Filipov has gone out of his way to explain what he was doing on Russian television, lest he himself be called out as a tool of the Kremlin, and he has covered himself as well by restricting himself to discussion of the best possible show to make his point about Russian propaganda.
Push-back to the Washington Post feature articles on Russian talk shows by David Filipov
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
I am delighted that David Filipov, Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post has just published his impressions of Russian political talk shows based on his personal experience on air, and also published an interview with Yevgeny Popov, the co-host of one of the most popular such shows, 60 Minutes on Russian state television channel Rossiya 1, which is the show he has chosen to feature in his article. (see links below)
Since my first appearance on such shows in May 2016, I have met a number of mainstream Western journalists who also were panelists, but until Filipov’s latest articles none of them had written about the shows for their respective newspapers or magazines, all of which generally promote negative images of Russia and tend to describe its television programming as mere propaganda.
Filipov has gone out of his way to explain what he was doing there on Russian television, lest he himself be called out as a tool of the Kremlin, and he has covered himself as well by writing about the best possible show to make his point about Russian propaganda.
It did not have to be this way. Filipov has also been a panelist on another, rather different show, Time Will Tell, on the other major state channel, Pervy Kanal, appearing there on the same Trump Inauguration Day as the January 20 edition of Sixty Minutes that he writes about in his article. I know because I sat opposite him in the horse-shoe shaped seating for panelists. For all I know, he may have even participated on other channels, on other talk shows. Whatever the case, he certainly must know about them and must be aware of how they all differ from one another in many ways.
In matters such as we are about to discuss, details are everything, and Mr Filipov has a employed narrow vision and edited the details to suit his preordained conclusion about Russian talk shows, about the mission of Russian television.
Among the principal details in play are the character of the given television channel, the format of the given show and the stature of the presenters or moderators. If we drill down on 60 Minutes, which debuted in 2017, we find that the format is slick, and the husband and wife team of Popov and Olga Skabeyeva is simply not nice to many panelists, whom they visibly taunt and ridicule on air. Here Filipov’s remarks on his treatment as a ‘token American journalist’ are fully justified. The aggressiveness of Skabeyeva turns off many Russian intellectuals, who have no regard for the show.
What Filipov fails to say is that overall 60 Minutes is tightly scripted and controlled from off camera. Popov and Skabeyeva are reading from teleprompters and they are taking tips on whom to ask questions, where to go next from messages they receive in their earplugs. There is no spontaneity because neither presenter has any real authority in the Russian television world. Moreover, their station has a bigger than life news manager in its midst, Dmitry Kiselyov, all of which tends to trim the sails of younger staff to the Kremlin mold.
The big exception on Rossiya 1, about whom I have spoken elsewhere is the talk show host Vladimir Soloviev, who is a major figure in the industry, who conducts talk shows in several different formats, and who frequently engages his invitees in open debate without any struggle to get the microphone or any attempt to humiliate anyone.
Moving over to the other major state channel, Pervy Kanal, the atmosphere is also different. News is a much smaller part of its production work, and for global news coverage it tends to rely on material brought in from its sister channel. It has been more daring than Rossiya 1 in its political talk show scheduling, being the first to introduce afternoon shows broadcast live, not on tape, to the Moscow time zone. It allows much more freedom to its presenters, resulting in more spontaneity of the debates. And its rules on putting on air anti-Putin Russians like Yabloko or skeptical, not to say hostile foreign correspondents are more gentlemanly.
Then there is the large private television channel best known for films and general entertainment, NTV. They have their own afternoon political talk show The Meeting Place, which is also less glitzy, less tightly aligned to the Kremlin and more open in structure than 60 Minutes.
David Filipov introduces Yevgeny Popov to WP readers in the interview article. It is indeed relevant to be aware that Popov spent six years in the United States as a Russian television correspondent from 2007 and that he knows a good deal about American news programs, which Filipov asks him to comment on. But there is also another side of Popov that his readers should have been told: from 2003 to 2005 he was based in Ukraine and reported on the Orange Revolution and then again during the Maidan demonstrations in the fall of 2013 he was back in Kiev. That is to say, Popov spent some time as a front line reporter in very difficult conditions. He is a news-hound.
However, Popov is also a superficial reporter, as I discovered from his Special Correspondent talk show in April 2016 when he produced and presented a film entitled The Browder Effect, which made very speculative allegations against William Browder and the anti-Putin blogger turned politician Alexei Navalny. The film and the show drew on documentary materials from a cache put together by the security chief of oligarch in exile Boris Berezovsky. The documents were suspect as forgeries, and it was clear from the show, as well as from Popov’s answers to my questions about them, that he was out of his depth. He was carrying the can for his bosses.
Trash like that does not get presented on talk shows hosted elsewhere, even on the same channel. Moreover, how guests are handled also varies from program to program with the standing of the presenters. A week ago Vladimir Zhirinovsky appeared on 60 Minutes and ran away with the show. He insulted the Ukrainian panelists. He shouted down a European Parliamentarian who hardly had a chance to open her mouth. And neither Popov nor Skabeyeva dared oppose him. Zhirinovsky is a frequent guest on the Soloviev shows and nothing like that is ever allowed to occur.
It is interesting that David Filipov acknowledges that his time on 60 Minutes was valuable because of whom you can meet there. That is a thought we shared when we met briefly at the other talk show on January 20. But whereas Filipov only mentions one odd person whom he had been unable to catch otherwise, it would be more appropriate to explain that in these shows, especially the top of the line Russian talk shows, journalists and others have an exceptional opportunity to meet Russia’s most prominent politicians – legislators from the State Duma and Federation Council – before the show, during the breaks for commercials, and in the lounge after the shows.
Last September, I spent four hours on the train going down to Moscow from St Petersburg to participate in my first Sunday Evening with Vladimir Soloviev. I spent another four hours in the train the same day going back to Petersburg. I was on just the first 15 minute segment of his show and was given the microphone for less than 2 minutes. Yet, when asked about this experience by friends I had to admit that I had no regrets because my brief moment of stardom on air was a verbal duel with Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Later in the show, after I was gone, Vladimir Volfovich expressed his regret that he could not continue dialogue with "that American from the CIA.' Perhaps more important was the chance I had to exchange views with Soloviev on the prospects for the coming U.S. presidential election in a tête-à-tète in the coffee room before the show began.
It is also worth directing attention to Filipov’s remarks on how he responded to questions the first time he participated in one of these shows, how he felt under pressure and needed a bit of assistance from the host to choose the right words. He is being hard on himself, because his spoken Russian is actually quite good. In any case, he proudly tells us that the second time he participated in a show he was better prepared and had a statement to put on air in which he tweeked Putin’s nose.
The fact is that being a panelist on one of the Russian talk shows is no different from being an interviewee, and it is surprising that the journalist Filipov did not put himself in the shoes of the folks he interviews. As you learn, if you are making the effort to take part in one of these shows, for which you are paid nothing, then you have the right, the expectation that you will say something you consider important on air whatever the question. That is what I have done repeatedly, and no one has cut the mike…. on programs other than 60 Minutes.
Another fact that perhaps Filipov did not know if indeed his experience has been limited to that one show: very often the producers give you not only the topic which will be featured on the show but also a set of questions which will be posed. They ask for your spoken or written responses the day before so that they can better gauge how the flow of debate can best be organized during show time.
Filipov comes down hard on Russian television for bullying the ‘token American journalist.’ I would ask him on what U.S. talk shows Russians are invited to appear at all, on what U.S. talk shows Americans who do not support the Washington Narrative are invited to appear and under what conditions? Whereas the major Russian channels play on air the entire, unedited video recordings of the talk shows produced in their studios, American talk shows like CNN’s Fareed Zakaria can tape 15 minutes and then show 1 minute on air. It would be better if our Washington Post journalist realized that he is living in a house of glass.
In conclusion, notwithstanding the essential correctness of Filipov’s grievances with 60 Minutes, I see no reason to backtrack on my assertion that Russian talk shows are a very important piece of journalism that bring many different views on topical issues of the day to their audiences, rather than being, as Filipov would have us believe, just a means of promoting the official party line and feigning democracy by tokenism.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.