to talk frankly, even harshly to your allies, behind closed doors.
But to suggest that the failings of the U.S.’s allies in Europe are of the same order of Putin is dangerous nonsense. There are some in the U.S. who like to kid themselves that Putin is pleased with Trump’s successes. That’s nonsense too. Putin and his paid cheerleaders are not celebrating Trump’s successes. They’re celebrating his failure to distinguish between allies and enemies.