The Russian political scientist Sergei Markov is assailing three Ukrainian guests on the other side of the studio: “We all know that Ukraine is a symbol of catastrophe,” he yells. “Comrades, what have you done to your country?” The Russian audience applauds.
The Ukrainians try to protest but Markov just talks over them. Footage shows their newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, arriving in New York for the United Nations General Assembly — also the venue of his meeting with Trump, whose dealings with Zelensky’s government have enmeshed him in the biggest scandal of his administration.
But the hosts of “60 Minutes,” as the show is called, couldn’t be happier. One of them, Yevgeny Popov, is broadcasting live from New York, where he’s sitting with John Varoli, an American public relations consultant who learned to speak Russian during a stint as a journalist in St. Petersburg a few years ago. When Popov asks him about the president’s prospects in 2020, Varoli replies: “I think his victory is almost guaranteed, because the economy is flourishing and growing. A majority of Americans support him.” Varoli, who hastens to add that he’s not a Trump supporter, doesn’t cite any polls. (Last week, Gallup put Trump’s approval rating at 43 percent.) Varoli continues: “Trump is constantly breaking the law, but Obama also broke the law, Bush broke the law — all our presidents break the law.”
“Wow, what kind of country do you have?” asks Olga Skabeeva, who’s moderating back in the studio in Moscow. “Everyone’s breaking the law!” More applause. Then she takes a turn scolding the Ukrainians.
Make no mistake, the Russians are happy to cheerlead for Trump. “The president noted that Biden demanded that the government of Ukraine fire the general prosecutor who had been investigating his son,” reports a typical article — neglecting to mention that no such investigation ever took place. “U.S. media LAUGHING STOCK of the world: Trump accuses ‘fake news’ of gutting their credibility,” declares an English-language piece on the website of RT, Moscow’s overseas propaganda hub, which has a long history of acting as a Trump stenographer.
But those Russian journalists who are still paid by the government have a broader agenda. The tale of the U.S. president’s efforts to pressure Zelensky into delivering kompromat on Democratic front-runner Joe Biden offers a perfect opportunity to convey several messages: The United States is a dystopian mess. Ukraine is a sewer of corruption, a geopolitical nobody. Don’t believe that holier-than-thou crap the Americans are always trying to sell you — all that talk of democracy and human rights and “rule of law” is a crock. Donald Trump pretty much says so, after all.
A lot of the Russian coverage is conspicuous in what it leaves out. You’ll see little analysis of the whistleblower law underlying the complaint that inspired Trump’s latest predicament. You’ll find almost no reporting on the electoral, political or moral dynamics behind impeachment. And you certainly won’t see any efforts to fact-check Trump’s, or Biden’s, or anyone else’s statements.
What you will see are conspiracy theories — such as the broadcast that hints darkly at Biden’s supposed ties with Zelensky’s predecessor, Hunter Biden’s business investments and, for some reason, “the Malaysian Boeing,” a reference to the civilian airliner that was shot down by a missile over eastern Ukraine in 2014. (Actually, a Dutch investigation found that Moscow, not the Ukrainian government, was almost certainly responsible for the shoot-down.) Whatever causes “mayhem,” as Russian foreign policy commentator and lawmaker Alexei Pushkov noted in a recent tweet, is music to the Kremlin’s ears.
And, as media analyst Julia Davis notes, you will also find plenty of glee over the simple fact that a story of murky dealings in Ukraine is overshadowing the West’s attention to inconvenient topics such as the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine and continuing sanctions against the Kremlin.
If only we could feel morally superior about all this. But as I perused Russian coverage this week — with its frenetic talking heads, its souped-up graphics and its breathless, hyperpartisan double talk — I couldn’t help feeling that I was merely navigating a slightly more feverish version of our own media landscape. And it’s not just that Russian infowarriors love to recycle Fox News talking points — it’s also the frequent reference, explicit and unstated, to the notion that there are no hard facts anymore, just partisan positions. The truth doesn’t get you any ratings, after all.
The Russians have learned a lot from us. And perhaps we’ve been learning more from them than we realize.