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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Is The U.S. Media Missing The Story On Russia?

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on February 18, 2014 . (Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on February 18, 2014 . (Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s been a lot of coverage of the Sochi Olympics, drawing attention to everything from infrastructure problems involving hotel accommodations to Russia’s new anti-gay law.

But Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton, says there has been a “tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines” portraying Russia in a narrow-minded way, missing some larger things happening in the region.

He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to explain.




Well, this week, Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russian President Putin for enabling Syria's president to stay in power by providing aid and military support to him. Forbes had this headline this week: Putin's Olympic dreams reeling amid chaos in Ukraine.

As the Olympics launched, a Washington Post headline read: Journalists At Sochi Are Live-Tweeting Their Hilarious And Gross Hotel Experiences. And we recently reported on the poverty in the villages surrounding Sochi and the detention of protesters, to which Betty Ann Roberts(ph) in Portland, Ore., wrote: I hope your negative and mean-spirited comments about Russia will soon come to an end.

Well, our next guest concurs. Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton. He cites what he calls a tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles and media malpractice that he says dangerously overlooks President Putin's role in stabilizing Russia and helping the U.S. out in tight corners.

His article in The Nation is "Distorting Russia." It's provoked a lot of response, including from readers who said are you kidding, Putin is a thug who's urging Ukraine's president to attack his own people, and he's inciting violence against gays with his anti-homosexual legislation.

We'll get to that, but first Stephen Cohen's thinking. He joins us by Skype from New York. Stephen, you also say Russia has some serious problems and repugnant policies. But what? Make your case.

STEPHEN F. COHEN: The world has become even more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. Whether we look at the Middle East, or we look at Boston or we look at what's happening in the Caucus or in Afghanistan, we live in an exceedingly dangerous world. And I believe that the best potential partner we have for increasing our national security is Russia.

And President Vladimir Putin is the head of Russia. But for nearly a decade, the American media has so demonized Putin that we've lost sight of him, and we've obscured the possibilities that are there and that he's offered to enhance, through some kind of steady, calm cooperation, American national security.

It was Putin who compelled the president of Syria, Assad, who we don't like, none of us like him, but compelled him to destroy his chemical weapons at the very moment when it looked like Obama, against his will, was going to have to attack Syria.

YOUNG: Well, you ask: Was any Soviet leader after Stalin ever so personally villainized? You take us back to the early 1990s, the end of the Soviet Union. You say the U.S. media adopted Washington's narrative that anything Boris Yeltsin did, going from communism to democracy, was good, sort of the polar opposite of what you see happening with Putin.

COHEN: Well think what Yeltsin did, and this was during the Clinton administration. And he was supported in everything he did. He used tanks against a popularly elected parliament. When did that last happen in Europe? He looted, he plundered the precious natural resources that Russia needed to rebuild to create a kind of democratic capitalism and gave it to a group of oligarchs who created the corrupt system that we see in Russia today.

And then Yeltsin imposed on the country a new constitution, which gave virtually all power to the president. And that a few years later empowered Putin. And yet Yeltsin remains, in the media account, kind of the ideal president. After Yeltsin, after a short interval of welcoming Putin, people said he's great, he's a sober Yeltsin, he's a democrat.

YOUNG: Bush said he looked into his eyes.

COHEN: I don't know what he saw there. I'm not good at seeing souls from people's eyes. But look, the New York Times said Putin was a democrat. The Washington Post said he was a democrat when he came to power. I think a lot of this began - when the media perceived that Putin was not Yeltsin, it was disappointed, and that disappointment led to a kind of interpretation of everything that happened in Russia, which was not based on analysis but on this kind of growing vilification.

I can't remember any Soviet communist leader being so personally villainized, that is we wrote bad things about Kruschev, about Brezhnev, about Andropov, but we disliked them because they represented an evil system. We didn't say them themselves were thugs, murderers, assassins, which are words that we attach to Putin.

YOUNG: Howard Dean, one of many who called Vladimir Putin a thug. Well, let's take some of the more recent criticism, maybe the least serious of the recent criticism, the games. And you attack those who say President Putin is squandering money there. We spoke with reporters like David Filipov from the Globe who said that the $50-or-so billion is not filtering to villages in the region.

You excoriate the press, who focus so much attention on hotel rooms. But people really can't see where that money was worth the investment, and they saw hotel rooms that really weren't ready.

COHEN: Look, I would have not given Russia the Winter Olympics, not for political reasons but because Sochi, which is a sub-tropical city, isn't a logical place. All big public works incite corruption. The figure normally given $51 billion, some of it was stolen, no doubt about that. But Putin had an idea, and it wasn't the first time an Olympic host country had this idea.

We are going to invest a lot of money so that when the Olympics are over, we will have built an infrastructure that will profit our country for decades to come. Now according to the people who actually sat down and studied this, about $44 billion of the $51 billion went to rehabilitate the crumbling infrastructure of the entire Sochi region.

Now part of that was Putin's dream to create a world-class ski resort. That may not come about. But until this Olympic investment was made, you couldn't drink the water in Sochi. Trains didn't run. So maybe they spent too much, but Russia should get a lot out of it for decades to come. We'll see.

YOUNG: Well, and you mention those who studied the money spent on Sochi. They include Ben Aris of Business New Europe, who observed as much as $44 billion of that $50-plus billion was probably spent to develop the infrastructure of the entire region, investment, quote, "the entire country needs."

That's Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton. He's written a pretty inflammatory article in "The Nation," accusing the U.S. media of, quote, "distorting Russia and vilifying its leader, President Putin." Now Stephen again says he's no fan of President Putin's but thinks that vilifying him overlooks the important role Putin can and has played in global security. We'll have more in one minute, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're talking with Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen, who writes a provocative article in The Nation accusing the U.S. media of distorting Russia, demonizing President Putin. For instance he says the American media gave terrorists an early victory by tainting Putin's games, frightening away foreign spectators.

Stephen, start there. The U.S. media did not make up the fact that two alleged terrorists released a video saying they would attack Sochi. They didn't make up the Black Widow suicide bomber scare days before the games. Didn't the U.S. media have to report those things?

COHEN: Of course you report that Sochi is 300 miles or so from a festering area where terrorists commit crimes, assassinations, murders against Russian citizens almost daily. But the story was presented in the American media in such a way that virtually equated Putin and the terrorists as co-evils, even calling the terrorists, not terrorists, but insurgents, so that you put the paper down saying hey, who am I supposed to be cheering for, Putin or the terrorists.

Look, if Sochi passes without an act of terrorism, Putin has carried this off. But we don't want Putin to win because he's an evil man. So maybe we want a terrorist act that doesn't kill anybody, something like that. This is obscene. This is pornographic. This is wrong. And it's not the kind of thing that we would've applied to any other country in a dangerous region unless we had this vilification of a leader.

Remember there was an Olympics in China, and very little was said about the atrocities, human rights and other kids, that are committed in China during those Olympics. This is really quite special.

YOUNG: Well, then there's Ukraine. Where do you see the U.S. press reporting the terrible conflict there through what you see as this distorted, Putin-bashing prism?

COHEN: The American media coverage of Ukraine is wrong and inflammatory from beginning to end. The media refers to The Ukraine and The Ukrainian people striving for Western democracy and capitalism. That's false. Everybody knows that at a minimum, there are two Ukraines. One part of it, mostly in the west, wants to attach to Europe. The other part of it in the east, and partly in the south, wants to remain close to Russia.

And this is caused by ethnicity, language, religion, politics, culture. So now we come to the second thing: Who precipitated this crisis? People say Putin did it, or the Ukrainian president, democratically elected, by the way, Yanukovych. But I say no. Why did the European Union tell the democratically elected of such a profoundly divided country, two Ukraines, in November, that he must decide either/or, you're either with Europe, or you're with Russia?

That's a provocation, and that's where this began. And here's what's not reported. At that moment, in November and December, what was Putin's reply? He said hey, guys, why does Ukraine have to decide? Why can't the European Union and Russia help Ukraine out of its terrible economic crisis?

And the answer was, in Washington and in Brussels, no way. Ukraine must decide.

YOUNG: Well, you also point to that leaked conversation between the top State Department Official Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador in Kiev when she dismissed the EU with the F-word as further proof that this is the U.S. wanting to midwife a new anti-Russian Ukrainian government and pretty much participate in a coup.

COHEN: Stop and think how that story was covered in the American media. The first lead was oh my gosh, she said F the EU. The second lead was who leaked this story? Oh, it must've been the Russians. Look at those horrible Russians. But that wasn't the story. The story is what the top State Department official said to the American ambassador in Kiev.

And what she said is you and I are empowered to form a new Ukrainian government. And they're actually discussing who should be in this government. And the new government is going to get rid of the democratically elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.

Now we may hate Yanukovych. He may be a rat of the first magnitude. But in plain language, they were plotting a coup d'etat against a democratically elected president. And we know that in countries with fragile democratic traditions, when you overthrow an elected president, you are setting back democracy maybe decades.

YOUNG: Well Stephen Cohen, what else do you think is going on here? I think of the NFL football player who said that Vladimir Putin pocketed his Super Bowl ring. And there's fascination every time he jumps shirtless into a body of water. Or what else is going on here?

COHEN: You know what this is? This is media trivia. Let me direct your attention to what I think we're witnessing. What may be happening is the erection of a new Cold War divide in Europe, right through the heart of Ukraine. And this time, the division of Europe will not be as it was for 40 years in faraway Berlin but right on Russia's borders.

If that happens, I guarantee you that is going to be instability and the potential of war for decades to come. It will transform the landscape of international politics, and it will be a turning point for the worse for decades. Why isn't that being discussed except right now between you and me?

YOUNG: But what I was meaning in the question about Putin is, is there something else going on here? There seems to be such a fascination. And you ask, is it the U.S. policy following the media, or is the media following U.S. policy? But is it also something among Americans? There seems to be a fascination with Putin.

COHEN: It's a terrific question. First of all, when you ask the question, drop the word Americans. This is the political media elite of America. And it's possible you and I are part of that. So you've got to ask: Why does the American political media elite have this obsession with Putin? Well, one explanation may be that when he came to power in 1999, he was embraced as a democrat, that is the media got it wrong.

And since the media never takes responsibility for its errors, it just changed the narrative. I'm not entirely sure that's the answer, but some people think it might be. Here's something else, though, to think about. We in America have had three successive presidents who were by and large failures as foreign policy presidents. Nobody's going to write a history of Clinton and say he was a great foreign policy president.

Bush's war in Iraq has tainted his foreign policy reputation forever. And Obama is not admired as a foreign policy president, whatever you think of him. Putin on the other hand has been an exceedingly successful national leader of Russia in foreign policy for 13 years. Mitt Romney said the other day in the Washington Post, that when it comes to representing a nation's interest in international affairs, Putin has been a better president than Obama.

OK, that's politics, but it's a plausible thesis. And you sense sometimes that Putin's success has brought upon him this kind of vilification by the American media in particular. Now that's a thesis. I don't know. But we ought to think about it.

YOUNG: Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton, also author of "Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War," it's now out in paperback, giving us a lot to think about. Stephen, professor, thanks so much.

COHEN: Thank you.

YOUNG: And there's been a lot of response, too. One Atlantic reader says Putin lost all respect because of his anti-gay law that unleashed thugs on gay Russians. Others note his jailing of dissidents, wealthy Russians like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Do you think the U.S. press demonizes President Putin? Weigh in at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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