17 September 2008

An Echo of Moscow in America?

David Remnick, the head editor of The New Yorker, recently returned to his old Russian beat, where he worked for the Washington Post in the 1980s.This week he publishes an article about the struggles of an independent radio station in the age of Putin. Ekho Moskvy ("Echo of Moscow") got its start in the Gorbachev years and had a friendly relationship with Yeltsin after the USSR fell. Under Putin it can still do objective reporting and dissident commentary, but Putin considers it his prerogative to tell the Ekho bosses and other media people what he thinks of them. The prime minister recently chewed out the Ekho editor-in-chief over the station's coverage of the South Ossetia crisis, complaining about inaccuracies but really, it seems, about its failure to follow the Putin-Medvedev line. The editor is convinced that Putin could shut him down anytime he wants -- Ekho is owned by the state gas company -- but as a rule Putin keeps radio and newspapers on a longer leash than he does the TV networks, which are obliged to represent the government viewpoint. More people watch TV, after all, than read papers or listen to the radio.

The Ekho editor, Aleksei Venediktov, tells Remnick that Putin invited him to the Kremlin in 2001 to explain his attitude toward the media.

By way of both embracing him and warning him about how he understood their relationship, the Russian President talked at length about the difference between enemies and traitors. 'It's a crucial difference for Putin,' Venediktov said, 'He said, "Enemies are right in front of you, you are at war with them, then you make an armistice with them, and all is clear. A traitor must be destroyed, crushed." This is his philosophy of the world. And then he said, "You know, Aleksei, you are not a traitor. You are an enemy."'

Maybe this is what George W. Bush recognized when he famously gazed through Putin's eyes into his soul. I suspect that Bush makes a similar distinction, which confuses liberals. The Bushie media clearly treats liberals as enemies, and liberals in turn interpret that as if the Bushies think of them as traitors. That's why Bushies (as well as Senator McCain) often have to explain that they aren't questioning the patriotism of their critics, but only their judgment. I don't bring this up to defend the Republican party, but to clarify matters for liberals who suffer from a persecution complex. My own view is that Putin's attitude (and, speculatively, Bush's) is pretty awful. Fellow citizens who disagree with one another on policies, or even on principles, are not enemies, -- or shouldn't be, under normal circumstances.

Americans consider themselves better off, and probably just plain better than Russians because people can go on television and denounce the government. This rather fine distinction identifies ours as a free country. But I wonder if that's enough? Here's a Russian newspaper editor on freedom:

'But is a free media outlet possible in an unfree country? I would say no. In a free country, the newspaper publishes a story, it influences television, it reaches the public, then it helps to shape the course of policy. In an unfree country, Echo of Moscow lives in isolation, on a kind of Indian reservation. It broadcasts a story or a discussion and it reaches an audience, but it never goes any further.'

The United States is supposed to be a free country, but does it work the way this Russian idealist describes? In Kirill Rogov's mind, television is the key. For change to happen, it has to be processed through television to reach the mass public.How much actually influences television? You might learn from this blog, for instance, that there are many more than two candidates for the presidency, several of whom are actually credible and worthy of a hearing. How many have gotten a proper hearing on television? By Rogov's standard, there are hundreds or thousands of media "Indian reservations" in this country whose stories don't get off the rez. So if television is quite plainly, even consciously a tool of the American Bipolarchy, and it effectively suppresses knowledge of alternatives to the two major parties, is this a free country after all? Is it free because Democrats can insult Republicans and vice versa? Is it free because any crank can call the TV or the radio on the phone or comment on a blog? Is it free if we cannot overthrow the Bipolarchy? Is it?

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