Not one of these so-called “journalists” stopped for a minute to ask whether their self-serving, emotional statements might be the product of bias and self-interest rather than objective analysis of the facts.
In case anyone thinks I’m being unfair: I gave a glowing review to Mackinnon’s book about Russia here on PJ Media, and my blog La Russophobe once rated Ioffe one of the top Russia bloggers in the world.
Miriam Elder of the Guardian reported on December 10 that “up to 50,000” Russians had joined the street protests that day. Four days later, she dropped the “up to” and stated the 50,000 number as a fact. But three days after that, her own co-worker Tom Parfitt put the number at 40,000. The organizers themselves had claimed up to 150,000, yet neither Elder nor Parfitt called them on the carpet for their misrepresentation.
Elder also told lies in the service of the movement’s propaganda. She claimed that protesters in Moscow ignored the speakers at the rally because they were too busy talking democracy amongst themselves, most for the first time. False: what actually happened was that the protest organizers failed to make adequate preparation for sound projection, and the vast majority of those on the protest square could not hear the speakers.
She also claimed there were 4,000 Moscow-like middle-class protesters on the streets in Novosibirsk. This overstated the number by 100% — and failed to mention that they were all Communists.
Ellen Barry of the New York Times stated that a gathering of 30,000 in Moscow would prove conclusively that a “generation of young Russians” had been permanently mobilized through social media. But she didn’t say a word when a protest on the same square a week later drew just 1,500 participants at most, a disastrous failure. Nor did any of the other cheerleading “journalists” who cover Russia, because the failure was not consistent with their narrative.
The worst example I found: it was repeated over and over again that the protesters were to be praised because they stood in -5 degrees Celsius temperatures rather than sitting at home. This is totally, utterly asinine. Russians are used to being outside in the cold, Russia is a cold place. If Russians were even slightly put off by -5 degrees Celsius, their society would unravel.
There are points to be made in the movement’s favor, but they are equivocal. Sure, Putin’s approval rating has fallen significantly in polls, but that’s not because of protest activity, it’s due to his inability to grapple with key economic and social issues (Russia’s population, stock market, and the ruble continue to drop precipitously). The protesters have done virtually nothing to specifically highlight Putin’s policy failures and score points against him with them.
Sure, 50 million or so people now have Internet access in Russia, and the Russian version of Facebook told the Kremlin to drop dead when it demanded the pages of opposition leaders be shut down. But the profound majority of Russians have no Internet access, and only a tenth of one percent of Russian Internet users participated in the protests.
The stench of failure was undeniable as the protests unfolded on December 10, but in the aftermath there was virtually no reasonable reporting about it in Western media. They missed the central story about the protests: in the best-case scenario, they meant nothing. The protesters were asking for a recount in an election where none of the parties on the ballot represented change. If United Russia’s share of seats in the new Duma was too large, this meant the share taken by the Communist Party and the radical nationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky should have been much larger. The protesters laughed about it, proclaiming:
I didn’t vote for these bastards! I voted for different bastards! Recount!
On Christmas Eve, the protesters tried again. This time, Western media simply chose to ignore the fact that not one other major city in Russia had significant numbers of people in the streets. In St. Petersburg, supposedly Russia’s bastion of liberalism and openness to the West, fewer than 5,000 people turned out to demonstrate against Putin. Across the nation, the vast unwashed masses shut their doors, drew their blinds, and polls showed support for Putin actually rising. None of this made it into the MSM reporting — which focused instead exclusively on the fact that the Moscow protesters had managed to sustain their momentum.
This kind of reporting is not just unethical, it’s deeply harmful to the cause of reform in Russia. Coddling the opposition rather than confronting it only helps to engender a false sense of security. It is also deeply insulting to Russians, a patronizing attitude implying they cannot be expected to do any better.