Anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of an open society is that information travels easily and mostly unencumbered.
American intelligence reports note that Vladimir Putin has functionally locked himself and his nation behind a media firewall, afraid to let his citizens hear what the world knows. The Russian dictator is notorious for keeping his own council. But it seems worse this time, with many of his aides apparently willing to be the bearer of bad news. So even though he has initiated the human catastrophe of the Ukraine war, he and many Russians may still know little of the horrors that have been unleashed. As the New York Times’ Tom Friedman recently noted, “Putin, it turns out, [has] no clue what world he was living in, no clue about the frailties of his own system, no clue how much the whole free, democratic world could and would join the fight against him in Ukraine, and no clue, most of all, about how many people would be watching.” Meanwhile, most of the gains Russia achieved in the last 20 years are being rolled back by sanctions imposed by the world’s democracies.
By contrast, ordinary citizens in most of the rest of the developed world could fill him about the aimless marauding of the Russian Army. Most anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of free societies is that information travels freely and mostly unencumbered. The democracies of the world take access to a multitude of sources doing credible reporting as their birthright. Individual sources may not always be accurate. But without much effort, citizens can “triangulate” between multiple sources to find truths that seem to be reasonably solid. If a conservative-leaning source confirms the same conclusion as a more liberal outlet, we can judge that the news is probably accurate. If one outlet plays favorites, a thoughtful reader–and their are too few–will cross check with other sources before reaching a conclusion.
Now, imagine living in a prison where the only loudspeaker ever heard is controlled by the guards. Welcome to North Korea or Russia, trying to impose the medieval values of top-down control on their citizens.
In no particular order, here are some easily accessible news-gathering outlets, available mostly for free to Americans via their ubiquitous computers, and key websites like YouTube. All outlets on this partial list are doing original reporting in English from Ukraine and Eastern Europe:
Agence France-Presse (AFP)
New York Times
The New Yorker
Deutsche Welle (Germany)
And there are so many more: NPR, CBC (Canada), PBS, Fox News, Sky News, ABC, CBS, ABC News (Australia), The Atlantic, Channel 4 News (UK), ITV, and others.
Free access to the press is a good reminder of why we protect our freedoms. The media firewall denying Russian citizens the same kind of access is as good an indicator as any of a failed state.
True to form, dictators in closed societies are the last to know or care about changes in public opinion.
At the height of the Vietnam War the New Yorker writer Michael J. Arlen published a short but evocative piece that, like any good criticism, gave clarity to key events in that decade. In Living Room War, he played out the effects of a nation witnessing its own atrocities almost as they happened. “Shooting bloody” was soon to become the norm for reporters embedded with our troops caught in that quagmire. Americans could not help but notice the horrific attempts to fight a war in the jungle, or the United States’ massive efforts to bomb the North Vietnamese into submission.
The article published in October of 1966 and later included in a book of essays was barely 2000 words long: a short summation of the efforts of war reporters like CBS’s Morley Safer, who covered the actions of Marines in the Mekong Delta. Images of troops and snipers being fired upon were part of the reporting, which CBS was anxious to add to the studio-based “tell” stories that were common at the time. Footage from the field was quickly edited onboard a plane routed to Tokyo, where it was uplinked via satellite to CBS’s Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York. The network concluded that it was all well and good to have Walter Cronkite describe the day’s fighting. But they wanted to add the hastily edited reports about the close-range carnage in front of viewers, even during the dinner hour. It is worth remembering that most Americans regularly watched one of the three network evening newscasts: what another critic likened to a daily gathering at the “national hearth.”
Arlen’s article title was enough to suggest what had changed with the advent of portable video equipment and satellite links. The ability of politicians and citizens to insulate themselves from the effects of war was vanishing. The costs were not to be measured using static slides of casualty numbers or a few wire-service photos. Wars were about to be personalized by embedded reporters and camera crews who took their chances along with the troops. Arlen’s article title was enough for us to suddenly realize the sea change in war coverage that was underway. Even then, Lyndon Johnson began to realize that “his” war was going to lose support. Fifty-Eight thousand Americans were lost before the U.S. retreated.
These days I think of this article, admiring what a good media critic can do, but also pointing to the obvious reasons for the unprecedented international revulsion of Vladimir Putin and the Russian Army. No one can remain unmoved by the wrenching video segments of families in Ukraine struggling to survive the relentless onslaught.
True to form, dictators in closed societies are the last to know or care about changes in public opinion. But one could conclude that near total press censorship in Russia may not be enough to insulate ordinary citizens from the horrors their government is visiting upon Ukraine. Russia is not a perfectly closed society, especially with the flow of news and information still coming into the country via the internet. As Arlen might have predicted, ordinary Russians will soon see videos that will help explain why most of the rest of the civilized world has put their society on a path to financial destruction.