Russia's 12 Myths About the U.S. Media


By Michael McFaul, Senior Associate

The Moscow Times, July 13, 2001

This weekend, I had been invited by Boris Nemtsov from the Union of Right Forces and Alexei Venediktov from Ekho Moskvy to participate in a conference on freedom of the press in Russia, also co-sponsored by Gazprom-Media. When Venediktov informed me this week that he and his associates were withdrawing from this conference to protest the recent Gazprom takeover of the radio, I decided to do the same. Here are excerpts of what I would have said. All the myths stated below are actual statements that Russians senior governmental officials or opposition journalists either have said to me personally or wrote in the press. These are assertions Russians have made to me in responding to my criticism of their press.

Myth 1: The U.S. government has never tried to control the press. Not true. Soon after the American revolution, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Act (eventually repealed), which gave the federal government powers to suppress certain expressions of free speech that were considered threatening to national security. The Aurora, a Philadelphia newspaper, was the NTV of its time. Almost 200 years later, President Richard Nixon used the same pretext (unsuccessfully) to suppress the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

Myth 2: Oligarchs are not involved in U.S. news. The names Murdoch or Turner should be enough to destroy this myth. What is more striking, however, is how every major national television network is now owned by a multibillion-dollar corporation.

Myth 3: All points of view are represented in the American mainstream press. Not true. When was the last time you saw a Communist Party official appear on the opinion page of The New York Times? It was probably Gennady Zyuganov circa 1996.

Myth 4: All American journalists have a political bias or adhere strictly to the point of view dictated by the owners of the media. As myth five discusses, all reporting has a point of view, but not all media are devoted solely to furthering the political interests of its owners. A norm exists among many American journalists to try to report a story without representing a particular political perspective. Newspapers try to separate out opinion and reporting by printing a special opinion page that usually has editors who are independent of those editors responsible for the news.

Myth 5: All American journalists are neutral and just report the facts. Many try to but cannot. Many others do not even try. All journalists have a perspective. The mere selection of what to write about already exposes part of this "slant." Some media try to control such bias, but other openly promote it. Murdoch's Fox News Channel clearly has a conservative bent, just as he wants it. Dozens of cable TV stations, scores of magazines and hundreds of radio stations are devoted to providing a particular point of view on the news be it conservative, liberal, neo-con, Christian, Jewish, or Moslem.

Myth 6: Media companies with debts are badly managed. Debt is a part of the American way. Start-up companies, be they in the media or other sectors, usually must carry debt and a lot of it. The notion that large debts are a sign of bad business management is simply simplistic. The Russian tragedy is that the state and state-controlled companies continue to be one of the main sources of acquiring debt/capital.

Myth 7: American media companies must make profits to be successful media outlets. This one, perhaps the most often repeated by visiting Russians to the United States in the past few months, is not true in several respects. First, some of the most respected publications in the United States such as the New Republic, the Nation, the Weekly Standard, and the New Yorker have been in the red for decades. How do they stay afloat? Oligarchs give them money. Second, some of the best television and radio news in the U.S. (PBS's "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" and "Charlie Rose Show," NPR's "All Things Considered" and BBC's "World") do not make profits but must raise money from the government and private foundations to keep on the air.

Myth 8: Big profits equal better journalism. The demand for increased profits for media companies has produced lower quality news. Buyouts of local newspapers and radio stations by national conglomerates have produced smaller budgets for reporting and reporters. At national television networks, the need to cut costs and raise profits has resulted in more entertainment rather than "hard news" in news broadcasts and more cheap talking-heads shows than expensive investigative reporting.

Myth 9: All state-financed media serve the interests of the state. State-financed media do not serve the interests of the government in power but rather the interests of the state defined broadly. Independent, bipartisan boards help to insulate public-financed media from governmental interference. Government officials do not sit on these boards.

Myth 10: American journalists do not publish unpleasant ( neprilichniye ) things about the president. Lewinsky? This claim is not serious enough to warrant a refutation. What is serious seriously disturbing is that a senior Russian government official recently tried to make this claim before a Washington audience.

Myth 11: An independent media and "too much democracy" get in the way of economic growth and foreign investment. This claim, while not directly aimed at the United States, indirectly exposes some false conceptions about the West and Russia. Of course, it is just downright silly to blame Russia's economic woes on the printing of Itogi magazine. Nor has there been a big upswing in either growth or foreign investment since its closure. This myth is generated by those who want Russia to be the next China. (Why a country with a GDP per capita one third of Russia's should be emulated has always been strange to me.) What these comparativists leave out of their selective use of case studies is all the dictatorships that have not produced economic growth Angola, Libya, Burma, or lest we soon forget, the former Soviet Union. Within the post-communist world, the correlation between democratization and economic growth is robust. And independent media plays a central role in developing markets, be it in exposing corruption within the state or providing investors with good data about companies.

Myth 12: The Bush administration wants to develop friendly relations with Vladimir Putin's government irrespective of what happens to press freedom within Russia. This simplistic readout of the Slovenia summit fails to distinguish between the short-term and long-term goals of the Bush administration. Of course, President George W. Bush wanted a good first meeting with Putin and of course Bush wants Putin to bless his ideas about missile defense. But no one should have any illusions about long-term relations between the United States and Russia if the authoritarian creep in Russia eventually produces a full-blown dictatorship. Bush and his foreign policy team have real concerns about how new setbacks in Russia's democratic development will impede the deepening of U.S. relations with Russia. Today, every major democracy in the world has a friendly relationship with the United States, while every U.S. enemy Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Cuba, and perhaps in the future China is a dictatorship.

Some of these myths have been generated to make the Putin regime look more sinister than it really is. Most have been invented to make the regime seem more benevolent than it really is. The explosion of myth-making, however, harkens back to a darker time in Russian history when Pravda wrote about the United States as a wasteland of poverty and crime, samizdat publications described America as paradise, and American professors had to make political decisions about whether to attend "academic" conferences in the Soviet Union.