Staunton, December 26 – Most commentators on the media scene in Russia blame its current sad state on the Kremlin’s effort to control those parts of it with the largest audience – television in particular – and to restrict or isolate other sectors so that they will represent a simulacrum of media freedom without being the threat to the regime that a free media would be.
But in a new article on Colta.ru, Kirill Kobrin argues that the sources of the problem are much broader and involve three trends within the media itself that must be addressed and opposed if the media are going to be in a position to recover the influence and authority they had earlier (colta.ru/articles/society/5799).
These three trends are, first, “the disappearance of interest in anything about the surrounding world not directly connected with ‘Russian affairs,’” “a militant anti-intellectualism” which uses emotion rather than reason to connect with its audience, and an ever greater dependence on what the various media outlets perceive as their audience.
Because of that last point, Kobrin argues, media outlets, both government-controlled and not, are all too often unwilling to challenge the views of their audience, choosing stories that reinforce what the audience wants in order to keep the number of viewers, listeners, readers or hits up.
Indeed, and that is one of Kobrin’s central points, these three trends increasingly are affecting Russian media across the board, from that sector controlled or influenced by the government to that which explicitly stands in opposition to it. And that means that the latter often unintentionally echo the framework of the former even when they criticize its specifics.
The Russian powers that be exploit this situation “to the full extent,” Kobrin says, because they benefit even when opposed if those speaking against them are using the same kind of “emotional, anti-rational and anti-intellectual” discourse which they are using themselves because that keeps what passes for argument at a level the authorities can almost always win.
In the current media environment, he continues, “any serious problem is easily transformed into an occasion for mutual denunciations and manifestations of one’s own feelings” rather than as the occasion for serious discussions. That has opened the way to “the most banal xenophobia” and “intolerance to opponents” of the kind the Kremlin wants – and precludes the kind of analysis that challenges those in power.
Moreover, it reinforces the mental patterns of the totalitarian past, a past from which many in Russia have not escaped, that refused to acknowledge any link between specific problems and high politics and thus limited the possibility that anger about the one could take the form of political opposition.
To those who might reply that the media exists in order to inform and that its popularity in any particular case reflects its skill in doing so, Kobrin says that that may very well be the case in “a mature Western society,” but it is “not so in the Russian [one].” Instead, in Russia, “’supply dictates demand’” rather than the other way around.
“In other words,” the Russian analyst says, “as long as the public … is not offered a fundamental and serious conversation on serious things, there won’t bee a demand for such a conversation.” And thus it is both easy and profitable for the authorities to prevent such a possibility from arising.
Moreover, he points out, “the majority of the Russian media outlets who preserve at least the remainders of a basic approach to journalism depend on the market not as strongly” as many believe. They have their reputations, and they should be thinking about them rather than about the number of readers or hits they get today.
Those who try to oppose propaganda with propaganda not only will fail but will help their opponents. Clearly, he says, they have forgotten that “the Soviet Union and the communist ideology collapsed not as a result of ‘counter-propaganda’ but because a serious cultural conversation at a high intellectual level was conducted with ‘Soviet man.’”
The situation now is “catastrophically” worse and that in turn helps condition “the current crisis of Russian society.” In that crisis, “the fault of the media is difficult to overstate.” Because of its degradation, “Russian society has been deprived of the language of discussion. Instead of it, it is given the language of unreflecting publicistic works.”
The new media – the Internet and social media – have only made this situation worse not only by their own content but by their impact on the print and more traditional broadcast media, undermining the notion of serious editorial discussions and levelling the playing field to the point where everything seems equally plausible or implausible.
As a result, what matters is no longer the argument but who presents it – or to put it another way, “the source of authority and trust in a propagandist becomes the tribune from which he speaks.” Content no longer matters nearly as much. Instead, it is the emotional appeal of the speaker or writer – especially if alternatives are limited by fiat or by choice.
That is the case, Kobrin says, whether the tribune is occupied by a nationalist or a liberal, by a supporter of the regime or one of its opponents. And thus the spread of the Internet and of social media will not prevent situations like the current one in Russia but rather make it more likely that they will be repeated.
In fact, Kobrin concludes, “the Internet and social networks will hardly liberate the consciousness of [Russian] society; on the contrary, they will simply intensify its prejudices.” And therefore, “no online revolutions will be able to influence the character of public consciousness in Russia; more than that, they will only make its illness worse.”