MOSCOW — Just hours after Russia announced in September its intervention in Syria, state television producers here were rushing to book guests for a raucous televised discussion on Russia’s latest adventure abroad.
It was not unusual for Moscow-based American journalist Michael Bohm, a rare foreign veteran of the Russian political talk show circuit, to go on air. But even for him, it was a particularly rough day.
“They invited about six Syrians — all pro Assad!” he said after the show, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally. “All praising Putin for ‘saving Syria.’ All thanking Putin for being the greatest president on Earth.”
That is a common complaint from the overmatched outsiders who brave Russia’s rough-and-tumble talk show circuit, the westerner defending the United States or NATO, the Ukrainian nationalist who decries Russian aggression, and the handful of Russian pundits who oppose President Vladimir Putin.
Their conservative opponents call them traitors and spies. Other opponents of Putin consider them whipping boys, props in a nationally televised affirmation of Russia’s righteousness.
But they say their goal is to harness the power of television in Russia to reach viewers in their own homes.
“It’s an ability to present an opposing point of view,” Bohm said, adding that while he was shouted down by other guests and occasionally the host of the show, he had never been explicitly censored.
“It’s clear why they invite me,” Bohm said. “It says right on the show I’m a journalist, but for Russians, journalist, State Department, Pentagon, it’s all the United States.”
With the odds stacked against him, he considered it a victory when he “won” 15 percent of the discussion.
“Winning is when you make an argument and you look at your opponents and they have a bland look on their face and nothing to say,” Bohm said.
Russia did not invent the television genre of middle-aged men jawing over politics, but it may have come closest to perfecting it. The country’s premier political talk show, “Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov,” features eight guests, a browbeating host, prompts for the audience to applaud, and a prime-time presence comparable to Sunday Night Football in the United States.
The shows are popular, particularly when the public is digesting big news. “Sunday Evening With Vladimir Solovyov” is regularly in the top 10 for ratings among all television shows, according to data compiled by the agency TNS Global, along with more traditional news shows.
Even in the midst of an economic crisis, some say that it is the power of television and propaganda that has enabled Putin to attain his highest ratings ever. “The television is more powerful than the fridge” is a common explanation among Kremlin-watchers.
In a recent op-ed in the Vedomosti newspaper, Denis Volkov, a veteran pollster for the independent Levada Center, argued that Putin’s high ratings are dependent on widespread apathy, meaning Putin’s support is broad but not necessarily deep.
“Most Russians simply have no opinion at all on most issues,” Volkov wrote. “This is why it's so easy for the average Russian to latch on to whatever is suggested on television.”
Polling seems to bear that out. The week before Russia began airstrikes in Syria more than two months ago, 14 percent of Russians said they supported direct intervention in the country’s civil war. A week later, after Bohm and others were scrambled onto hastily arranged shows, 72 percent of Russians said they supported airstrikes.
While the change in word choice from intervention to airstrikes mattered, analysts said, television also played an important role in selling the conflict to the public.
While policymakers and straight news shows define the agenda, the political talk shows provide “emotional support,” said Anna Kachkayeva, the head of the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics’ Media department.
“They just support the atmosphere that exists and heat it up,” Kachkayeva said. “I don’t think it truly changes minds. This is about supporting emotions. It supports the overall feeling of accepting this public consensus.”
It is a tool that has led Russian public opinion from one crisis to the next over the past two years, from the revolution in Ukraine, to the annexation in Crimea, the downing of the Malaysian airliner over east Ukraine, Russia's intervention in Syria, and more recently Turkey's downing of a Russian jet over the Syrian border.
“And then there is always some pariah, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Ukrainian, an American, or someone else, someone who doesn’t agree,” Kachkayeva said. “Everyone attacks him, proving the strength of the majority.”
Dmitry Nekrasov, a businessman and moderate opposition activist, joked that Bohm is seated near him on television in order to discredit him.
He said that most shows air live in Russia’s far east, giving producers in Moscow eight hours to edit out any questionable bits before it reaches the main audience in Moscow.
But he continues to go on the shows.
“I make arguments for Uncle Vanya in his apartment block, how to disagree with his neighbors, how to explain [to] them the right opinion in the right way,” Nekrasov said.
“Those people who are in the minority now in my country, they are in isolation, and some of them feel as though they are alone,” said Leonid Gozman, a Russian politician and democratic activist. “This is the message that the government is sending to them with these television shows.”
The animosity between the show’s guests can occasionally spill off the air.
Igor Korotchenko, an outspoken supporter of the government, needles Bohm on Twitter, writing “people like Bohm dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they lynched Negroes.”
But outside the world of television and social networks, there is respect. Sometimes, Bohm and others who know him said, he is stopped on the street by admirers.
Civil debate often follows.