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Donald Trump is not to blame for dreadful Western media coverage of Russia

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald

Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia. He has written for RT since 2014. Before moving to Russia, Bryan worked for The Irish Independent, the Evening Herald, Ireland on Sunday, and The Irish Daily Mail. Follow him on Twitter @27khv

Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia. He has written for RT since 2014. Before moving to Russia, Bryan worked for The Irish Independent, the Evening Herald, Ireland on Sunday, and The Irish Daily Mail. Follow him on Twitter @27khv

Donald Trump is not to blame for dreadful Western media coverage of Russia
Foreign Policy's Moscow writer blames the hysteria around Trump for making it harder to be a correspondent in Russia. But the rot set in long before the US elected its current president and Western hacks in Russia need to examine their own failings.

The headline reads like a cry for help: “Donald Trump Has Been Torture for Foreign Correspondents in Russia.” And a casual observer may well empathize with the author. However, in reality, as an exercise in myopia and the shifting of blame, Amie Ferris-Rotman’s dispatch takes some beating. It also, surely unwittingly, helps to explain why American and British coverage of Russia is so poor.

The representatives of the English-speaking media in Moscow apparently have a sense of entitlement way above their status and, for the most part, their ability. They seem to expect Russian officials to grant them preferential treatment, despite the fact that their coverage is, almost uniformly, hostile to the Kremlin. Not to mention how the United States and Britain are making it increasingly difficult for Russian outlets to operate in their home jurisdictions.

For instance, only this week, RT America has been stripped of its press credentials for the US Congress, despite assurances that its recent forced registration as a “foreign agent” wouldn’t affect its ability to operate. Instead of calling out their government for blatant censorship of the foreign media, members of the American press here seem sorely concerned about the potential blowback for them in Moscow. Which may result in them being denied access to the Russian Duma (the lower house of the parliament).

That said, given the level of debate there these days, a far more sinister punishment would be to force all US reporters in Moscow to attend the Duma daily on pain of having their visas revoked.

Free movement

As it happens, while RT America can no longer visit Congress, Western journalists are invited to all major Russian political events (including Valdai and Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference where they regularly ask questions). Furthermore, Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov conducts a daily conference call, in which they can participate. If they want to ask him a question, he'll usually take it. He also might give them his Telegram details so they can follow up there.

Yet, Foreign Policy complains that it (once) “could call Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on the phone, today he is almost impossible to get hold of.” I could also call my grandmother on the blower but these days technology has moved on, and I’m pretty confident she’d have eventually migrated to WhatsApp or similar services.

We are also informed how “contrary to common belief, it has been a long time since foreign journalists have been able to cultivate, gain, or develop Kremlin sources.” Now, if this is true, and I believe it is, how does that tally with the frequent articles where Ferris-Rotman’s colleagues quote anonymous Kremlin “insiders.” Take this example last month from The Independent’s Oliver Carroll, for instance. 

There’s also the fact that Russian officials tell me they don’t want to talk to journalists from British and American outlets because they largely don’t trust them. “She is trying to blame Russia for their lack of professionalism,” a senior foreign ministry official responded to my questions. “They have their own agenda, and they are not ready for the (sic) dialogue. They have decided everything for themselves. The trust is lost.”

Next up, Ferris-Rotman claims “it is no secret that our communications are tapped. We abide by an unwritten rulebook of self-censorship. Straying can and has meant ejection.” Now, I can’t comment on their correspondence being monitored, but, even if it is, buying a sim card in Russia takes a few minutes, and I doubt the Russians are any more advanced than GCHQ or the NSA on this front.

Furthermore, to the best of my recollection, no reporter has been ejected for “straying” in recent times. Granted, there has been a few denied entry for visa violations (including myself). But, anyway, a casual look at the Twitter feeds of Western hacks in Moscow proves they don’t self-censor when they bash Russia. Even if they do delete the odd tweet that may rebound on them when seeking future access to institutions. 

There’s also an issue where the Russian Foreign Ministry is very lax in enforcing its own rules on press accreditation. Because it’s an open secret in Moscow that many freelancers are registered at bureaus and addresses with which they have no actual association. But the authorities aren’t running around kicking people out. Now, from personal experience, I can tell you this would not be tolerated in the US.

Me me me

Foreign Policy also complains that “the tidbits of information we do manage to secure could have been collected from outside Russia,” which sounds like a bad work person blaming their tools and begs the question of what they are even doing in Moscow. Because it’s hardly to enjoy the weather (as I write, it’s minus nine degrees Celsius with blizzard conditions).

Another complaint is how “the only cracks that have been etched in the (alleged Trump-Russia) collusion story from this side of the Atlantic have been courtesy of Russian journalists.” But it doesn’t seem to dawn on the author that these reporters may be better trained and more competent. Plus, in any country, you’d imagine local reporters, who are often specialized, would be more connected than outsiders who have a broad mandate.

When the subject moves onto TV viewing habits, it gets even more desperate: “like Russians across the country, we tune in each Sunday evening to watch news programs on state-run television by hosts Vladimir Soloviev and Dmitry Kiselyov.” But watching TV is not journalism. And it’s like the DC correspondent of RIA, or TASS basing their reports on Rachel Maddow’s show. Perhaps if Foreign Policy turned off the goggle box and made an effort to cultivate Russian sources they’d get further. For instance, why not head down the provinces: because Moscow is not Russia?

Lastly, Ferris-Rotman adds some unnecessary information which serves to damage her own argument: “during the summer, many foreign reporters gathered for the annual boat party, an informal event that has taken place in recent years. On the invitation, the dress code read, “Rain: Cosy Bear. Shine: Fancy Bear,” a play on the hacking groups linked by security experts to the Russian government.”

Grown-up games

While the “hack pack” may think this was cool and “ironic,” it actually sounds really juvenile and hardly endears them to Russian officials. Plus, the fact they all seem to hang out together all the time, and spend much of the day validating each other on Twitter, rather than pressing the flesh with Russians, kind of sums up why they can’t break stories.

Because if anyone seriously thinks hanging with an expat clique is the best way to cover Russia, I’ve got a bridge to sell them.

Anyway, I asked a senior Kremlin official, who emphasized once again that Putin’s circle rarely, if ever, leaks important information, what he thought of the Foreign Policy piece. He replied: “American political journalism seems to operate on leaks and briefings. So, I believe Western hacks in Moscow expect the same to be true here and then get upset when it isn’t.”

They also need to look at how they cover this country. How many of them have tried to be balanced and understand Russia’s position? No wonder it’s only fringe opposition who are interested to speak to them,” he continued.

We no longer trust Western journalists, and we have good reasons not to, so they’d be better off to stop playing and take a deep look at themselves and figure out why. They also might note how their countries are treating our organizations like RT and Sputnik, after decades where they lectured us about free speech,” the source concluded.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly named “Foreign Policy” as “Foreign Affairs.” We apologize for the error.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.