Both Russian and American media have come under scrutiny in the United States lately. At home, President Donald Trump calls journalists “the enemy of the American people,” rubbishes facts as “fake news,” and encourages his supporters to distrust the fourth estate. Turning to Russia, Americans see unaccountable propaganda spewing from a nakedly authoritarian system.
Defenders of both systems spoke at Harvard University on March 8.
Sophie Shevardnadze, a host for Russia’s state-run RT propaganda network, argued that “to say that there is no free press in Russia is not true and fair.” She named online platforms like Ekho Moskvy and TV Rain to assert that the situation is not as bad as often portrayed in the West. Russian media is different from American media because historically its role was not only to investigate and report, but also to preach, she said: "A journalist is more than a journalist in Russia. People often expect journalists to give a moral assessment of a particular event and share their subjective emotions.” Russia media often responds to popular demands, she said, just like Putin does. "Contrary to what the West thinks, Putin's conservative agenda is an organic response to popular wishes."
Shevardnadze said little about RT, her controversial employer, but described Russian media as largely reactive to the American press.
In ordinary Russians’ view, according to Shevardnadze, the U.S. media’s coverage of their country is extremely unfair. “They look at the American press, and wonder why, for example, authoritarian China or Saudi Arabia, where women are stoned in public, do not get any criticism at all, while Russia is presented as the most backward country in the world. Why? There is no reason for the double standard. We are not a perfect democracy, but we are far better than others – that’s what [Russian] people think.”
Matthew Baum, professor of global communications at Harvard Kennedy School, described how the U.S. media has proven resilient in the face of Trump’s tirades and has not suffered like its counterparts under other authoritarian-minded leaders elsewhere.
According to Baum, the paradox in recent American journalism is that while the U.S. media failed to check the rise of the inexperienced candidate Trump, it nevertheless assumed crucial watchdog functions as soon as Trump became president, spotlighting the new administration’s extreme policies or instances of legally or ethically dubious behavior. “Two factors can explain this paradox: traditional journalistic values and news routines and the first amendment,” Baum said.
“Journalism protected from retaliation is a cornerstone of democracy,” Baum concluded. “Contrast this with other contexts such as Turkey, China, and the Philippines where journalists are imprisoned or murdered, or where freedom of the press is significantly curtailed as it is in Russia.”
As for the possibility of free media and democracy developing in Russia, Shevardnadze’s bromide was familiar. “Russia needs time,” she said. “Democracy is something you cannot impose from above. Democracy is the way you see and feel life. You are born with it. It is going to take a while in a huge country like Russia where historical legacies and cultural particularities affect the way millions of people perceive things around them.”
Nini Arshakuni is a master’s student at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.