When a new 24-hour Russian news channel, backed by the Kremlin, was announced two weeks ago with the stated aim of "promoting the Russian view" to a Western audience, the reaction in the English-language press and among Russian liberals was predictably negative. The idea that Putin, who is notorious for crushing what remained of Russia's free press once he came to power, could possibly oversee a news channel that spouted anything but cheap propaganda was laughable...if it wasn't so damn scary, and didn't remind everyone of the bad old days, when the guy with the waxed mustache was in power...
There is a certain Top Secret quality to this project, especially since the Kremlin plan is to beam the English-language news channel into the UK and the east coast of America. "Good evening, our top story tonight! Russia is no worse than Europe, according to a panel of experts who released a report today....In other news, federal OMON troops helped an elderly Chechen woman cross the street in Grozny yesterday..."
Beyond the sneering, the two most common criticisms leveled at the project were that it was doomed to be state propaganda, and thus, it was doomed to fail. Because you know, we in the West, we'd never do something that stupid, or that blatantly immoral, right?
Obviously, you know the answer is "wrong," but you're not exactly sure why. Which is in itself an amazing example of the power of American propaganda.
Most Americans don't know and probably don't care, but their government recently launched a 24-hour television station in the Arab world which is certainly the model that the Kremlin is using for its Russia Today channel. The US project, beamed in Arabic to the Arab world, is called "Al Hurra," meaning, "The Free One." Like Russia Today, it is non-profit and backed by the US government. It was launched in 2004 with a $62 million budget, compared to Russia Today's $30 budget. This $62 million is just a fraction of the larger $1.4 billion budget for "public diplomacy programs" and TV and radio propaganda tools like Al Hurra.
25-year-old Margarita Simonyan will have American males standing at attention.
The purpose of Al Hurra, according to President Bush, is to counter "the hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world and tell people the truth about the values and policies of the United States." This sounds strikingly similar to Russia Today mastermind and former Press Minister Mikhail Lesin's remark in 2001, "We must promote ourselves, or we shall continue to have the image of bears. How long shall the Americans be deceived about the situation in Russia? We must tell the truth." Ah yes, the truth.
Lesin, who served as Putin's henchman in bringing the Russian media to heel, may have thought up the idea before Bush, but it was Bush's people who put the idea of a 24-hour pro-American propaganda channel into reality. Al Hurra was overseen by Lesin's American counterpart, Norman Pattiz, who created Westwood One radio, the largest radio network in America which is responsible for the rise of far-right talk radio led by Westwood One's phonesex fascist Bill O'Reilly. Pattiz is also involved in the anti-Castro Radio Marti propaganda and the Voice of America. Propaganda at home and abroad: that's his business. Indeed Pattiz's mix of private and government media belies Bush's pieities at the Slovakia summit last February about how in America we keep the "free" press separate from the government.
In spite of all the money and effort, and the fact that Americans always do everything right when they just put their minds to it, for some reason, Al Hurra has been a colossal disaster. Right from the beginning, when its first broadcast featured an interview with President Bush, those Arabs who tuned in were left shocked and awed.
One leading Egyptian analyst complained that debuting with a Bush interview "brought to mind official channels broadcast by regimes mired in dictatorship, just like those of the 1960s and beginning of the '70s."
The essential problem with Al Hurra is the same problem that Russia Today faces. Both the American and Russian elite believe that their country's negative image is merely a consequence of perception, of bad PR, rather than policy, and that with the right marketing and branding and PR, anyone can be made to believe anything. As Donald Rumsfeld said, "The Iraq conflict is a war of perceptions." In his mind, and the mind of those who run America, the negative reaction to the American occupation of Iraq is a matter of propaganda. The US wants to brand it a "liberation," while the dead-enders want to brand it an "invasion" and "colonization." The masses of people who "choose" between these perceptions are merely consumers whose opinions must be molded by PR, rather than the fact that they are unemployed, without electricity, getting their doors kicked in or shot in their cars by American soldiers and so on.
To America's elite, it is inconceivable that Muslims could possibly hold a murderous grudge against the U.S. for any valid reason. The reason why Bush and America are so hated is not because we support Israel's brutal oppression of the Palestinians or that we are responsible for propping up many of the world's most brutal, corrupt regimes in order to ensure access to Arab oil. No, the problem is that a few opportunistic and evil ragheads have somehow managed to mold their population's perception. After all, America stands for democracy, human rights and everything decent - if the Arabs only knew this, then they'd stop hating America.
In other words, inside of every raghead there is an American trying to get out. The question is, how to make an unemployed, poorly-educated young Arab slum dweller whose testicles were fried off by the US-trained security forces understand that America's intentions are really, really good.
The Kremlin looks at its image problem in the key US-UK markets as a purely PR problem too. But to be fair, the Kremlin at least has an excuse for seeing things this way. For one thing, they're simply learning from the country which claims to lead civilization, as Russia Today's imitation of Al Hurra shows. Indeed, the Kremlin has a lot of examples to draw on which would confirm their belief that you can convince people, particularly the Western media, to promote any perception, no matter how wildly divorced from reality that perception is.
First, take the experience of the 1990s. A highly-sophisticated campaign led by USAID, PR companies like the infamous Burson Marstellar, and a web of "think tanks" led to a perception in the American media that the "young reformers" led by Anatoly Chubais were selfless, principled, self-sacrificing daredevils altruistically trying to drag Russia into Western civilization. Right up until the crash of 1998, the young reformers could do no wrong, no matter how many times they were caught rigging up some of the greatest thefts and corruption scandals that the world has ever seen. To any Russian, the Western (particularly American) media's grotesque blowjob-fest before the likes of Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Potanin was so shocking that it made Rod Stewart's legendary football-team gang-BJ-bang and subsequent stomach-pumping seem mildly romantic by comparison. Most Russians I knew were convinced that the only reason why people like current Washington Post opinion page editor Fred Hiatt could get away with fawning over Vladimir Potanin, whom he dubbed the "baby billionaire," was that he must have been paid by Potanin, or by the CIA, or both. It just didn't make sense any other way.
As the financial crisis was brewing in Russia, the Rumsfeld/Lesin mantra was repeated by everyone from Chubais to Clinton tool Michael McFaul, who in 1998 declared that the financial problem was a problem of image: "The perception of reality is more important than reality itself." A few months later, the economy completely collapsed and Russia initiated the largest default in history.
Indeed, the way that Russia's oligarchs managed to transform their real-life biographies of blood, corruption, savagery and destruction into the perception that they were merely modern-day Rockefellers and normal, pro-Western, forward-thinking, progressive business tycoons is truly one of the more stunning success stories in the history of public relations. The lesson was not lost on the Kremlin, particularly as Putin's biggest foe, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, managed to transform his image in the West from underworld thug to shining liberal dissident more successfully than anyone.
The next lesson came with the war against Yugoslavia in 1999. Russia's military and intelligence carefully studied how the US and NATO managed to get the "free press" to go along with their version that the war was necessary to stop a genocide of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians - a genocide which never existed - while at the same time restricting access and the flow of information in order to prevent any heroic journalists from accessing the truth. The Russian military, which had argued that the First Chechen War (1994-96) was lost largely due to journalists, quite openly adopted the lessons of Kosovo for the Second Chechen War and applied them, albeit not with the same degree of success.
The ever-entrepreneurial Americans have continued to think outside of the standard propaganda box. In 2002, Rumsfeld tried to push through a program called the Office of Strategic Influence, which would plant false stories in the "international media," including manipulating Western journalists by sending them fake emails planting fake ideas and stories which would bolster pro-American PR and blacken America's enemies. The program was canceled, but likely pushed through in a more secretive budget. In the meantime, the Pentagon managed to launch its own TV station, Pentagon Channel, as well as a TV and radio network in Iraq designed to repair the Coalition's little image problem, a project which was held up at one point by Republican Senator Richard Lugar who objected to its $100 million budget.
Just last week, the Pentagon awarded three contracts worth up to $300 million in order to "improve foreign public opinion about the United States, particularly the military."
So, why does the Russia Today 24-hour news project seem so evil?
One reason the idea of Russians beaming their version of the news offends Americans is that it suggests that Americans' opinions are merely the result of manipulation, rather than "free will." If you admit that, then you might as well grow out a beard and start chanting "Death to the Great Satan!"
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The Russia Today project was declared all but doomed right from the announcement, because, they said, it would be too obviously propaganda, and because the state cannot produce good media where the private sector can. This diagnosis seems inspired in no small part by the American experience, where, billions of dollars later, for some reason Arabs and Iraqis in particular aren't running around looking for an American to hug and thank - not unless the hugger has a suicide belt rigged to his ribs. No way can the Russians succeed where the Americans fail. Particularly not when applied to free-thinking American viewers!
But Russia Today's problems go much deeper. The goal is to improve Russia's image by promoting "Russia's point of view." Before getting into why this inherently dooms the project, I want to point out what they've done right so far. Namely, they've hired a 25-year-old babe named Margarita Simonyan, who proved her cojones reporting for RTR during the Beslan crisis. Simonyan was a brilliant choice - Lesin wisely learned from the success of the Russian women's tennis squad that the best way to improve his country's image is to show off its babes. Put a young hot chick in front of the camera, and you'll get millions of desperately hard-up Americans erecting giant double-headed eagle statues in their living rooms:
"Good evenink, zis is Margarita Simonyan for ze Russia Today. M'm, you sexy sweet little American boys, you are so handsome, m'm! So, tell me, my precious little pupsik, vould you agree zat zis Khodorkovsky ees evil criminal who steal from ze state, yes?"
"You agree, my leetle American pumpkin? He should be in ze prison, yes?"
"Good. Vell, und in Chechnya news, Russia brafely fights ze terrorists link to ze Al Qaeda. All ze reports about ze atrocities, my handsome Americans, ees just terrorist lies, yes?"
"Yes, lies. Kill all Chechens."
"M'm, good, my leetle darlink. Oh you are soo cute vhen you seet in front of televeezhun vis 2-liter bottle of ze Diet Coke and stare at me, m'mmm..."
Within weeks, Americans would be marching on Washington to demand that Alaska be returned to Russia, and Khodorkovsky would be squatting in GITMO with a Marine interrogator urinating on his Open Society prospectus...
But it's unlikely that the Kremlin will be that smart. They're all about being respectable. Which means they'll be hampered by the fatal flaw inherent in their goal: promoting the Russian view. What connection do Presidential Administration goons Igor Sechin and Vladislav Surkov or Mikhail Lesin have with "Russia" anyway? What they really mean by "Russia's perspective," is really "The Kremlin's perspective." And that is going to be a much harder sell.
After all, what is the Kremlin's view, or ideology? I have no idea beyond promoting Putin as a kind of Tsar/keeper of the state. Its ideology is a kind of hasty arrangement of nationalism, Europeanism, Eurasianism, Fascism, neo-liberalism, Tsarism and just Putinism, depending on the needs of a particular day. Each ideology is carelessly dragged out only as a reaction to something, usually a threat to the Kremlin circle's needs at a given moment. When it comes down to it, the Kremlin's ideology is really whatever it takes to keep the current elite in power and whatever allows them to keep and expand what they have. Sometimes this means strengthening the country or the population, but never at the expense of their narrow interests, which they identify with Russia's anyway. This is the weakness of the "Russian view": it doesn't exist. It is neither neo-liberal like Yeltsin's, nor communist, nor overtly nationalistic, nor a kind of new hard-left like Hugo Chavez.
If Russia had an ideology to give form to its grievances, the network might have a better chance. Take Al-Jazeera for example. Set up by the Emir of Qatar in 1996, it set out to rival the BBC and CNN with a news network that got across the "Arab perspective." That perspective has a much broader ethnic reach, several countries and a booming demographic, not to mention the larger Muslim population. Russia's perspective, on the other hand, ethnically appeals only to Russians. Most of Russia's neighbors are hostile to it, and without a religion or ideology, promoting Russianness has no intrinsic appeal beyond its borders (indeed it even has a limited appeal within its borders).
The same could be said of BBC and CNN: the underlying ideology of those networks' countries, however hypocritical, is to promote democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. This is important because no matter what America and the UK do in the world, they can always fall back on their ideology, their "lie," to explain away their evil behavior. If a nation wants to project its version of the truth, it needs to mask it in a broader "lie" - indeed it needs to cover up its other lies with a fundamental lie, whether that lie is democracy, socialism or Islamic radicalism.
The Kremlin has no larger lie it can fall back on to cover up its evil, brutal actions or the many lies it tells to advance its interests. Russian nationalism may be the strongest lie going now, but it's a non-exportable ideology. So that brings us back to the fundamental problem: What is Russia's perspective? And more importantly, how can Russia improve its image in the West?
We at the eXile have tapped our massive brain trust, and we have compiled an exhaustive study, along with suggestions, that we offer free of charge to the Kremlin to help them improve Russia's image. After all, the Kremlin's interests are our interests too, you know. Just so long as Margarita Simonyan says it's so, then it's so.