Creative Commons License

Russian TV Ignores Obama Visit

Wednesday, July 08, 2009 at 11:11 AM EDT

PD*29936463While US media outlets have lead daily news coverage with President Obama’s visit to Russia, including several days of special coverage by the Newshour and front page, above the fold articles in the New York Times, Russian media, and especially Russian TV, have almost completely ignored Obama’s visit. For example, Obama’s speech to the graduating class at the New Economic School was not covered at all on Russian TV, while President (oops, Prime Minister) Putin’s motorcycle antics received roughly the same amount of airtime as the US President’s visit.

This is not completely surprising, since the Kremlin has long viewed national TV outlets as critical to its efforts to influence public opinion, in particular about Putin, while ignoring thorny topics like the war in Chechnya. The high point of the independence of the Russian media may have been the critical coverage of the first Chechen war, which many argue forced President Yeltsin to end the war in order to have a chance to win re-election against a resurgent Communist Party. Putin quickly moved to reverse privatization of national media outlets after entering the national political stage in 1999, though, starting with Boris Berezovskii’s ORT and then Vladimir Gusinskii’s NTV. The state used charges of tax evasion to force both oligarchs into exile and placed their television stations under state control.

Today, all Russian television stations are under direct control of the Kremlin or state-controlled enterprises, such as Gazprom. Television is the only mass media that has nationwide reach and is an important tool used to maintain the popularity of the administration. In a paper in the British Journal of Political Science, Steven White, Sarah Oates and Ian McAllister also showed that the 1999 parliamentary elections, and the 2000 presidential election in which Putin became president, were won in large part through the partisan use of state television. This helps explain why the Kremlin has taken control over national television stations through direct and indirect means. This control includes, according to Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, weekly meetings between Kremlin officials and television producers from major networks where pro-government talking points are distributed, expected news topics discussed and approaches to news stories suggested. One can guess how that meeting went this week.

While one could argue that coverage of Obama’s visit could have benefited the Kremlin, by showing them as an equal player with the US, others argue that it was more important for Russia to maintain the illusion that the US is a threat. As Mark Ournov told the Telegraph, “”Anti-Americanism is the basis of a system that has been created to justify a return to authoritarianism.”