With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, he may have got it backwards. In Russia, at least, the message has become the medium.
By most measures, there has probably never been a worse time in the quarter century of Russia’s post-Soviet history to be a journalist. If there are fewer murders of journalists than there used to be – five since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, versus 36 between 2000 and 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists – it is mostly because the point has been made. Despite Putin’s vaunted claims of a return to law and order after the turmoil of the 1990s, journalists who opposed the government or its powerful friends could still end up dead; that was as true for reporters like Anna Politkovskaya, who reported for the popular weekly Novaya Gazeta on abuses at the very highest levels of power until she was shot in her apartment building in 2006, as it was for editors like Mikhail Beketov, whose small-circulation Khimkinskaya Pravda stopped reporting on corrupt dealings in suburban highway construction after he died of injuries from a 2008 beating. For those who forgot, violence has never been very far away. Oleg Kashin was beaten to within an inch of his life for reporting on the activities of a regional governor in 2010 and now lives abroad; the crusading radio commentator Yulia Latynina fled the country in July, after her home and car were attacked and her elderly parents threatened. Lev Shlosberg soldiers on, after having been severely beaten in 2014 while investigating the unmarked graves of Russian servicemen returning from a secret war in eastern Ukraine.
But the violence isn’t really the problem. Nor is the problem censorship and control, though those, too, are pervasive. In 2000, before moving to seize the commanding heights of the economy and establish Kremlin control over the four major political parties allowed to contest national elections, a freshly elected Putin forced the oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky to hand over their media empires, giving the state an effective broadcast monopoly. More recently, the remaining independent broadcasters (like Moscow’s TV-Rain or Tomsk’s TV-2) have been forced off of cable providers and onto the Internet, while the owners of the largest online news websites have been induced to fire independent-minded journalists and toe the official line on the news of the day. After a series of investigative reports dug into the personal fortunes of Vladimir Putin’s immediate family last summer, a new set of editors was sent in to right the ship at the newspaper RBK; in a newsroom meeting, the new editor Igor Trosnikov was blunt: “If any of you think that absolutely everything is allowed – you’re wrong.” Today, the number of truly independent news outlets in Russia with nationwide reach can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Vedomosti, Novaya Gazeta, The New Times, TV-Rain and Meduza, the latter run from the safety of an office in Latvia.
But that degree of control isn’t the problem, either. In 2013, the then-Deputy Minister of Communications Alexei Volin addressed journalism students at Moscow State University with the following missive: “There is no journalistic mission. Journalism is a business. Students need to understand clearly, that when they leave the walls of this classroom, they’re going to work for the Man. And the Man is going to tell them what to write, and what not to write, and the Man has that right, because he pays them. Whether you like it or not, that’s your life, and it’s the only one you’re going to have.”
Journalists, of course, protested, and the Ministry of Communications distanced itself from Volin’s statement, calling it his personal opinion, expressed in his personal capacity. But it is a statement with which most Russians would not disagree. In a poll conducted by the independent Levada Center this month, only 30 percent of respondents said they thought the media were trustworthy; in fairness, that put the media on a par with the police and ahead of city hall (27 percent), banks (20 percent), big business (18 percent) and political parties (19 percent), but that’s a low bar. And that is the problem for Russia’s journalists: people see the newsmedia in the same light as a host of other thoroughly corrupt, self-interested institutional actors from whom no personal or public value is expected. As Natalia Roudakova writes in her important new book, Losing Pravda, “What we are observing in Russia today is what the world looks like when journalism is made superfluous.”
And yet Russians consume the newsmedia in massive amounts. In another Levada Center poll, 38 percent of respondents said they watch television news daily or almost daily, and 46 percent reported reading the news online at least weekly. And, as landmark study after landmark study has shown, many Russian media consumers engage in very deep information processing, doing what Ellen Mickiewicz called “excavating hidden trade-offs”. This complex process of reinterpreting the news is cued by social interactions, which provide the raw material from which interpretive assumptions are built. But it is also done for deeply social purposes, as an individual’s ‘correct’ interpretation sends important signals about trustworthiness and reliability as a member of a community.
As a result, while Russians may not trust the media, they do trust the message – with the caveat that it is the consumer, and not the journalist, who constructs that message. The journalist and activist Sergei Parkhomenko, writing in a recent issue of the Russian journal Counterpoint, notes that some of the most influential providers of news in Russia now are the websites and social media pages of social movement organizations: they are where both readers and journalists alike turn for authoritative reporting on everything from protests and police brutality to the government’s attempts to erase the legacy of the Gulag. Because these messages come with the imprimatur of a movement, they carry additional social meaning: to believe them and trust them is to reinforce one’s membership in a community of action. Research I’ve been conducting together with Graeme Robertson on Russia’s most recent waves of protests – whether aimed defending housing rights or bringing down the regime – points to a corollary: when Russians do decide to place their faith in a news outlet, it is because that outlet has picked up the issues and interpretations that already held value for the consumers. When media are successful in Russia, then, it is not because the abstract social connectivity they create, but because of the concrete messages they transmit.
In other words, in a context of institutional breakdown and politically enforced atomization, it is not, as McLuhan has famously suggested, the medium that allows for the extension of human beings across space and time. It is the messages those media carry that matter. Put more succinctly: The messages make the media.