By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
When it comes to broadcast news coverage, I am a high-maintenance gal. I have high standards and, fair or not, I do not suffer fools gladly. I do not grade on a curve.
When TV or radio news hosts ask shallow questions and their talking-head pundits pontificate in a pro forma manner, or their interviewees provide evasive answers and the hosts don’t pursue obvious follow-up questions, I’m apt to get irritated.
When I hear numerous commentators parrot each other, stating the same conclusions in identical words without any serious analysis, I become disgusted.
And I neither forget nor forgive. For example, I still recall that, during the George W. Bush administration, the White House press pool behaved like servile lackeys, more interested in keeping their place in the briefing room than challenging that administration’s lies and evasions. Not to mention that it later took several years for the media to straightforwardly call Trump’s lies “lies.”
Those criticisms aside, as relates to the invasion of Ukraine, the television networks have stepped up and done themselves proud. This is true of both the news show hosts and the reporters on the ground in Ukraine and in NATO countries along its borders, who are risking their lives to get information to us–as well as their photographers and camera crews–who are unseen but risk their lives just as much if not more so since they must keep pace while carrying heavy cameras and other equipment.
Just this week, Brent Renaud, a Peabody Award-winning documentary filmmaker, producer, and journalist was killed and photojournalist Juan Arrendondo injured when they were shot by Russian troops outside of Kyiv.
Ari Melber, Ali Velshi, Lawrence O'Donnell, Chris Hayes (clockwise from top)
In my own editorial experiment, I decided to spend an evening with my broadcast buddies at MSNBC. Last Thursday, March 10, I was glued to the tube for four hours, watching their coverage from 6:00 to 11:00 pm. That included The Beat with Ari Melber; All In with Chris Hayes; Ali Velshi (in Rachel Maddow’s time slot); and Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last Word. (I did take a break between 7:00 and 8:00 pm. Sorry, Joy Reid--my apologies to you.)
The factual coverage and analysis on the four shows was comprehensive. The topics were myriad, but they incisively addressed them: the NATO and U.S. move to stronger sanctions on Putin and his oligarchs; the departure from Russia of private foreign industry; the Zelensky government’s repeated requests for fighter planes; and the ways in which Ukrainian civilians are both digging in and fleeing.
Most impressive was the war coverage by journalists physically in or near it. Ali Velshi was covering the war from a refugee transit point in Hungary. Cal Perry was reporting from Lviv, Ukraine, a major point at which desperate citizens gather to leave the country. And Richard Engel was reporting as he and his cameraman hurried with Ukrainian troops along a road on the outskirts of Kyiv that could have been bombed at any moment.
Two things about the journalists I was watching struck me most. First is the courage of those risking their lives to get information to us on this important struggle. Second, and even more important in a broader, societal sense, is the stark contrast between the freedom of our journalists to report their views of the story and the suppression in Russia of any news other than the state’s propaganda.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of Open Russia, and an opposition democracy activist who twice survived being poisoned by Russia’s federal security service appeared on Ali Velshi’s program. Kara-Murza told the host that every independent media outlet in Russia has been shut down in the last two weeks and that dozens of people have been indicted under a new law that makes even use of the word “war” in reference to Ukraine, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Thousands of Russians have protested the war in Ukraine and have been arrested and imprisoned. Nevertheless, according to Kara-Murza, under the current circumstances, in which state television is the only source, “most people don’t even know there is a war.” He added that with Russian state television, “you live in this imagined reality” in which it is the West and Ukraine who are to blame; Russia is conducting only a “targeted special operation that does not in any way affect civilians.”
According to the network, the Russian government has also cut off access to Facebook and Twitter. Police are even stopping people to check their cell phones for dissemination of prohibited information.
Meanwhile, Putin has moved on from his ridiculous claim that Ukraine is run by Nazis to the assertion that the United States and Ukraine have developed biological and chemical weapons. If one pretext for invasion does not work, try another.
And—because the United States, unlike Russia, has a free press—Fox News Russia propagandist Tucker “Tucky-O-Rose” Carlson is free to spread Putin’s lies and is doing so.
But fortunately, at the moment—unlike Russia—the United States has an abundance of news sources to counter that disinformation.
As Rep. Adam Schiff of California, Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told Lawrence O’Donnell during his hour, it is Russian tradecraft to blame the other side for what they plan to do. Thus, it is quite likely that Putin himself may be planning to use chemical weapons against the Ukrainian population.
Accusing your opponent of doing what you are doing or plan to do? Creating an “imagined reality?” If that sounds familiar, it should. We’ve just had five years of that from Donald Trump and his cronies—backed by the Fox News propaganda machine. It is continuing even as I write this, and still accomplishing its propagandist effect on many.
Trump and his minions have been the students, but Putin is the master. If we wish to understand the methods and goals of Trumpists, and where we are headed if we don’t pay attention, we have only to look at what Trump’s teacher is doing in Russia today. As imperfect as some members of our media are, our multifarious free press is still our nation’s main bulwark against Russia’s fate. And as long as it remains so, I’ll keep hanging out with my friends on MSNBC.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.