BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
On Thursday, monitors at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 detected shrapnel-like holes on parts of the wreckage. That's the first official evidence that the plane was downed by a missile. On July 17th, the airliner was shot down as it flew over the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board were killed. Although an official investigation into the crash has yet to begin, in the court of international opinion Russian separatists who had previously downed Ukrainian military planes in the region were clearly the culprits. But the Russian media is waging a counter campaign, offering alternative theories for the crash.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: To sum up, the plane diverged from its usual flight path. Secondly, it passed directly over a war zone. MALE CORRESPONDENT: A source in the Russian aviation industry, claiming President Putin’s plane may have actually been the target of the attack.
FEMALE CORRESOPNDENT: The pro-Russian rebel commander making this bizarre suggestion, that MH17 was loaded with people who were already dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Novelist and screenwriter, Michael Idov, lives in Moscow. He says Russian media outlets are just doing -what they've been doing.
MICHAEL IDOV: The last year has seen an extermination of free speech and free press in Russia. One after another, respected news sources were sort of hollowed out and replaced by propaganda machines, but speak with a unified voice. And that voice is largely the voice of the Kremlin.
But what happened with Flight MH17 is for the first 48 hours or so, there were clearly no signals coming from the Kremlin. And all these news outlets, willing, ready and able to amplify the official line were really left without an official line to push. And so, what you saw after the plane went down was just this frantic scrambling for conspiracy theories, anything that would lay the blame on anyone, other than Russia and Russia’s surrogates in the eastern Ukraine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From the moment the plane was hit, there were some striking inconsistencies in the Russian media.
MICHAEL IDOV: Well, the most fascinating part of this coverage is that it involves so much scrubbing of the reporting that all these news outlets have done before the crash, because you have to realize, for months now the official Russian media have been acting essentially as a recruitment tool. They were lionizing the separatists and reporting breathlessly on their heroic deeds, which included reporting on them acquiring surface-to-air missiles and taking down [LAUGHS] Ukrainian planes. So after the crash, we were treated to the sight of news channels like RT, the former Russia Today, and Life News, frantically backpedaling and going as far as to take down their previous reporting on this, to show that, of course, now the rebels were not capable of such a thing because they did not have the missiles that we had reported on them acquiring a few days ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me a little bit more about the role of the internet in this one.
MICHAEL IDOV: Russia has very good internet coverage. It’s a very internet-savvy country. But, strangely, it's not helping the information get out. Basically, everyone's free to choose the version of the events, any events, that they are most comfortable with, based on their previously-held world view. And Putin has been incredibly successful in creating this world view of Russia as a besieged fortress, beset on all sides by enemies. So when you couple that with this endless availability of conspiracy theories, you have people grasping at, frankly, idiotic explanations just to avoid dealing with the fact that they might be wrong in their assessment of things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a classic though, one that I have seen in virtually every propaganda war, where extreme demonization of the enemy is required, and that is killing babies. Russia’s Channel 1 interviewed a sobbing woman who said she was a refugee from Sloviansk and that the Ukrainian forces drove out the pro-Russian insurgents and then staged an execution, and the woman was forced as Ukrainian soldiers took her three-year-old and nailed him to a board, and no one interviewed by reporters subsequently has even heard of this story, much less witnessed anything like it.
MICHAEL IDOV: That’s correct. The point is to make the other side less than human. And, again, unfortunately, it works. The Russian media have been acting as a recruitment tool for volunteers to cross the border and go fight in Ukraine with the separatists.
One of the more independent news outlets recently did a fascinating series of interviews with the volunteers who went there to fight, and most of them are retired soldiers and retired policeman itching for action. And when asked what made them get up and leave their families and children and go fight this skirmish, all of them said that, you know, they saw the sobbing children on television and they wanted to go and stop this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gleb Pavlovsky, who’s a former Putin political consultant and Kremlin advisor, said that the news programs have so overheated popular opinion that this is becoming a problem for Putin, because the system cannot be wholly managed. Do you think that Putin can walk this path, or has this spun out of control?
MICHAEL IDOV: Basically, the tail is wagging the dog now because as Pavlovsky mentions, the Kremlin's rhetoric is actually much more measured compared to the insane fever pitch television rhetoric. And, of course, that gets fantastic ratings. So, at this point, Putin and his people are, in a way, hostages to the more extreme voices on television purporting to support. They’re egging each other on, and I am really fearful that that’s the beginning of a chain reaction that brings about something, you know, reminiscent of the fascist state. And I can only hope that this tragedy somehow manages to cool things down, because the people are buying it. That’s the scariest part.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael, thank you so much.
MICHAEL IDOV: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Novelist and screenwriter, Michael Idov.