MOSCOW — I’m standing in a glistening TV studio that evokes “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” crossbred with “Fox NFL Sunday.” The stage is a large, brightly lit clock face that occasionally flashes random, live-action video images. Metallic shards of blue, red, and white light coruscate across the reflective steel and glass backdrop. From a massive screen behind the stage, Russian President Vladimir Putin stares down balefully.
No one on this set is going to win a million dollars. But millions of Russians are watching.
This is “60 Minut,” an hour-long political talk show aired on the state-owned Rossiya-1 television network that dominates Russia’s 7 to 8 p.m. weeknight time slot. Its charismatic husband-and-wife hosts, Evgeny Popov and Olga Skabeeva, offer sharp, well-prepared, slanted commentary on the news of the day, and carefully choreograph discussions that heat up quickly and simmer just south of shouting matches.
Most Russians get their news from state-controlled TV broadcasts that dole out the stories the Kremlin wants told. But it is on political talk shows such as "60 Minut" where the Kremlin's view of the world is sized up, shouted over and ultimately deemed the only right one.
On "60 Minut,” the guests face off from two small glass tables on opposite sides of the stage: pro-government on one side, foreigners and dissenters on the other. I’m one of the foreigners.
Five minutes into the March 10 show, Popov sidles over to me and asks the question that any American who gets in a political conversation in Moscow gets asked -- except this time, ratings will later show, 2,833,200 viewers are watching.
“Why is an independent Russia to blame?” he says. “Why is Russia the enemy?”
As he asks that, I’m wondering, “Why am I here?”
Well, for one thing, it’s a rush. You feel like you’re a rock star playing the Colosseum; then when you get out there, you realize it’s the Roman era, you’re a Christian, and you’re performing for a colosseum filled with hungry lions.
But I wanted to understand how shows like this work -- and to do that, I really had to be part of them.
It’s kind of like being the token liberal on “Hannity” or the conservative sop on “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” except that on American TV there’s still a choice of viewpoints. Russian television is firmly pro-Putin. It’s also like being the bad guy on “The Jerry Springer Show,” because if I’m here, the subject is the United States -- and in today’s Russia, Americans are the bad guys: hypocritical, rife with double standards, pushers of 25 years of policies aimed at keeping post-Soviet Russia down.
Dissenting ideas are allowed, but mostly so that they can be knocked down. We’ll all get a chance to have our say, and debate a little, but the deck is stacked. The patriotic side will get the final word, verbal pats on the back from the hosts, and the lion’s share of the studio audience’s applause for lines such as “Putin is a humanist, because he delivers on all of his promises.” Someone on the March 10 show actually says that.
That show kicks off with a tease to a dramatic CNN documentary in which American journalists and officials paint a harrowing picture of Putin’s unchecked power, and repeat the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin meddled in the U.S. election so President Trump would win. The documentary fuels a favorite topic of Russian political TV: Russia-bashing by the American elite.
“60 Minut” — Popov will tell you the name was not ripped off from the world-famous CBS show, and he’ll also disagree with what I’m writing about his show — is probably the best of a raft of well-produced Russian talk shows that debate their way into validating the view of the world of Putin's Russia.
Ukraine, in this view, is a rogue fascist state backed by cynical Americans uninterested in the suffering they have caused; Crimea was rescued by Putin’s troops from Kiev’s marauders and restored to its rightful place as part of Russia; Syria is a successful intervention to clean up the mess created by Washington’s unlawful intervention; Russia suffers not because of its kleptocratic leadership’s refusal to loosen its grip on power to allow the rule-of-law society that makes free markets work, but because the United States and its European proxies don’t allow it to thrive.
American media are so biased when we talk about Russia, according to the view broadcast on state media, that we can’t see these truths, whereas in Russia, as one pro-Kremlin lawmaker said with a straight face on a recent show, “we have true freedom of speech.”
On “60 Minut,” news stories that flesh out the theme of the day flash across the screen, then the hosts coax a discussion of the official take on what’s going on. The game-show presentation makes the debate that follows look like a competition. Everyone gets to take a turn, as graphics and videos flash across the screen and the “interactive floor.” During one episode, when I was talking about Russian and U.S. strikes against the Islamic State, the image on the floor was the view from a fighter jet aiming at a target.
In debates on these programs, I'm a pretty easy target, thanks to my inexact Russian and fumbling efforts to pull off self-effacing wit (imagine a combination of Yakov Smirnov and Balki). The hosts and guests are generally indulgent and occasionally help me find the right words, but in the end, it always turns out that the guys on the Kremlin’s side make the most sense.
Most American journalists based in Moscow avoid these shows. One, Michael Bohm, has become a household name with his frequent appearances, but he has no affiliation with household-name U.S. media. Most of my colleagues fluent enough to hold their own in a debate don’t see the upside of being a televised whipping boy and having their employer’s name dragged through the mud.
This was the theme of my first appearance on “60 Minut,” on Inauguration Day. That mondo screen in the back broadcast the inauguration proceedings in real time, interspersed with live reports from Washington. But the show started with a story of mine that ran that day plastered across that screen. It was a mostly lighthearted piece that poked fun at some of the over-the-top ways Russians were expressing their affection for Trump.
Skabeeva introduced me.
“We’ve never seen an author of The Washington Post and now let’s look at one: David Filipov, in our studio,” she said.
I bathed in the applause. Rock star.
But the point of bringing up the article was to use it (unfairly, I’d say) as an example of anti-Russian slant, and lead into a CNN story about who would take charge if Trump were assassinated before taking office. Putting the two reports together, the hosts nudged the audience to the conclusion that the U.S. media hates Russia and wants to stop Trump from improving relations with Moscow.
A pro-Kremlin legislator, Sergei Zheleznyak, drove home this point, raving about the conspiracy to me and the other outsiders -- a German reporter, and Owen Matthews, a British journalist who goes on Russian TV because he likes getting the opportunity to knock Putin on a live national broadcast.
Zheleznyak’s umbrage was mostly for show. During a commercial break, he smiled and said in fluent English, “I hope I didn't offend you.”
Another frequent guest on “60 Minut” who goes off on America on-screen is Andrei Bezrukov, in person a well-spoken and thoughtful commentator. He should be, because he is one of the sleeper spies exposed and expelled from the United States in 2010. I spent months chasing after him back then; another reason to go on these shows is you meet all sorts of fascinating people.
And then, every so often, there’s a chance to make a point that 2,833,200 Russians will hear. After appearing on a few shows, I started to anticipate the question and plan my answer.
In the March 10 show, when Popov asks me why America hates Russia, I spring my trap.
“I know how to make people stop saying that Putin is the core of all the evil in the world,” I say confidently, fumbling only a couple of the words.
“Oh, please tell us,” Skabeeva sneers for the camera.
“Have you written about it in your newspaper?” Popov inquires.
“Not yet,” I wink, as though letting them in on some scoop.
“Okay, this is a very simple,” I continue in my Smirnovesque Russian. “He can run for the president and then lose with a distance of 3 million votes like Hillary Clinton did.”
I plow ahead despite misstating the stats.
“Then everybody will stop the talking about him.”
Popov gave a sarcastic chuckle. There was nothing to say to that.
I didn’t kill the lion. But I gave him a good yank on the tail.