A message to my doomed colleagues in the American media
By Alexey Kovalev
Jan 12 2017
Congratulations, US media! You’ve just covered your first press conference of an authoritarian leader with a massive ego and a deep disdain for your trade and everything you hold dear. We in Russia have been doing it for 12 years now — with a short hiatus when our leader wasn’t technically our leader — so quite a few things during Donald Trump’s press conference rang my bells. Not just mine, in fact — read this excellent round-up in The Moscow Times.
Vladimir Putin’s annual pressers are supposed to be the media event of the year. They are normally held in late December, around Western Christmas time (we Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas two weeks later and it’s not a big deal, unlike New Year’s Eve). Which probably explains why Putin’s pressers don’t get much coverage outside of Russia, except in a relatively narrow niche of Russia-watchers. Putin’s pressers are televised live across all Russian TV channels, attended by all kinds of media — federal news agencies, small local publications and foreign reporters based in Moscow — and are supposed to overshadow every other event in Russia or abroad.
These things are carefully choreographed, typically last no less than four hours, and Putin always comes off as an omniscient and benevolent leader tending to a flock of unruly but adoring children. Given that Putin is probably a role model for Trump, it’s no surprise that he’s apparently taking a page from Putin’s playbook. I have some observations to share with my American colleagues. You’re in this for at least another four years, and you’ll be dealing with things Russian journalists have endured for almost two decades now. I’m talking about Putin here, but see if you can apply any of the below to your own leader.
• Welcome to the era of bullshit.
Facts don’t matter. You can’t hurt this man with facts or reason. He’ll always outmaneuver you. He’ll always wriggle out of whatever carefully crafted verbal trap you lay for him. Whatever he says, you won’t be able to challenge him. He always comes with a bag of meaningless factoids (Putin likes to drown questions he doesn’t like in dull, unverifiable stats, figures and percentages), platitudes, false moral equivalences and straight, undiluted bullshit. He knows it’s a one-way communication, not an interview. You can’t follow up on your questions or challenge him. So he can throw whatever he wants at you in response, and you’ll just have to swallow it. Some journalists will try to preempt this by asking two questions at once, against the protests of their colleagues also vying for attention, but that also won’t work: he’ll answer the one he thinks is easier, and ignore the other. Others will use this opportunity to go on a long, rambling statement vaguely disguised as a question, but that’s also bad tactics. Non-questions invite non-answers. He’ll mock you for your nervous stuttering and if you’re raising a serious issue, respond with a vague, non-committal statement (“Mr President, what about these horrible human rights abuses in our country?” “Thank you, Miss. This is indeed a very serious issue. Everybody must respect the law. And by the way, don’t human rights abuses happen in other countries as well? Next question please”).
But your colleagues are there to help you, right? After all, you’re all in this together?