Alexey Kovalev started working as a reporter in Moscow at the turn of the millennium, slowly moving up the chain until he was a senior editor at RIA Novosti, Russia’s largest state-run media property. In 2014, he quit after his company merged into Rossiya Segodnya, which he describes as “a mammoth propaganda conglomerate.” Today, Kovalev runs a Medium site that debunks the Kremlin’s disinformation. He’s someone who has experienced Vladimir Putin’s muzzling of the post-Soviet free press firsthand.
“The first thing Putin did after inheriting presidency from Yeltsin in 2000 was to bring unruly and hostile TV channels under his control. Some oligarchs chose loyalism, some were exiled, and soon the Russian government dominated the airwaves,” says Kovalev. “Today, Putin and state officials regard the press, whether state-owned or financed or nominally independent, to be completely subservient to the state. Those who do not unquestioningly toe the government line are branded as unpatriotic traitors.”
As Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention last year, being a president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are. Long before his formal introduction to politics, we watched Donald Trump lash out at the Emmys for refusing to christen The Apprentice with a meaningless trophy. He carried out a decade-long feud with Rosie O’Donnell that literally stemmed from a 32-second comment on The View. In 2012, he tweeted that he “fully understood” why Arianna Huffington’s ex-husband started dating a man. Trump is a myopic schmuck with a lot of money and a debilitating inferiority complex—and he’s not going to change. For his base, that means his authentic, improvisational tough-talk will continue unabated on the national stage. For the rest of us—and specifically those within the media—that means we should prepare for a wrecking ball.
The cracks are already beginning to show. In the weeks leading to his fateful inauguration, Trump has hosted an openly hostile press conference, complained that NBC conspiratorially publishes photos of his double chin, and according to an Esquire report, has considered evicting media from the White House. This isn’t a surprise. Trump’s confrontational anti-media attitude is one of the few consistent parts about his nascent doctrine. During the campaign, he filed a bogus suit against the New York Times and threatened to “open up” libel laws. According to an anonymous senior official, he’s also called the press the opposition party. “I want ‘em out of the building. We’re taking back the press room,” he reportedly said in a meeting.
Trump doesn’t hold the same deep-seated ideological principles of fascists like Stalin, or Mussolini, or even Putin, so it seems premature to call his ascendance the dawn of American Authoritarianism. But it is certainly a little too close for comfort. The United States will soon be governed by an administration that is prioritizing the destabilization and delegitimization of the mainstream media, and that will affect everyone.
Trump’s desire to bury the press isn’t restricted to his own personal machinations. It’s also the will of his base.
Like the United States, freedom of the press in Russia is enshrined in the country’s constitution. But the Putin regime is able to find ways to disrupt the free flow of information without resorting to violence or libel courts. Kovalev mentions a small, independent television station called TV Rain. In 2014, the station posted a Twitter poll asking viewers if they thought that Leningrad should’ve been surrendered to the Nazis during World War II, which would’ve saved millions of Russian lives. It was a simple, academic thought experiment, but Putin’s Kremlin was incensed.
“World War II history in Russia is sacred, set in stone and is not open to debate. Immediately after TV Rain’s Twitter poll, they were universally condemned by government officials, veterans’ groups and assorted loyalists. In a matter of days every single cable provider dropped TV Rain off their networks. Then the lease on their office in central Moscow was suddenly revoked,” says Kovalev. “Explanations for each case was simple: ‘We are a business and we don’t want to serve you anymore. 'It was pretty obvious that they were acting under the pressure of Putin’s administration, but no laws were broken. And that’s something that could happen to anyone at any moment.”
The Trump administration probably won’t go to those underhand extremes to silence the independent media, but it is concerning to hear how the Russian oligarchy could eschew constitutional protection and body-bag a small outlet with no leverage. It’s even more troubling to consider how complicit civilians were in the process. There is a belief in America that the general population will work to uphold the values of the press, and that the reporters on Capitol Hill are on the same side as the commonwealth. Unfortunately, the constituency that voted for Trump showed up to rallies with slogans advocating for the literal lynching of media members. The president-elect’s desire to bury the press isn’t restricted to his own personal machinations. It’s also the will of his base.
“Public trust in the media in Russia has been consistently eroding since the ‘90s. It’s probably at an all-time low now. State-owned TV channels completely dominate the agenda, whereas news from independent outlets is consumed by maybe 10 percent of the population, and that’s a very generous estimate,” says Kovalev. “Polls show that an increasing number of people believe it’s acceptable for the media to misinform the public if it serves the country’s interests. The people are completely disoriented, and when TV announces one policy one day and does a complete U-turn the next, no one bats an eye.”
To be clear, Kovalev doesn’t believe that the American media can be single-handedly dismantled. The U.S. press is far more diverse and vibrant than the infrastructure in Russia, and despite the general dissatisfaction with mainstream news companies lately, U.S. citizens are still comfortable with real reporters. The next four years will be unprecedented in many ways, but we still have our norms. That gives us a distinct advantage compared to a country like Russia. “In 2018, young Russians will become of legal age having known or seen noone else but Putin their entire lives,” says Kovalev. “I don’t think that’s a possibility in the U.S.”
But even if Trump mutates into a hardline autocrat who castrates the media and rewrites the constitution in his image, an independent press can still thrive. Muhammad Sahimi is a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California who did his undergrad work in his native Iran in the 1970s. Today he’s a valued voice in the energy community and a regular contributor to a number of Western and Iranian publications. Sahimi has not visited his country since the mid-1990s for fear of getting arrested, but despite a truly hostile regime, he’s optimistic about the future of Iranian journalism—even if it must exist outside of mainstream channels.
“The hardliners—the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the IRGC and the fundamentalists—have tried to crush the independent media. They have blocked thousands of websites, have imprisoned many journalists, have forced others either into exile or silence, and some have even been murdered,” he says. “But they have not succeeded in achieving their ultimate goal; namely, eliminating the independent media, dissident journalism and the effort to inform the people, perhaps because in the information age, it is not possible. And people recognize the significance of the valuable and dangerous work that the media, independent press and others do. Iran ranks something like third in the world per capita in terms of the number of bloggers it has. These bloggers play the role of alternative media. Clearly, the hardliners cannot block or close all blogs.”
Sahimi tells me that it never felt normal living under an authoritarian government. The passion he nurtured for a free press was lit as a college student in Tehran, paging through the Shah’s three national newspapers and a handful of magazines. “They were not even interesting to read, because they only printed effusive praise of the Shah,” he says. “Today, we have hundreds of newspapers, magazines and monthlies in Iran that despite censorship and periodic crack downs on and jailing of journalists, have succeeded. There is always lively discussion, criticism of the terrible state of economy and revelations about corruption.”
It would be ignorant and privileged to say the Trump administration will fundamentally destroy our institutions, but if he truly does treat the media like the opposition party, hopefully that will strengthen every American’s resolve to protect the freedom of the press before it’s too late. As always, journalists do their best work under pressure.
“I don’t think the U.S. media are doomed. You are protected by the most wholesome media laws in the world and the inviolable constitution that all Americans worship religiously. Concentrate on specific aspects of his corruption or mismanagement, pick a beat and develop it until no one knows more about it than you,” says Kovalev. “Above all else, don’t despair. Obviously Trump is hostile toward the media, but it’s not as bad as in Russia or some countries in Europe like Poland. We are looking up to you guys—not vice versa.”