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December 10, 2013

Can Putin re-create Fox News in Russia?

— Among the many things Fox News has to answer for is the proof it has provided that news relentlessly slanted to match an agenda works: It can bring audience, financial success and influence, the three things any media owner craves.

This is called propaganda when used by state-run organizations, and for a long time it fell out of fashion. Most serious news media, state-owned or private, figured that the attempt at objectivity and independence would more reliably create those rewards. (Before anyone snorts, yes, editorial objectivity is unattainable, but the effort to achieve it makes a big difference.)

This was the policy Svetlana Mironyuk followed when she was appointed to take over and modernize Russia's lesser-known state news agency, RIA Novosti, in 2003. For someone who in essence was an employee of the Russian state, she was remarkably thoughtful, professional and independent. In 2011, for example, RIA Novosti reported on anti-government protests in Moscow and gave crowd numbers. RIA's website purveys news. Mironyuk turned a Soviet propaganda tool into what was widely regarded as the most professional news agency in Russia.

Now it seems President Vladimir Putin has caught the Fox bug and is shutting RIA Novosti down. He's no longer interested in providing a strong, independent news agency on which Russians and foreigners working in Russia can rely for information.

RIA Novosti costs about $89 million a year in state subsidies to run, according to the Wall Street Journal. That's chump change to a government willing to spend $50 billion on the three-week Winter Olympics. But RIA's closure isn't about money. Mironyuk has been fired, to be replaced by Dmitry Kiselyov, a sensationalist propagandist from the state TV station Rossiya-1 who would fit in nicely at Fox. RIA will be changed into a new entity called RT, after the English-language propaganda channel Russia Today, and will, according to Kiselyov, aim at "restoring a fair attitude toward Russia as an important country in the world with good intentions."

Kiselyov apparently also once believed that journalists should try to show the world as it is. Recently, though, he said he has changed his mind: "Aloof, distilled journalism absolutely isn't in demand," he said, according to the Journal. "There's a place for agitation."

RT will be slimmer and employ fewer people than RIA Novosti, which makes sense: Gathering news is labor-intensive; creating propaganda isn't. Kiselyov will be able to dig into a deep tradition of "agitation" - what in the former Soviet Union was called agitprop -  returning the agency to its roots.

Here's a quick taste of how he might go about his job. When protests recently broke out in Ukraine, Putin called them "pogroms." Kiselyov, on his TV show, called the protests a plot by Sweden, Lithuania and Poland to avenge their 1709 defeat by Russian forces at the battle of Poltava. No evidence for this interesting conspiracy was offered. Contrast that with the thoughtful and data-supported, if Russia-centric, column in which RIA Novosti explored why Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to snub the European Union. Similarly, when the Kremlin issued a law banning the promotion of homosexuality, Kiselyov proposed collecting the dead hearts of gays and burning them.

So soon RIA Novosti will be providing a view of Russia the way the Kremlin would like the world to see it. This explicit shaping of a world view works for Fox, but Rupert Murdoch's runaway success operates in an environment that still has plenty of media choice. In Russia, the closure of RIA Novosti is just one of the last pieces to fall in place during Putin's campaign to secure editorial control over the country's mass media.

All I can say is, thank God that almost two-thirds of Russians are now Internet users. The sooner the remaining third are reading their news online, the better.

         

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