A couple years after the collapse of the USSR, an American editor came to Tbilisi, the capital of then newly independent Georgia to advise local journalists on how to make the transition from being Pravda apparatchiks to real reporters.
His host, editor of the country’s top daily paper, introduced him to a young woman whom he described as the rising star and the future of Georgian journalism. The editor raved about the reporter’s pieces. “What made them so good?” the American asked. “It’s her writing,” the Georgian editor replied. “She is so good, you really have to read between the lines to understand what she means.”
I have always cherished this story, as told by the American editor, as an example of the dire state of early post-Soviet journalism. But recently, while listening to a regular briefing by Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it suddenly dawned on me how the Georgian editor was in his own way right, and how “between the lines” journalism was indeed the best thing Pravda-era reporters could produce.
Zakharova has drawn inspiration from the speaking style of State Department spokespeople, rather than her own wooden predecessors. In her early 40s, she is slick, articulate and blunt: a fresh face on Russia’s foreign policy. But she poses a challenge to the media that is relevant everywhere. It concerns everyone who wants to protect the truth from anyone who doesn’t respect facts.
Around the world, journalists, whose basic job description is to tell the truth, are on the frontline of this disinformation assault. But so far they have struggled with how to report it.
Watching Zakharova briefings is useful for understanding the dynamics of this assault, wherever it is happening in, Washington, New Delhi, Manila, or Moscow. Her press events are intense: she produces a tsunami of information, in which facts are mixed out of context and sprinkled with lies to fit the narrative she has chosen to push that day. She blends them so well that by the end, it’s incredibly hard to disassemble fiction from truth.
Take for example, Zakharova’s routine briefing on November 16, 2017: she touched upon a cultural exchange program for European students; said that Russia won’t tolerate vandalism of Soviet-era monuments in Eastern Europe; passionately defended RT; and made some snarky remarks about the U.S. political system. Then came a long and meandering rant about the Western media, focusing on Buzzfeed.
Many Russians, across the political spectrum, are critical of Buzzfeed’s coverage of Russia. But none are as unhappy as the Kremlin. Zakharova attacked Buzzfeed as a “classic disinformation” tool and then told a story of how three years ago the Russian government had sent the U.S. Embassy in Moscow “a very simple” request, to which it had never responded. Her tone of resigned outrage implied she was tired of waiting for the Americans to grow up. Why, she wanted to know, couldn’t the embassy answer this simple question: “Is Buzzfeed a real media company or not?”
As a journalist, how do you cover this? A true Pravda correspondent would report the story of the unanswered Russian request to the U.S. embassy. A rebellious Pravda correspondent would work between the lines, not just passing on what was said but interpreting it as Moscow’s fury that RT had been forced to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. Buzzfeed was being targeted then, but as events have proved, it was a warning to other American outlets that wider retaliation was coming. Or perhaps sending such a bizarre request to the US embassy showed that Moscow didn’t understand the relationship between the U.S. government and the American media?
Journalists in the U.S. covering the similar blend of fact and fiction put out by President Donald Trump and his trusted spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway, face the same dilemma.
The post-Pravda way of covering all matters of disinformation would be to de-construct Zakharova’s or the Trump administration’s more outrageous statements, dig deep into them and de-bunk whatever lies they contained.
The problem with this approach is that journalists are still essentially covering the toxic noise, and thereby involuntarily helping it spread. But the noise is not the real story.
What people in power say is only useful to know in the context of what they do. Whether it is press-briefings in Moscow, tweets from Washington, or press releases from Manila, they are always designed to push a narrative. The best journalists know that. That is why when we cover earthquakes we don’t read the government press-releases about the aid that has been handed out to the victims — we visit the victims.
We don’t cover pollution by de-bunking political statements about levels of PM4, we seek out real life consequences. We find children who have developed lung disease, or families who have become environmental refugees because they could no longer breathe.
So why is that when it comes to covering disinformation, the industry seems to struggle to remember the basics of the trade? Perhaps it is because we journalists instinctively shy away from covering stories about ourselves. The mantra is that we are never the story, even when we are under direct attack.
But we don’t need to be the story in the disinformation crisis. We journalists may be on the frontline, but we are not the real victims. The real victims of the assault on truth are our societies, the countless men and women whose lives are being changed by disinformation.
Making those connections and telling their stories requires resources and time that news cycles rarely allow. But the stakes are high. Unless we start finding the disinformation equivalent of a child with lung disease, we will continue to fail to explain to people why it matters that politicians lie. We will get stuck in the Pravda school of journalism: covering the story while missing it altogether.