Archive for the ‘Columbia Journalism Review’ Category

What is Russia Today?

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

On Election Day 2008, two African-American men in black fatigues and berets stood outside a polling station in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia. They were members of the New Black Panther Party, which the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have labeled a hate group. One of the men wielded a police-style nightstick, and there were complaints about voter intimidation. Police eventually escorted the armed man away without incident, but the outgoing Bush administration filed a civil suit against the party alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In May 2009, against the advice of prosecutors who had worked on the case, President Obama’s Justice Department dropped the suit, a move that caused barely a ripple in the press at the time. The case came back to life in July, though, when a former Justice Department lawyer testified before the Commission on Civil Rights that the case was dropped because the Justice Department did not want to protect the civil rights of white people.

Fox News began to air allegations of an anti-white bias at the Obama Justice Department. But almost no one else reported on the case—it was old, tenuous, and even a prominent conservative commenter called it “small potatoes.” One outlet that did pick up the story, however, was Russia Today, a fairly new and still mostly obscure English-language cable news channel funded by the Russian government.

Russia Today was conceived as a soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad, to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media. Since its founding in 2005, however, the broadcast outlet has become better known as an extension of former President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational foreign policy. Too often the channel was provocative just for the sake of being provocative. It featured fringe-dwelling “experts,” like the Russian historian who predicted the imminent dissolution of the United States; broadcast bombastic speeches by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; aired ads conflating Barack Obama with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and ran out-of-nowhere reports on the homeless in America. Often, it seemed that Russia Today was just a way to stick it to the U.S. from behind the façade of legitimate newsgathering.

So it was fairly unremarkable when Russia Today, in a July 8 segment called “Fox News stirring up racial fears in America,” interviewed the chairman of the New Black Panther Party, Dr. Malik Zulu Shabazz, who lambasted Republicans for playing on people’s fears in an effort to dominate the fall midterm elections.

But then Russia Today did something out of character. When Fox’s Glenn Beck attacked the segment, asking why Russian state-run TV was suddenly “in lock-step” with the Obama administration, Russia Today fired back in a way that was puzzling to anyone familiar with the channel. On July 9, Alyona Minkovski, who hosts a daily program called The Alyona Show, laid into Beck—“the doughboy nut job from Fox News”—with patriotic American fervor: “I get to ask all the questions that the American people want answered about their own country because I care about this country and I don’t work for a corporate-owned media organization,” she said, her voice rising.

Fox …you hate Americans. Glenn Beck, you hate Americans. Because you lie to them, you scare them, you try to warp their minds. You tell them that we’re becoming some socialist country…. You’re not on the side of America. And the fact that my channel is more honest with the American people is something you should be ashamed of.
Huh? Forget the Obama administration, since when does Russia Today defend the policies of any American president? Or the informational needs of the American public, for that matter? Like many of RT’s journalists, Minkovksi is a Russian immigrant, born in Moscow, raised and educated in the West, and hired by the network for her fluency in both English and Russian—she is someone who could be both Russia’s ambassador to the West as well as its Sherpa into the Western mind. But her tirade against Fox offers a glimpse into the mind of a changing Russia Today.

On April 25, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on national television and told his nation that the destruction of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He meant that the union’s dissolution had ushered in years of sinusoidal financial crises, but also that he mourned the passing glory of a great empire he had once served as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB. In the speech, Putin also expressed his hope that Russia would become a “free and democratic country,” but at its own pace. “Russia will decide for itself the pace, terms, and conditions of moving towards democracy,” he said, laying the foundation for a political creed that would become known as “sovereign democracy.” It is a phrase that became shorthand for what the West called Russia’s “resurgence,” and what Russia called its independence of an externally imposed Western morality.

Putin could do this because in 2005 things were going well. Oil prices were rising—they had more than doubled since he became president in 2000—and the Russian people were increasingly behind him and his brand of paternalistic nationalism. But with the return of Russia’s pride, so wounded during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s reputation suffered as Western and domestic critics attacked Putin for the steady degradation of democracy on his watch. Gubernatorial elections were eliminated, potential rivals—oligarchs like media king Vladimir Gusinsky and oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—were either driven from the country or unceremoniously locked up. Unsympathetic journalists were turning up dead.

Just over a month after the speech, the Kremlin announced the solution to its image problem. It would not change its defiant rhetoric of exceptionalism. Instead, it would launch a new international television channel that explained its actions—and its terms—to the rest of the world. It would be in English and would broadcast twenty-four hours a day.

Though the project had roots in the cold war-era “Radio Moscow,” which beamed news from the Soviet Union around the world, it is better explained by Putin’s obsession with television. As a child of the post-World War II generation, Putin, like his Western counterparts, was raised on it. As president, he took tapes of the day’s news broadcasts home to watch and analyze how he was covered. To Putin, television was the only way to get his message across while retaining full control of that message. One of his first moves as president was to force out the oligarchs running the independent television stations and bring their channels under state ownership—and censorship. Soon, the heads of television stations were meeting every Friday with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political strategist, to set the agenda for the coming week. The instincts of self-censorship took care of the rest.

But even with internal critics effectively marginalized, the external enemies remained. Moreover, they were the same ones who sat in their air-conditioned Washington think tanks and applauded the series of revolutions that replaced Russia-friendly rulers in the former Soviet territories with pro-Western leaders who wanted to do things like join NATO, which Russia considers its biggest military threat to this day.

On June 7, 2005, Margarita Simonyan held a press conference in which she announced the creation of Russia Today. “It will be a perspective on the world from Russia,” she told reporters. “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.”

The new channel would be nonprofit and run out of the headquarters of RIA Novosti, the state news agency. Despite having a large degree of autonomy, it would ultimately answer directly to its funder, the Kremlin. Simonyan, who was hired to run the news outlet, had just turned twenty-five. “Of course, I was nervous,” she wrote in response to questions from cjr. “It’s a tremendous responsibility.”

Simonyan’s story is in many ways typical of a young person in Moscow today. An ethnic Armenian born in Krasnodar, the southern Russian region abutting the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Simonyan comes from a blue-collar family. Her father was a refrigerator repairman, her mother stayed at home. “My parents have nothing to do with television,” Simonyan says. “Yet, even before I went to school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t even understand fully what the word meant.”

Like many of her generation, Simonyan started her career at a young age. After doing stories for the local newspaper, she was hired at eighteen to work at a local television station while studying journalism full-time at nearby Kuban University. This arrangement, repeated by students across the country who have any amount of ambition, is especially common in fields that did not exist in the Soviet era, like advertising, finance, and media, in which there is still a huge personnel vacuum. Moreover, these are fields for which Russian universities, still not fully up to speed, cannot adequately prepare them. Many of these ambitious “provincials” eventually come to Moscow, where as hungry outsiders they quickly outpace their less-driven Muscovite peers.

By 2004, then, twenty-four-year-old Simonyan was already in Moscow and working as a correspondent in the Kremlin press pool for Rossiya, the number two state television network with an audience of 50 million. To be picked for the Kremlin press pool is an honor but also a sign of trustworthiness. The pool is a place for the most loyal of the loyalists. To be assigned to cover the Russian president, especially for television, a reporter has to be absolutely reliable in his docility, and in his ability to ask softball questions. A year later, RIA Novosti tapped Simonyan to head Russia Today.

After three months of around-the-clock rehearsal, Russia Today went live on December 10, 2005. The format, which has changed little in five years, began with a half-hour news block at the top of the hour, followed by features—culture, sports, business—in the bottom half. Three satellites beamed stories to Europe and the United States. Mostly, it was news about Russia, but there also were frequent reports about how badly the war in Iraq was going for George W. Bush, or how deeply Ukrainians and Georgians regretted their revolutions. There also were the more extreme features that would come to define Russia Today in the West, such as the prophesies of fringe authors who predicted a 55 percent chance of civil war and the dissolution of the United States into six distinct territories by July 2010.

From the start, Simonyan presided over a staff that wasn’t much older than she was, and today the network still has the feel of a high school newspaper with more money and considerably higher stakes. “We look for young people and educate them on the job,” says twenty-nine-year-old Irakly Gachechiladze, Russia Today’s news director. Native-level English is a must for presenters (in high school, Simonyan spent a year on an exchange program in Bristol, New Hampshire), and early on the network had a predilection for posh British accents. Brits made up the vast majority of the initial seventy-two foreigners RT recruited, through advertisements in The Guardian and other British papers.

Most of the foreigners were quite green. They were typically just out of one-year journalism graduate programs and had little practical experience. They were aggressively wooed, with a package that included health insurance, free housing, and hands-on experience that would have been impossible with the entry-level jobs available to them at home. And the money was good; foreign hires with little to no experience were paid in the low six figures for working five days out of every fourteen.

For many, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “They put me in a correspondent shift right away,” says one former Russia Today presenter whose contract did not allow her to speak on the record. “Within the first week, I was sent to several locations in Russia. I had just graduated with a master’s in journalism and I was super eager to get my feet wet.” It was an exciting place to work. “There were lots of young people,” the former staffer says. “The mood was very eager, very fun. It had a real start-up feel to it.”

But despite the network’s favored status at home, Russia Today attracted little attention abroad, where it had to compete with behemoths like BBC and Al Jazeera, whose budgets dwarfed RT’s. (The channel’s budget was just $30 million the first year, but it grew in subsequent years before taking a hit during the global economic crisis that began in 2008. RT officials won’t provide specifics on the current budget, but the Kremlin has announced that it intends to spend $1.4 billion this year on international propaganda.) Beyond its budgetary limitations, there are the strictures of loosely defined Kremlin dogma. “On one hand, Russia Today is supposed to compete with Xinhua and Al Jazeera,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “On the other hand, it has to show a positive image of Russia, and, if you’re competing with Al Jazeera, this second function gets in the way.” In other words, to compete in the global news arena, even against outlets with a clear point of view, you need to be taken seriously.

“We got it right. We are the only ones who got it right,” says Peter Lavelle, the host of CrossTalk, RT’s version of Crossfire. “For months, we had been covering the border, and the day Saakashvili started the war the world woke up.”

Lavelle is sitting on a shaded bench in the courtyard of the RIA headquarters, smoking a Camel as some colleagues play ping-pong and bounce on a trampoline behind him. Hired by Russia Today in 2005, Lavelle spent over a decade living in Poland before moving to Russia in 1997. “I didn’t like it at first, it was a mess,” he says. But he stayed, becoming a vocal defender of Russia against critics around the world. He hasn’t been to the U.S. since 2001 because, he says, “I have had no reason.”

In the courtyard, Lavelle is talking about the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When the fighting started, the Russian military and foreign ministry closed ranks and, drawing on lessons from the second Chechen war, barred foreign reporters from entering the war zone. Commentary from Russian government sources was sparse. Meanwhile, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was ubiquitous, finding time to speak to every Western press outlet (his personal mobile number was widely circulated among journalists) and even to hold a joint press conference with then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The result was Western coverage that portrayed the Russians as autocratic aggressors against a weak, democratic Georgia. For the Russians, who insist that the Georgians fired the opening salvo, it was precisely the kind of anti-Russian reporting by the world’s press that Russia Today was created to counteract. A European Union report, issued more than a year after the war ended, lent some credence to the Russian complaint, stating that, while the Russians went too far in their response, the Georgians had “started an unjustified war.” By that point, though, the world’s attention had shifted elsewhere and the Russians’ sense of injustice remained.

The Ossetian War, as it’s known here, was Russia Today’s crucible. Especially in the first days of the conflict, when information was patchy and unreliable. RT became exactly what it set out to be: a source of information for the West about what the Russian position actually was. Moreover, it was the only press outlet available to a Western audience that had access to the Russian side of the fighting. The numbers reflected this advantage. According to RT, viewership reached almost 15 million and views of RT broadcasts on YouTube quickly clicked past the one million mark. To this day, RT sees the war as the event that best showcased its abilities as a news organization, and that made it a recognizable brand in the West.

But RT’s war coverage was at least as shrill and one-sided as anything the Western press produced. And this, according to people who worked for RT at the time, was a conscious choice. “RT sees it as a triumph, but RT went into a war. It was a P.R. war,” says another former RT correspondent who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Staff members were recently compelled to sign papers that barred them from speaking to the press.) “We were told, ‘Look at CNN, look at BBC. They’ve already taken a bias and we have the right to do the same.’ There was no room for questioning, for doubt.”

Russia Today correspondents in Ossetia found that much of their information was being fed to them from Moscow, whether it corresponded to what they saw on the ground or not. Reporters who tried to broadcast anything outside the boundaries that Moscow had carefully delineated were punished. William Dunbar, a young RT correspondent in Georgia, did a phone interview with the Moscow studio in which he mentioned that he was hearing unconfirmed reports that Russia had bombed undisputed Georgian territory. After the interview, he “rushed to the studio to do a live update via satellite,” he says. “I had been told I would be doing live updates every hour that day. I got a call from the newsroom telling me the live updates had been cancelled. They said, ‘We don’t need you, go home.’ ” Another correspondent, whose reporting departed from the Kremlin line that Georgians were slaughtering unarmed Ossetians, was summoned to the office of the deputy editor in chief in Moscow, where they went over the segment’s script line by line. “He had a gun on his desk,” the correspondent says. Even those who were not reprimanded—and were otherwise believers in RT’s mission—were uncomfortable with the heavy-handed message control. Irakly Gachechiladze, an ethnic Georgian born in Moscow, had recently been appointed news director when the war began. Despite his staunch loyalty to the channel’s official line, he says he was uneasy. “It was not a happy time, obviously,” he told me when we met in his office. It was the biggest story anyone there had ever covered, but Gachechiladze politely bowed out. “I packed for the vacation that I had planned a long time in advance, and I left. When I came back, the war was over.”

Sophie Shevardnadze, the daughter of Georgia’s second president who has a political interview show on RT, took a leave of absence rather than report negatively about her fellow Georgians. “I didn’t go to work for three and a half months,” she says. “I took unpaid leave and I wasn’t even sure if I was going back.” The leave was, she says, her editors’ proposal. “I had to be on air on the ninth”—the third day of the fighting—“and they called me and they were like, you don’t have to do that.”

This kind of message control, though rare and targeted to highly sensitive issues, is not exclusive to coverage of the war. The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon and Putin rival, is another example. When an RT reporter took a more balanced approach to covering the trial than RT’s previous dispatches, Gachechiladze told the reporter that he was “not playing for the team.” “He asked me, ‘Why are you still working for this channel?’ ” the reporter told me. (RT officials deny that this exchange took place.) Another correspondent who pitched a story about the aids epidemic in Russia—a taboo topic here—was told it was not a “nice” story and was sent to cover a flower show instead.

Usually, though, the Kremlin line is enforced the way it is everywhere else in Russian television: by the reporters and editors themselves. “There is no censorship per se,” says another RT reporter. “But there are a lot of young people at the channel, a lot of self-starters who are eager to please the management. You can easily guess what the Kremlin wants the world to know, so you change your coverage.”

Another criticism often leveled at RT is that in striving to bring the West an alternate point of view, it is forced to talk to marginal, offensive, and often irrelevant figures who can take positions bordering on the absurd. In March, for instance, RT dedicated a twelve-minute interview to Hank Albarelli, a self-described American “historian” who claims that the CIA is testing dangerous drugs on unwitting civilians. After an earthquake ravaged Haiti earlier this year, RT turned for commentary to Carl Dix, a representative of the American Revolutionary Communist Party, who appeared on air wearing a Mao cap. On a recent episode of Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, the guests themselves berated Lavelle for saying that the 9/11 terrorists were not fundamentalists. (The “Truther” claim that 9/11 was an inside job makes a frequent appearance on the channel, though Putin was the first to phone in his condolences to President Bush in 2001.) “I like being counterintuitive,” Lavelle told me. “Being mainstream has been very dangerous for the West.”

This oppositional point of view was especially clear when RT rolled out a series of ads in the U.K. that featured images of Obama and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” or conflated pictures of a polar bear and an alien next to the text: “Climate Change: Science fact or science fiction?” (U.S. airports banned the ads until RT devised more politically correct versions; the original ads, meanwhile, won awards in the U.S. and the U.K.)

Coverage and stunts like these have given RT a bad reputation, especially among other Western journalists working in Russia who see RT not as journalism from the other side’s trenches, but as nothing more than Kremlin propaganda. Lavelle sneers at what he sees as supreme naiveté. “The paymaster determines a lot,” he says. “Are you telling me Murdoch doesn’t control the editorial line of his publications? No one can escape who pays for what.” He says he avoids contact with his Western colleagues in Moscow, who are, in turn, supremely contemptuous of most anyone who works for RT. “I am proud of my work,” Lavelle told me defiantly.

The younger members of the RT staff, however, are more pragmatic about the potential conflict—whether internal, ideological, or, down the line, professional—of working for RT. The ones who felt it compromised their careers have left; the rest choose to remove lofty ideals like objectivity from the equation. “Maybe people watch us like a freak show,” Shevardnadze told me, “but I’ve never been even slightly embarrassed. This point of view has a right to exist. We don’t have the pretension of being like CNN, or being as good as bbc, because we’re not. You may totally disagree with what we’re doing, and it’s meant to be that way.” She adds, with a touch of exasperation, “It’s a job. They pay you for it.”

In planning an elaborate and expensive image campaign, the Kremlin did not count on a global economic meltdown. A month after the war in Georgia, after a summer of dizzying oil prices, everything fell apart. Russia was among the worst hit of the G20 nations, and its GDP went from an 8.1 percent annual growth rate in 2007 to negative 7.9 percent in 2009. The price of oil plummeted, as did the prices of other commodities, such as nickel, aluminum, and steel—segments that funded two-thirds of the Russian federal budget. The crisis came as a massive shock to the Kremlin, and a group of liberals inside the administration of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev began to push for economic diversification away from dependence on volatile natural resources. But this meant deep budget cuts—including for RT—and, simultaneously, heavy investment in infrastructure, education, and start-ups, all at a time when the Kremlin was suddenly strapped for cash, its reserves significantly depleted after providing industry with a massive bailout.

To fill those gaps, Russia had to woo back international investors who ran for the hills when the fighting broke out in Ossetia. They had to be shown not a resurgent Russia with Soviet overtones, as RT portrayed it, but a reasonable, modern country that behaves rationally. It was, above all, a sales pitch, and a recognition that Russia’s conversation with the world was a dialogue, not a monologue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bearing an olive branch from the new administration in the form of a large, red “reset” button, could not have shown up at a better time (even if the Americans used the wrong Russian word for “reset,” touching off a gleeful round of mockery in the local press). It was March 2009, less than two months after Barack Obama had been sworn into office, promising a different approach toward Russia, one based not on lectures but dialogue. This was an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin: the United States had come to it before it had to go begging. Which is why, after some obligatory chest pounding and naysaying, Moscow began to respond to Washington’s overtures, cooperating on initiatives like renewing the start treaty and backing the U.S. on new sanctions against Iran.

Russia Today’s coverage has closely mirrored this shift. It has become more international and less anti-American (there are fewer stories about America’s social ills, for instance). It even abruptly changed its logo from Russia Today to the less binding “RT,” and built a state-of-the-art studio and newsroom in Washington, D.C. From there it beams original content about American politics and society under its new, more journalistic “Question More” banner. Most significantly, coverage of big Russian-American issues hews closely to the Kremlin’s new tone. This was evident in the treatment of the recent spy scandal. “We focused on why it is such a big media campaign, we brought on experts to talk about why and how spying happens,” says Gachechiladze, the news director. “We talked about the invisible ink. There are a lot of very colorful details. It was a classic spy story.” No outrage at the arrest and deportation of Russian citizens, no incredulity at the accusations that Russia was spying on the U.S., just the colorful details, as if the biggest spy swap since the cold war was nothing more than a Hollywood blockbuster. Which, of course, is exactly how Moscow and Washington wanted it.

Simonyan, however, insists that nothing’s changed: “Our goal is still to provide unbiased information about Russia to the rest of the world, to report about our country.”

But something has changed, and it is explained not only by the Russo-American détente, but also by the fact that RT’s ambitions have grown. It now boasts a staff of 2,000, wider distribution than ever, and channels in Arabic and Spanish. It has learned to pitch the Kremlin’s line in a more subtle way. RT is also evincing a certain confidence these days. It has shed much of its foreign staff, and newsroom meetings are now conducted in Russian. There are hints of a broader, if uneven, move toward seriousness and professionalism.

Clearly, the Russia-U.S. “reset” is a game-changer for Russia Today, a fact that was aptly expressed in Alyona Minkovski’s diatribe against Glenn Beck. The mission of broadcasting Russia’s line to the world was always reminiscent of the old Brezhnev-era foreign policy, when the Soviet Union projected influence either in places America had overlooked, or where America was hated. In other words, it often wasn’t about the Soviet Union at all, just as this new effort to project influence isn’t necessarily about Russia. Both were about using a common enemy to deflect attention from Russia’s own problems, and to gain leverage abroad. This can be effective, until you talk your way into a corner. Now that America is no longer necessarily the enemy, this is exactly what has happened.

For Russia Today—for RT—it raises a pressing question: is there even a point anymore? Increasingly, it is hard to watch RT and not get the sense that the people making the decisions are wrestling with that very question. Even though Russia’s relationship with the U.S. will surely have its ups and downs in the coming years, it’s unlikely there will be a need for the kind of shrill propaganda outlet that RT has been. So, then, who is RT’s target audience? Unlike the Chinese international networks that are tapping into the burgeoning business interest in China, as well as into a large Chinese diaspora, or Al Jazeera, which broadcasts to a broader Islamic universe, Russia can claim neither of these footholds. On the contrary, Russia is still desperately trying to fend off stereotypes of itself—the endemic corruption, the whimsical autocracy of the state—that have kept much foreign capital, and many Russian émigrés, from returning.

But here is the most fundamental problem with Russia’s clever attempt to flex its soft power: the Soviet period excepted, Russia has traditionally been a country that has made itself a player on the world stage by insisting on its own importance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no ideology to propagate. There is no Islam, no Chinese Communism, no beacon of democracy, no Coca-Cola or MTV to smooth the way for political influence. And in terms of cultural influence, Russia has a mixed bag. Despite its rich and broad cultural contribution (Nabokov, the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky), Russia balks at, and actively fights, other key aspects of its culture: the vodka, the winter, the women. When there’s nothing for the propaganda channel to propagate, RT’s message becomes a slightly schizophrenic, ad hoc effort to push back against what comes out of the West. And if there’s nothing to push back against, other than the ghosts of a bygone era, then what, really, is left to say that others aren’t already saying, and saying better? 

What is Russia Today? [CJR]

The Obama Telenovela

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

It was on our first morning in Havana that my friend and I discovered how obsessively Cubans have been following recent developments in American politics. Our hostess, a middle-aged bleached blonde with a hardened good cheer, served us our eggs and proceeded to engage us on the subject of the Sasha and Malia Obama dolls. It was only a few days after the inauguration and the world was still tipsy on Obamamania, but it felt odd that someone would know something so infinitesimally peculiar on a blockaded island with a handful of state newspapers and four Party-approved TV channels, all repeating the same agit-prop ad nauseam. Norma went on. “It’s great that Michelle’s mother is going to be living with them,” she said. “It’ll be good for the girls, and it shows what kind of man Obama is.”

Later that day, while walking around Vedado, in Central Havana, we were invited to join three generations dancing to reggae in their living room. One of the neighbors was there and, on hearing we were American, quickly buttonholed us, eager to share his thoughts on Obama’s ban on lobbyists. If we had been surprised by Norma’s mastery of Obama trivia or this man’s wonkishness, we would find still more of it a few blocks away. At the Café Pekin, three rehearsing musicians befriended us gringas over some cans of Bucanero beer; between their soul-straining renditions of the son classics, one of the crooners asked my friend about the Bank of America bailout. She barely had a chance to answer when, one arm cradling his guitar and one arm marking his points, he began to explain why nationalizing banks would make sense for America. (His information, my friend admitted later, was quite accurate.)

We weren’t expecting to find this kind of parrying in Revolutionary Havana. Plenty of countries are well-informed about our political process, though we may know next to nothing about theirs. Cuba, however, is still very much a police state that puts a premium on controlling the information its citizens consume. And yet that was three people unfurling their up-to-date Americana within the span of a few short hours. How, we wondered, were Cubans getting these contraband factoids? And, more importantly, why were they so intent on getting them?

With the aging of its leaders and the growing staleness of the Revolution, the state has gotten a little gummy in its enforcement of the information lockdown and its subjects have grown bored with the fare the state feeds them. Every type of media—from television to women’s magazines—is state-controlled and produced by ideologically vetted cadres, which means little variety and even less nuance. News from America tends to concern American aggression, foolishness or greed. When Obama signed the order to close the detainee prison at Guantánamo, for example, Granma, the Cuban version of Pravda, reported that “Barack Obama fulfilled one of his main election promises by closing the prison located on the illegal base at Guantánamo, Cuba.” When the papers reported on our presidential election, it was to point out the the amounts of money wasted on the process and how the election was actually indirect and therefore unfair.

Most Cubans, however, seem to have developed an immunity to this kind of jingoism. When a revolution has been waged for decades, you tend to stop paying attention—especially when your daily life is spent in the chasm between Revolutionary rhetoric and reality: It’s hard for Cubans to believe that more revolution (the state’s answer to the embargo) will put more food on the table. Or to stomach the fact that, despite the Revolution’s promises of dignity and sovereignty from the Empire, tourists will see more of their homeland than they could ever afford to. Or that the country is scarcely free of the humiliating tourism-related vices of the pre-Castro era. Or that despite promises of egalitarianism, ministers and generals live not in crumbling Havana but in the posh suburb of Miramar where their well-fed, well-coiffed daughters can buy all the groceries they want with currency only available to foreigners.

As the government’s narrative of reality inches more and more toward the absurd, it breeds a palpable sense of boredom and hunger in a population far too educated for the island’s scant opportunities. (Billboards exhorting people to work and work harder—when there are no jobs to be had—look more than a little insulting in a city where thousands of unemployed Habaneros hang out on their stoops on weekday afternoons.) The sense of enclosure on the blockaded island only heightens the appetite for information.

Revolutionary media has proved unwilling to indulge this curiosity. The state shares no real news about itself. Nearly three years after Fidel first disappeared from public view, his subjects still don’t know whether he’s dead or alive, let alone what he’s up to. (His periodic and increasingly nonsensical screeds in Granma offer precious few hints. Not many people watch the state’s version of the news. “Mesa Redonda,” the official nightly news round table, is roundly ridiculed; Granma features real reporting from allies Venezuela and Bolivia, but that too has an ideological point. There are sports and educational programs on TV, but no entertainment news. Telenovelas, a genre Cubans love, have low production values and are also flavored with the blandness of political orthodoxy. It’s all dull, didactic stuff and it does nothing to sate Cubans’ appetite.

“The Cuban press is so narrow,” Rafael, a journalism student at the University of Havana, told me. “We have to get our information somehow. We’re hungry for it.” And this, mind you, is coming from someone with political credentials good enough to study journalism in Cuba.

That hunger is fed “por la izquierda,” to the left of the law. Some listen to Radio Martí, the Cuban version of Voice of America, though its impact is debatable. For the most part, however, people get their non-Granma news, their entertainment, and their beloved Brazilian telenovelas from illegal satellite TV, much of it beamed through Rupert Murdoch’s DirectTV.

This is how it works: One guy (and it’s usually a guy) rigs up a contraband satellite with parts smuggled in by visiting émigrés, or even with a receptor attached to a trashcan lid. A tangle of wires then channels the signal to anywhere from several residents to several apartment buildings. Each recipient pays a one-time installation and a monthly subscription fee of about two hundred national pesos, about half a professional’s monthly salary. Because everyone is hooked up to one central dish, subscribers have to watch the same thing as the dish owner, who will usually create a program based on a survey of his customers.

Cops and members of community vigilance organizations often get their subscriptions for free to disincentivize ratting and promote information sharing when, say, the police are about to sweep the town for illegal dishes. (The last major raid was two years ago, after Granma published a story about several men prosecuted for making dishes. It was, the paper claimed, “destabilizing and interventionist and forms part of the Bush administration plan aimed at destroying the revolution and with it the Cuban nation.”) Pirating techniques adapt quickly in response to official intercession. In order to fight the newly trained cable-cutting police that prowl the roofs, smugglers have now taken to hiding the cables underground. Masquerading as official work crews repairing leaks, they tear up the streets and lay the cables under the concrete.

All told, there are up to 30,000 of these illegal satellite dishes hidden in water tanks and air-conditioning units on rooftops all over Cuba, with the majority clustered in Havana. They bring in news, music videos, and, worse, commercials—and then Radio Bemba, the Cuban grapevine, takes over. The news is passed by word of mouth, on video cassettes, or, from the few Cubans who have Web access, on memory sticks. Together, DirectTV and Radio Bemba have become the de facto media empire here, swiftly and efficiently giving Cubans the information the Revolution refuses to provide.

Circumventing the state, however, is not without its dangers. Getting caught could get you or your family members kicked out of work or university, effectively blacklisting you for ideological impurity. Incurring economic punishment in the poverty-stricken country, though, could be far worse: An illegal dish might mean a catastrophic fine of a thousand pesos, more than most people earn in two months. And, though the enforcement is spotty and lurching, the official line has only grown harsher: With the ascent of Raúl, the world hoped for a loosening of the noose, but Cubans knew better. Soon, he proved them right, appointing an old Revolutionary comrade and former head of the secret police to head up the Information Ministry. He, in turn, introduced a law that forbids receiving foreign media from tourists. An infraction carries a three-year jail sentence. The point is clear: no outside media. Period.

But days after a sweep, the satellite dishes sprout right back up. The hunger and the boredom are still there and, now that we’ve elected a young black president, Cubans, half of whom are of mixed race and ruled by a cadre of feckless septuagenarians, want to know even more what we’re up to. Every conversation, we soon realized, followed a template: Once it was established that we were “yanquis,” all talk turned to Obama. How great he was, how he was going to fix Cuba’s problems by lifting the embargo, how noble of him to close down Guantánamo. An old man at one of Havana’s last synagogues proudly showed us a Xeroxed news clipping from a Mexican newspaper that showed Obama’s two Jewish wing men: Axelrod and Emanuel. “Jewish!” he exclaimed happily. Even the official press has taken a cautious, even optimistic tone when describing the new president. It is unclear, however, if this signals a softening of the confrontational Castro line or—less likely—is in response to Cubans’ hunger for change and faith in Obama.

“There is an absence of narrative here,” blogger Yoani Sánchez told me one afternoon in Havana. Few people in Cuba read her blog, Generation Y, but she is famous because she was once shown on TV in Miami and, thanks to Radio Bemba, the entire island now knows who she is. “We don’t know anything about our government—who their wives are, where they live. The Obamas have become our narrative. They are our telenovela.”

Blogging For Truth

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Bearing cigarettes, crackers, and salami, Krig42 returned to Tskhinvali on August 15th in search of the truth. The city, which came under heavy Georgian fire the night of August 7th before the Russians retook the city three days later, had instantly become the center of a propaganda battle between the two countries.

In the first hours of the war, Russian officials announced that 1,600 South Ossetians had been slaughtered by bloodthirsty Georgians; two days later, the count stood at 2,000. Tskhinvali, they said, lay in ruins. Georgia disputed the tally and claimed that Ossetian militias were engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, burning and looting Georgian villages in South Ossetia. Tskhinvali, they countered, was not as badly damaged as Moscow claimed. Russia shot back with claims of genocide; Georgia filed suit with the International Court of Justice. In an attempt to find some measure of objectivity, Human Rights Watch waded into the conflict and found that the death toll seemed to be exaggerated: the head physician at the city’s hospital said they had treated only 273 wounded and received forty-four dead bodies, believed to be the majority of Tskhinvali’s dead.

Krig42 (the blogging alias of Russian journalist Dmitry Steshin) had seen much of this chaos firsthand. On assignment for Komsomolskaya Pravda, he arrived in Tskhinvali hours before the fighting started and had been supplementing his daily reporting with vivid frontline posts on his personal blog. His press pass accorded him journalistic authority while his LiveJournal gave him the room to describe a confusing and maddening war as he saw it, and the blogosphere—apparently hungry for just such unfiltered war stories—responded enthusiastically, making Krig42 one of the most popular bloggers in Russia.

The Russian blogosphere, meanwhile, was abuzz with speculation over the Tskhinvali charges: Had the city really been leveled? How many people had really died? And who, exactly, killed them? Just after midnight on the day Human Rights Watch published its findings, Krig42 finally weighed in:

To all you people blowing hot air about the totally destroyed or barely touched Tskhinvali, I report: I shot thirty rolls of tape and made my own “virtual tour” of Tskhinvali. I rode through it on an armored personnel carrier from north to south and from west to east, filming continuously. I filmed basements where people died. I filmed people exhuming the grave of a woman and two children, buried in the garden. I filmed a car in which two kids burned alive. I filmed the rancid cellars of the city hospital. I think these should make an impression on you.

Steshin even found the elderly doctor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, who clarified her version of the casualty story. “Could there possibly be 2,000 dead?” she told him in her broken, heavily accented Russian. “If you’re counting the entire district, then yes.” Though exhausted from traveling, he pledged to stay up and post his virtual tour online by morning. It was, he said, “a personal response to the base claims of Human Rights Watch. These fuckers thought there weren’t enough casualties in Tskhinvali.”

Almost two weeks out, the cement of the war’s narrative is starting to set, and Russian journalists, especially those who were there, are frantically blogging to make sure it sets right. It’s not always clear, though, whom they are fighting. A recent poll found that only 2 percent of Russians sympathize with Georgia. Visitors to Krig42’s blog, ambivalent last week, have been punctuating their comments on the picture of the charred, disembodied leg of a dead Georgian soldier with smiley faces.

By almost all measures, the Kremlin’s media campaign has been successful. But there are still naysayers out there, especially in the West, and, in the face of such chaos and international outcry, Russians are hungry for a unanimous, objective, exonerating verdict. They are also, however, suspicious of what they see as propaganda, both at home and abroad. “Russia,” journalist Michael Idov wrote, “is a society of conspiracy theorists. In fact, the notion that politics is mere theater and policy is determined via backroom collusion is so central to the Russian worldview that “theorist” is perhaps too weak a word. Russia is a society of conspiracy axiomists.”

Combine a culture already suspicious of all things political with the natural, magnifying outlet of the free-for-all blogosphere, and you get Russian bloggers searching desperately for the necessarily elusive key to the riddle of this war. Obviously, the thinking goes, evidence on the ground is being manipulated for political purposes. Obviously, says the rare Georgian sympathizer, we’re only being shown the wrecked streets and not the rest of the city. Or, says the Russian nationalist, the West wants to minimize the death toll in Tskhinvali so that Saakashvili can escape the war crime charges he so desperately deserves.

It is not, however, a question of looking for the skew-factor of media bias, as it would be in the West. In Russia, the question is more essential: What truth are they trying to hide from us? As Moskovsky Komsomolets correspondent Irina Kuksenkova put it in an interview after her return from the war—which she greeted, incidentally, drinking champagne and watching the firefight from the roof of the Alan Hotel where Mikhail Romanoff was later holed up with the Russian press—“There’s only one truth. There can’t be two truths.”

Evgeny Poddubny, a TV correspondent for TV Center, revived his dusty blog to present his eyewitness account of the war after his nine-day stay in Tskhinvali. “I will tell you what I saw there with my own eyes. At first, I didn’t want to write about it in my LiveJournal,” he wrote, “but after I returned to Moscow and read the stuff being said online, I just couldn’t keep silent.” He then plunges into a self-consciously flat account—“I tried to keep the descriptions as dry as I could”—detailing the war’s progression, paying careful attention to timing and tank formation, as if his precise telling will finally deflate all the conspiracy theories whirling about the blogosphere. Poddubny’s blog isn’t as rhetorically compelling as Steshin’s, but he, too, resorts to graphic imagery to make his points:

An elderly man approached us and, with a gesture, invited us into his house. We walked into the bedroom, he brought us over to the bed – a big double bed – pulled back the cover, and there were his wife and daughter, both burned and headless. Many have said, you guys are only telling us when you could show it.

And so he does.

“Of course, I didn’t include everything,” Poddubny writes at the end of his long, painstakingly detailed account. “I have to gather my thoughts…But!” he adds (and here the paths of journalistic strivings for objectivity and conspiracy theorizing diverge):

But! Georgia made the first military move! Russian forces entered South Ossetia 16 hours after the beginning of Operation ‘Clean Earth’! There was not one Western camera crew in Tskhinvali until the moment that military operations ceased! The Russian air force hit military infrastructure!

Krig42, on the other hand, more gingerly treads the line between skeptical journalist and conspiracy theorist. When Krig42’s videos finally went up on Tuesday, he showed – truly showed – the eerie moonscape of Tskhinvali: A long, rumbling drive down Tskhinvali’s Moscow Street, the early evening sun planing through the trees, falling on rubble. Broken glass still in the panes, black shadows of fires long extinguished climbing up the outer walls. The muzzle of an AK-47 pops briefly into view. An occasional grandmother hobbles along, but otherwise the street is deserted.

There is a clattering reel of a shabby, ill-equipped basement, identifiable as a hospital only because the video titles it as such. A deserted town square. Another video, called “A dead body, briefly,” just one second long, snaps a quick shot of a body in a wide muddy road as trucks detour around it.

Riding along Moscow Street, Steshin offers no commentary. All you hear is the wind and the personnel carrier trundling along. The post is titled, simply, “Watch. Count the ruins, if you want.”

Blogging From The Front

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

At 6:19 p.m. this past Saturday, Russian journalist Mikhail Romanoff added a two-line post to his personal blog from the chaos of Tskhinvali: “They’re shooting like fucking mad over here.” Eighteen hours and a couple posts earlier, he was blogging from the basement of the city’s Alan Hotel, where he was holed up with Russian journalists and peacekeepers. “Interfax is here, REN-TV, Channel Five,” he wrote. Romanoff, a twenty-something native of Yakutia who works for the New Times of Moscow, had come to South Ossetia to track the rising regional tensions two days before the fighting broke out, leaving a prescient post – “I’m off to volunteer for the Georgian War! Ciao!” Now he was stuck. “I had planned to leave tomorrow,” Romanoff blogged from the besieged hotel. “I ordered a car for five a.m. It’s unclear if it’ll come. Hell, nothing is really clear anymore.”

Like most Russians his age, Romanoff is an active user of LiveJournal, a sort of blog-meets-social-networking site that has become a vital outlet for meaningful political discourse in a country where the mass media has been happily gobbled up by the state. Some blog for their friends, others have wider followings with thousands of commenters, putting them at the top of rankings done by Yandex, Russia’s search engine.

Though many Russian journalists at the front reported that access to many Russian websites had been shut off by the Georgians, LiveJournal was still accessible because of its .com suffix, rather than the suddenly problematic .ru suffix. And so, even as a geopolitical nightmare unfolded around him, Romanoff continued to blog. When he wasn’t posting himself, Romanoff would phone his entries in to his friend Ilya Yashin, head of the youth branch of the liberal (and defunct) Yabloko Party, who would then post for him. While young Russians love their LiveJournals like Americans love their Facebook, Romanoff’s dedication to keeping his LiveJournal humming from the trenches is stunning.

He’s not the only one who did so. Take Krig42, the right-leaning, WWII-obsessed LiveJournal alter ego of Dmitry Steshin, a political correspondent for the tabloid-y Komsomolskaya Pravda. Steshin’s LiveJournal dwarfs Romanoff’s brief “I’m alive, I’m scared, don’t believe your TVs” posts, however. Trapped in Gori when the fighting started, Krig42 had been blogging feverishly up until his escape yesterday morning over the Georgian border into Armenia. His terse, vivid entries recall the frontline journalism of Vasily Grossman and Mikhail Koltsov, and have boosted his blog’s Yandex ranking nearly 300 spots in the last day alone. A sample from August 9th, the day he decided it was time to get out:

“I went outside. Everything is deathly silent; there is booming somewhere on the outskirts. Georgian troops are lounging along the walls. Gori’s city square is piled up with the garbage of war: ammo transportation boxes, crates, bandages. Packs of NATO MREs, but with Georgian labels. Fuck, this is someone else’s war. ‘What am I doing here, on this side?’ I ask myself again. All for the sake of fucking objectivity…The soldiers try to strike up a conversation with me. Mutely I slide past them – it’s better than pretending to be a sorry-looking Englishman.”

Later, he meets David, a Georgian his age, who invites him into his home for tea. David has rushed home from his construction job in Thessaloniki to get his elderly parents out of Gori, but they won’t budge:

Men were swarming outside of David’s house. There was a Georgian veterans’ recruitment station nearby. Even invalids on crutches showed up…With his huge hands, David pushed me into the last (or second-to-last) refugee van. Everyone who could had already left last night on ‘more comfortable buses like the Icharus.’

In muted, shocked prose, Steshin describes a ruined country. There is rubble everywhere, buildings turned to funeral pyres. His van waits out a gunfight in someone’s yard before being mobbed by a crowd of refugees. People stream south, roads jammed. Just before midnight on the day he fled for Tbilisi, he posted a picture he took from the hill overlooking Tskhinvali, three hours before the war broke out there. A wooden cross, a sunny valley below: “Tskhinvali,” he wrote, “which no longer exists.”

He describes how his friend, also a journalist, traveling unarmed and unmarked, gets out of a truck to find himself staring into the muzzle of a machine gun. Behind it is a female Georgian soldier. “I’m a journalist!” he yells. She lowers the gun and “folds in half,” shot dead. Another colleague, Sasha Sladkov of Vesti, a state-owned news program, is wounded while hiding in a roadside ditch.

Romanoff posts an ode to Grigol Chikhladze, a soft-spoken Georgian photographer who worked for the Russian language edition of Newsweek. Although Romanoff barely knew him, he is pretty shaken up by Chikhladze’s death. (“I knew Gia only casually,” Romanoff wrote, “but you don’t need much time with him to realize that you’re talking to a solid, intelligent and kind person. He was riding with the Georgians, but fell behind and was gunned down by the Ossetians.”)

Steshin also posts the wartime observations of his colleagues. There’s a triumphant sense of camaraderie here as journalistic competition falls away in the hell they’re all witnessing. Via Steshin’s LiveJournal, in a post that was picked up across the Russian blogosphere, Moskovskiy Komsomolets special correspondent Vladimir Sakirko recounts how his friend, journalist Alexander Kots, was wounded:

Someone yelled ‘Incoming! Incoming!’ Two Georgian jets hit the column of troops with a couple of rounds. We fell to the ground. The battle began. One Georgian plane was hit. We decided to stay close to the center of the formation, started moving and ran into the film crew of ‘Vesti’ – Sasha Sladkov and the guys. We thought that, by lunchtime, we’d get to the city with the troops. But that didn’t last long. The shooting was getting worse and worse.

Crawling through the bushes with a few other officers, they come under fire again.

We fell to the ground. On one side, a battalion was repelling an attack; on the other side, firing soldiers. And we lay right in the middle. I raised my eyes towards Sasha, and he’s suddenly so pale. ‘Is everything okay?’ I ask him. ‘No,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘D’you get nipped?’ I reached for his hand and saw blood. We had no bandages, nothing. You couldn’t raise your head, bullets spraying from both sides. All we could do was wait.

As the official Russian press trumpets the Kremlin’s line—something to the tune of “March on Tiflis” and “Georgia is America”—the Internet sings a different, more conflicted song. Much has been made of the liberals’ flight to the Web, but it is by no means a liberal haven. Online, one will find as many people cheering for Karadzic as for Obama. What is surprising is that, in the face of the near unanimity of official press coverage, there is a very lively debate going on in the Russian blogosphere. Commenters debate questions that the Kremlin has already answered for them: Who really started this war and what does it mean for Russia’s geopolitical future?

To be sure, there are plenty of people advocating “showing Georgia who’s boss” in a way that resembles sodomy, plenty of people who echo nationalist fears of American meddling, bias, and double standards. But there is also a good number of more introspective commenters who are critical of Russia’s role in the conflict. And for all the bloggers going crazy over Saakashvili’s embarrassing dive on Monday (he was roundly reviled as unmanly on various LiveJournals), mostly everyone is horrified by the images coming out of Georgia and Ossetia, which these young journalists, thrust by fate into war, are readily providing them. Take Steshin’s ghost photograph of Tskhinvali before the war. Though it is a tacit condemnation of the Georgian forces that first attacked Tskhinvali before the Russians arrived to finish the job of leveling it, Steshin is more stunned by the enmity between two cultures that used to adore each other. He arrived in Gori hours before the war because he wanted to hear the Georgian side, and he comes away feeling that they too have lied. “Everyone,” he wrote after his escape, “got what he deserved.” Although his commenters ask, he’s unable or unwilling to assign blame. He’s too caught up in the horror.

“When the shooting died down, the troops began to move forward,” Vladimir Sakirko continued on Steshin’s blog. “Nearby, I saw a severely wounded major and I crawled up to him. I look and I see that there’s a wound the size of an eyeball on his forehead. There’s liquid dribbling out of it and you could see the pulsating of his brain. His arms and legs were battered. I rooted around in his bags and found two packets of gauze. I bandaged Sasha as well as I could…”

Sasha survived, but the commentators, usually ready to debate to the death, were shocked: they all wanted to know what happened to the wounded major. These young Russians, who missed the traumas of Chechnya and grew up in a largely prosperous decade of cell phones and iPods and petrodollars, are suddenly faced with a nationalistic war, and, like the generations before them, they are drawn in by its pathos. It’s as if these images hit a cultural switch: the politics dissolve as the drama of war looms large. For all their country’s recent wealth, it is still actively haunted by World War II. Now the press is filled with first-person “I was in the trenches” press accounts, even close-range video interviews with wounded journalists lying on gurneys—the kind of stuff one rarely sees in the West. This fascination with the warrior-journalist is especially notable in Russia, ranked the world’s third-most dangerous country for reporters (after Iraq and Afghanistan), where journalists aren’t encouraged to go poking around in dangerous places. War, however, is sacred, and the Russian blogosphere is singing mournful hosannas. Krig42’s entries, for example, occasionally verge on the melodramatic but his commenters cheer him on for his “objectivity,” “accuracy,” and, most of all, “heroism.”

For his part Krig42—he never acknowledges that he is, in fact, Dmitry Steshin—keeps a stiff, heroic upper lip. Having slogged across the border to Armenia, he writes: “I’ll just rest a bit and head to Tskhinvali.”

My Friend(s)

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

My friends, in discussing the verbal tics of certain aspiring presidents, I would be remiss to pass over the punishing repetitions of that other aspirant to the throne, our friend Arizona Senator John McCain. Recently, the Times reported that McCain’s campaign minions have been struggling to massage his style and make it fit into the tight corset of general election speaking engagements. Before he learns to read the teleprompter, however, something’s got to give, and that something is McCain’s favorite phrase: “my friends.”

Though McCain’s doesn’t friend his listeners with quite the same range that Senator Obama asks them to look, he cakes it on just as thick. To wit: in a twenty-two minute victory lap after the Michigan and Arizona primaries (mostly applause and hooting), McCain globbed on the icing seven times. (“Well, my friends—well, my friends, here’s a little straight talk for you: What a difference a couple of days makes.”)

There are, to be sure, distinctions. There are the friends who endorse him, as when, early on, former presidential hopeful Kansas Senator Sam Brownback announced he was backing “my friend and true American hero, John McCain,” a platitude that solicited a reciprocal “my friend” from said American hero. This, however, seems to be a deviation from a pattern The Washington Post delineated in recalling McCain’s fist-pumping attack on Iowa Senator Charles Grassley in a 1992 meeting over the fate of American soldiers still MIA in Vietnam: “While the plural ‘my friends’ was usually a warm salutation from McCain, ‘my friend’ was often a prelude to his most caustic attacks.” (McCain apparently addressed Grassley as “my friend” before launching into such a friendly disquisition that Grassley stood up and demanded an apology.)

McCain has many friends and frenemies in Congress, yes, but his best and oldest friends are his voters, especially his Hispanic not-yet-voters. In a recent ad, McCain beckoned his Latino holdouts with his now familiar siren song: “My friends, I want you, the next time you’re down in Washington, D.C., to go to the Vietnam War memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You’ll find a whole lot of Hispanic names.” The Senator is also especially kind to his more tightly-wound voters, who worry that, should he win the presidency, he’ll keep the United States military in Iraq for a century. “My friends, the war will be over soon, for all intents and purposes, although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years,” he crooned. “But it will be handled by the Iraqis, not by us.” There. Feels better already, doesn’t it, friends?

And then there are the friends who secretly don’t want to be friends. Take Todd Haupt, a Minnesota Republican who just lost his real-estate business and makes a living selling health drinks. “I hate when he says, ‘My friends,’” Haupt told a reporter. “McCain is not my friend.”

Right. Then there are the friends who never were friends, like those who presumed McCain’s guilt in the Keating Five Scandal almost twenty years ago. “If you don’t believe that a 354-page document, my friend, is sufficient after a nine-month investigation… then you are different than most Americans.”

Those so-called friends, however, should never be confused with the friends who know McCain had a point when he called the Supreme Court’s recent habeas corpus ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” “We made it very clear that these are enemy combatants, these are people who are not citizens, they do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country have,” McCain explained. “And my friends, there are some bad people down there. There are some bad people.” And, to clarify, these “people” are not friends who, obviously, do have such rights.

This speechifier seems to be a recent acquisition, however. McCain rarely used the phrase before his failed 2000 presidential bid and, back when he was a first-term Congressman, he was quite spartan in his use, referring to “my friends who didn’t return” in a 1985 Vietnam War special with Walter Cronkite called “Honor, Duty, and a War Called Vietnam.”

But I won’t leave you on such a dour note, my friends. Instead, please enjoy the following montage, courtesy of the Internet, which John McCain has yet to befriend.

Why, Looky Here

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Tired of justifying his slalom toward the center, fed up with endless charges of betrayal, Barack Obama finally rolled his sleeves up and put his foot down. “Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” he told a town-hall-ish gathering in Georgia last week. “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me…the notion that this is me trying to look” — he paused, flummoxed, waving his hands about his head — “centrist is not true.”

Look, he seemed to be saying, it’s obvious. I’m the same old beacon of hope, and if you can’t see that, well, you’re just not listening.

That’s the dismissive, frustrated “look.” During Obama’s jet-packed ascent to the Democratic nomination, there have been many others—small cues that word-happy journalists would do well to pay attention to. There’s the concerned and caring “look,” as when he pledged to defend American workers from outsourcing and NAFTA in a February Democratic Debate (“Look, you know, when I go to these plants, I meet people who are proud of their jobs.”); the let’s-everybody-just-calm-down “look,” as when another round of bloodying primary nights came to an end (“Well, look, you know, we just completed a very hard fought contest… I think all our supporters need to just sit back and let things sink in.”); the combative “look,” as when he challenged HRC’s resume back in November (“Well, look, you know, if this a resume contest, then she certainly doesn’t have the strongest resume of the people on the stage.”); the exasperated “look,” on display when he was asked to apologize for a donor’s attack on Hillary (“Look, you know, I can’t be responsible for the statements of every single individual who contributes to our campaign.”); the devil-may-care “look” (“Look, I can’t spend my time worrying about that.”); the self-assured “look” (“Look. You know, what we’ve done has been successful throughout.”); the rhetorical straw-man “look” (“Whoever is the nominee, I think the Democratic Party will say, ‘Look, we’ve got a big fight ahead of us in November, and we are going to be unified to take the country in a different direction.’”); and, of course, there’s the conspiratorial, cool-cat “look” (“Oh, look, you know, when I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.”).

This one magic word offers such range, such depth, it’s no wonder become Obama’s rhetorical flourish of choice. While promoting Dreams from My Father way back in 2004, the juniorest senator from Illinois was already wielding it with confidence: eight times in one sitting. But perhaps no flavor can top my personal favorite, the getting-real “look,” as when he explained to NPR’s Michele Norris how he can truly “get” the plight of the hurting average American: “Well, look, you know, just listen.”