With the growing probability of military conflict with Russia in Ukraine, respected voices calling for a more nuanced view of Russian foreign policy are starting to appear in the U.S. mainstream media.
A worker washes a double-headed eagle, Russia's State Emblem, at the equestrian statue of Peter the Great near the Mikhailovsky Castle in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Photo: AP
As the U.S. and Russia inch ever closer to full-fledged military confrontation over Ukraine, there are the first signs of true dialogue on U.S.-Russian relations. And it’s not just U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry popping in to say “hi” in Sochi. After more than a year of being marginalized by the mainstream media – and some would say, even ostracized by their peers – respected foreign policy analysts presenting more nuanced views on Russia are finally appearing both online and in print.
The latest example is James Carden’s controversial piece for The Nation. In it, he hits back hard at the anti-Russian bias in the Western media, something that he says has the potential to morph into a neo-McCarthyism of the type that we last witnessed during the Cold War era.
Read the interview with James Carden: "Why it's crucial for the US to have a balanced debate about Russia"
One article, of course, does not a trend make. However, consider some of the other pieces that have recently appeared either online or in print. You have Stephen F. Cohen warning about anti-Russian bias in an April 2015 interview with Salon. On the May/June 2015 cover of The American Interest, you have Stephen Sestanovich suggesting that the West might have provoked Russia. And, most recently, you have Mark Ames for Pando Daily mounting a colossal takedown of the pro-war, pro-regime change neoconservative movement in America, which now seems to be behind much of the political lobbying urging America on to war in Europe.
The big question, of course, is whether this is just the flare-up of marginalized voices on the sidelines of American foreign policy. Or is this part of a bigger trend?
Critics, of course, could easily point out that the only reason the Carden piece in The Nation saw the light of day is because of the relationship between The Nation and Stephen F. Cohen, still one of the nation’s most prominent Russia scholars and also, by the way, the husband of The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel.
But if you take a look at the unexpected arrival of new voices on the media scene, it’s clear that something unique is happening. Alternative viewpoints, once on the extreme, now have a much higher chance of getting into the mainstream. Ideas, opinions and logic are starting to supplant pure “propaganda,” either pro-Russian or anti-Russian. And, most importantly, more nuanced views that take into account both Russian and American viewpoints are now being added to the mix.
What’s making all this possible, most likely, is the severity of the current Ukraine crisis – we are so close to war that cooler heads may actually be prevailing. The steady drumbeat of military anniversaries – the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II - has woken some from a slumber.
As a result, anti-war voices are being added to the mix, adding new heft and weight. Take former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, for example, who has weighed in time and time again on the perils of underestimating Putin and Russia.
Non-mainstream media become more important in U.S. debates over Russia
To understand why the Carden piece is potentially so important, it’s helpful to think about the media purely in terms of how they influence the political debate within America. In order for any new idea or concept to make it into everyday debate, it usually travels a path from the non-mainstream media to the mainstream media. At each step of this journey, the idea is further refined or broken down by experts and commentators and bloggers, such that it can be talked about easily at an evening cocktail party with a few pithy sound bites.
Thus, you have two key pieces in understanding the strange appearance of real dialogue about U.S.-Russian relations.
First, you have the non-mainstream media, which is helpful in its own way as a feeder of ideas and talent into splinter political groups and movements.You can think of the non-mainstream media in terms of blogs, social media, alternative news sites and online communities – all of which eventually filter into TV, newspapers and magazines.
And then you have the mainstream media, which you can think about in terms of The New York Times and Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. This mainstream media also includes the big “ideas” magazines that you see on the bookshelf of a typical Barnes & Noble bookstore. As a basic rule of thumb: If you don’t see it on a magazine shelf at Barnes & Noble, it isn’t mainstream.
Once you think about the media in this way – as a continuum of influence (or, if you prefer, a “stream” of influence) - it’s easy to erect a heavily fortified Maginot Line down the middle, separating mainstream from non-mainstream. Nothing gets into the mainstream without a fight.
On one side of the continuum, you have RT and a bunch of pro-Russia conspiracy websites. Then, as you head further along the continuum, you start to see a growing number of pro-Russia blogs and pro-Russia communities. In this grouping, you can add media sites such as Russia Insider, which just ran a highly successful crowdfunding project on Kickstarter to challenge mainstream media bias on Russia.
Then, as you pass through the Maginot Line dividing mainstream from non-mainstream, you have “ideas” magazines like The Nation and The New Yorker and The Atlantic, most of them monthly or quarterly, all with big online audiences. Then, as you head even further along the continuum, you run into daily newspapers and the big online destinations for news. The gold standard, though, will always be The New York Times or Washington Post.
What’s happened, apparently, is that Stephen F. Cohen and like-minded thinkers are starting to have their ideas picked up by blogs and social media, and that’s leading to new momentum for voices and ideas to emerge in other media outlets. The more this happens, the more the stigma of “sympathizing with Russia” erodes. The best of these alternative ideas are now making it into the mainstream media.
What’s needed next, of course, is for some publication like The Atlantic or The New Yorker to run a piece by Gorbachev or a retired member of The Elders – Jimmy Carter or Kofi Annan - on the need for peace in Ukraine. If the push for peace in Europe builds, that might finally convince the op-ed board of The New York Times to change its stance on Russia. And, more importantly, that would mark the ultimate mainstreaming of perspectives sympathetic to Russia’s geopolitical concerns.
At the end of the day, logic and reason may win out in the marketplace of ideas over ideology and propaganda, and that’s a good thing, whether you’re in Washington or in Moscow. It means we’re closer to ending the violence in Eastern Ukraine and coming up with a better security arrangement for a multi-polar world. The appearance of new ideas on Russia may not be able to change the macro view of how the world sees Russia, but it can at least help to avert a military catastrophe in Europe.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.