Volodymyr Zelensky’s moments in the spotlight

Last night, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, posted a video message to Facebook, the first he’s known to have filmed inside his office in Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine late last month. Zelensky started by filming on a cellphone, angling the camera to show the view from his window before flipping it to show his face as he walked down a corridor. “We used to say that Monday is a hard day,” he said, closing a door behind him and sitting down behind a desk. As he finished the thought—“there is a war in the country, so every day is Monday”—the feed stopped coming from his phone. A fixed, wide-angle camera took over; Zelensky looked into it and spoke defiantly for several more minutes, insisting that he is not in hiding nor “afraid of anyone.” Many observers were impressed by his message, as well as the deft camerawork that framed its delivery. Charlie Warzel called it “a really interesting blend of an authentic form of communicating and the more authoritative, institutional form,” with both seeming “powerful and important” to the moment. “God,” Meduza’s Kevin Rothrock wrote, “Zelensky is good at this.”

The reaction echoed much broader recent praise for Zelensky’s messaging savvy, from his appeal—in Russian—to the Russian people on the cusp of the invasion to his regular video communications since then—themselves often shot on a cellphone—updating his fellow Ukrainians on the war, with Zelensky appearing unshaven, rugged, and in military-green clothes, sometimes on the streets of Kyiv. His Twitter following has increased roughly tenfold since the invasion, while his videos have racked up millions of views on Facebook and Telegram. He has come across as normal and open—relatable, evenand posed a stark contrast to Russian president Vladimir Putin, whose sporadic public appearances have been cold and weird. Zelensky is a former TV comedian, and can be darkly funny. He’s also highly quotable, even when he isn’t speaking directly to a camera. Hundreds of articles have relayed his response to a reported US evacuation offer—“I need ammunition, not a ride”—more or less as fact, even though, as the Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler has pointed out, it’s hard to confirm that he actually said it.

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By all accounts, Zelensky’s posture of everyday defiance has inspired many Ukrainians. It has also captivated swaths of the Western world and its media. He has been compared, in news pieces and op-eds alike, to Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle, Ben Franklin and George Washington. Robin Givhan, the Post’s senior critic at large, wrote that his “sentences have the beats of poetry,” with phrasing that “keeps time like a snare drum”; Carolina A. Miranda, a culture columnist at the LA Times, predicted that the type of olive raglan T-shirt he’s been sporting may soon come into wider fashion. Profiles have often ticked off winsome nuggets from his background: the time he won Ukrainian Dancing with the Stars, the time he dubbed Paddington Bear into Ukrainian in the movie of the same name, the time he… NSFW. The rights to a show in which Zelensky played a fictional president (prior to his real-world election) have been snapped up by TV networks from the Middle East to Finland, including Britain’s Channel 4, which aired an episode to hundreds of thousands of viewers on Sunday night.

The cartoon on the cover of this week’s New Yorker, titled “Resilience” and drawn by Barry Blitt, depicts Zelensky in fatigues, holding aloft a Ukrainian flag amid a gathering storm of dark clouds and explosions. On Friday, the editorial board of the New York Times hailed his “heroic resistance” as “an example for the world.” Writing for the same paper the next day, Maureen Dowd drew on Zelensky’s and Donald Trump’s shared background as entertainers to damn the latter and praise the former. “After they ascended to power, the would-be president of Sharknado 3 and the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear took on very different roles,” Dowd wrote. “Trump became a blackguard. Zelensky donned a white hat.”

In US media, in particular, Zelensky’s narrative fortunes have long been intertwined with those of Trump. He has not always emerged so favorably. When Zelensky won election in the spring of 2019, his background and lack of political experience invited (at least implicit) Trump comparisons; as Nina Jankowicz reported for CJR at the time, Zelensky also faced some sharp scrutiny, in both Ukrainian and foreign media, over his ties to Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who owned the network that broadcast Zelensky’s presidential comedy. Later the same year, Zelensky made US headlines in a big way after Trump pressured him to investigate the Biden family and was impeached over it. Even then, coverage often cast Zelensky as a bit-part player in an American political psychodrama. Zelensky himself seemed happy to keep it that way.

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Domestically, Zelensky’s record on press freedom is hardly spotless. The same might be said of his record fighting corruption, despite having placed this at the center of his presidential appeal (both real and fictional). In the days before Russia invaded Ukraine, prominent voices in US media criticized Zelensky for playing down the threat, as the Biden administration amped up dire public warnings. Olga Rudenko, the editor of the Kyiv Independent, wrote an op-ed for the Times casting Zelensky as a “dispiritingly mediocre” showman who was in deeply “over his head.”

The reputation of a political leader, of course, need not be static; rather, it is shaped by events, especially when they are as consequential as those of the past two weeks. It’s legitimate for journalists to assess how Zelensky has risen—and is perceived to have risen—to this moment, the urgency and enormity of which has understandably eclipsed the messiness of his biography in much coverage. Even so, leaders never enter crucial moments as a blank canvas; indeed, a feature of democracy (which Zelensky is now fighting to protect) is that the press should scrutinize politicians, always, and not lapse into hagiography. Coverage that has cast Zelensky as a two-dimensional action hero has sometimes skirted dangerously close to that line, and can have other troubling ramifications, too. As Kate Knibbs wrote for Wired last week, “treating Zelensky like a superhero—call it Marvelization—recasts a geopolitical conflict in which real people are really dying into entertainment, into content.” It also, Knibbs notes, sets unfair expectations of Zelensky. He is a human being, not a magician.

Lionizing a leader is more acceptable in op-eds and analysis than on the news pages. In Zelensky’s case, these lines sometimes seem blurred in US coverage. (I’ve read numerous recent passages on his political rise that are a lot more Hollywood-ish than comparable framing from the spring of 2019.) And even on the opinion side, we should exercise caution here. There’s a fine line, too, between uncritically endorsing Zelensky as a character and uncritically endorsing requests that he is making of the West—not least the imposition of a no-fly zone—that demand intense media scrutiny. As Kenneth Osgood, an expert on propaganda and intelligence, told the AP, Zelensky, through his recent messaging, has spoken not just to Western leaders but to their voters, who might pressure them to do more. That messaging has, indeed, been impressively slick. It’s our job to put it in context.

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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.

TOP IMAGE: Kiev, Ukraine, le 03/03/2022 Le président ukrainien Volodymyr Zelensky lors de sa conférence de presse à sa résidence officielle, le palais Maryinsky, pour un groupe sélectionné de médias internationaux présent à Kiev. Photo Laurent Van der Stockt pour Le Monde Kyiv, Ukraine, 03/03/2022 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave a press conference for selected media at his official residence in Kyiv, the Maryinsky Palace. Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde