One example of coverage that stretches Russia Today’s credibility as a neutral source is its coverage of Georgian politics, which are presented from the point of view of the opposition party. Protesters are portrayed as lending credence to allegations of voting irregularities - as opposed to evidence that the government allows its opposition the rights to assemble and protest.
Another example is coverage of the Russian political “power-split” following Putin’s installation as Prime Minister. One could argue that Medvedev so far has assumed the responsibilities of a head of state in Russia, and that it doesn't look like a whole lot will change any time soon. Russia Today, however, argues that it's just a quick fix: “Analysts agree that it’s likely the arrangement won’t be permanent.” The only source for any of these analysts or their overwhelming consensus of opinion comes from one political analyst, Boris Makarenko, who toes the party line by arguing that power sharing for now is good for Russia, but that things have to change at some point.
No reason for why they must change - just that they have to. But until that time, everything is "good enough."
How exactly any of this demonstrates that “analysts agree” is left to the imagination of Russia Today’s readership. It is not even clear what Makarenko’s affiliation is, besides that he is “from the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technologies.” Though, considering how much he seems to despise Berezovsky, we can hazard a guess that, if he has no Kremlin connection, he at the very least has little in the way of Kremlin aversion.
You don’t have to go much further than the front page of Russia Today to see why no one from the “West” will ever believe in the news site’s objectivity and political neutrality.
After Dim Bilan’s success in the pop-song contest Eurovision this last Saturday, Russia Today provided the following poll for its reader:
Euroleague basketball, UEFA Cup, Ice hockey World Champs …now Eurovision. What is Russia’s secret?
1. A lucky coincidence
2. Russia’s clearly the best in each field
3. But then Russians can’t play ping pong
The first thing that strikes one about this poll is its inconsistency – that is, the poll conflates a number of unequal terms while claiming that they are all the same. Certainly the World Ice Hockey Championships was a victory for Russia, in that the players were all citizens and represented their country, and the same could basically be said for the Eurovision contest. But that's where the similarities end: the first is a victory is an internationally-recognized sport on the highest level whereas the Eurovision victory represents… what again?
There is also confusion over why “Russia” and “Russians” are unambiguously the victors of all these disparate events. While the hockey and song-contest teams are composed entirely of Russian citizens, the basketball and soccer teams are not; more than half of Zenit-Petersburg is composed of foreigners, and CSKA-Moscow starts an all-foreigner squad with only one Russian player in reserve (the starting players are composed of two Americans, one Lithuanian, one Australian, and one Slovenian).
(USA forever! the Americans could respond)
These two teams (soccer and basketball) also achieved victories on an uneven scale – the UEFA Cup, while a major tournament, is not the pinnacle of soccer success, nor is the Euroleague the height of basketball. Most players in Europe are desperately hoping to get noticed by NBA scouts and maybe get a chance to ride the pine for a year or two in Miami.
So even if we can say that each of these victories represents a triumph for "Russia" in some way, is it a triumph for “Russians”? If I had to guess, I would say that the average Englishman does not consider Manchester United’s victory in the Champions’ League a victory for his own nation. Especially if he supports Liverpool.
Herein lies one of the main problems with this Russia Today poll – there is no room for any kind of subtlety of opinion, or room for you to not be impressed with "Russia" and "Russians". That is because no matter which answer you choose, you are acknowledging a vague kind of "Russian" superiority, and invited to agree that they must have some kind of magical "secret" for all their success.
How do the poll answers achieve this affect? To begin with, option 2 is the most obviously nationalistic, inviting voters to proclaim that "Russia" "clearly” dominates these “fields” – though determining which fields these are (Eastern European pop songs? Second-tier basketball leagues?) and why it is "Russia" who is doing all the dominating (and not individual teams with international players) is more than a little problematic.
But it’s really answers 1 and 3 that give up any pretensions of neutrality. Answer 1 allows the respondent to be less enthusiastic than with response 2, while still demonstrating proper reverence for the monumental nature of “Russia’s” accomplishments. Saying that it was all “a lucky coincidence” seem to deny that there is a definite, tangible link with all of this "Russian" superiority, but it still asks the respondent to admit that each of the victories mentioned in the Question are extremely important. Further, answer 1 concedes that these victories should be attributed, even if just on the “coincidental” level, to “Russia” and to no one else.
Response 3 allows a respondent more of the same – admitting (slightly ironically) that “Russia” is great at everything that matters. Response 3 even goes one step further by making anyone who chooses it seem a little desperate, a little angry - you become a whining sore loser without a valid opinion. Saying that “Russians can’t play ping pong,” makes anyone who chooses this option seem like he or she is clutching at straws. “Russia” still wins out in the end with this answer, then: even if one chooses to try to deflate "Russia’s" glory, they can only do say by seeming ridiculous themselves. The only thing that "Russia" cannot do well is something exceedingly trivial, like ping-pong. But things like Eurovision: that’s what really matters for national glory.
The point I’m trying to make here is not just that the Russia Today poll does not give its readers the options to voice differences of opinion. I am going further by arguing that the all of the answers to the question are essentially the same thing, wrapped up in slightly different tones to as to give the appearance of a real question. Each response (1) acknowledges the monumental nature of all the competitions (2) claims that “Russia” was the agent who won them all and that (3) this really means something great and meaningful about this “Russia," a country that has some natural "secret" for success.
Try to disagree with any one of the above points and you will not have a single option available for you to vote on.
And here’s where the stakes for Russia Today as a reliable news provider come in: the only areas of their site that allow for reader reaction are tightly controlled and only give the appearance of forum for what the readers actually think. Even though the poll may have the tone of a joke, especially represented in option 3, it’s really anything but funny. That’s because polls like this show who Russia Today is really intended for: pleasing the government officials who created a news channel to make positive spin for this idea of Russianness.
And, rather than create a poll that could possibly backfire on them (say, by including an option 4 like “I don’t actually think any of those are that impressive”), they contrive ones that will inevitably read back the same results, no matter which “answer” you choose.
It's for this reason that Russia Today will never become Russia's answer to CNN - not that the world is russophobic, nor that the world doesn't care what Russian journalists have to say. It's that Russia Today hacks together its news and features like a caricature of the BBC, while putting a painfully obvious pro-Russian spin on every and any event. In some ways, I think I feel sorry for its editors - they can either choose to please their masters and remain a mockery of the news, or they actually present a new and informative angle of news and bite the hand that feeds them.
For the record, my personal vote to the questions would be this:
4. The hockey victory was very impressive, and the Russian team boasts some excellent players; the Euroleague victory sounds pretty impressive, well done… CSKA Moscow; I wasn’t even aware there was an UEFA Cup before I encountered this poll; and any country that boasts a Eurovision victory as a mark of superiority deserves more pity than glory.
Any chance you could see to adding my option to the poll, Russia Today?