CNN.com led this morning with a story about kitchen-table financial panic fomenting backyard violence. “An out-of-work money manager in California loses a fortune and wipes out his family in a murder-suicide,” the story reports. “A 90-year-old Ohio widow shoots herself in the chest as authorities arrive to evict her from the modest house she called home for 38 years.” And, much like Wall Street’s financial losses, the violent, grisly tragedies on Main Street, CNN tells us, “keep mounting.”
Don’t worry, though. This is just the kind of irrational, unproductive, mainstream-media panic—there’s that word again—that world leaders are trying to combat. Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson are paying good money—$250 billion—for your “confidence.” And why, after all, did Chancellor Angela Merkel ram through a $650 billion bailout—worth way more, incidentally, than Germany’s entire 2008 budget? “The measures we have taken have one objective,” Merkel said. “They shall help build new confidence. Confidence between the banks, confidence in the economy, confidence of citizens. Confidence is the currency that is valid.”
So if world leaders are scrambling to encourage you not to panic, one can hardly fault the Kremlin for going the extra mille and ensuring public calmness, can one? Yesterday, online newspaper Gazeta.ru reported (in its “Financial Crisis” section) that “crisis vocabulary” has been scrubbed from TV newscasts with stunning uniformity. According to the Russian media watchdog group Mediology, of the 331 stories about the Russian financial crisis that have run in the past month, less than half used words like “crash,” “panic,” crisis,” “collapse,” or even the relatively anodyne “fall.”
Let’s recall that all of these TV stations are controlled by the state, either directly or through oligarchic proxies. Let’s also recall that, in the past month, the Russian stock market took first place in the World Crashing Markets Olympiad for its, yes, crash (and an epic crash at that: since the beginning of the year, it has lost two-thirds of its total value).
The most interesting data point on Mediology’s study, however, is September 17. On that day, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he was freeing up 500 billion rubles (roughly $20 billion) worth of spirit change to cheer up the stock markets, which had, um, misplaced over 12 percent of their value the day before. The Micex index, for example, gently floated down 18 percent in one day—a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the Dow’s 18 percent collapse over one week. The change was so heartening, in fact, that trading had to be shut down for the rest of the week.
Since September 17, Russian media insiders say, financial coverage hasn’t been the same. Instead of “crash,” “we should say, for example, ‘decline,’” anchor Evgeny Kiselev told Gazeta.ru. “I have no doubt,” he continued, “that there’s been an order.” The directive, according to the piece, was to portray Russia as “an island of stability” in the choppy seas of the world financial crisis. The Russian financial crisis—bank failures, falling consumer confidence, a credit deepfreeze, oil companies begging alms from the Kremlin— is very real and very deep, much deeper than in the U.S. This, however, only comes out online, and gets no coverage on TV newscasts whatsoever. This is a troubling and potentially dangerous phenomenon: with a Web penetration of only 14 percent, Russians get their news mainly from an overly optimistic boob tube. Don’t Russians need to know what is happening to their economy?
“This is not journalism,” noted a German journalist working in Russia. “This is more like psychotherapy. It’s an insult to the public.” In times like these, he continued, people need information more than anything. “Journalists are behaving like firefighters who see a fire but say nothing about it so as not to cause panic, even though they’re obligated to mention it,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the Russian media bigwigs disagree. “Finances are a pot of boiling milk that can run over at any minute,” explained Elena Zelinskaya, the vice president of the Russian Media Union. “We have to be extremely responsible and understand how our reporting can affect our viewers. If we go too far, we could create a panic.”
But despite all the press’s psychotherapy and firefighting and careful blowing on the boiling milk, something else seems to be happening: in the last month alone, Russians have gone to the bank and quietly taken home some $40 billion dollars. What they worry?