BROOKE GLADSTONE After Biden and Putin's first meeting, is there anything for pundits to chew on? Aside from, you know, the obvious.
Joe Biden crossed his legs, looking very comfortable, very casual. He's been coached on body language. Putin, of course, a master of it. You see him there sprawled out a little bit like he owns the place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. New reports revealed the Justice Department seizing journalists records...again.
MATT APUZZO Nobody gets in trouble for talking about the bin Laden raid. Hooray for America! We'll make a movie about it. Gets you in trouble is when you say they're waterboarding people in secret prisons, or there's illegal wiretapping going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And a look back at a truly history making case of our government guarding its secrets.
RICHARD NIXON Public has no right to know. Secret documents and freedom of the press is not the freedom to destroy the integrity of the government. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. According to historian John Ashley Saomes, Grenville, the first use of the word "summit" as a global leader meetup was in Geneva, the Cold War summer of '55. For the heads of the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain and France, the meeting was an effort to break the ice on peaceful coexistence. Summit has been applied to such gatherings of global chiefs ever since, including thrice this week for NATO, the G7 and for Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin's first in-person chat, which, like the summit of '55, was in Geneva, in uneasy times. Biden went on the record in an ABC News interview.
REPORTER You know Vladimir Putin, you think he's a killer?
JOE BIDEN Mhm, I do.
REPORTER So what price must he pay?
JOE BIDEN A price he's going to pay? Well, you'll see shortly. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sanctions have been levied and diplomats expelled.
[CLIP - MONTAGE]
NEWS REPORT The United States on Thursday announced sanctions punishing Moscow for alleged cyber hacking, election interference and other malign acts.
NEWS REPORT A buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine is reportedly setting off alarms for the US and its allies.
NEWS REPORT Russia now kicking out 60 American diplomats from Moscow and shutting the US consulate in St. Petersburg.
NEWS REPORT A ransomware attack that shut down the country's largest gasoline pipeline was most likely the work of Russians. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This summit was a classic icebreaker. That's all it was expected to be. Pundits were left with little but body language to pick over when the doors closed.
BODY LANGUAGE EXPERT What do you make of the little things we've seen so far, the way they shook hands, the fact that they both showed up on time?
BODY LANGUAGE EXPERT Even the way that Joe Biden crossed his life, looking very comfortable, very casual. He's been coached on body language. Putin, of course, a master of it. You see him there sprawled out a little bit like he owns the place.
BODY LANGUAGE EXPERT Biden is way more concentrated on Putin. We see him quite eager. His balance is well forward. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE After the doors opened, each president held separate press conferences. When asked about Russia's human rights record, Putin showcased his signature moves – deflections and whataboutisms?
PUTIN TRANSLATOR Look at the American streets. People are getting killed there, including those who are leading the various political organizations – that you can get a bullet in the back of your neck. A woman just ran away from the police and they shot her in the back. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But we admit it. We're working on it.
PUTIN TRANSLATOR But take Afghanistan shooting from a drone at an unarmed crowd. Clearly the civilian crowd. How would you call that? Who is the killer now? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, um.
PUTIN TRANSLATOR The Guantanamo prison is still operating. It doesn't even start to resemble what is stipulated in the international law or in the US legislation. And yet it exists. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE There are still forty people there. But is Putin actually saying that American failures give him carte blanche? President Biden opened his presser by suggesting the meeting had been overhyped, that it was merely the start of a dialogue on vital issues, and he expressed cautious positivity, a tone one reporter seemed to, well, overhype.
KAITLIN COLLINS Why are you so confident he'll change his behavior, Mr. President?
PRESIDENT BIDEN I'm not confident he'll change his behavior. What do you do all the time? When did I say I was confident? What I said was, let's go straight, I said what will change your behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to that diminishes the world. I'm not confident in anything, I'm just stating a fact. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexey Kovalyov is the investigative editor at Meduza, an independent Russian news outlet. And he noticed that after the meeting, Putin did something unusual. He said something nice.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV He said it was a very instructive meeting. That's despite the impression that some media are giving about him. Joe Biden is a professional and he's very informed and that even if he consults some cheat notes, as yesterday Russian state media were quick to point out, Putin said it's nothing unusual and we all do that. He was unusually friendly. From the looks of it. Putin is eager for at least some improvement in relations with the United States because we really can't go on like this for too long.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You saw some familiar tropes in Putin's presentation. Whatever Russia is doing is because the US did it first.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV I wonder if he realizes how insane that actually sounds, whether it's the Guantanamo or whether it's George Floyd protests or police brutality in the United States, the essence of it is always the same. So you don't have the moral authority to criticize us because look at yourself, things are as bad or probably even worse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then there's something that the US population has become very familiar with, which is the, you know, uncontested lie.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Yes, that's one of his tricks up his sleeve in the same league as turning up hours late. That's just his way of not trying to convince you of something, but just showing you your place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's an exercise of power. What did you think of Biden's presentation?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Well, the optics of not allowing Russian press to the press conference wasn't good, and of course, the Russian press quickly latched onto this and criticized Biden for it. So what about your famous freedom of speech thing, et cetera, et cetera?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why do you think that Biden excluded the Russian press?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV And maybe the logic was like, why invite the press that's all controlled by the government when you can just talk to the guy himself. If that's indeed, was his thinking that it's getting uncomfortably close to what Putin himself thinks of the press. He clearly doesn't believe in free press, and it's evident when he sits down for one on one interview with a foreign journalist, which he would never do in Russia with an independent media. I mean, what's Meduza? There is no chance in hell we’ll ever get a sit down interview with Putin. The Kremlin won't even acknowledge our existence. They scrapped all mentions of Meduza from the Kremlin's transcript of the interview with NBC's Keir Simmons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE While we're on the subject, you were designated by Russia as a foreign agent. What does that mean for Meduza?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV From now on, we have to on paying a very huge back breaking fine, put a massive, ugly legal disclaimer on top of everything we publish. And that includes all ads and promotional materials. And of course, that's carried away 90 percent of our advertisers and ruined our business model. We launched a crowdfunding campaign which helped us stay afloat for a few months more. But now our sources are also afraid to talk to us for fear of being associated with a foreign agent. Our freelancers are reluctant to work with us, and that creates a whole new set of problems which haven't existed before. I mean, we are the first independent media outlet to be designated a foreign agent. So we're in uncharted waters. We don't know what's going to happen next, but I mean, it's not really looking good. And that was the plan. That was the design, slowly strangle independent media out of existence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did the Russian press deal with Putin at his press conference?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Pretty much the same as they would at any regular press conference, you know, just throw him the softball questions, pretty much the same that the Russian press criticized the Americans for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What was notable to you about the performance of the American press in dealing with Putin?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV So there was a lot of what I would call "sound-bite theatrics" where the act of asking the tough question is more important than getting the actual answer, because if you've been following Russia long enough, you know what the answer would be. So it came from ABC's Rachel Scott, who asked Putin the list of your political opponents, what that imprisoned job is long, what are you so afraid of? But, of course, Putin would deflect with a long diatribe about BLM protests in the United States or something. So I don't think it was very informative in terms of getting actual answers from Putin because he's not there to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But something stood out for you, not during the actual press conference, but remarks by NBC's Keir Simmons after his interview with Putin.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Keir said after the interview, which lasted for 90 minutes, Putin stayed for almost an hour and he leaned in and he was really trying to persuade Kier that America is actually buying up all the Russian opposition, and trying to unseat him through regime change efforts. And something that really shines through all his bluster, his actual fear.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you think he means it?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV He does. And I think all of Russia's recent domestic policies are a reflection of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was trying to talk to Keir Simmons because he saw Keir Simmons as a representative of the US.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Oh, yes. That's very evident from the answers he gave Mr. Simmons. And Simmons was always trying – "but I'm just a journalist. I have no influence on the US policy," but Putin wouldn't take any of that. I mean, he's quite convinced that the way the press works in the United States is the same. And not just the press, the civil society, everything, because he's been president for 21 years now. That's the way it's always been with him. Literally, the first thing he did was bring all the big business and the media and the civil society to his hill because he saw free press and independent marketers as agents of chaos. And he's convinced that everyone sees them as such. And he thinks that the US press is just as subservient to the president's office as the state media in Russia. And that's why he's talking to foreign journalists as ambassadors of their governments.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When he was asked about cyber attacks, he said that the US has a huge cyber offensive program, which is true, and that Russia has hardly any program at all. How do you make progress on those issues if you don't admit you have those issues?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV I think there is a difference between what Vladimir Putin says in the public and what his aides and ambassadors and diplomats backchannel back to the Americans. So if the American side presented incontrovertible evidence of Russian hacking into American networks and if the Russian side admitted it through back channels, they would never do it publicly. Yeah, but probably maybe a few months or a year, the intensity of cyber attacks will quietly go down. And that's how we'll know that this summit was a success. They'll never want to be seen as caving into someone's pressure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of people have said this meeting shouldn't be receiving so much attention that it's just legitimizing Putin. It's platforming a dictator. I push back on that. This is the US president and the Russian president. I mean, they should meet, right? What do you think?
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Well, of course they should. I mean, there's no way around that. No matter what we think about Putin, he's the president and he's going to be for any foreseeable future. So we got to work with what you have after all these years of these craziness. I'm actually very cautiously relieved. What happened at this meeting in the summit and the Putin's remark after the summit. I'm kind of egotistically hoping that if the relations with the United States improve somehow, maybe it's going to be a relief for us here for independent media and civic society, because we are being punished for the state of relations between the United States and Russia, despite us not having any say in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexey, thank you very much.
ALEXEY KOVALYOV Thank you for having me. It was very interesting and illuminating conversation unlike President Putin's press conference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alexey Kovalyov is the investigative editor at Meduza. Coming up, presidential missteps on press freedom. Yesterday, 50 years ago and 60 years ago, here, there and everywhere, this is On the Media.
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