Part 2 - The Problems of Media Bias
and Cold War Stereotypes
Then Russian President (and current Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin
saluting young soldiers
Editor's note: In part two of his thesis, "The Misconception of Russian Authoritarianism", St. Petersburg State University graduate Kevin Cyron asks whether or not Russia is an authoritarian state, and answers in the negative. Mr. Cyron then explores the role of the Western media and lingering Cold War stereotypes in shaping global perceptions of modern Russia.
Click here to read Part 1 in Kevin Cyron's series on Russia and the West.
Click on the extended post to read Part 2 in the series.
A political cartoon accusing Putin of destroying democracy in Russia
The term "authoritarian" can be analyzed from many different points and perspectives. Oftentimes, people use terms that are similar in meaning but in themselves are very different. Terms such as tyrant, dictator, fascist, authoritarian and totalitarian are often used interchangeably when discussing a closed, strict and often considered backward regime or state. It should be noted that there are differences between these terms, however subtle, and one should not be confused with the other. The term authoritarian is applied to someone who is or believes in the practice of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is defined as:
"a belief in, or practice of, government "from above" in which authority is exercised regardless of popular consent. Authoritarianism thus differs from authority. The latter rests on legitimacy and in that sense it arises "from below". Authoritarian regimes therefore emphasize the claims of authority over those of individual liberty. However authoritarianism is usually distinguished from totalitarianism. The practice of government "from above" associated with monarchial absolutism, traditional dictatorships and most forms of military rule is concerned with repression of opposition and political liberty, rather than with more radical goal of obliterating the distinction between the state and civil society. Authoritarian regimes may thus tolerate a significant range of economic, religious and other freedoms."(23)
It is the last part of the definition that separates authoritarian from the other forms of government control, most notably totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is total control over an entire society in every aspect of that society. Heywood describes this as, "an all encompassing system of political rule that is typically established by pervasive ideology manipulation and open terror and brutality. Totalitarianism differs from both autocracy and authoritarianism in that it seeks "total power" through politicization of every aspect of social and personal existence. Autocratic and authoritarian regimes have the more modest goal of a monopoly of political power, usually achieved by excluding the masses from politics. Totalitarianism thus implies the outright abolition of civil society: the abolition of "the private". Totalitarian regimes are sometimes identified through a "six point syndrome":
â€¢ An official ideology
â€¢ A one-party state, usually led by an all powerful leader
â€¢ A system of terroristic policing
â€¢ A monopoly of the means of mass communication
â€¢ A monopoly of the means of armed combat
â€¢ State control of all aspects of economic life" (24)
Fascism like totalitarianism can be considered a higher form or more strict form of authoritarianism. However, this does not mean that all authoritarian regimes are fascist. President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt defined fascism as follows:
"The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power."(25)
The term, autocrat, translated from the Greek --"autobrates"- means ruling by oneself or one who has undisputed power.
Authoritarian is of or relating to a far reaching blind submission to the authoritarian ruler. As the CRS Report states:
"In contrast, in an authoritarian state the leadership rules with wide and arbitrary latitude in the political sphere but interferes somewhat less in economic and social affairs. The government strictly limits opposition activities, and citizens are not able to change leaders by electoral means. Rather than legitimizing its rule by appealing to an elaborate ideology, an authoritarian regime boasts to its citizenry that it provides safety, security, and order."(26)
Misreading Russian Elections and Providing No Context for Russia's Disputes with Estonia
Due to Russia's historical transition in 1991, which unlike other transitions was a "top down" approach, it does show some "authoritarian" tendencies. However, the key to the definition used by the CRS Report, "citizens are not able to change leaders by electoral means" does not apply to the whole Russian system. Most notable were the election results of the Duma in 2004 where over 50% of the incumbents were voted out of office. When you compare that to the reelection rates of incumbents in the United States, you get a different reality. In addition, the current Presidential Administration under George W. Bush brought back many key players from the Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations. When President Yeltsin left office in 1999 the Communist Party represented a 48% vote block in the Duma. Today, through elections, that percentage is now less than 11%.
The problem with the CRS definition is that it also uses the phrase "strictly limits opposition activities". How does one define the term "strict"? Where is the line between the "opposition" and the "extreme" groups? This question does not have a simple answer, nor should it. The debate concerning freedom of speech and assembly is one that will forever be debated in a civilized democratic society. The belief is that because these freedoms came out of a stable democratic regime they will exercise restraint on the limitation of these rights, whereas a country with a long authoritarian past would quickly revert and let the power of the ruler dominate and restrict civil liberties. This debate is just beginning in Russia. Russia has not had two centuries to discuss these issues like the U.S. and many European nations. Problems begin to develop with how this issue is reported in the media or not reported as in the case of the protest in Estonia in 2007. The Western mainstream media remains oblivious to the scandalous behavior instituted by the Estonian government for years before this event - Removal of the Soviet Tombs - actually took place. As University of Rhode Island Prof. Nicolai Petro discusses in his article, Russia's Rights and Estonia's Wrongs:
"Over the course of several years, the government's discriminatory policies have included: the passage of laws requiring that all political meetings and private businesses be conducted by "fluent" speakers of Estonian; the removal of the popularly elected mayor of the town of Sillamae for not speaking Estonian well enough; the prosecution of elected officials in the town of Narva under hate-crimes statutes for taking part in a World War II memorial service under the slogan "Narva is against fascism!"; and the abrupt cancellation of all 25 Russian television channels by cable operators in the capital, Tallinn (watched by a quarter of city's population)"(27)
None of this was reported in the West. What seems to be a consistent problem is that the media tend to report stories very quickly without taking the time to research them properly and professionally. When the issue is addressed concerning a "bias" in the media or a misreporting, or not reporting all the facts, the media arrogantly tends to do what is called "circle the wagons" or try to defend itself collectively. This is a matter which will be addressed in more detail later. It can be demonstrated with some certainty that this arrogance of the media is connected to the relationship with Russia.
Russia, naturally, becomes concerned and defensive about media reports because Russia's positive actions to join the global system are not being recognized and reported by the media. Russia is quickly interconnecting with the global political, economic and cultural system by signing agreements on trade and becoming members of numerous international organizations and trying to create some as well. These events are somewhat being reported however they are constantly over shadowed by negative and sensationalized stories that will draw a person's attention away from positive news. The fact that Russia is trying to play a greater role in a global society should not be viewed as a method of dictation but similar to President Theodore Roosevelt's policy of tread softly and carry a big stick. The world should not be afraid of a peaceful rising Russia any more than Europe was afraid of a peaceful rising America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Overlooked Big Story - Russia is Successfully Joining the World Economy
With all that is going on in Russia today, it is incredibly difficult to understand how some major positive stories are not being reported. For example the amount of growth and return on FDI investment is higher than in China. Companies are getting 100%, 200% even 250% return on their investment in Russia - this compared with an average of about 15% or less in most European and American companies. The companies are having an effect on the local business and administration. A survey done by Comcom, an international research company, sanctioned by the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia shows the following:
â€¢ 80% of Russians employed in American companies believe the arrival of American business in the Russian market is making an impact on the way Russian companies do business. 55% of employees in Russian companies also recognize this influence.
â€¢ 100% of Russian Employees in American Companies believe their company "aims to strictly follow Russian laws," compared with 78% in Russian companies.
â€¢ 95% of Russian employees in American companies believe their company "conducts business in a transparent manner," compared to 66% in Russian companies.
The effect this is having on the Russian state is becoming more and more apparent. American companies in Russia are helping to bridge the "values gap" between Russia and the United States by consistently and strongly communicating such key business practice values as law compliance, merit-based compensation, strong business ethics and corporate social responsibility. The aspect of the media will be explored in more detail in the media section of this work.
Restoring Strong Government in Russia Should Not be Viewed as Restoring Authoritarianism
As mentioned earlier, economic trends and patterns are a good measure of future democratic change. Russia throughout its long history has never had as much freedom as it does today. People for the first time are truly in control of their own lives and no longer have to live in fear. Many are founding their own companies, and showing the entrepreneurial spirit while major corporations are cooperating with international firms.
A good analogy for what the Russian government is doing today is to look at the similar situation in the U.S. after the revolution, when the Articles of Confederation failed miserably because they did not create a strong enough government. The U.S. had to centralize and strengthen the federal government. This is a move that by definition is a movement to "authoritarianism". This change is a good thing because the chaos and near anarchy of the 1990's in Russia, if not checked by a strong leader, would have broken up the country even more. Russian stability is truly important when you consider that it has the world's second largest nuclear stockpile. In sort of an ironic twist, a country has to be a little more authoritarian to be a lot more democratic later.
There is, arguably, no country on this planet that has more experience with the degrees of authoritarianism than Russia. For more than 1000 years, Russia has seen both the benefits and tragedies brought by this form of governance. From the great princes of Kiev and Rus to the all-powerful Tsars and, further still, to the dreaded premiers of communism, Russia, has had a long experience. Therefore the disingenuous rhetoric that gives the impression that countries which have never experienced authoritarianism, certainly to the degree Russia has, can educate Russia on the dangers of authoritarianism is part of the problem in communication and relations between Russia and the west. Furthermore it is demonstrated in the bias and flagrant headlines used in the media. For the purposes of this thesis, the definition of authoritarianism is as follows: Authoritarianism is the absolute rule of one person over all aspects of society thereby hindering the ability of personal choice.
The International News Media's Influence Over Global Perceptions of Russia
"Luke, you're going to find that most of the truths we cling to, depend greatly on our own point of view"
Sir Alec Guinness, STAR WARS
Words have powerful effect on people's emotions, actions and, of course, reactions. To quote the Buddha, "Words have the power to both destroy and heal. When words are both true and kind, they can change our world." This has never been more relevant than in the relations between the United States and Russia. This relationship that has lasted for more than 200 years has seen its ups and downs but, amazingly these two great powers have never had a war with each other. These two countries have had wars with all other current and former great powers, but never with each other. To the gratitude of the human race, even in their darkest moments, in the 1960s when both the Soviet Union and the U.S. were ready to fight and launch nuclear missiles, cooler heads prevailed and peace won the day.
The "Drive By Media" and its Tendency to Default to Cold War Stereotypes
Therefore with this fact in mind why, after all these two nations have experienced together, is there a constant attempt to arouse animosity between the two nations by the media using words like, "Authoritarian", "Imperialist" and "New Cold War" in a pejorative way? The two countries constantly surprise each other by providing unexpected solutions right when times are at their most sour. This section explains how the rise and fall of tensions between the United States and Russia are influenced by the media. There are words used and misused by journalists that often create an international diplomatic problem because of the way the newsperson writes or verbally describes an event or uses simple speech. The media uses specific vocabulary to their advantage in order to create more sensational news.
What people sometimes do not consider is that the media is a business. Similar to any other business, the media companies want to make a profit. They want consumers to purchase their newspapers, watch their news casts, and log on to their websites. Hundreds of channels across the globe compete for people's attention. Usually the news channel that shows the most fantastic, bizarre, violent and honestly scary events has the highest ratings. There are two phrases that are taught on the first day of journalism school, "If it bleeds, it leads" and the media "Is the world's mirror". These simple statements say so much about not only modern media but also modern society. People are attracted to violence. It makes people ask the questions, how, what, and most important why. People are horrified, yet fascinated by the pictures they see which is what keeps people watching.
When the news comes on, the networks who are competing for attention, edit words in such a way that keep people tuned in. Many have criticized this and labeled it spin. Spin is not a lie; it's the presentation or reporting of events in a way that is the most beneficial to the teller. For example does the headline, "Russia and U.S. have a disagreement over Missile Defense" really grab people's attention? Or as the headline ran in the April 11, 2007 issue of the British newspaper, The Guardian, "Russia Threatening New Cold War Over Missile Defense" motivate people want to drop in their money and buy that paper?
The two headlines are accurate. Is it a disagreement? Yes. Is Russia really threatening a new Cold War? In the article it states, "according to Kremlin officials, in a move likely to increase fears of a Cold War-style arms race". Therefore a credible statement has been written but in an exaggerated manner. If in addition to a bold statement there is also a picture of a menacing-looking Russian President, most people reading this article have already made up their minds without even reading the entire story. (see Appendix 2 in the MS-Word version of this essay) The media understands this perception and they use it to their advantage. However the greater questions is, if we admit that spin is used to sell papers or make money, why doesn't the media ever spin to help a relationship? Because in the West, this is the job of politicians and PR specialists, not journalists.
Often times the politicians have to clean up the mess of the misunderstanding or misconception that is created by the media. Rush Limbaugh, by ratings the most popular conservative radio talk show host in the United States, has frequently compared the U.S. media to a drive by shooting, calling them the "drive-by media". A drive-by shooting is a method used by street gangs in order to kill their selected target and get away quickly. The purpose of a drive by shooting is to drive by a target and cause as much fear, havoc and destruction as possible. Mr. Limbaugh says that the media is similar when it comes to the reporting an event. They rush to the site of the story, report what's happening before anybody else does and drive on to the next story. Limbaugh said:
"They are exactly like drive-by shooters, they pull up to a congested area, they spray a hail of bullets into the crowd. It causes mass hysteria, confusion, mistakes, and misinterpretation, sometimes people and their careers actually die, and then the drive-by media smirks and they ride away, unnoticed in the excitement. They're never blamed, they're never held accountable. In fact, they're lauded! They're held up as heroes (mostly by themselves) and then the rest of us have to engage in mopping up the mess that the drive-by media caused. They're flying down the highway with the top down, laughing and looking for their next group of victims to hail the bullets and mortar fire into in the form of the way they cover a story, and this is repeated over and over and over. There seems to be no stopping them and their marauding ways, and that's what I mean by drive-by media."(28)
This, unfortunately, according to Mr. Limbaugh causes much of the trouble because the media does not take the time to review the facts and in many cases news companies have to offer a retraction or a correction which mostly slip by unnoticed. The headline is what is most important because this is often all people have time to read. The goal of the media is to grab people's attention long enough and captivate them so they will buy the journal, magazine and or newspaper. When people look at the headlines which describe the relations between Russia and the U.S. the same pattern emerges. This pattern is the constant bombardment of negative stories in print and on television. The longer a conflict continues, the more the media can report about it, thereby providing addition material. More people will listen and this presents more opportunities for the journalist to spin the story of the covered event - thus in effect, possibly controlling the situation or at least having a small part in impacting it. This works for a number of reasons. People, especial the elderly, have a very difficult time forgetting and forgiving the past. For a period of about four decades the two great societies of Russia and the U.S. were Cold War enemies. For most people it is easier to doubt the intentions of an old nemesis than to trust the concerns of a new friend.
One of the most controversial debates in the U.S. today is a question of media "fairness" and "bias". Many studies about bias have been conducted and time and time again they conclude that not only that it exists but also that it does play an important role in shaping the global political dynamic. In a joint study entitled, Media Bias and Reputation, the authors stated the following in 2005:
"Such bias has been widely documented, both internationally and within the United States (Groseclose and Milyo, forthcoming).1 Concern about bias has played a prominent role in many policy debates, ranging from public diplomacy in the Middle East (Satloff, 2003; Peterson et al, 2003) to ownership regulation by the FCC (Cooper, Kimmelman and Leanza, 2001). Moreover, survey evidence revealing rising polarization and falling trust in the news media has prompted concerns about the market's ability to deliver credible information to the public (Kohut, 2004)."(29)
This phenomenon has also been reported on and studied by major companies, most notably the British Broadcasting Corporation. In an article written on June 18th 2007, Gary Cleland, writes, "The BBC has failed to promote proper debate on major political issues because of the inherent liberal culture of its staff, a report commissioned by the corporation has concluded."(30)
Russians Are Reading the Western Media - and They Can Question It
Due to Russia's short history of a "free press", Russia has a difficult relationship with the press. It should be noted that because of international connectivity, news reports from the all over the world are read and seen in Russia. This is a two part issue. It is good that Russians have access to these stories because they know what is going on in the world around them. A negative aspect of this access is presented by numerous examples of dismal performances of how to write or present an unbiased story. For example, the American media has misrepresented stories on a number of domestic issues such as: false reports of murder and rape during Hurricane Katrina; forged documents concerning President George W. Bush's National Guard service; mixed progress in the global war against terrorism (specifically on the Iraq front); stability of the U.S. economy; the U.S. National Security Agency's increased surveillance capabilities due to the USA Patriot Act; the treatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center; allegations of past drug use by President George W. Bush; and, his alleged lack of intelligence - mostly expressed in editorial sections of the media.
There have also been many Russian events that have been misreported. For example, the alleged lack of personal freedoms, absolute government control over media outlets, government intervention in the economy and President Putin's growing authoritarian control. When the Russian political elite see this, they question how is this free press any different from the oligarchs who controlled their media during the 1990s, and why should the government not have its point of view presented to the public?
All of these biased stories are examples of the media not reporting the news but trying to shape it, spin it, develop a particular agenda and create or at least influence public policy. Russian political elites understand how the news is sometimes created and are trying to prevent it. This is why Russia believes it has a right in being cautious with the media.
With the age of the Internet, a trend is starting to develop. The major media outlets in the U.S. most notably CBS, NBC, and ABC, have shown a sharp decline in viewer-ship, and subscriptions on all major newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post and the Los Angelos Times are falling rapidly.
Interviewing a Terrorist Mastermind
Taking Putin's Comments on the Collapse of the Soviet Union Out of Context
The Western media is seen not only by the Russian elites but also the masses in Russia as being very arrogant and not very understanding of Russian heritage, culture and history. An example is when the U.S. television network ABC aired a story and interview with Shamil Basayev. Basayev was the monstrous Chechen Terrorist responsible for a number of terrorist acts in Russia, most notable, the Beslan School Massacre in September of 2005 in which he took over a school and held numerous children hostage. Due to the airing of that story and interview, the Russian government revoked ABC's broadcast license for one year. The airing of this interview was a profound insult to Russians and showed absolute disrespect for the people who were tragically killed by this man. The fact that a news organization was able to gather this story does not mean it should air the story.
Another example would be when President Putin gave his Annual Address to the Duma on April 25, 2005. He said, "Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century." This statement caused quite a stir in the western media and punditry. Without proper context, many westerners were left wondering, how could the collapse of the Soviet Union ever possibly be considered a bad thing? How could the President of Russia say something like this? Could it be that he wants to bring back the USSR? Start another Cold War? What kind of mad man is running the world's largest country anyway? With out proper context or without information, people will naturally fill in the blanks themselves. Speculation and discussion are natural human qualities given that humans are social beings.
The rest of the quote however gives not only more information but also establishes the context all by itself (that Putin was referring to the toll paid in turmoil and human suffering from the collapse of the USSR):
"Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself. Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country's integrity. Oligarchic groups -- possessing absolute control over information channels -- served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere. Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse, the prolonged agony of the Soviet system."
In a comparison of the two quotes, not only does the second quote give more information but also by adding more detail gives the reader a completely new perspective. By mentioning Russia's immense problems coming out of the Soviet period there is a new context in which to understand the opening sentence. The reasons for saying, "Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century," is explained in the rest of the quote. Without this information the reader comes to a different conclusion that in turn, creates a false reality.
In addition with this new context, the reader comes away not only with more information but an entirely new opinion of the speaker and his statement. These media events show how decisions that media networks make, affect people's perceptions of a nation.
The Pressure on Journalists from the News Cycle
The cycle of news reporting is an ever growing process that happens around and influences the general public. It consists of an event, press reports (Headlines, Newspapers and Journals), Discussion groups (Pundits, opinion and editorial writers (op/ed) and political roundtables), Politicians, and academics (NGO's, Universities, Former Politicians, Think Tanks). All of these are parts of an integral process of reporting events. They are steps that take place which help shape the public opinion of a specific event. This process takes place in the following manner:
there is an event that takes place. This event is reported by the major media outlets. These headlines are discussed in further detail in discussion groups and op/eds. Politicians then react to these things by giving a statement. The world of academia rests outside this normal cycle and only at certain moments infiltrates the process. This process takes place around society. Society in this example is average people who are not a member of any of the groups represented in this chart, for example, factory workers, business people, artists...etc.
The event itself is what triggers the media cycle and can take several forms. There can be a normal, standard event which goes through the entire news cycle and then ends. For example, when a particular national team or athlete wins an Olympic Gold Medal. The event in question is the winning of a gold medal. This event is then reported in the media. For example, "College Kids Perform Olympic Miracle" (31). Next, opinion writers and professional commentators discuss how great the event is and what this means for the country. What follows is a statement from a politician about the event. For example then President Jimmy Carter publicly acknowledged the victory and offered his congratulations. The academic media may discuss the strategy for winning or how or why it was important. They may or may not decide to issue a public report. Academics usually reside outside of a simple event such as this. Therefore this is the end of the news cycle.
Another type of event would be a changing or active event. This is when an event takes place and has started going through the media cycle. However, additional events, which are the continuation of the original story, have started but are not a part of the story that was created by or influenced by the media cycle itself.
For example, a natural disaster takes place such as a wild fire. The fire is reported in the media. Then this fire is discussed and politicians make statements citing the damage to the environment. However, before the initial event (reporting of the wild fire) is completed (i.e. the fire is contained or extinguished) homes are destroyed as a result of the wild fire and this starts a cycle of its owns. Now there are two stories going through the cycle but one is caused by the other. The destroyed houses were caused by the fire but not by a member of the media cycle.
A third type of event is an evolving event. This is when an event happens and goes through the media cycle but when it reaches the end the event itself causes another event, for example a political scandal. The event is reported (a Politian's secret love affair), then it is discussed and a politician makes a statement (the politician denies the reports as rumors), but his statement is then proven false. The fact that this public statement has now been proven false creates another story or event. The first is the rumored love affair, which is now established as true, and the second is the lie and potential political cover up. This new story is not only related to the first but is caused by the first and the media cycle. The most famous story of this nature would be the Monica Lewinsky scandal involving former President Bill Clinton.
The final type of events is simulations events. This is a combination of the second and third types. For example there is an event, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This event is then reported and discussed. During this time the buildings collapse, there is a stock market sell off and the concern about a fourth hijacked plane. When the news of the event gets to the point that politicians are issuing decisive statements (not just condolences), in this case a week later, that statement creates a new headline, i.e. the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the start of the War on Terror.
This final type is where the realm of diplomacy and international relations reside. This is due to the complexity of not only the issues but also the global environment in which these events take place. In the context of modern Russia the media cycle is quite complicated. For example, President Putin's decision to sign into law a bill that sharply restricts "extremist groups". The event happens. Next, the media reports that Putin has done this. Next the discussion groups discuss the event. At this step, in an event such as this, people from the realm of academia intercede. The discussion takes place and opinions are rendered that this event is not democratic and more authoritarian. Experts from the world of academia agree. While this process is ongoing, there are domestic calls and protests against Putin which also cause headlines. For example the December 16, 2006 headline in, The Independent, "Thousands Protest against Putin and His Policies". Next, politicians react to the first event by issuing a statement that this is evidence of Russia becoming authoritarian. These statements initiate a Russian response that will create another headline. It is through these cycles that the message, meaning and definitions gets lost and forgotten. For example, what does democracy and authoritarianism actually mean?
Misreporting from Western Media Outlets Reflects Poorly on the West in Russia
An interesting side effect of this entire process is who is held accountable. For example, the media can be held accountable as it was in the case of CBS news anchor Dan Rather, who was removed for misreporting the news. Politicians are also held to account through elections and public scrutiny, or demands for their resignation, or possibly impeachment. Rarely however, are political pundits and academics held accountable for being wrong. These two groups are similar and one can be a member of both. Both groups can be wrong many times over and still keep their jobs and influence. On the rare occasion is a commentator or academic so wrong that his reputation is affected. However, people who work in these spheres can often recover with sometimes even greater popularity.
Little consideration is given to the fact that the manner in which a news network conducts business in a foreign country reflects on that network's home country. The network is a representative of the nation that it hails from just like individual tourists and businessmen are representatives of their home countries. To be judged by one's decisions or actions is not a question of should or should not, or of fairness, it is simply a reality.
"The strengthening of our statehood is, at times, deliberately interpreted as authoritarianism"- Vladimir Putin
Now that terms have been discussed, the next step is to establish how to use them and in what context. This part of the Thesis deals with the development of a national political society and in order to fully appreciate this concept, it is an explanation of relevant social theories. This is important in order to analyze the social construct of Russian Authoritarianism. Is this a construct of different societies, western societies, Russian societies (either foreign or domestic), or the society of the media?
The perception of Russia in the West is greatly flawed due to two main reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, is the use of improper definitions and the influence of the media which has created an idea or has "constructed" an idea that Russia is a strict authoritarian regime. This is particularly demonstrated by the amount of negative news that is reported about developments in Russia.
Media Bias and the Difficulty of Changing Lingering Cold War Stereotypes
In February of 2007, E-generator, a Russian creativity agency, analyzed and published a rating of "Russophobia" in the Western media. This study was done by researching articles discussing Russia's chairmanship of the G8. The rating score was determined for each publications, negative values granted for negative assessments of Russia, and positive values representing positive ones. The most negative publications were Newsday (-43, U.S.), The Financial Times (-34, Great Britain), The Wall Street Journal (-34, U.S.), Time (-29, U.S), Los Angeles Time (-18 U.S.), Boston Globe (-13 U.S) and the New York Times (-4 U.S.)(32)
The second reason [for very negative perceptions of Russia in the West] is the absence of an attempt to understand Russia's foreign policy decisions which are based in the international relations context of the social constructionist theory. Mankind is naturally a social being and as a result, it is necessary to include perspectives on the analysis of mans' perceptions of Russia through social theory. Social constructionism is a social theory which attempts to explain why a person, group of people or state chooses to act the way it does. In the context of this thesis, the perception of Russian Authoritarianism is a social construction and not a reality of how the Russian government, society and culture function. Sometimes, social constructs are believed to be the product of, which may be unintended, countless human choices rather than laws resulting from divine will or nature. In terms of this paper, the term Russian Authoritarianism is a label which is an intended choice by those who wish to and are in a position to influence opinion rather than a reality that has developed naturally in Russian society. This has occurred because of a fear and obsession with a former and sometimes presently presumed enemy and the competition to a unipolar global political structure.
Why People Cling to Outdated Beliefs
Human beings above all are biological creatures that continue to be affected by evolution. However evolution is not strictly a biological phenomenon. It is also a societal and cultural one as well. As David Sloan Wilson states in his research, Evolutionary Social Constructivism:
"There is more to evolution than genetic evolution. Physiological, psychological and cultural processes can also be evolutionary in the sense that alternatives are created and selected on the basis of given criteria. The immune system is a well-known example of a physiological evolutionary process. Antibodies are created at random and those that successfully bind to antigens replicate faster than those that don't. The late social psychologist Donald Campbell never tired of using the phrase "blind variation and selective retention" to describe the essence of evolution and its relevance to psychological and cultural processes, including the process of scientific inquiry, in addition to genetic evolution. When related to literature, a hypothesis emanating from this position might be "narratives have a powerful effect on human behavior and adaptation to current environments proceeds in part through the creation and selection of alternative narratives."(33)
In essence, over time, people's attitudes and beliefs about a certain thing are constantly evolving. For example, people do not have the same point of view on life that they did when they were young children. As people develop, grow, get educated and have more experiences in life, their view or belief of the world changes and adapts. However, what happens to a person whose knowledge about a person, place or state only comes from one place? People who have never lived in Russia, do not know Russians or their history and are only exposed to what the mass media presents of and as Russian, have a certain idea of what that nation is ultimately like. If that view being accepted by enough people, a society or a social construction of a point of view that unfortunately is severely flawed or even wrong. That is what has happened to the view of Russia today in the United States.
Elite Versus Popular Interest in Russia
People as a whole do not directly determine foreign policy of a nation, the elected politicians do. However, one must examine where these politicians get their information and how they use their sources to make decisions. Professional politicians get information from a variety of sources such as, think tanks, diplomats, government studies, government agencies, NGO's, constituents, and the mass media to name a few. If the majority of these sources are flawed or have a severe lack of vision, politicians are improperly influenced. Most of the groups that study events in Russia often only look at political developments. (i.e. laws, appointments, political parties, speeches, number of protests, public decrees...etc.) They often fail to look at the economic and cultural aspects of the society.
For example, one of the key factors to a submissive society is the inability of an individual to make money. This ability correlates directly into the belief and hope for the future.Unfortunately, one of the common denominators in global politics is that the people in power are the people with money. For example, modern world leaders do not live in poverty. Even in the poorest regions of the world, Sub-Saharan Africa, the leaders of these countries are or have become extremely wealthy. Another example is how much money people need to run for the U.S. Presidency. Poor farmers do not attempt this feat. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison as well as many others would not be able to compete in modern American elections.
The Rise of Russia's Middle Class and Positive Implications for Russian Politics
Moreover, the more money that is spread out over a society, the more opposition develops. The U.S. and Europe are perfect examples. These two regions have millions of wealthy citizens. Money and individual wealth give people the ability to focus on other things other than themselves and day to day subsistence. As applied to today's Russia, the fact that the Russian economy is booming, the middle class is rising, poverty is decreasing and money is being circulated throughout the country is something that is often overlooked. By adding this factor into an analysis and then making projections based on it, one can come to a completely different vision for Russia in the future. More and more Russians individually are having access to more and more money, and with that they have the freedom to do what they wish, travel, buy cars and houses. Now the new generation of young Russians is taking advantage of this opportunity as well by buying cell phones and I Pods.
Russian Children as Consumers
The purchasing power of the next generation of Russians is increasing to the point where Russian companies are marketing products specifically at them. According to COMCON, the total pocket money of Moscow children between the ages of 4 to 15 was $228 mln in 2005.(34) D. Tsarkova a marketing specialist for the Soldis advertising agency says that every fifth kid in Russia (22%) has their own pocket money beginning from the age of four. By age seven, 67% of children have pocket money, older than ten--82%.(35) Preschool and primary school children spend their pocket money for candies, gums, snacks and drinks. Older kids use this money on entertainment, CDs and cell phones (both connection and media content). Phones, candies and gums are kids' biggest expenses--ca. 30% of their total expenditures. About 20% are spent for entertainment and CDs.(36)
In December 2005 -- February 2006, Capital Research Group selectively surveyed how Moscow schoolchildren spent their pocket money. The survey covered 184 families with monthly incomes at $550--750 per capita. Children and their parents were interviewed about the kids' money twice a week for a period of two months. School breakfasts were excluded from expenditures, as 87% of the surveyed financed them separately. Unlike certain adults, children have various and quite stable sources of income. In most cases (61%), their sponsors are parents, less often--grandparents (20%) or other relatives (8%), as little as 5% are earned by the kids themselves. Despite that this development is primarily in the capital Moscow at the current time, as the country develops these opportunities will spread to the surrounding cities and regions eventually gripping the entire country.
The Russians, as a whole, are just begging to enjoy this new stable economy. This is shown in an article in Russia Today on February 8, 2008 where it states:
"Life is very different from Soviet times, when even if you had money you couldn't spend it. Now people want to make the most of it and enjoy what money can bring. Higher incomes, solid economic growth and a stable political environment -- after the years of shortages - the natural result is a boom in consumerism."(37)
Russians Not Only Have the Right to Buy, but to Read Whatever They Want
Money also affects the type of cultural changes that happen in a society. The more money that is available to many, and the more developed a middle class becomes the more purchasing power people have. Mostly people will buy western products (i.e. movies, music, and clothes) and travel. The fact that a new generation of Russians, 25 years and younger, who are being exposed to this reality while still remembering the difficult times of past, are not they don't interpret these events as restrictions on freedom threatened by current political developments means Russia is heading in the right direction for the future generation. This new generation does not feel threatened because they still have the freedom to make personal choices.
The government in contrast to the Soviet days does not ban items such as books and movies. The government doesn't prevent the sale of foreign goods such as cars and agricultural products. The government has not limited choice in anyway that effects peoples daily lives.
Improving Russian Quality of Life Outside of Moscow
In addition Russia is not merely the people who live and work in and around Moscow. The city of Moscow is the political control center of Russia similar to Washington, D.C. and London, England which are the control centers of the U.S. and the United Kingdom, respectively. To judge the entire nation based on what is happening in the capital further leads to a misunderstanding of the nation and the people being studied. This is because you are basing our opinion on a limited geographical area. By doing so you are limiting the amount of available facts that will affect your opinion.
For a more complete picture of what is happening in Russian life and culture, one has to look past Moscow to the far regions of Russia. For example, the media market in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, about 3,191 kilometers from Moscow, has as cooperated approach. As Svetlana Voitovich, Director of State Television Radio Broadcasting Company Novosibirsk stated:
"The Novosibirsk mass media, both print and electronic, have a good tradition of cooperation with authorities. Local authorities do not tell journalists what to do and do not insist on this or that angle of covering stories. We act as our own internal censors. The professional environment in Novosibirsk allows the existence of this ''censorship'' because the level of preparation and inside organization of journalists is high."(38)
This is an example that by being aware of the development and trends of different regions of Russia alternate realities are present. Therefore when the western media reports of how the government is controlling the Russian mass media market by looking at different regional media markets in Russia there is another context in which to view government "control".
Unfortunately these additional factors are often not reported, and are frequently not considered determining factors in how the Russian society functions. With an awareness of these details provided by more professional reporting non-Russian people will get a more accurate picture of what is happening in Russia. Placing events in the proper context will lead to a more accurate understanding by the populous which intern will influence the politicians and help relationship by between countries by promoting a more helpful and informative dialogue.
How to Overcome Decades of Perceiving Russia as the Enemy?
The problem now, is how to deal with an already existing social construction? How does one explain the truth when the "truth" is already known? For example, as Krista Anderson states in her article, Social Constructivism and Belief Causation:
"In the case of truth or falsity, to be impartial is to not appeal to the fact that a belief is true in the explanation of the belief. In explaining why a paleontologist believes that there were once dinosaurs roaming the earth, simply to say "He believes it because it is true" is not a legitimate explanation .1 Rather, one must appeal to the reasons that the paleontologist takes to support this belief. Assuming that it is true that dinosaurs once roamed the earth, it still is not exactly the truth of this claim that explains anyone's belief that it is true. The fact that dinosaurs once roamed the earth does explain why there are fossils of their bones, and those fossils may explain why we believe that there were dinosaurs, but there must always be evidence mediating between a true claim and the belief that it is true. So to treat truth and falsity impartially, we must appeal to evidence that was taken as good justifying reason, and not to the truth or falsity of the belief."(39)
Public Opinion: Russia and China as Natural Rivals of the U.S.
In the context of this debate, the "truth" which has already been established is that Russia is becoming or currently is an authoritarian regime, which is the construct but not the actual truth. This falso truth is widely belived by the American populous. By looking at a 2006 report done by the World Public Opinion Organization which states:
"Americans give Russian and Chinese foreign policy moderately negative marks. By relatively small margins, Americans view Russia as a mainly negative influence in the world (53% and 40% mainly positive influence)... However their military behavior gets more sharply negative ratings. Asked how Russia and China use their military power and the threat of force, clear majorities of Americans rate both Russia (68%) and China (75%) unfavorably... Americans' perceptions of Russian and Chinese domestic systems are quite negative, but the American public sees differences between the two countries. Neither system of government is well-regarded by Americans: 68% of the U.S. public has an unfavorable view of Russia's system of government... Russia's economic system receives quite low marks (72% unfavorable)... President Putin is rated unfavorably by 55% of Americans (36% favorable)."(40)
One Solution: Better Information
When additional factors such as the economic and cultural spirit of the country are considered, it becomes quite apparent that the belief that many politicians hold true is in fact not true. This is not to say that the political environment is not important because it most certainly is. However, when one combines the political outlook to the economic and cultural one, you get a more complete picture of the developments in modern Russia. If the social construction was in fact built upon more information, the Western outlook on Russia would not be that bad and thus make relations much better.
For example, in the United States it is not known that the middle class in Russia has doubled; that Russia has balanced it's budget; that there is increased investment in technology, education and infrastructure; that the number of millionaires has doubled; that there have been large increases in the number of small businesses; and, that there has been a significant influence exerted by foreign companies on the political process, most notably in changing tax policies.
Negative Perceptions of Russia in the Context of International Relations
The current relations that Europe and the United States have with Russia are repeatedly reported as being exceedingly bad or worsening. The words, "Cold Peace", "Cold War" and "New Cold War" are constantly used by politicians, political pundits, academics, journalists and experts to describe this relationship. The questions to be asked should be, what drives this relationship? Why is the relationship viewed this way? Why are both sides perceived as being so cold to each other, which would constitute the usage of the terms of the previous century?
The root of this problem is the promotion of the misconception that the Russian Federation is quickly sliding backwards and will become an authoritarian regime once again. The progression of this fallacy is part of a bigger quandary that the West has, which is the fear that Russia is rising like a double headed phoenix and again will become a power to be respected and reckoned with. The end result is a fear of the decrease of U.S. influence in the world. This development puts tremendous strain on the relationship of these countries because it emphasizes the insecurities these nations face within themselves, and also challenges the status quo of a single super power rule which, the United States is afraid to lose. This is also complicated by the fact that not only is Russia's influence mounting, but so is that of it's neighbor, China, with a population of over a billion and a half people, as well. Therefore both nations are perceived as threats to American security and national interests.
The Consequences of Misreading the Yeltsin and Putin Eras
The current problem of U.S., European and Russian relations stem from the false impression advanced by the media regimes. During the reign of President Boris Yeltsin, Russia was hailed in the media as a democracy while the presidency of President Putin has been attacked as authoritarian. The opposite however is closer to the truth. When one considers Yeltsin's decision to shell the Russian Parliament building, appoint prime ministers without the consent of the Duma and the appointment of a successor without an election, it can't be argued that Yeltsin was a leader advancing democratic institutional values.
The continuing misunderstanding, that began during Russia's transition from Communism to a Federation, has led to an exceedingly arrogant policy on the part of the U.S. towards Russia.
The policies and the way of thinking have led to difficult relations between not only the U.S. and Russia, but also between Russia and Europe as well. As Prof. Stephen F. Cohen writes in his book, Failed Crusade, "What influential Americans have believed and said about post communist Russia under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, and acted upon, has contributed to a world of unprecedented danger."(41)
(23) Heywood, Andrew 1997: "Governments, Systems and Regimes". In: Heywood, Andrew: Foundations Politics. MacMillan Press, London, p. 37.
(24) Heywood, Andrew 1997: "Governments, Systems and Regimes". In: Heywood, Andrew: Foundations Politics. MacMillan Press, London, p. 27.
(25) Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Appendix A: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting Recommendations Relative to the Strengthening and Enforcement of Anti-trust Laws", The American Economic Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Part 2, Supplement, Papers Relating to the Temporary National Economic Committee (Jun., 1942), pp. 119-128.
(26) CRS Report 2006, p. 7
(27) Petro, Nicolai - http://www.npetro.net/resources/Russian+rights$2C+Estonian+wrongs.doc
(28) Rush Limbaugh on his talk show April 12, 2006.
(29) Gentzkow, Matthew and Shapiro Jesse, "Introduction" In: Media Bias and Reputation" University of Chicago 2005 p.2
(30) Cleland, Gary BBC online. "BBC Reports Finds Bias with in corporation" June 18th 2007 -- www.bbc.com
(31) Allen, Kevin. College Kids Preform Olypic Miricle. ESPN.com December 23, 1980 http://espn.go.com/classic/s/miracle_ice_1980.html
(33) Wilson, David Sloan, "Evolutionary Social Constructivism" Binghamton University, Binghamton New York p.2 http://evolution.binghamton.edu/dswilson/resources/publications_resources/DSW05.pdf
(34) Antropova, T. Attention--Children! In: Industria Reklamy, 2006, No. 10, p. 37.
(37) Ka Ching! Russias Consumer Boom. Russia Today February 7, 2008 http://www.russiatoday.ru/news/news/20591
(38) Marchmont Capital Partners, Nizhny Novgorod. http://www.marchmontcapital.com/viewJournal.php?articleId=307
(39) Anderson, Krista, "Social Constructionism and Belief Causation" New York University
(40) World Public Opinion.org. "Russians Positive on China's Foreign Policy, Economic Model, Negative on U.S. Policies, Bush" May 30th 2006 - http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/views_on_countriesregions_bt/200.php?nid=&id=&pnt=200&lb=btgov
(41) Cohen, Stephen F., "Introduction", Failed Crusade, 2001, Norton and Company London, p.xi
Kevin Cyron is a native of Burke, Virginia, USA and a graduate of Marymount University in Maryland. Mr. Cyron has worked on the staff of Congressmen Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Washington D.C., and for an MP in the European Parliament in Brussels. In 2005, Mr. Cyron moved to St. Petersburg, Russia to begin his Masters degree in European Studies the following year. While completing his Masters, Mr. Cyron worked for the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia. Mr. Cyron graduated from St. Petersburg State University with an M.A. in Sociology in June 2008.