Madeline Roache seemingly has a dream job: getting paid for watching TV and transcribing what she sees.
Don’t envy her. She’s watching the morning news in Russia.
Roache is a colleague and London-based analyst at NewsGuard, which assesses the credibility of news and information sites and TV news shows. She speaks Russian, has reported from Ukraine and chronicles misinformation spawned by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation.”
She writes a daily newsletter on how a much-watched newscast portrays the “operation.” She said, “It’s extremely disturbing to see how Russian state TV is creating an alternate reality about the war. Stories that seem credible, that use infield reporting and interviews, blur truth with lies. Watching state TV has made it obvious to me that Russia is waging an aggressive war for the hearts and minds at home.”
Roache watches state-run Channel One and details its unrebutted assertions that Russia is a heroic victim of Ukraine-European-U.S. conspiracies, the target of Ukrainian war crimes and a humanitarian-minded eradicator of demonic “Nazi” subterfuge.
Here is a pretense-filled potpourri of what Channel One has declared to millions of credulous breakfast-time viewers in the past week:
“Every day, the Russian military defending Donbas show resilience, courage and professionalism.”
“In areas under shelling by Ukrainian militants, people are forced to hide in basements.”
“According to the Ministry of Defense, ‘Moskva’ sank during a storm. Due to serious damage to the hull, the ship lost its stability and capsized. Earlier, our Defense Ministry reported that ammunition exploded on the ship, starting a fire.”
“New heroes, who carry out tasks in the special military operation to protect the Donbas, are named.”
“There is a new life in the liberated Berdyansk without the shelling and atrocities that were carried out by radicals before our military arrived.”
“Humanitarian aid — essential items and, for children, toys — are being collected. Refugees recall with horror how, until recently, they were hiding from shelling and how they were used as human shields by the radicals.”
“Our Defense Ministry said that new provocations were prepared by Kyiv forces in an attempt to discredit our army. According to the Head of the National Defense Management Center Mikhail Mizintsev, neo-Nazis laid mines on a car overpass in the city Kostyantynivka, which is a major Donetsk railway junction.”
When it suits its purposes, the newscast cites the purportedly odious Western media. Recently, that meant referencing as unassailable a New York Times story disclosing how Ukraine’s military apparently has used banned cluster munitions. It does not mention Western media laying bare Russian military outrages or Putin’s untruths.
Unavoidably, I have revisited George Orwell’s “1984,” the 1949 classic novel about the perils of authoritarianism, mass surveillance and disinformation.
“The parallels are frightening,” Roache said.
According to “The Ministry of Truth,” a study of “1984” by British writer-critic Dorian Lynskey, a key Orwell insight about totalitarianism resulted from his 1937 volunteer work in the Spanish Civil War: He saw agents of the Soviet Union, Russia’s predecessor, fabricating total lies about Trotskyites in the Spanish government as fascist spies. Left-wing journalists bought the lies; Orwell didn’t.
Fast-forward to today. “There are several things going on here,” said Alexander Motyl, a Ukraine expert and professor of political science at Rutgers University at Newark, N.J.
“Russian political culture is authoritarian and worships the great leader. This goes back centuries. The Soviets reinforced these beliefs, while at the same time perfecting the art of duplicity and mendacity. So, disinformation is normal for many, even most, Russians.”
“At the same time,” Motyl said, “Putin and company have spent two decades developing an Orwellian ideology that builds on the imperial Russian and Soviet experiences and resonates with popular views. The people don’t know better, but more important is that they don’t want to know better. They prefer to live in a make-believe world in which Russia is the greatest, while also being a victim of Western machinations.”
What’s more, “there’s a weird kind of schizophrenia in Russian culture. On the one hand, they’re the best. On the other hand, they’re awfully sensitive to criticism, or anything less than glorification. Putin has tapped into this, saying that Ukrainians are Nazis ready to attack Mother Russia, while denying that Russian soldiers have killed any Ukrainian civilians.”
If you need reminding, check out Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her weekly briefings are testaments to oratorical endurance and unabashed, mocking dissembling.
I watched one that was Fidel Castro-length at two hours and 12 minutes. The unapologetically contentious Zakharova, a diplomat’s daughter who also speaks fluent English and Chinese, declared that Ukraine commits war crimes; the claims of a Russian massacre in Bucha outside Kyiv are fiction; and the U.S. is the prime source for 7,000 mercenaries assisting Ukraine.
There’s a shameless swagger that verges on performance art. This is, after all, a person who continuously asserted Russia would never invade Ukraine. She would be a perfect American cable news host, especially given what NewsGuard finds to be those networks’ own disinclination for presenting alternative views.
“We know we’re being watched,” she said with her air of metaphysical certitude. “The truth can’t be hidden.”
As NewsGuard’s Roache finds each day, you can sure try.