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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Regime and State TV Tangled in PR Trap

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No, state television was far from silent as the idea of replacing social benefits with cash payments took hold in the Kremlin. These stations have long been part of the Kremlin's PR department, not broadcast media. So they got busy doing what they are paid to do: promote the new policy by accentuating the positive without bothering to consider the potential downside.

News shows began to show pensioners from the countryside voicing their support for the upcoming changes. Pensioners and other welfare recipients in the cities did not get the chance to air their views. The few government officials wheeled out to explain the reforms mostly assured viewers that everything would be just fine and that there would be no losers, only winners, as a result of the changes.

People may not have believed such assurances, but they seemed to rest a little easier. Then again, maybe they didn't. How would we know when television no longer broadcasts scenes of unrest, and the discussion of issues important to society has nearly been eliminated as a genre? If stability exists anywhere, it's on Russian TV.

Television also kept mum late last year about the spontaneous demonstrations of provincial pensioners protesting the cash-for-benefits swap. The holidays got underway and entertainment programming entirely eclipsed the already scarce news analysis shows, as well as significantly cutting into daily news programming. Why ruin people's mood right before New Year's Day, after all? The problem will sort itself out somehow. Then the holidays will kick in, everyone will go on the traditional Russian bender and the old folks won't have the strength to make trouble.

Television laid on the entertainment this year like never before. But all the song and dance was not enough to distract seniors from the real problems brought on by the replacement of benefits with cash payments. When they started to get thrown off busses and denied entry to the metro, pensioners took to the streets.

News programs mentioned almost in passing that some 500 pensioners in Khimki had blocked Leningradskoye Shosse on Jan. 10. What coverage there was focused on Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov's claim that the pensioners had not acted on their own, but were incited by provocateurs who would be brought to justice.

When the wave of protests spread across the entire country, and silence became not merely indecent but downright dangerous, the state television stations finally came to their senses. They showed meetings in various cities, explaining all the while that the law itself was sound, and hunting for those who had sabotaged its implementation.

Poor old Sergei Brilyov, anchor on the Vesti Nedeli weekly news program, was clearly torn between his sympathy for the pensioners and his professional duty to spin the news as the Kremlin directed. He did his best to comfort viewers, vindicate the federal government and shift the blame to regional leaders whose actions had done so much to discredit a good and effective law.

Appearing on the program, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov expressed his regrets that the reforms had not been sufficiently explained. Citizens are not obliged to read the laws, he said, but the government is obliged to explain them. "I would ask viewers to listen carefully so that they understand that this is a good law."

He repeated his remarks word for word on the Sunday Vremya news hour. Both programs also featured Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, who likewise repeated his comments word for word.

When it rains, it pours, as they say. For ages, the Kremlin never bothered to explain anything, and then two top officials are wheeled out on the same night. The stations could have saved time and money by producing a single news show, because they were carbon copies of one another. And the message was the same: The regional authorities are to blame for not getting cash into the pensioners' hands in a timely manner; they're either saboteurs or provocateurs or downright lazy.

But who stopped them from explaining the reforms months ago? The Kremlin controls the most powerful mouthpiece ever conceived -- television -- and the stations are always ready to oblige. The administration explained nothing because it doesn't really know how to and doesn't want to. It is used to dealing with the people through its PR people at the television stations, who hang on its every vague word and have long forgotten how to clarify what these smug, satisfied "public servants" are actually saying. Though they finally deigned to explain the reforms in order to save their own skins, the excuses offered by Gryzlov and the rest are more like a lullaby than an analysis of the situation. There was no real analysis or discussion of the reforms beforehand, and there is none now. Even after the holidays were over, the three remaining television shows that still provide some sort of debate -- Vladimir Pozner's Vremena, Svetlana Sorokina's Osnovnoi Instinkt and Vladimir Solovyov's K Baryeru -- did not air. They weren't scheduled, of course, but at a time when the country is going through a real crisis and people have an urgent need to understand what's going on, the television executives could have thrown out the schedule in the public interest.

Only Marianna Maximovskaya, the anchor of Ren-TV's weekly news program Nedelya, not only gave extended coverage to the pensioners' demonstrations, including footage of a tense confrontation between police and demonstrators in Izhevsk, but also brought in experts to comment on the situation. "For the first time, the people are defending their interests," one analyst said. "They have figured out that the government is not acting in their interest. As a result, the concepts of state power, statehood and patriotism are being discredited."

By consciously refusing to serve the interests of society, and serving the interests of the regime instead, state television, like the regime, falls into its own traps. Television follows orders and avoids provoking the regime, meaning that it holds its tongue about what is happening in the country and sugarcoats reality. And when television is not a source of real information about the life and mood of the country, but a propaganda machine, the regime loses touch with reality and is terribly surprised by events such as the pensioners' demonstrations. The president keeps silent as usual, his subordinates try to get themselves off the hook, and the state PR machine goes looking for someone to pin the blame on -- a fifth column undermining the state from within, corrupt officials and saboteurs in the regions who have let the president down in a show of protest against his cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections.

All of this discredits the regime and television itself. I'm not terribly worried about the regime, however. Presidents -- even very popular ones -- speakers of parliament and cabinet ministers come and go, but television is here to stay. Restoring a station's reputation and the trust of the viewers is far more difficult than losing them. Once you have resorted to lying, who will believe you anymore? In one report, an elderly woman taking part in a demonstration told a reporter: "Why did they lie to us on television and tell us that no one would lose anything?" Now she knows for certain that they lie on television.

Without the viewers' trust, the state's entire PR offensive, which compels all those poor anchors and journalists to lose face by lying day after day in front of the entire country, becomes both senseless and worthless.

Irina Petrovskaya writes a column for Izvestia, where this comment first appeared.