The Media Today

‘WTF is going on?’

June 26, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the military parade marking the 77th anniversary of the end of World War II in Moscow, Russia, Monday, May 9, 2022. (Anton Novoderezhkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Hunter Biden. Donald Trump. The Titanic submersible implosion. These were the stories that the three main US cable news networks were covering near the top of the 8pm Eastern hour on Friday even as extraordinary events were beginning to unfold in Russia, where the Wagner mercenary group—led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former ally of (and chef to) President Vladimir Putin—was in the early throes of open mutiny against Putin and his defense ministry. While reports on the developing situation did feature, the networks’ relative lack of focus on it—and, in particular, CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the sub implosion, with Anderson Cooper anchoring from the maritime hub of St. John’s, Newfoundland—irked various prominent media-watchers. “This is so embarrassing for the American networks,” the journalist David Mack wrote on Twitter. “Each one is doing the most on-brand story but ignoring the real one.”

While the level of media attention to the sub story had long since jumped the shark, it should be said, in fairness to the networks, that it wasn’t totally clear to international observers what was actually happening in Russia. (Not that a lack of clarity has ever stopped the networks from airing wall-to-wall coverage; again, look no further than the sub story.) There was some real-time information and insight to be found in early news reports and on Elon Musk’s Twitter, but—to a greater extent than in geopolitical crises pastone had to know where to go looking for it. And even well-placed experts were struggling to find reliable sourcing. “The main sources of info are an army that lies about everything; a warlord who owns an infamous troll factory and lied about it for years; and the Kremlin,” Max Seddon, the Moscow bureau chief at the Financial Times, wrote. “And Russia destroyed the media, so there aren’t any good independent sources.” 

As the hours passed, we heard more from voices inside Russia, including via the few remaining independent Russian outlets—not least Meduza, a site that publishes in both Russian and English and now operates from exile in neighboring Latvia—and on-the-ground correspondents from international news organizations, including CNN (whose coverage various prominent media-watchers would end up praising). “The real home of the event,” Semafor’s Ben Smith noted, was Telegram, which, for Russians, is “a combo of WhatsApp and Twitter”; at one point on Saturday, Meduza reported that the platform was experiencing technical difficulties in parts of the country, “possibly due to the surge in demand for breaking news coverage.” 

(Not so much a home of the event? The funhouse-mirror world of Russian state TV. State channels did broadcast an emergency news bulletin and an address in which Putin denounced the mutineers as “traitors” and vowed to “neutralize” them. They also broadcast shows about cooking and astrology, and documentaries about the late former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the illegal production of caviar. Sturgeon Lake, anyone?)

By the time Putin spoke, Wagner forces had taken effective control of Rostov-on-Don, a key Russian military hub close to the border with Ukraine, and begun a march toward Moscow. The march continued into the afternoon, meeting surprisingly scant resistance. A bloody showdown looked to be imminent. Then, in the evening, we learned that a deal had been reached to halt the advance: Wagner’s soldiers would return to the front lines of the war in Ukraine and Prigozhin would go into exile in Belarus (whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, had brokered the deal between Prigozhin and Putin) in exchange for an effective legal amnesty. Putin, a man who punishes journalists and peaceful domestic opponents as if they were traitors, had apparently agreed to give an actual traitor no punishment at all. If only for now.

Yesterday morning, Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Russia editor, posted a picture to Twitter of a vehicle that he spotted while out driving in Moscow. The question “WTF IS GOING ON?” was plastered across the car’s rear window. “Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Rosenberg wrote.

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Ever since the mutiny began, journalists and experts on the Russia beat have proposed answers to that question, some of them compelling, many more conjectural. Prigozhin, we have known for some time now, had had it with Putin’s top military officials, accusing them of trying to hobble—and of outright physically attacking—the forces at his disposal. But FilterLabs, a group that, among other things, attempts to monitor sentiment trends in Russian traditional and social media, reported that public support for Prigozhin’s mutiny appeared not to be strong enough for it to have much chance of success upon reaching Moscow; the British newspaper the Telegraph reported, citing UK security sources, that Putin had threatened Wagner leaders’ families. At time of writing, it was still not clear where either Putin or Prigozhin actually was, or might do next. (Yesterday afternoon, the latter’s press office told a Russian TV station that Prigozhin “says hi to everyone and will answer questions when he has good reception” on his cellphone.) “I suspect that this is a moving picture,” Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said as he performed a(n almost) Full Ginsburg on US TV yesterday, “and we haven’t seen the last act yet.”

If most observers seem to agree that the last shoe has yet to drop in this story, they also seem to agree that Putin has already emerged from it greatly weakened, even if his hold on power remains intact for now. Over the years, much coverage of Putin has traded in archetypes, often depicting him as a ruthless, 4D-chess-playing strongman—revered at home, due in no small part to the hermetically sealed information environment he has created; dreaded, in almost Bond-villain terms, abroad. The truth, of course, has always been messier, and more uncertain. 

For starters, while Putin has indeed tried to suck the air out of Russia’s domestic media, there have long been gaps in the seal. Online readers can use VPNs and other tools to access restricted independent media. As the war in Ukraine has dragged disastrously on, a new cadre of pro-war bloggers have periodically challenged Putin from the right, for not being hardline enough. Mikhail Zygar, the former editor in chief of the independent Russian channel TV Rain, told The New Yorker’s David Remnick over the weekend that these bloggers are now more important than propagandists on state TV. “They pose themselves as representatives of some ‘true Russia,’” Zygar said. “They are careful, but they do not denounce Prigozhin.” And repression does not always equal control. Writing in The Atlantic yesterday, Anne Applebaum argued that by distorting the domestic information space, Putin has, above all, encouraged widespread popular apathy—which has discouraged opposition to his rule, but also meant that, as Wagner forces marched on Moscow, Russians en route didn’t rise up to stop them.

Internationally, not everyone has always bought the media caricature of Putin as a strategic genius. (A remark that I once heard on a panel discussion about the Trump-Russia scandal, to the effect of the power dynamics in the Kremlin being far more farcical than one might intuitively think, has long stuck with me, though apparently not so much that I can remember who said it.) Putin’s prosecution of his war in Ukraine already punctured this image; if nothing else, the mutiny might finally deflate it and conjure a different media archetype in its stead: one of a paper tiger whose foes just grew real teeth. The truth, of course, will be messier than this image, too.

Over the weekend, Zygar remarked to Remnick that “the wall between inner Russia and virtual Russia is not that huge.” He was referring to his own ability to report on the country’s political machinations from exile (he fled Russia last year following the invasion of Ukraine), which he feared would dissipate in his absence but which has proven durable as bureaucrats have continued to share their thoughts with him. The wall metaphor is an apt one for the broader work of figuring out WTF is going on in Russia, which has long been a challenge for observers and journalists both inside and outside the country (and thus a mitigating factor in their not diving into covering it feetfirst). If we once projected a clichéd image of Putin onto the wall, the war, and now the mutiny, have blown some holes in it. On a granular level, it’s still hard to see everything behind the wall. But with each new hole, it becomes more obvious that Putin built the wall around himself. And that it may be obstructing his vision as much as ours.

Other notable stories:

  • Saturday marked one year since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (CJR’s Betsy Morais wrote about the anniversary in Friday’s newsletter.) Politico’s Josh Gerstein—who was one of the reporters who broke news of the decision a month before it was confirmed, after obtaining a leaked draft opinion in the case—looked back on how the decision has since changed the court and how it is perceived by both the public and the media, with justices giving their law clerks stricter warnings about confidentiality, and a series of investigative stories about the justices’ personal ethics triggering an internal debate between advocates of greater transparency and those who insist on their privacy.
  • Conservatives have long claimed that, prior to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter last year, the platform’s bosses wantonly censored pro-Trump speech, including, following the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Trump’s own account. But details from a company video call the day prior to the insurrection—obtained by Drew Harwell, of the Washington Post—show that bosses actually discouraged staff from clamping down on tweets that weren’t flagrant breaches of Twitter’s rules, even if they appeared to encourage violence. Per Harwell, bosses then dragged their feet on suspending Trump post–January 6.
  • Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that the media mogul Barry Diller was exploring a sale of the Daily Beast. Benjamin Mullin now reports, also for the Times, that Diller subsequently entered discussions to combine the Daily Beast with The Ankler, a startup news operation that covers Hollywood, under a joint venture, but that the idea ultimately went nowhere. Janice Min, cofounder of The Ankler, said that a deal ultimately “didn’t make sense”; Diller now says that the Daily Beast is no longer for sale. 
  • Recently, I wrote in this newsletter about the ouster of Geoffroy Lejeune, the editor of the hard-right French magazine Valeurs Actuelles, amid a dispute over its editorial direction. Last week, Lejeune was surprisingly tapped to lead Le Journal du Dimanche, a mainstream Sunday newspaper whose parent company is in the process of being acquired by a right-wing billionaire. In response, staffers at the title went on strike
  • And, after Spotify parted ways with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Wall Street Journal’s Erich Schwartzel and Sarah Krouse report that the couple’s deal with Netflix isn’t likely to be renewed either. Ultimately, “Prince Harry and Meghan’s Hollywood foray is looking like a flop,” Schwartzel and Krouse write, adding that the couple “have struggled to make content that stretched beyond their own experiences.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.