Standard & Poor’s is right about the US. political process, even if the financial downgrade was crap. The process is kaput, Reason One for the budget debacle. Broken, too, are the mainstream news organizations whose brainlessness and wimpiness helped the Tea Party outFox the somewhat less insane.
Here’s my general rule about the Fourth Estate despite exceptions galore. The more I care about an issue, such as well-stocked national digital libraries, the less likely the MSM is to cover it properly. I’m not just talking abstractions. Look at the misbegotten BRAC-133, the billion-dollar-plus Quarter Pentagon that has arisen in my backyard in Alexandria, Virginia, without the big-league newsies fully exploring why the Bush Administration signed off on this terrorist bait.
If I ran the Russian propaganda operation, I’d downplay the old Moscow line and hire a young, sarcastic American journalist to do a Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert act on both Washington and the media covering it.
Via the Alyona Show on the RT broadcasting service (David Weigel’s take is here, and a Columbia Journalism School study’s is here and here), Russia has done exactly that. Each weeknight, a svelte and fashionable Californian goes on Comcast’s Channel 274 here in the D.C. area and dishes out a mix of humor and analysis that would very possibly land her in trouble even on MSNBC, the nearest thing to a liberal network in prime time, the departures of Keith Olberman and Cenk Uygur notwithstanding. Alyona Minkovski, born in Moscow, is the 25-year-old daughter of Irina Rodnina, a Russian ice-skating champion. But Minkovski is also an accentless registered Democrat who grew up in the U.S., studied politics, film, and digital media at the University of California in Santa Cruz, and has blogged an answer to the inevitable question: “There are those in this world who can’t look past the name and funding of where I work and assume that I’m a Russian propagandist who gets my scripts straight from the Kremlin, only after I finish our obligatory morning session of worshipping a bare-chested picture of Putin.”
A propagandist Minkovski is. But who needs Putin-crafted scripts? Fodder for the Alyona Show abounds, obviating the slightest need for parroting or prompting. Minkovski actually is funny enough for her to get away with her claim to be working Stewart and Colbert’s niche: she is, brilliantly. Let me offer a major caveat. AWOL from her broadcasts—at least the ones I’ve seen—is the same level of sass directed at the Putin government. I wonder how long an American-sponsored Russian would last with a similar show in the former USSR, given the perils of speaking out in Russia, where dozens of journalists have died in recent years under suspicious circumstances. Minkovski deftly skates around those concerns by telling interviewers that her show is about Americandomestic politics.
The Alyona Show potentially reaches 20-22 million U.S. households via cable in Washington, Los Angeles, New York and other cities, according to Minkovski. I suspect that only a fraction watch. But the show is also available outside the U.S. via YouTube and otherwise, and some major players are noticing. While Minkovski gives air time to obscurities neglected by the U.S. media—for example, an unemployed advocate for the jobless who, like most of the activist’s followers, cannot afford to travel to D.C. to plead the cause—the show also attracts better-known public figures such as Dennis Kucinich. C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb recorded an hour-long video Q and A with her, the major source of the facts here, beyond my impression as a frequent viewer of the show, right now). I share his obvious enthusiasm for her talent, at least as shown by the amount of time he devoted to clips of her in action. Check out the hilarious Glenn Beck parodies and the “Alyona’s Happy Hour” segments (with discussion of the offbeat such as Sugar Daddy services) and “The Tool Time Award” feature (ridiculing those she regards as absurdly opportunistic).
With Minkovski at least partly in mind, the Obama Administration wants the United States to strengthen its digital presence. But the U.S. will face a few obstacles beyond the mortality rate of uppity journalists in Russia. The surrealistic follies over there are old news. The size and breadth of the current U.S. bungles—for example, American bridges crumbling, while we keep pouring billions into our “nation-building” in a less-than-wildly-appreciative Afghanistan—are not. And the vast concentrations of wealth and income in the hands of the few aren’t figments of Satanic and communistic imaginations. In the place of D.C. politicians, I’d worry less about PR on television and the Web and more about such issues as billionaire-bought tax laws, runaway military spending, and mission-impossible adventures abroad.
Details: Alyona Minkovski is not the only American on RT, formerly known as Russia Today. For example, Adam vs. the Man (second video) stars Adam Kokesh, a former Marine and ex-congressional candidate with libertarian tendencies. Liberal talk show host Thom Hartmann offers the same brand of thoughtful analysis he has been serving up for years on his radio program. Max Keiser, a former stockbroker on Wall Street, is RT’s ambassador to the investor class and is infinitely more credible than he’d be with fewer lunatics on the loose in Washington.
Memo to Current TV: You’d be crazy not to put on Minkovski as a guest commentator (while making clear her RT connections and, separately, acquainting viewers with both the brighter and darker sides of Russian life).
Update, August 10: A must-read is Julia Ioffe’s What is Russia Today?, published originally in the Columbia Journalism Review. In line with my general impressions of Alyona Minkovski, Ioffe quotes a reporter for the network: “There is no censorship per se. But there are a lot of young people at the channel, a lot of self-starters eager to please management. You can easily guess what the Kremlin wants the world to know, so you change your coverage.” Actually, as described by Ioffe in her overall view of RT, there are some exceptions when the Kremlin does dictate the message directly, such as in the case of the most sensitive war coverage. She cites William Dunbar, a correspondent who got in trouble with his RT bosses after he picked up rumors of Russia bombing civilian buildings; here’s his first-person account. A somewhat similar episode led Dunbar to resign. Would Minkovski have done the same?