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In Syria, Russian media take a page from US playbook

Russian reporting is as sophisticated and compelling as US reporting in Iraq, thanks to the military's adoption of 'embeds' and the media's adoption of Western techniques. But it's also repeating US mistakes.

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    A still from an RT report near Palmyra, Syria.
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Fighter jets swoop in to hammer enemy installations, and bomb sight videos record the devastating direct hits. Embedded reporters, in body armor and ballistic helmets, scramble through trenches to reach the front lines. They pan their cameras over positions of Islamic State militants, interview Syrian soldiers and frightened local residents – and often do it all in an intensely personal style.

Welcome to Russia's first-ever living room war. If it sounds familiar, that's probably because Moscow has been paying close attention to the way the US military has dealt with the media, and has picked up a few ideas.

The lessons adopted from American war planners and media outlets have shaped a Russian media that is far more modern - and freer – than during the era of Soviet operations abroad.

But while the new Russian media may have picked up its American peers' polish and sophistication, it is also repeating their mistakes of the Iraq war: uncritically taking the state line and failing to ask enough hard questions about the war's impact and execution.

"Our TV stations are showing the war in Syria just as American TV depicted the operation in Iraq: accurate air strikes, remote war like a computer game," says Sergei Korzun, a founder of the independent Ekho Moskvi radio station. "Such war doesn't seem scary. It's a 'clean' war of marvelous technology battering evil terrorists. There is no hint of human suffering in the picture."

Lessons from the West

The war in Syria is Russia's first out of its own region since Soviet forces fought in Afghanistan for a decade in the 1980s.

In those days, TV coverage of the war mostly consisted of talking heads "explaining" the political correctness of the decision, with a bit of antiseptic war news that carefully avoided any front-line atmosphere or suggestion of casualties.

Now, Russia is sending in an overwhelmingly youthful, professional, and technically savvy new generation of war correspondents to cover the operation abroad. And while the coverage may be as one-sided as the Soviet days, it is breathless, first-hand, and often compelling.

"Young TV producers and journalists have grown up with much more access to Western TV than their Soviet counterparts had, and they like what they've seen," says Vladimir Posner, a veteran of the Soviet media machine who also worked in the US for several years co-hosting a political talk show with Phil Donahue.

"Another big difference [from Soviet days] is that they don't seem to feel conflicted about their jobs. There is a sense that our involvement in Syria is something to be proud of, that we are doing the right thing here. Western criticism doesn't make them feel the least bit defensive, and that's quite a change from the past," says Mr. Posner.

They aren't exactly free agents, as US journalists were during the Vietnam War and Russian ones were during the first Chechen conflict in the 1990s. That's because military establishments in both countries noted how free-roaming reporters created images that soured the public mood.

By the time of the first Gulf war, the Pentagon was "embedding" journalists with military forces. The Kremlin has also taken that tack: bring them into the action, but keep them on a tight leash. So far, the new Russian media seems happy to go along with that.

"It's true that what they're doing is in harmony with what the Russian government basically wants to see," says Posner. "But they're not being stage-managed or commanded. They're OK with what they're doing."

The official line made credible

Much Western commentary on Russian coverage has focused on a few oddball sidelights, such as the weather reporter who informed her audience that atmospheric conditions in Syria were "excellent for bombing IS" and the video photographer who has attracted criticism by putting some of his stunning war images to music.

But the typical report on state TV is more comprehensive. It's often built around a defense ministry briefing, which gives detailed information about the day's bombing missions, and sometimes goes to great lengths to show that the Russian Air Force is not hitting any civilian areas – in one case by comparing military video of a strike on a Syrian town with Google Earth images of the same town.

"There is only one official line, but it is made deeply credible by the way the war is covered, especially on TV," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant.

"There is a hierarchy of sources," he says," and the first place goes to official ones like the Kremlin and the defense ministry. Then there are correspondents on the ground, who provide sympathetic and often personal images of Syrian soldiers and people struggling against the terrorists. Then there are friendly experts, who offer supporting commentary."

Mr. Strokan adds that "outside reports can be included in the coverage if they fit the narrative, or sometimes even when they clash with it. Sometimes Western reports are highlighted to show what awful propaganda people over there [Americans] are being subjected to."

The Kremlin-funded English-language news network RT has a brace of correspondents in Syria who are producing good examples on the new approach, much of it straight from the front lines. With its foreign audience to think about, RT also takes a more active approach to responding to Western criticisms, especially claims that the Russian Air Force is attacking civilian targets.

"The Russian mass media are paying a lot of attention to Syria right now, and they are covering it with pride. The main idea is that Russia is restoring order, where the Americans made only chaos," says Nikolai Svanidze, a veteran Russian TV personality and member of the Public Chamber, a semi-official advisory body.

Questions unasked

But, outside of a few opposition outlets, Russian journalists clearly lack any adversarial instincts when confronting the official line. As Strokan points out, they can often be quite inventive in efforts to refute claims made by Western media. And they rarely pose hard questions at briefings or take a critical tack.

"There are still some questions that cannot be touched, most importantly whether our forces are killing innocent civilians as we go after the terrorists. There are all sorts of denials, but there is no effort to objectively investigate actual cases," says Strokan.

Then there is the economic toll of the war on Russia, a subject that has been explored by Western journalists but gets virtually no mention in Russian media.

"You would think that the public burden of this war would be an issue that journalists would tackle, but that's not happening," Strokan adds.

More independent Western journalists are more inclined to hold the Pentagon's feet to the fire over civilian casualties. And a much broader media landscape means there are dissenting publications, such as The Intercept, which recently did a major expose of the US drone war based on leaked documents, which feed those stories into the wider media.

Andrei Bystritsky, dean of media studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says there is greater diversity in Russia's media than usually assumed in the West, but that it's a work in progress.

"We have over 100,000 media outlets in Russia, and even in the crucial area of television only about 35 percent are owned by the state. We have a huge number of journalists, and they are learning their trade fast," he says.

"Russia is evolving, and the media with it. The mood of the country right now is patriotic, and competitive media speak to that public mood. I don't agree that they are prevented from asking certain questions – indeed, I think some are asking hard questions – it's just that they are mostly trying to give the audience what it wants."

'Of course it's propaganda'

It does appear that public opinion, which was clearly against getting involved in Syria before the operation began, turned sharply in favor after the air strikes began in late September. The popularity of President Vladimir Putin soared to the unprecedented height of almost 90 percent.

"Direct involvement [i.e. boots on the ground] is still unpopular among Russians, but air strikes are viewed differently because there is less risk of casualties," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency. "After the air operation began, 54 percent supported it. But 66 percent still oppose the introduction of Russian ground forces in Syria," he adds.

How much of the public support is due to media coverage?

"You want to be careful saying things like 'the Russian people are brainwashed' by their media," says Posner, who is currently host of one of state TV's top-rated public affairs programs. "There is a huge misunderstanding in the West about why Russians like Putin. They like him not because they're told to, but because they identify him as the person who's made the world admit that Russia matters."

As for the media coverage, he says "of course it's propaganda. However sophisticated it may be, it's very one-sided, mostly based on official sources and accounts from embedded reporters. But that's very similar to the way the Americans do it."

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