Distorted Media Narratives Are Holding Back Russia-U.S. Relations

Until the American media changes its overtly antagonistic and defamatory coverage of Russia, establishing constructive relations between the two countries will be incredibly difficult.

Russia-U.S. relations have been subject to enormous levels of polarization for decades. Many view the current state of the bilateral relationship as being at its worst since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Politicians and commentators on both sides are constantly accusing each other of malicious actions on the international stage. This significantly impedes the development of constructive dialogue between the two states, and, unfortunately, there seem to be very few prospects for improvement in the near future. One of the main reasons for this is the US media’s insistence on incessantly demonizing Russia and propagating narratives that make it seem as if Russia’s only foreign policy objective is to do damage to the United States in any way possible.

One of the most blatant examples of this was the Russian interference scandal during the 2016 US presidential election. The US media was so fixated on proving that Trump’s victory was almost entirely due to malicious Russian interference, that it resorted to spreading outright lies to prove its theory. The Steele dossier, which accuses Russia of using prostitutes to acquire blackmail material on Donald Trump has been proven to be a complete fabrication. Christopher Steele provided no evidence for his claims, and none of the supposed witnesses would verify his claims (if they could even be found).

And yet, the US media still insisted on whipping up mass hysteria and portraying Trump as a compromised Russian asset. There was no attempt to wait and see whether the accusations in the dossier would hold up to scrutiny, no attempt to establish the veracity of the facts before engaging in the unrelenting slander of Donald Trump and the Russian state. Donald Trump was presented as a lecherous old man with atypical sexual perversions, while the Russians were made out to be untrustworthy and hostile, always willing to manipulate to gain an advantage.

As it transpired years later, none of the accusations were true. Unfortunately for US-Russia relations, however, the damage had already been done. The minds and subconscious biases of millions of Americans had already molded by years of incessant slander from the US media. In 2016, the media managed to single-handedly undermine any opportunity for an improvement in US-Russia relations before Trump even had the chance to take office.

Even the language used by US media outlets when discussing basic social realities indicates a strong degree of anti-Russian bias. Both Russia and the US have significant levels of wealth inequality, with the majority of assets and resources in both countries controlled by a tiny proportion of the population. It would not be entirely inaccurate to describe both Russia and the US as oligarchies, since both states are dominated by high net worth individuals, who exert significant influence over government policy. Despite this, for some reason, the US media is insistent on calling high net worth Russians ‘oligarchs’, while the preferred terms for US individuals who possess similar wealth are ‘businessman’ and ‘philanthropist’.

In a recent study, FAIR analyzed 150 recent articles that contained the search term ‘oligarch’. The study found that, across the 150-article sample, the term was used 98% of the time in connection with former Eastern Bloc countries (most frequently in connection with Russia), while being used in only 1% of the articles relating to the US. This demonstrates a severe level of media bias since the term ‘oligarch’ simply means a wealthy member of the elite that holds influence over policy decisions.

The graph shows the usage of the word "Oligarch" in reference to various nationalities.

There is no reason to associate the term exclusively with Russia and former Eastern Bloc states, and yet today, due to the efforts of the US media, millions of Americans consider the term to be negative and subconsciously link it to their personal idea of Russia. This is despite the fact that many members of the US elite could also be described as oligarchs. It is precisely such Russophobic cultural programming that needs to be eradicated in order for bilateral relations between the US and Russia to ever stand a chance of improving.

The US media also repeatedly creates distorted narratives around major international events, always seeking to portray Russia as the aggressor who regularly violates international laws and norms. An obvious example of this is the 2014 referendum in Crimea, where Crimeans voted to reunify the peninsula with Russia, in light of events happening in Ukraine at the time. Polls conducted by the UN before 2014 and Gallup Poll studies immediately after the referendum showed that not only did the majority of Crimeans desire to reunify with Russia, but that the majority of Crimeans also believed that the referendum was accurate and carried out fairly.

Despite this, the US media ruthlessly pushed the narrative that Crimeans had been forcibly made to vote for reunification under the threat of violence from Russian soldiers. Such a narrative completely disregarded the will of the Crimean people and put further strain on US-Russia relations. The accession of Crimea was (and still is) viewed by millions of Americans to have been a military annexation by Russia. However, this view does not take into account that the majority of Crimeans are happy with the results of their peninsula’s reunification with Russia. Unfortunately, the US media does not concern itself with the satisfaction levels of ordinary Crimeans, as that would threaten the narrative that Russia is a hostile power that must be contained at all costs.

Until the US media changes its overtly antagonistic and quite frankly defamatory coverage of Russia, establishing constructive relations between the two countries will be very difficult indeed.

Igor Aunapu is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC). His areas of expertise include the Middle East, international security, and Russia-U.S. relations.