What Russian journalists think of the U.S. media’s coverage of Trump and Russia

What Russian journalists think of the U.S. media’s coverage of Trump and Russia, by Joshua Yaffa.

As James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, put it, Watergate “pales” in comparison to the current political scandal surrounding the White House. …

In advance of Trump and Putin’s first meeting, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg, I decided to ask Russia’s sharpest and most experienced political journalists and investigative reporters what they thought of this coverage. …

On the whole, said Mikhail Zygar, a political journalist and the author of “All the Kremlin’s Men,” a well-sourced insider look at the cloistered world of Russian politics, the way the U.S. media has covered the Russia scandal has made “Putin seem to look much smarter than he is, as if he operates from some master plan.” The truth, Zygar told me, “is that there is no plan—it’s chaos.” …

When I asked [Danya Turovsky, a correspondent for Meduza] what he thought of how American journalists have described both the composition and tactics of Russian hacking squads, he said that the general understanding “is correct, but, all the same, there isn’t really much in the way of real evidence.” It’s one thing to say Russia has both the motive and, with its cyber forces, the technical ability to hack U.S. accounts, Turovsky told me — but, after that, things get very murky. … It appears that the primary sources for many Washington-based reporters are U.S. intelligence agencies, which unanimously concluded that the effort to disrupt the election was directed by Putin and emanated from Russia. …

Even as Turovsky was cautious about some of the more sweeping allegations directed at hackers working for the Russian state, he acknowledged that the chances of the claims being true were just as high as the chances of them being false — that is the hall-of-mirrors reality of reporting on Kremlin plots and intrigue. “Oftentimes, in Russia, what seems totally absurd actually turns out to be the truth,” he said, pointing to the story, reported in detail by my colleague Adrian Chen, of a so-called “troll farm” run out of a nondescript office in St. Petersburg. “Who would have imagined there was a building where people go to work and get paid salaries to sit all day and write online comments in different languages?” Turovsky said. …

Elena Chernenko is head of the foreign desk at Kommersant … Every morning, before she reads the Russian press, she checks the Times and the Washington Post. For years, she said, they represented a “moral compass and a model of what I strived for.” These days, she said, it seemed as if American journalists had lowered their standards when reporting on Russia. “Now, I don’t exclude that this indeed was an operation carried out by the Russian special services,” she told me, referring to the notion of Russian effort to influence the election. But, so far, she hasn’t seen incontrovertible evidence. “The way the American press writes about the topic, it’s like they’ve lost their heads,” she complained.

RT, Russia Today, is Russian state media:

[Alexey Kovalev] is convinced that [RT]’s reach and propaganda effect in the United States are minimal, and that the attention it has received is “absolutely oversized” compared to its actual power in affecting the American political agenda — which he said is basically zero. … He explained that the channel’s broadcast footprint in the United States is so small that it fails to register on the Nielsen ratings system. And when people do watch, they tend not to click on political content. … On RT’s YouTube channel, “political news videos, featuring the content by which it seeks to shape Western opinion and thus justify its existence, accounted for a mere 1 percent of its total YouTube exposure.” …

Putin likes the intrigue:

That echoes another refrain I heard from several Russian journalists: that Putin, like a naughty kid in school, finds all this attention — even if its uniformly critical — flattering and even rewarding, a salve for years of feeling ignored. …

When I spoke with Anton Zhelnov, a political reporter at Dozhd, a scrappy and creative independent cable channel, which is in perpetual danger of shutting down, he said that his contacts in the Kremlin can’t help but be pleased by the multiple U.S. investigations into Russian interference, whether by the media or Congress. “Yes, it’s unpleasant, but at the same time they like that Russia is being discussed all the time, that Russia has become a topic in American politics. They like this very much, and don’t try and hide it in private conversations,” Zhelnov said.

Bottom line:

Ultimately, among the Russian journalists I talked to, one of the most consistent reactions is simple exhaustion with the endless amount of Trump-Russia coverage. “I have the sense a lot of these articles are being published without new information, that we are going around in circles,” Turovsky, the Meduza journalist, told me.

They see no proof that Putin is responsible for the meddling in the US election, and they think that the American media has gone nuts.