I've Reported on Putin: Here Are My Tips for Journalists Dealing With Trump
When you combine Donald Trump’s frivolous treatment of objective reality with Russia’s recent propaganda onslaught, it is unsurprising that many were tempted to compare Trump’s campaign to the one Vladimir Putin has been waging both domestically and internationally for several years.
The comparisons have become even more striking after Trump’s pre-inauguration press conference and the bizarrely hostile briefing for the White House’s press corps by his press officer, Sean Spicer, on the new president’s first day in the office. Here we have a clearly autocratic leader who, along with his aides, counsel and subordinates, is openly hostile not only to the media but to facts.
Spicer went on an angry rant against “deliberately false reporting” – while himself making statements that were patently untrue. Later, confronted about Spicer’s obvious distortion, Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway gave the world a new meme: what Spicer said was not lies but “alternative facts.”
All this has led to hand-wringing among the American media: how do we treat this administration that is prepared to lie to our faces and expects to get away with it? For someone who has been covering Vladimir Putin and Russian politics from Moscow for long enough, like me, it sounds all too familiar. Watching Trump’s press conference rang a lot of bells: the evasion, the bare-faced lies, the failure of the astonished members of the press to rally around their colleagues singled out for abuse. Before we get to the parallels between Trump’s and Putin’s treatment of the media, let’s get the obvious differences out of the way.
Trump and Putin are in many ways fundamental opposites of each other. Trump is an entitled “golden child,” while Putin was born in extreme poverty in postwar Leningrad. Trump often seems to act impulsively, while Putin idolises discipline and is always collected. Most important, though, is that unless Trump somehow manages to entirely dismantle the foundations of American democracy early in his first term (as Putin did, following up on the anti-democratic reforms of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin), it’s unlikely that the US press will end up in the same dire and worsening circumstances their Russian counterparts have endured. On paper, the Russian constitution protects the freedom of the press, but there are countless ways the state can bully the unruly media without resorting to violence.
Consider, for instance, the fate of Dozhd (Rain) TV, a tiny independent channel based in Moscow. In 2014 it was careless enough to ask an unthinkable question via a Twitter poll: “Could the sacrifices of the Leningrad siege have been averted by surrendering the city to the Nazis?” The authorities have long been looking for a casus belli to punish one of the few independent outlets openly opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine. Russia’s official version of the second world war is sacred and not open to debate, so what followed was a hysteria whipped up by state functionaries and a loyalist media. Soon after, all of Russia’s major cable providers dropped Dozhd from their networks. Although an independent investigation later revealed that they were acting under pressure from Putin’s administration, no laws were broken – “we’re a business and we just don’t want to serve you any more” was the reason given to Dozhd, which is no longer a proper TV channel, instead reduced to web-only broadcasts. The same thing happened to its office lease, revoked without an explanation.
Aside from these brutish tactics, though, Trump seems to aping Putin, consciously or otherrwise. Putin’s annual press conferences are carefully choreographed and widely televised happenings that last for at least four hours. They’re uniquely devoid of any content though: almost no major policy announcements get made and all it boils down to is Putin’s vague and non-committal statements, his trademark zingers and lots of stats and factoids that no one will have the time or determination to fact-check. He almost never lashes out at reporters, as Trump did at BuzzFeed and CNN, but he has many other ways to humiliate you and dodge your question. If you ever get to ask one, that is.
Putin’s last one in late December last year was attended by more than 1,500 reporters, most of them from small, local publications only interested in the issues of their region, some from publications fiercely loyal to Putin, praising him, pitching softball questions and attacking his enemies. So even if you do manage to ask a sceptical question but are not satisfied with Putin’s answer, the chances of a colleague following up out of solidarity is diminishingly small.
With that in mind, consider the Trump team’s proposition to move the press room out of the White House to a more spacious facility to accommodate the “off the chart” interest in the new president. And to dilute the “elite” DC press corps with bloggers and talk radio hosts: to anyone who’s ever seen the mad scramble for Putin’s attention inside that cavernous hall where his press conferences are held, the purpose is obvious.
The biggest threat to informing the public in Russia is not censorship, state pressure or fake news: it’s the chaff constantly thrown out to keep the media distracted. There are politicians in Russia that throughout their decades-long careers have done nothing but make statements aimed at raising outrage or suggesting deliberately absurd bills, with the sole reason of staying in the headlines. Putin himself and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov are famous for their tendency to brazenly deny the plainly obvious – only to make a rhetorical U-turn later, completely dumbfounding everyone.
But in order to hold Putin – or Trump – accountable, you don’t need access to the Kremlin or the White House. Quite the opposite – having such access is a liability, because it’s a privilege you can be threatened with losing, or you can succumb to access bias. Investigations into corruption and mismanagement don’t require close relationships with state officials – quite the opposite. And even though Russian independent reporters can’t unseat Putin (nothing can, that’s not how elections work in Russia) defining public policy is one advantage their American colleagues have. So my message for covering President Trump’s administration is this: don’t get distracted by what they say, focus on what they don’t.