The Bush administration seems to have caught on that democracy in Russia is dying?or may already be dead. In the gentlest of terms, Secretary of State Colin Powell recently chided the Putin government for its authoritarian rule and continued brutal campaign in Chechnya. The New York Times’ editorial page took note of Powell’s prodding, but then criticized the administration for its “studied silence about Russia’s glaring faults.” But a former Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report says the Times has itself been part of the problem.
Writing in The New Republic, Masha Gessen charges that the U.S. media’s coverage of Russia in recent years has “largely papered over” the death of democracy there. With few exceptions, she writes, our media have failed to accurately convey the downward spiral of events in Moscow. She credits the Washington Post as being among the few U.S. outlets that has even bothered to report on the rollback of democratic gains achieved in the early post-Soviet period. Last September, it ran one story about the erosion of liberties under the Putin government.
Gessen contrasts U.S. coverage of last December’s national election in Russia with that of the foreign media. Much of the U.S. coverage followed the lead of a New York Times’ editorial titled “Russians Inch Toward Democracy.” She writes that most U.S. media outlets depicted the election as a “pro-Putin landslide that somehow would foster democracy. Outside the U.S., however, the election was reported for what it was?”a democrat’s nightmare” in the words of the London-based Economist.
She charges that U.S. reporting on Russia over the last five years has been “dangerously na?ve.” As an example, she cites the unfailingly positive coverage of President Vladimir Putin. The New York Times once compared him to Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt “as a potential visionary leader for Russia.” The Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times continually refer to Putin as an “economic reformer” or a “judicial liberal” among other flattering adjectives.
But the U.S. media is also guilty for what it hasn’t reported about Russia, according to Gessen. She says that Putin is anything but a reformer or a liberal as he is regularly depicted in the mainstream media. Last fall, the Post’s article quoted a prominent Russian reformer as fearing that Putin wants to follow China’s development model, “economic reform without political freedom.” He told the Post, “Russia is now at a crossroads” but many fear that Moscow is already on the road that leads away from democracy.
In her most damaging allegation, she writes that U.S. coverage of Putin’s Russia is coming to resemble Walter Duranty’s reporting on Stalin’s Russia in the early 1930s. Part of the problem, she thinks, is the draw-down in the U.S. media’s presence in Moscow. U.S. News and World Report, her former employer, closed its Moscow bureau altogether and other outlets have cut their staffs dramatically. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Russian coverage has suffered. But that’s a strange policy for one of only two countries in the world that could still annihilate American society.