Russian state media was awash in fawning coverage of President Trump in the weeks after the election. According to one tally, Trump's name was mentioned 55,000 more times than Putin's in the month of January.
Russian editorials and pundits described Trump as a champion for a warmer relationship between Moscow and Washington. Then, the tone shifted dramatically. Alexey Kovalev of The Moscow Times talks to Bob about how the Russian press have tried to rationalize anti-Russia statements by Trump and his cabinet members, and what the shift says about the Kremlin's approach to Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. After the American election, Russian media were dominated by heavy and happy coverage of Trump, literally. In January, state media outlets said Trump’s name about 55,000 more times than Putin’s, according to reports by the Russian news agency Interfax, Fawning headlines were the norm, with news anchors rushing to defend Donald Trump from, quote, “immoral reporters clawing at him on the smallest pretense.”
But not anymore. Bloomberg recently reported that the Kremlin ordered state media to tone down their Trump coverage. Last week, an article in the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets wrote that, quote, “Everything’s a muddle in the White House.” Alexey Kovalev’s is news editor at the English-language weekly newspaper, The Moscow Times. Alexey, welcome to On the Media.
ALEXEY KOVALEV: Hi, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Back in the bad old days of Soviet Communism, there was this exercise called Kremlinology, where media and US intelligence would have to deduce and divine what was going on behind the scenes, based on clues like who was standing next to whom at a parade. I wonder if watching Russian media we can still perform the same kind of Kremlinology and figure out what Putin is really thinking?
ALEXEY KOVALEV: I think that would be a bit of a mistake because what you see on Russian television is not what Putin thinks or members of his administration or his staff. It's what they want people to think. It’s important to note here that the state media in Russia and not just the formally state media, which is about 70% of all media in Russia, they are very literally micromanaged from Putin’s administration. It’s the deputy chief of staff of Putin, and he just picks up the phone and calls the editors-in-chief of the federal TV channels and major newspapers and basically tells them what to write and, more importantly, what not to cover. Putin’s spokesman has denied that this has taken place, but it's quite obvious to see how carefully controlled and choreographed the coverage, you know, in the Russian state media is.
BOB GARFIELD: During the course of the election and the first few weeks of the Trump administration, it's been all Trump, all the time, huh?
[RUSSIAN LANGUAGE NEWS CLIPS]
ALEXEY KOVALEV: All Trump, all the time, and extremely positive, to the point of being quite creepy. In the run-ups to the elections, the Russian media is not so much praising Trump but blasting Obama and Hillary Clinton whom Putin very much personally hates. After the elections, they were casting Trump as this anti-establishment figure. He is unbound, he’s unfettered and he’s this champion who is going to be our new best friend, because everybody's just really tired of these anti-American sentiments. Russian-American relations were at the lowest point since the Cold War.
BOB GARFIELD: The 24/7 Trump coverage on Russian TV has waned. When did things change,
ALEXEY KOVALEV: It changed after Trump’s tweet about Russia taking Crimea.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump has tweeted today in response to the latest Russian controversy. He said, quote, “Crimea was taken by Russia during the Obama administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”
ALEXEY KOVALEV: And that went so much against everything Russian state propaganda had been praising Trump for. There he is, him and his appointees and his UN envoy, making all these belligerent statements.
US AMBASSADOR TO THE UN NIKKI HALEY: Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.
ALEXEY KOVALEV: And they were trying so hard to rationalize these, like, he's beset on all sides by these [ ? ] elements in the Congress and they’re undermining him, or maybe it’s Obama sabotaging him because they are trying incredibly hard to rationalize the statements by Rex Tillerson, among others.
SECRETARY OF STATE REX TILLERSON: Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.
ALEXEY KOVALEV: And they were trying to frame this as, okay, he’s only saying those things to get approved by the Congress, like blah-blah-blah but yeah, we’re still friends. You know, he’s still on our side. But, at some point, it, it just became untenable and they did flip a switch, and it's been so much more toned down, the coverage of Trump on the state television.
BOB GARFIELD: Trump mania in English or Russian makes good TV. What has filled the vacuum of all Trump, all the time?
ALEXEY KOVALEV: Well, there’s always a variety of subjects, like finding new internal enemies, slandering the old ones, like the political opposition in Russia. Or, in a quite unexpected twist, there is an ongoing flame war between the Russian state propaganda and, bear with me here, it’s very convoluted, so there’s a pro-Putin ultra-patriotic group that is now campaigning against the Trump mania on Russian TV.
BOB GARFIELD: This is a far-right party that believes that in effect for the last 20 years Russia, Putin’s Russia, has been occupied by Western interests, particularly the United States.
ALEXEY KOVALEV: Yes, precisely. Since 1991, Russia has been under occupation by the United States and all the legislators, and all the judges and all the courts and all the media are in the American cabal. The only person in Russia who is free from the American occupation is Putin himself and these campaigners. So they are pitting themselves against the immense propaganda machine, and it’s – and it’s quite entertaining to watch.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m not sure if you realize this. You’ve been on our show before. We quoted a piece you wrote for Medium titled, “A Message to My Doomed Colleagues in the American Media.” It was about how Trump is as impossible to pin down as Putin was. It’s been chaotic, but I wonder how you think the US press is doing so far.
ALEXEY KOVALEV: I'm seeing a lot of soul searching in the American media, which isn’t such a bad thing and the familiar tropes are being turned upside down. It’s really fun to watch you guys discover the same frustrations that we’ve faced for the past two decades. But it's a much healthier media environment than in Russia. You have the First Amendment, and unless Donald Trump somehow manages to completely dismantle the foundation of American democracy, I don't think you're ever going to end up in the same situation as we are now. Like, you don’t really have a state-controlled media.
And I was listening to On the Media last week, where you discussed the relationship between Donald Trump and Fox News, where Donald Trump repeats everything Fox News says. Well, in Russia it’s inverted. Everything that Putin says is religiously repeated by the entire state media apparatus, absolutely uncritically. He literally holds the button. He can press the button and it all goes blank. So after a bit of soul searching, you know, adapting to this new reality, I think the American media will do just fine.
BOB GARFIELD: Alexey, thank you very much.
ALEXEY KOVALEV: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Alexey Kovalev is a news editor for The Moscow Times and founder and editor of the website, The Noodle Remover. Alexey, “The Noodle Remover”?
ALEXEY KOVALEV: It’s a fact-checking and media critique website, and my favorite Russian expression, to hang noodles on someone’s ears means to lie, to deceive someone. So I’m removing those noodles, figuratively.