Straddling Journalism and Propaganda

Eugene Abov, How Russian Public Diplomacy Utilizes the Media

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While soft power and media provide significant opportunities to improve a country’s image abroad, they also pose hidden risks and additional challenges.

With the media revolution in full swing, new fertile soil is being created for information attacks when the image of a country, its leaders or even its people may be at stake. This is why the concept of public diplomacy (or soft power) is becoming increas-ingly relevant today. In fact, it is a very delicate tool that creates both opportunities and risks.

Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School, introduced and legitimized the term ‘soft power’ in 1990. Afterwards, it was used to describe a country’s ability and potential to be attractive for others because of its culture, education or the activities of its population.

Considering the controversial attitudes towards Russia abroad, the idea of soft power is becoming increasingly popular among the country’s diplomats and politicians. Given that the Ukraine crisis and its devastating implications for Russia’s image abroad were exacerbated by external information attacks, soft power tools are becoming increasingly relevant for Russia.

Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Federal Agency for the Affairs of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) sees soft power as a tool that will inform those “willing to listen.” It is his agency that is responsible for coordinating public diplomacy efforts.

Propaganda may “dis-guise” some inconvenient truth about a country’s life. It stems from the incongruity between “external” and “internal” attractiveness. Marina Lebedeva compares propaganda with a tasteless candy in an attractive wrapper. “The candy may be initially attractive. But such attractiveness can’t be long-lasting,” she says, warning that it may result in distrust in the future. This is the problem with Russia’s public diplomacy efforts. Lebedeva believes that Russia “should shift the focus from the cover to the candy” to improve its internal attractiveness

According to Kosachev, in the information age, people’s sympathies do matter. “The era of diplomats and summits is gradually transforming into a dialogue between different cultures and nations,” he says. “Russia is experiencing certain difficulties with forming its image right now. Sometimes in countries with a well-developed media environment, the attitude toward us is worse than toward certain dictatorships. We have no intention of altering or glossing up Russian realities, we are merely trying to deliver truthful information to everyone willing to listen.”

Public diplomacy was initially seen as a euphemism for propaganda in the wake of the Cold War. However, the term quickly evolved.

Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), an international information project funded by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, may be regarded as an example of a new soft power media tool which takes public diplomacy beyond the purely propagandistic realm of the familiar euphemism.

Today, RBTH maintains 18 websites in 16 languages, an iPad app in English and German, digital magazines and an analytical resource for expert communities called Russia Direct. But RBTH’s main unique product is its monthly supplements about Russia that are currently published in 28 newspapers in 22 countries, including the US, the UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Serbia, China, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and the UAE.

The supplements are distributed as a pullout in such influential newspapers as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, Le Figaro, El País and La Repubblica.

In its everyday work as a cross-border media resource, RBTH clearly separates opinion from ideological statements and good analysis from propaganda, taking into account the cultural, political, economic, educational and linguistic specifics and traditions of the audience of each national paper. RBTH believes this to be the best way to quickly and efficiently contribute to the creation of a positive and more authentic image of the country.

Marina Lebedeva, the head of the Department of World Politics at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), believes that “the concept of soft power is too general and vague, while the efforts targeted at improving a country’s image should be targeted, precise and focused because there are different social, professional groups and different countries and regions that have a different attitude toward Russia.”

This is the main feature of Russia Beyond the Headlines – it establishes long-term trust-based communication with well-educated, high-status readers of the world’s most influential newspapers, adjusting to their varying political, cultural, linguistic, and educa-tional specifics.

Thus, while the supplement printed and distributed with The New York Times in the US primarily deals with politics, society, economics and bilateral relations, the one for The Washington Post focuses more on culture, history, education and diplomacy. Meanwhile, the supplement distributed with The Wall Street Journal covers business, finance, economics, investments and a bit of lifestyle. The RBTH editors responsible for each of these supplements adjust the stories to a specific audience.

So far, RBTH is performing well. The share of regular readers of Russian supplements in its partner newspapers’ audiences, according to their own surveys, is 35-60%, which is at times higher than readership figures for other niche supplements distributed by the same newspapers.

One of the main problems encountered during the launch of RBTH was a deficit of competent journalists and editors capable of writing material to the format and standard familiar to Western readers. After the collapse of the USSR, not all Russian journalists managed to successfully adapt to the liberal model of journalism, with the pluralism and diversity of opinion that make it so poorly compatible with propaganda.

We at RBTH had to learn how to integrate Western standards with Russian journalistic traditions as we went along. It took about a year to resolve the problem, by hiring very young Russian editors and assigning them professional mentors (sub-editors) from partner newspapers that, by working remotely, brought certain materials and pages in our supplements up to the desired level.

According to Kosachev, in the information age, people’s sympathies do matter. “The era of diplomats and summits is gradually transforming into a dialogue between different cultures and nations,” he says. “Russia is experiencing certain difficulties with forming its image right now. Sometimes in countries with a well-developed media environment, the attitude toward us is worse than toward certain dictatorships. We have no intention of altering or glossing up Russian realities, we are merely trying to deliver truthful information to everyone willing to listen.”

After that, RBTH supplements began to be accepted for publication by the world’s leading newspapers, traditionally considered to be the flagships of quality journalism. We started getting publication offers from various newspapers all around the world, without any onerous conditions.

Nevertheless, the problem is that any efforts ultimately targeted at creating a positive image for a country abroad are likely to initially be treated with distrust and labeled as propaganda. “Propaganda is rarely credible for long. Thus, it is not effective in producing soft power,” Joseph Nye wrote in an email message to Russia Direct, the special RBTH resource targeted at the professional expert community.

It is worth noting that the term ‘propaganda’ does not have solely negative connotations in Russian. Historically, propaganda has been seen in Russia as a tool with which to popularize the nation’s achievements. Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation and the general director of the Russian International Affairs Council, argues that “to propagandize a country’s achievements, advantages and potential is extremely important, as long as there are alternative sources of information.”

According to Joseph Nye, self-criticism, the readiness to contemplate one’s own defects, is “often a way to establish credibility” for a media source. “Witness the BBC, which is government funded, but often willing to bite the hand that feeds it,” he says, pointing out that some Russian soft power projects such as state broadcasting and media “seems to fall short of the standards.”

Marina Lebedeva from MGIMO agrees. She argues that propaganda may “disguise” some inconvenient truth about a country’s life. It stems from the incongruity between “external” and “internal” attractiveness.

Lebedeva compares propaganda with a tasteless candy in an attractive wrapper. “The candy may be initially attractive. But such attractiveness can’t be long-lasting,” she says, warning that it may result in distrust in the future. This is the problem with Russia’s public diplomacy efforts. Lebedeva believes that Russia “should shift the focus from the cover to the candy” to improve its internal attractiveness.

This advice is important not only for those who deal with external information: Maximum openness, self irony and self-criticism can often play a decisive role in earning credibility.

Obviously, traditional propaganda in the mass media is hardly compatible with high-quality journalism, as it is frequently associated with one-sided evaluative judgments, prejudices, bias, slanted coverage and exaggeration – ultimately, with misleading the audience. Unlike opinion, propaganda lacks tolerance towards others, and this is very dangerous in a world in which we need more compromise and common sense.

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