Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen on Russia and Trump, Media Coverage, and Conspiracies

March 28, 2017— Masha Gessen, author and New York Times contributing opinion writer, shared her views on Presidents Trump and Putin, and words of caution for journalists covering the Trump administration’s alleged connections to Russia, during a visit to the Shorenstein Center.

Gessen also discussed her forthcoming book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, quality of life and recent protests in Russia, and other topics, available in the audio recording below.

The perils of using Russia as “a crutch for the American imagination”

“We can think of Trump as a foreign agent, we can think of him as having been elected by Putin, and that way, we don’t have to think of him as having been elected by Americans. In that sense, Russia serves to explain the unimaginable…and we can imagine that the Russian investigation will bring Trump down, and our national nightmare will be over.”

“I think that we have things to protect that the obsession with Russia isn’t necessarily conducive to protecting. The thing that we have to protect is politics, and politics is what happens out in the open…I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a Russian investigation, I’m just saying it should not be the main focus of people who are concerned about protecting democracy under Trump. I think that the defeat of the healthcare legislation was actually a victory for meaningful politics, because the substantive disagreement that occurred among Republicans was proof that politics still happens. Power is not absolute. The Republican Congress members who are concerned with going back to their constituents and being accountable to them—that’s politics—that’s exactly the public sphere that we need to be protecting.”

Similarities between Trump and Putin’s communication styles

We have to understand how Trump uses lies, how he uses language—which is weirdly similar to the way Putin uses lies and language—and that is to assert power.

“We have to understand how Trump uses lies, how he uses language—which is weirdly similar to the way Putin uses lies and language—and that is to assert power. And what I mean by that is that his main goal is not necessarily to make you believe that three million people voted illegally, or that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. His main goal is to assert his power over reality, which is a basic bully tactic. It’s a sort of ‘I’m going to say whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want, and what are you going to do about it? And in that way it’s quite similar to the way Putin for example, said for nearly two years that there were no Russian troops in Ukraine. And then he said, well of course there are Russian troops in Ukraine. And that moment when he said ‘of course’ is actually the most telling moment, because it wasn’t an admission of having lied, it was yet another assertion of being able to say whatever the hell he wants, whenever the hell he wants to. That communicates that he is not just president of the country, but he is also king of reality. You don’t fight that just with fact-checking, and I think we should have realized that during the campaign.”

Lessons for covering Trump, from covering Putin

My lessons are about what not to do and what we did wrong. One of the things that we did wrong early on is we got caught up in the believable rather than the verifiable. Every time I’m asked, how believable is the Russia dossier, I get very unpleasant shivers of recognition because that’s what happens when you can’t actually corroborate something. There’s a lot of romantic writing and talking right now about how we’re all going to be reporting from the outside, on how infinitely superior that is to access journalism. And there are good points to that, but I just want to say that losing access hurts, and it is a net loss, there is less information.”

When you stop being able to ask questions of officials, when officials are lying to you, when the courts and law enforcement in general stop doing their jobs, you can’t rely on court records to tell you whether someone was guilty or not, or whether this case was closed, when you can’t find solid footing on any of the normal institutional supports that journalists use, you enter this squishy territory of the believable, rather than the provable, and I just don’t want us to be hurrying into that territory, by trafficking in the believable, while we still have most of the tools of corroboration.”

Media suppression under Putin

To my mind, the point of no return was reached on Putin’s first working day in office…he ordered a raid of Media-Most, the company that owned the only independent nationally broadcast television station in the country, and a number of other publications, including the magazine where I worked. And it was a show raid, it was made for television, they broadcast the humiliation of the people working [there]. They didn’t raid the journalists’ offices, it was corporate headquarters, but people in ski masks marched in, made executives lie down on the floor with their hands behind their backs. It was a show of domination, and it was a declaration of war on independent media. Within a year of that day, the state had taken over all broadcast television.”

How “sloppy” reporting can feed conspiracy theories

Conspiracy thinking is something that happens when the unimaginable happens, and that’s why there’s so much conspiracy thinking around the Trump election.

“I’m much more worried about airtime [than newspapers], and the fact that you have whole nights when CNN and MSNBC, which is where most Americans get their understanding of politics, talk only about the Russian connection. CNN has, I think, been not great about sticking to the facts…There was one report—in 30 seconds, Jim Acosta, who is the White House correspondent for CNN, mentioned non-existent language that was put into the Republican platform four times. He was doing this when he was describing the meetings between Carter Page…with Russian officials during the Republican convention. Now, those meetings were actually encounters during a panel hosted by the Heritage Foundation on foreign policy, at which the Russian ambassador approached people from the Trump campaign, because Trump was clearly the nominee and nobody knew what his foreign policy was going to be. The second meeting was an encounter during a cocktail party, during the Republican convention, which is difficult to make it sound sinister, unless you add this non-existent language that went into the Republican platform…it’s not exactly fake news, it’s just really hugely, sloppy reporting that becomes conspiracy thinking.”

“Conspiracy thinking is something that happens when the unimaginable happens, and that’s why there’s so much conspiracy thinking around the Trump election. It’s not because we lack information about how Trump got elected…it requires an explanation because we can’t conceive of the fact that it happened. Conspiracy thinking…responds to the needs of the human mind for a simpler explanation…and that also means that it keeps us from facing the mess that we’re in.”

Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.