Confessional talk shows, trashy reality shows, “soft” news focused on crime and celebrity gossip — the “infotainment” side of contemporary media is routinely justified as “the price we pay for freedom.” Behind this cliché is the assumption that America’s constitutional tradition has always entailed not just the liberty to express oneself politically but also the license to disseminate trash.
Unfortunately, a rather recent American tendency to treat political and nonpolitical expression as rough equivalents is encouraging people all around the world to do the same.
Consider the manipulations of cynical 21st-century authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, who use a free flow of infotainment to keep the masses amused and distracted, while crushing any political speech that might threaten his power. In Russia, the result is to make the media appear free — not just to Russians who compare them to the bad old Soviet media, and but also to Americans and others who unthinkingly equate the freedom to watch nude videos of Paris Hilton with the liberty to criticize the government.
With a couple of exceptions (such as North Korea, which still follows the uniformly repressive Soviet-style model), this is the modus operandi of all 21st-century authoritarian regimes. In China, it means Internet sites for entertainment and social chatter, but not for political dissent. In Iran, it means sports and soap operas, but heavily censored news. In Russia, it means a blurred line between tabloid entertainment and political talk shows.
A good example of the latter is Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of the pro-democracy leader Anatoly Sobchak, who as mayor of St. Petersburg gave Putin his first government post. She began her media career as a naughty socialite similar to Paris Hilton, then gained a national following as hostess of a sexy reality show, “Dom-2,” in which young singles flirt and hook up while building a house.
During the protests of 2011-12, Sobchak morphed into a political satirist, making harmlessly anti-Putin videos and hosting “Gosdep” (“State Department”), a talk show on MTV Russia (which, despite the name and logo, is 100 percent Russian-owned). Ratings soared as opposition leaders got into shouting matches on the show, insulting each other in a way that made them look foolish — a contrast with Putin’s cultivated image of James Bond cool.
But “Gosdep” apparently went too far. It was canceled after Sobchak invited a powerful anti-corruption leader to appear — presumably a violation of an unwritten rule articulated by Russian TV critic Irina Petrovskaya: “What we have in Russia is not a freedom of speech but a freedom of yelling and shouting.”
This modus operandi calls for a sophisticated American response, but it doesn’t always get one. Case in point: Over the years, the US government-backed media organization Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty (RFE-RL) has done a good job of pushing back against authoritarian regimes that use the appearance of media freedom to cover the reality of political repression. RFE-RL dates back to the Cold War, when its various language services provided local and regional news to countries under Soviet domination. In the 1990s RFE-RL relocated to Prague and began reinventing itself for the post-Cold War era.
It now uses many different media platforms, and the audience has changed: instead of Eastern Europe, RFE now focuses on Central Asia and the Middle East. (Disclosure: Two years ago, I served briefly as an unpaid consultant on music programming for the Persian-language service.) For RL, which serves Russia, reinvention has meant refusing to play the Kremlin’s game.
Recently, though, RFE-RL has come under attack, not only by authoritarian adversaries but also by supervisors in Washington. In June, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the nine-member bipartisan body overseeing all of the government’s non-military media, appointed a new management team led by a former CNN executive. Out went over 40 Russian-language journalists, including some of the country’s most respected political reporters, and in came proposals for soft news and infotainment that one Russian commentator likened to “in-flight magazines.”
This provoked an outcry loud enough to be heard in Washington, and a new interim president, Kevin Klose, was appointed this week. A veteran of RFE-RL and NPR, Klose promises to repair some of the damage. But what’s really needed is a major shift in the way Americans think about free speech and democracy.
During the Cold War, American popular culture played a key role in alienating Soviet youth from stodgy communist regimes, so it made sense for RFE-RL and its sister organization, the Voice of America, to include jazz, rock, and other pop culture in their programming.
But today, the authoritarians are onto us. To varying degrees, Russia, China, Iran, and others now do their best to keep their own media amusing. And while American pop culture retains its appeal, the people in these countries don’t need more entertainment from America. What they need is the kind of news and public-affairs programming that their rulers don’t want them to have.
Martha Bayles, a lecturer at Boston College, is the author of the forthcoming book “America’s Cultural Footprint.”