As thousands of protesters pushed toward Bolotnaya Square, crews from mainstream Russian television fanned out. Satellite trucks were ranged curbside, their engines running.
For six days after the parliamentary elections last month, TV ignored the street protests that were starting to shake the nation. Now the reporters and cameramen were ready. But still, not a peep.
Finally, at 3 p.m. on Dec. 10, say those who know, the word came down: You can put this on the air.
The news reports that followed were neutral and factual, and it seemed that TV, a central instrument of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s hold on power, was at last giving way under the strain. But the dalliance with straight reporting was short-lived. In January, the leash was pulled up tight again.
Putin has an election to win — he’s running for president, and the vote is in March — and after weeks of ambivalence and uncertainty, state-controlled TV has returned to its old and familiar ways.
In December, said Anna Kachkayeva, a media studies professor at Moscow State University, “everyone got this feeling, ‘Okay, we’ve got what we wanted.’ Well, no. Not at all.”
The men who run television got their start in Soviet TV in the late 1980s, and they understood, she said, that they had “to open the pipe” to some extent or protesters — and their own journalist employees — would be dangerously provoked.
There was a fever in the body politic, said Roman Badanin, the online editor in chief of Forbes here, and the coverage was like an aspirin.
But Putin expects to be elected, and since mid-January there has been little aspirin. The main news programs no longer ignore the opposition, as they did for a decade, but instead hammer away at it. One report outlined the vacations that protest organizers took abroad over Christmas. A team from NTV, owned by the giant state-owned Gazprom company, ambushed civil society leaders as they emerged from a meeting with the new U.S. ambassador, Michael McFaul. The station accused them of going to pick up the money with which the United States is supposedly financing the protests.
McFaul, just days into his new job, has turned into a favorite target. On Tuesday evening, the First Channel news featured a long report on the demagogic ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky criticizing legislators who met with McFaul. Behind the anchors was a graphic showing a long American flag waving ominously.
With another big demonstration planned for Feb. 4, the protesters haven’t been totally shut out. One organizer, Vladimir Ryzhkov, appeared on a late-night talk show, and because that was so rare, the program got a huge 25 percent ratings share in Moscow. But viewers watched while Sergei Kurginyan, a Kremlin apologist, shouted at Ryzhkov that he was guilty of “national betrayal” for meeting with McFaul. “You’re an enemy and a traitor,” he said.
In hindsight, December looks like a tactical retreat. Without an obvious opposition leader, Kachkayeva said, there was no recognizable narrative structure to this story. Editors and executives weren’t sure what to do.
If anyone needed a signal from Putin, the prime minister gave it on Jan. 18 when, in a meeting with a group of editors, he turned on Alexei Venediktov, the chief of the freewheeling Echo Moskvy radio station. Your station, Putin said, pours excrement “over me day and night.”
Then Putin said he wasn’t offended. But what critics call the Party of Television understood that there were orders to be carried out.
The Kremlin has never seen Echo Moskvy, a mere radio station, as a big threat, but TV also has the Internet to worry about. And Putin’s circle was slow to take the Web seriously.
That left an opening for Internet television, and now an afraid-of-nothing Web station called TV Dozhd, which means TV Rain, is making a name for itself. It uses the English slogan “Optimistic Channel,” and in December it became a household television staple for families that, as its editor Mikhail Zygar puts it, are fed up with TV.
Mainstream TV people dismiss it as too hip for words, but the station recently landed Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on a talk show.
Zygar said he has come under no pressure to tone down his political coverage, even when Dozhd was alone in covering the first post-election protests.Every day the privately owned station broadcasts its regular planning meeting. Viewers send in suggestions on who should be interviewed for particular stories.
“Our viewers need to know we’re not bribed to invite guests; we’re not forced by the authorities or owners,” Zygar said.
TV Dozhd isn’t a heavy hitter, directly. “But we shouldn’t underestimate it,” Kachkayeva said. The mainstream TV bosses are watching it, for one thing. Its young and obviously unpolished personalities speak to the emotional and intellectual character of the political protest movement.
In Putin’s Russia, where few things are clear-cut, Kremlin strategists don’t, as a rule, dictate stories. They have “discussions” with media managers, said Maxim Kovalsky, who in December was fired as the editor of Kommersant Vlast magazine. The prevailing mode is self-censorship.
When he ran a cover showing Putin and a ballot with an obscenity on it, he said, “I fully understood what I was doing.” Though he may have hoped to keep his job in December’s uncertain atmosphere, his firing was hardly a surprise. The order wouldn’t have come from the Kremlin, he said; it was the oligarch owner of the magazine, Alisher Usmanov, anticipating the Kremlin’s desires.
Every night for a decade, millions of TV viewers have watched Putin in action — riding a horse bare-chested, diving at an archaeological site, or, as on most evenings, having meetings with aides where he spells out his orders while they earnestly take notes.
But his critics suggest that television is no longer sufficient in the Russia of 2012. Putin, said Kovalsky, effectively used the screen during his early years in power to craft an image, but now “people are tired of him.”
And Kachkayeva wonders whether the gusto with which the TV channels are attacking the opposition will last. Despite the current harshness, what happens with the Feb. 4 demonstration could change their thinking entirely — but in which direction?
“They must have a strategy, but sometimes I think they don’t,” she said. “But they have a strong sense of smell, and they can smell that something’s up.”