Kevin Rothrock has a scathing and troublesome critique of Ekho Moskvy on Global Voices -- where his column is often snarky and tendentious about Russia's independent media and opposition figures from a contrived, judgemental "view from nowhere" position that so often ends up aligning with the Kremlin's agenda -- so I call it out.
Kevin is now translation/curating the English language feed from Meduza.io. My first thought was: does Meduza need to trash Russian media still struggling inside the country, unlike itself, which is now more free in exile in Latvia?
Obviously, by putting this take-down on Global Voices, Kevin can wriggle out of those charges that it has anything to do with Meduza, but it has to be said: Why is the Meduza English language editor doing a major trashing of a rival inside Russia, where the editor-in-chief has faced death threats?
Or to put it in a larger context: why is Global Voices a web site on regional blogs and social media whose mission is to support and amplify the voices of independent media under fire in oppressive countries joining in their oppression?
That's not to suggest that you can't critique the independent media and opposition even if they do get death threats and face impossible circumstances sometimes. Indeed, if you are to take them seriously, and include them in a world community, and not infantilize them or play Orientalist with them, you have to critique them just as you would Salon or The New Republic if you thought they were getting coopted by the government or not doing their jobs.
But that's not what's going on here.
Ekho Mosky isn't perfect, and it isn't always my cup of tea -- I didn't think Charlie Hebdo's cartoons needed to be published in order to solidarize with them, even in the clever equal-opportunity insults-for-all that Venediktov artfully opted to depict. But I read it every day because they still have a relatively independent take on the news in Moscow, and often have some scoops. Ekho must be read in conjunction with @aavst which at times is almost like the samizdat stream to go with the "official" web page -- or at least the tip sheet to the better material -- but in fact most of the critical material on Venediktov's twitter is on the web page in some form.
Recently I read a critique of Ekho from a friend of a friend on Facebook (I can't seem to find it now) that basically seemed to say that it was going to go out of business because it couldn't attract hipster youth -- like TV Rain and Meduza ostensibly do. The critic said that it made its money by the Russian equivalent of "shrink your fat stomach" or "buy this herbal remedy" ads that the moral Russian intelligentsia should view as fooling poor pensioners and that the many long go-arounds with the management weren't even so much about politically-sensitive content but how to make money and get page views and sell ads when people just don't find the opposition and human rights so interesting.
I contemplated covering this critique but then decided there wasn't enough meat there.
But the question of content and audience tastes and the context of oppression in dealing with those real issue is a completely different discussion than the one Kevin Rothrock is having in his attack on Ekho -- his claim is that Ekho is going downhill because...it had a blog post by a writer who seemed to be only a fake concocted pseudonym about an expensive party a rival, TV Rain had.
See, that's just my problem with a lot of the scandals and debates in the Moscow independent media and its extended mediaverse, the Western Moscow correspondents' bubble. They are all meta. They are not about real news stories about real things in the real world. They're about journalists' relations with each other. They're about little faux scandals and hurt feelings and gasping outrages in a social milieu. They're sometimes even about phone calls from the Kremlin that were taken or not taken, or taken and disobeyed, but that's part of the sausage-making of news media that isn't always relevant (do they really think Bill Keller never took a call from the State Department about WikiLeaks or Snowden?)
So from Rothrock -- as we've gotten from a few other males on Twitter -- we get this nasty attack on this woman Lesya Ryabtseva (@gdekak), who I didn't realize was only 23 years old. I think in fact she's extraordinarily poised for her age and her role, assistant to a very high profile and often controversial figure.
Rothrock, like several other people in this strange bubble, claim that Lesya is to blame for the bloggers' guidelines that many view as curbing speech. These guidelines were the product of a compromise -- when Ekho journalist Aleksandr Plyushchev made a tasteless crack on Twitter about Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov's son dying, the Gazprom powers-that-be summoned Venediktov and he had a hard row to how for awhile trying to hang on to his own job as well as Plyushchev's. He put P. on leave and finally brought him back although his exact on-air status is not clear to me. He kept his own job, but at a price -- these "guidelines" -- exactly like the sort of annoying corporate social media guidelines I've seen in both NGO and media organizations in America (but of course, with the repressive apparatus of the Kremlin just behind them, which isn't the case in the US.)
BTW, in the oppressive anti-free-speech environment on social media that prevails in America -- despite the First Amendment -- if someone like Plyushchev -- let's say at WBAI or NPR -- were to make a crack about, say Valerie Jarrett's son (if she had one, and he died) -- it would be ruthlessly hounded. For a popular president that the cool kids might be critical of but support? Of course it would be. It might get by -- but dollars to donuts it would be so ruthlessly persecuted that P. would never get a job in this town again. He would be working the night shift at Home Depot. That is how thoroughly American opinion elites and media police punish the miscreants on Twitter -- I am not kidding. Just ask Pax Dickinson.
In Russia, which has a different culture than we do about certain things, even if the oppression level is higher, P. was back at his desk soon enough writing controversial material again.
So to blame Lesya for these guidelines is just plain silly. The secretary of a group, or the convener of a group who tries to get the administrative side of an unpleasant chore accomplished isn't responsible for the suppression of speech; Putin is; Roskomnadzor is; Gazprom-Media is -- whoever the other officials are in this chain of command are to blame. The bloggers' guidelines have a number of odious things about them, but to pin them on Lesya is wrong. Blame it on her boss or his overlords, sure, but not an administrative assistant. It really is wrong and of course sexist and misses the point.
Lesya is charged with having overweening powers and as having canned Mitya Aleshkovsky. Since he appears to be still publishing on the site and appears to still be in the broadcasts (although I could be wrong about that), is this a tempest in a teapot? And again, if in fact she did remove him for some politicized, oppressive reason, she would only be the implementer, not the decision-maker or overall policy-maker, so have the courage then not to pin this offense on this young woman -- just because attractive, smart young women seemingly cry out to be bashed by aging photoshoppers. That's wrong.
As for the appearance of Dmitry Peskov on these pages of Ekho -- that's actually something I value. That's because the rest of the mainly official press simply take out their steno pads and jot down exactly what Peskov says and never seems to question any of it. But on Ekho, what we get is a near approximation to real journalism. The journalists think up a question, then call Peskov, then try to get him to answer -- and put the soundcloud file on the site. Or they interview him with more probing questions than RIA Novosti. That's worth something. They were the ones, for example, to run to the ground this whole "Putin is taking personal control over the Nemtsov investigation" thing -- when in fact Putin had not said this, TASS had actually got it wrong, and it was something different -- Putin saying the agency heads in the inter-agency group he assigned the case to had to take personal responsibility, i.e. Bastrykin, Bortnikov, etc.
Out of all the stories -- fake and concocted meta-stories - that Rothrock cites, the story of Alexei Bozhenov was perhaps the one worth critiquing but I never noticed it when it occurred and now can't be bothered to read it because it's just not important. Leonid Parfenov is a known quantity, a decent person and not likely guilty of this charge. Ekho gave full coverage to the Navalny demonstration in December despite this attack story -- and that's what matters. And despite banning him from the site as a regular blogger under pressure from Roskomnadzor, now in fact they fairly often have him back -- he is there right now on the front page, for example. That's what is important -- the rest isn't. Ekho covers his trials and tribulations; if they ran something else that was anti-Navalny, so what? Rothrock is going to tell us he's never bashed Navalny? For example, right when he was on trial? (Remember how appalling we all found that?)
The structure of Ekho, like Daily Kos, is to have various people put up blog posts-- there are a lot of them -- which aren't at the level of the news stories -- Venediktov then selectively touts some of these on the Twitter feed. So, sure, the quality control isn't stellar on some of the outliers and obscure ones and you don't even notice some of them. It's good that such a system exists so that one-time stories or documents can be handled in the form of a post from a newsmaker.
The Vorpayeva story, true or not, doesn't matter, because intra-journalist quarrels don't matter. If TV Rain wants to throw a lavish party given all that they do and all that they suffer, let them. Why are we being Puritans about this again?!
The charge of "government grants" might be a serious issue in terms of independence, but perhaps not. Perhaps the challenge is to force the government to give independent outlets even a fraction of the largesse they give to state media. The US public radio NPR has a variety of state, federal, individual and private donors. There are some, like David Sirota, that ex-Pando Daily writer even more rabid than Yasha Levine, who harried and harass NPR over the nature of these gifts, claiming they affect editorial policy (then he was fired). The reality is that having a variety of donors helps NPR's independence. NPR's receipt of a state or federal grant doesn't make it less independent; it's viewed as a duty of government to support public broadcasting. But suddenly, in Rothrock's hands, the fact of government grants for Ekho and others becomes sinister.
As for Markvo's case, I've written about it at length; she in fact performed this interesting project to promote reading of Russian classics and use of public parks in an innovative way, and isn't accused of non-performance. (In fact, when I saw the clever little memes they made to modernize the Russian classics, it was kind of sad for me to see that the creative efforts of these people were essentially banished from Russia.) She's accused of not buying prizes that were expensive enough, accepting funds in an overall grant with a budget with a line-item for rent when in fact she had some use of rent-free spaces.
In America, as I know from direct experience running a non-profit, this would never be grounds for even board disapproval let alone government intervention and criminalization of an internal organizational matter. If I got a grant under a budget with a line item for rent I didn't need, and I reallocated those funds to program costs or other expenses, if they were reported and put in financial statements, who could care? The amount we are talking about is $40,000. There isn't any evidence that she pocketed this money or "spent it on Navalny" which is the claim. The case seems to be fabricated and unless we can be shown more facts to back up these claims, I'm going to go on calling it fabricated. Meanwhile, Rothrock has let the implication of wrong-doing hang there, and implied mere association with Navalny is some sort of wrong. Of course it is not.
What's especially troubling about Rothrock's Soviet-style denunciation here is that the Ekho Moskvy man who published the evidently fake journalist with the slam on TV Rain APOLOGIZED. That should have closed the matter as an intra-journalist non-story -- as meta hipster bullshit, in a word.
Yet Rothrock -- who was happy to slam Kashin viciously on his old A Good Treaty blog (one of the reasons I began to seriously critique him) is happy to invoke Oleg Kashin's litany of a dozen examples.
But let's get back to the basics again here. What are the REAL NEWS story that Ekho publishes and are they pulling their punches?
They've covered all the developments of the Kadyrov standoff with the federals and the Nemtsov assassination.
In a piece called "Why Lie?" Venediktov even took on the holy-of-holies, saying that the original flag from the Victory wasn't put in the spaceship (and that's a good thing, as it's now going to crash). Mikhail Khodorovsky and Navalny are on the front page right now; so is Shenderovich. Every bit of the Savchenko ordeal has been covered. The Night Wolves saga is probed directly in Poland -- Kevin's contribution to that story was to publish a lot of tweets and photoshops about the motorcyclists "purses" by himself and his friends which he dubbed as an Internet trend -- which it wasn't.
Alexander Plyushev -- who wasn't fired -- took on Starovoitov's claim that a U-2 album cover was a homosexual couple, explaining that it was a father and son.
I'm sorry, but I don't see any falling of standards here. Where is a REAL story that Ekho cut corners on? Where is a REAL story they didn't run?
I don't get everything I need or want from Ekho -- I supplement with RBC, Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, Grani etc. etc. But that's a good thing -- the environment as harsh as it is still sustains some diversity.
What is the purpose of this blog post by Kevin Rothrock? To bash independent media and discredit them, NOT for failing to cover the urgent stories of the day critically and independently -- as they've done -- but for these non-stories. He hasn't come up with a single real story, only meta/irrelevant/oddball stories unrelated to the top stories of the day.
That would be the only reason to critique them -- failure in their mission. To critique them on these specious, meta, intra-journalist grounds is merely to bash them and fall in line with the government's own efforts to bash them. Why is Rothrock doing THAT?
Because that's what he so often does. So I so often ask: Why?
Recently Rothrock crossed the street to knock RT.com. Well, that's low-hanging fruit, we all criticize RT.com because it's a grossly propagandistic outlet with even crazy conspiracies on it. The other day I went 10 rounds with Anissa Naouai the "In The Now" anchor trying to show her that her "proof" that a Ukrainian website published two profiles of murder victims 2 days before they were murdered in fact didn't hold up at all -- the site owners announced they had deliberately created a hoax with back-dated pages -- which show up in Google web cache -- in order to trap the propagandists.
But Rothrock blasted Anissa for using Americans' comments out of newspaper forums as a kind of "Vox Populi" for a story. Rothrock sniffed that this wasn't a good journalistic practice -- as if he doesn't do this every day of the week when he plucks out tweets from various cadres and lifers and calls them the "Vox Populi". Taking readers' comments from a forum is kind of lazy journalism -- the reporters should find some real, verifiable people -- but in online posts it isn't the worst thing. After all, the signify some sort of opinion. This is surely the least of RT.com's sins -- which Rothrock usually doesn't call out (like their flogging of this web cache issue on the recent Ukrainian murders; Aric Toler called it an A+++ troll on the part of the Ukrainians.)
But mid-way through arguing with Anissa about this non-issue, Rothrock turns to fawning over her. "Oh, I love your piece on US disinformation," he gushes. She beams. She then tells him she's even had Ilya Ponomarev, the opposition leader on her show for 20 minutes.
"Oh," says the ever-snide Rothrock. "TV channels that truly embrace freedom always grant Ilya twenty-FIVE minutes."
See, that's the sort of snarky, undermining, nasty-gram that we can always expect from him -- multiple times a day. An implication that Ponomarev is a blow-hard -- when in fact he's always a very interesting speaker -- and PS someone just stripped of his immunity and now facing specious criminal charges for his opposition. An implication that Anissa's inclusion of him was somehow a blow for freedom in any way -- which it isn't, in RT.com's frame. And ridiculing Ponomarev along with Anissa, bonding with her, at Ponomarev's expense. THAT is what is so loathsome.