Through a Scanner Darkly

The 2014 Winter Olympics In Russia proved to be the great success the hosts had hoped for, despite a serious barrage of negativity from the whole spectrum of Western media. Or, alternatively, the events in Sochi, littered with blunders, provided evidence for Russia’s inclination for power abuse and its utter incompetence. As a journalist, your choice of the article’s first sentence seems to depend entirely on which side of the Pacific Ocean (and President Putin) you are on, regardless of factuality. The following analysis aims to impartially explore the possible causes for such disparate media coverage.

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The war for hearts and minds these days is an information war. On this battlefield people try to influence audiences by perpetuating the policy of trying to enhance the notion of “us” by creating an antagonistic and dangerous “them”. Albeit applying different methods, both Western and Eastern media are guilty of using this technique to their advantage. The coverage of the Sochi Games serves as a great example of how the dynamics of intercontinental “press struggle” work. Naturally, this phenomenon is deeply rooted in historical conflict between two of the world’s greatest powers, Russia and the United States.

Ever since the network ABC perfected the “up-close-and-personal” storytelling style in the 1970s in the U.S., the Olympic Games have effectively been primetime reality shows, packaged and edited for entertainment value rather than as news events. As this approach infiltrated the news reports, the quality of mainstream U.S. press coverage of international affairs and especially of Russia, a country still vital to U.S. national security, has been on the decay for many years. There are notable exceptions like the unrelenting objectivity of BBC News and The Wall Street Journal, but a general pattern has emerged. According to The Nation’s Stephen F. Cohen1, even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post, news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or “expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

Glancing at Russia, things look even bleaker. In the post-Cold War era and increasingly since the State Duma elections held on 4 December 2011, when allegations of serious procedural irregularities sparked widespread protests, forcing Putin to consolidate his conservative domestic base, Russian media have adopted a strongly reactive rhetoric that spin negative international stories or any criticism from Western media into the work of outside forces that want to see Russia fail, or are envious of its rise. The main culprit in this is leading political newspaper Pravda, often heralded as a mouthpiece of Putin’s regime, however, opposing sources, such as liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta, previously known for its critical coverage of Russian political and social affairs, gradually follow suit. As a result, Putin has gradually tightened his grip over the Russian media in recent years through vaguely-worded laws that give the government free rein to harass journalists, or through implicitly endorsed corporate maneuvers to place pro-Kremlin interests in charge of major media companies.

Looking at Sochi, much of the conversation in Western media focused on the shortcomings: poor sanitation, empty stadiums, semi-finished hotels. The sheer cost was a record amount of $50 billion. Questions were asked about how much of the money had been lost to corruption and who had benefited. Why on earth had a semi-tropical resort been nominated, let alone selected, as the venue for winter sports, and why would anyone have bet on Russians to have everything ready in time and to standard. These were not, though, the gravest complaints. Security was a bigger concern, given the proximity of the venue to a host of conflict areas, and fears were only elevated by the suicide bombings in Volgograd around New Year’s. Dominating everything, though, were the complaints about violations of human rights and civic freedoms in Putin’s Russia. The names Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Sergei Magnitsky were already in the air, when last summer Russia scored a spectacular pre-Olympics own goal in the form of a new law imposing fines on anyone who provided information about homosexuality to minors.

Today’s Russia has severe problems and many repulsive Kremlin policies. But anyone relying on mainstream American media will only find the reasons behind that in one person: the autocrat Putin. Terming the Sochi Winter Olympics as “Putin’s games” suits this trend and has politicised them by association and diminished their significance as the first truly global event to be held in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Of course, The success of the Games was important to Putin, because failure, even smaller defects, could have undermined his position at a time when other pillars of stability in Russia – including political institutions and the economy – are starting to look shakier than for some time. But success is even more important for Russia as it embarks on its latest attempt to become a modern state.
And here it is worth looking a little more critically at the charges levelled against the Sochi Games.

  • The cost. The $50 billion figure thrown about abroad is fiercely contested by Russia, but even if it is more or less correct, it could still be money well spent, if it leaves Russia with improved infrastructure and a world-class resort, where there was precious little before.
  • Take the example how Barcelona, home of the 1992 Summer Games, revitalized its run-down industrial waterfront after a successful Olympic bid was turned to their advantage following similar outbursts.Take the ridiculing of Sochi as a winter sports venue: this reflects ignorance, pure and simple. Its alpine hinterland has long made it a winter resort for Russians, as well as a summer one. Why should it not capitalize on this rare combination?
  • Take corruption. It is no defense of Sochi or Russia, but there can have been few illusions about the state of Russian business ethics when Sochi was awarded the Winter Games and it could be argued that the Olympic Committee bears a measure of accountability.
  • Take the high-profile absentees. Winter Olympics have never attracted the number of national leaders as the Summer Games. To portray the supposed no-shows at Sochi as a quasi-boycott over the gay issue may suit the domestic political purposes of some, but would they have gone to Sochi otherwise? It seems unlikely.
  • Then take security. Russia was damned if it did and damned if it did not. The very concept of a “ring of steel” around Sochi may be the opposite of everything the Olympics stand for, but it is hard to condemn this and in the same breath cite the risks from Islamic extremism emanating from Chechnya, or violence in Georgia or Ukraine, as reasons why Sochi was always unsuitable. We must remember the controversy over anti-missile stations deployed in residential areas in East London and the 7/7 attacks, which took place just a day after London’s selection to host the 2012 Games. It must be accepted: this is today’s reality.

However, it is not the only reality to be considered. Any city that stages a global event exposes itself to outside influences that can be profitable – both economically and culturally. The amnesty granted by the Russian Duma, which included the members of Pussy Riot, may or may not have been connected with the Olympics, and the same goes for the presidential release of Khodorkovsky. But an element in both was surely the desire to improve Russia’s profoundly negative image before Sochi hosted the Games. The central objective at Sochi may have been to change the world’s attitude towards Russia, but this global event carries the potential to change Russia even more in a positive way.

The Sochi Winter Games have already passed, but the potentially damaging Ukranian crisis has not, and any post-Sochi halo will disappear the moment Russian troops kill innocent Ukrainians. With Putin’s domestic political standing at stake, as well as a regrouping West against Russia, a new Cold War rupture seems to be unfolding. Possible consequences could include a permanent confrontation fraught with instability and the threat of war far worse than the previous Olympic crisis of Georgia in 2008. Even so, the need for unbiased media coverage is being wilfully ignored, as from one side the European Union’s partnership proposal is benignly portrayed as Ukraine’s only chance for democracy, prosperity and escape from the evil clutches of Russia, whereas from the other side Eastern media is urging the United States to abandon its repugnant colonialism, blaming Russia’s troubles on traitors and ill-wishers. If it’s up to journalists, it’s not long before boards imprinted with the famous slogan “The end is nigh” make an appearance.

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