This week, President Trump’s first solo news conference since taking the presidency was fodder for late-night television. But that’s just an extension of what we’ve seen since he took office. Under Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer, the near-daily White House news briefings have changed from routine interactions with a professional press corps to a high-profile media spectacle. The briefings frequently beat soap operas in daytime TV ratings and have been immortalized on “Saturday Night Live.” While that’s a shift away from normal U.S. politics, it resembles Russian President Vladimir Putin’s media strategy.
Under Putin, the Kremlin has built a media empire centered around the idea of information as entertainment. Access to the president is limited to circuslike news conferences attended primarily by regime supporters who ask the president softball questions. The most recent of these conferences, held in December, included questions about stray animals, chess and kvass, a traditional drink made from fermented bread. One reporter even asked Putin how it felt to be “the most influential person in the world.”
These news conferences offer the facade of genuine dialogue and the illusion of freedom of the press while giving the president the tools to control the political dialogue and distract the media from important issues.
What might the Russian example tell us about the White House’s communications strategy?
Transparency is not always transparent
One noticeable change to the White House press briefings is that Trump and Spicer are giving priority to conservative and non-mainstream news outlets, allowing questions first from such places as Lifezette, Breitbart, Christian Broadcasting and Newsmax before turning to the Associated Press, CBS or CNN. As Spicer said in an interview with Fox News, “There are voices and issues that the mainstream media sometimes doesn’t capture, and it’s important for those issues to get as much prominence as some of the mainstream ones.”
By framing these shifted priorities as expanding access, the Trump administration wants to portray these changes as increasing transparency. Increasing the number of news outlets with access to the White House, however, does not necessarily translate into more transparency. Rather, it reduces the platform given to professional journalists who have the resources to hold the government accountable to the people.
All that can be seen in Putin’s annual news conference. There, more than a thousand reporters from around the country and abroad vie for Putin’s attention. This carefully orchestrated event is populated primarily by state-owned and pro-state news outlets who ask easy questions to grab Putin’s attention and avoid hard-hitting questions aimed at upholding norms of presidential transparency. Professional, independent journalists are pushed aside to reduce the possibility of opposition and challenge.
Politics as a show
In the Kremlin’s portrayal, these news conferences are when the president can speak directly with ordinary Russians, discussing their concerns. But in fact, they are a political show in which a well-known public figure holds court, delivering his views of domestic politics and world events in a controlled setting.
It’s true that reporters are allowed to ask Putin questions. But the event itself — and the types of questions permitted — are carefully scripted. The presser typically starts with the president saying a few words about the state of the economy and mentioning highlights from the past year. Putin’s spokesman then carefully chooses questioners for the next four hours; Putin selects a few reporters toward the end. Putin and his spokesman frequently play good cop/bad cop, with Putin gently criticizing his spokesman for overlooking oppositional media. Reporters vie for the president’s attention by waving huge placards with issue buzzwords and ludicrous statements meant to grab the Putin’s attention. (One sign from the 2016 broadcast asked if there are dive bars around the Kremlin. Another showed a cartoon depicting Putin as Superman.)
Within this setting, Putin displays his wealth of knowledge, charisma and statesmanship. Putin appears relaxed, confident and jocular as he rattles off statistic after statistic (often of questionable accuracy), interrupted only by words of praise and loud applause from the audience. By keeping the attention on Putin, the event deflects attention from the serious issues that are supposed to be discussed at news conferences. It comes off less as a serious news conference and more as a celebrity-focused one-man show. As the show goes on, key questions remain unanswered.
Dissent is permitted … to a point
Although Putin’s news conferences are dominated by softball questions, they do allow critiques — to a point. Some serious and independent journalists are invited and even permitted to ask challenging questions. Putin occasionally takes a few critical questions from state-led news outlets. These questions are often lumped together or framed in a way that makes it easy for Putin to skirt, ignore or dismiss them outright. Reporters are not given the opportunity to press Putin on issues; follow-up questions are not allowed.
The purpose is simple: By allowing some form of disagreement, Putin displays his willingness to have a genuine conversation with the country and to answer tough questions — although in reality, he is keeping tight control of the political discourse and limiting the risk such questions actually pose to his regime.
Russia’s example is instructive. The Kremlin keeps the appearance of a free press while actually reducing transparency. It does this by oversaturating the arena with pro-government reporters, keeping the focus on showmanship instead of content, and limiting opportunities for challenge and dissent. All this makes it harder for the press to hold the government accountable.
Hannah S. Chapman is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in post-Soviet politics, information technology and the media, and comparative political behavior.