Author Masha Gessen on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Masha Gessen. Photo: Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images

One of the striking takeaways from your book on the Tsarnaev brothers is that we do sort of have secret police here, in a way that we don’t think we do. The court system can be manipulated; the law-enforcement agencies can skirt the law. The Boston Globe and Rolling Stone had huge amounts of time and space to report on the bombing — it’s not like they were under the constraints of daily coverage — and they still failed to treat the FBI’s narrative with any real skepticism.
My beef with the media is not with that — it’s not with the way they cover the court system. I actually think the Boston Globe did an amazing job covering Tamerlan’s role and investigating the bombing.

What I have a problem with, with both the Boston Globe and Rolling Stone, is the way they covered the personalities. And that’s where there are a lot of assumptions. You can really tell it in Rolling Stone’s story, more even than the Boston Globe’s: The way the story is written, she keeps talking about, “Oh, he was a such a nice boy, but something sinister was hiding.” And “Oh, everyone remembers him as being so caring and sociable — but something sinister was hiding.”

It’s a question worth asking: Was there something sinister hiding behind the façade? Is it possible that someone who did not carry around some giant, horrible thing inside them committed this crime? The Boston Globe put an incredible amount of stock into this idea that Tamerlan heard voices — which was based on scant evidence that they heard from people. It’s not that they didn’t hear it. It’s what people told them. But it played into the assumption that this guy had to be mentally ill. So if they went in assuming he was mentally ill and then they heard that he heard voices, well, then, obviously, he’s a schizophrenic. If you assume that you’re reporting a story on somebody who’s psychologically healthy, then the whole voices thing can be interpreted differently. And the thing is that they had so little to go on, it could have been a metaphorical. It was thirdhand that someone said he heard voices.

The underlying problem is that journalists don’t talk to academics enough. Academics don’t talk to journalists enough. There’s a vast field of terrorism scholarship, and if you listen to terrorism scholars, one of the first things they will tell you is, ‘Look, these people are not mentally ill. There are lots of things that unite terrorists, but being mentally ill is just not one of them.’

That’s just well recognized in terrorism studies?
Yeah. It’s not well recognized by the FBI. And not well recognized by the public imagination, and one of the reasons is that the media won’t talk to academics. Now, academics are not always the easiest people to talk to, and the scholarly papers aren’t always the easiest papers to read, but frankly, psychology papers, especially papers and books on terrorism, are very easy to read, and journalists should be reading them … It takes longer than talking to somebody on the phone, but that’s what you should be doing.

You’ve talked about how, from the point of view of someone who commits an act of terrorism, they can be acting rationally — in accordance with what they believe. But you’ve also said about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, ‘It’s not just that he hated U.S. foreign policy.’ So what are those rational beliefs he might have been acting on?
There are lots of people who hate U.S. foreign policy, right? Most of them don’t pick up guns or make bombs. There are a few things that come together — and this is actually much more clear in the Orlando case than in the Tsarnaev case, because there’s no pretense of hating U.S. foreign policy there. It’s more localized. But it’s the same basic story. You have somebody who’s disenfranchised, who’s seen every opportunity pass him by. Again, there are lots of people who are disenfranchised, and who have objections to U.S. foreign policy. Most of them — and there are millions of them — will not commit an act of harm. The best predictor of violence is actually violence. And this is something that Orlando really brings home. And there’s a great piece in Rolling Stone about it, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else. And this is something that’s also true of Tamerlan Tsarnaev: he was a domestic abuser. Omar Mateen was a domestic abuser. Violent behavior predicts violent behavior. Obviously not every domestic abuser will become a terrorist. If somebody is prone to violence, and also has radical beliefs, and also feels very slighted, that’s when you have the combination. But we we struggle to account for that last step: When does somebody who sort of seems like a small monster become a big monster? Is it a small step or a giant leap? I don’t know.

Could you talk more broadly about the differences between being a reporter in the U.S. and being one in Russia?
Here we have a hugely imperfect free media. And free media have particular ways of functioning. Information circulates, and there are different ways of information bubbling up and trickling around. It used to be that it bubbled up from communities and community papers to larger media to broadcast media, and then it went back down to the local level. Now you see it more with online stuff: social media and blogs, bubbling up from that, into larger media, and then trickling down back down into a discussion on social media. It’s almost like water, evaporating and falling down as rain again. Media don’t work like that in Russia. There you can have a discussion on social media that — while maybe huge in that echo chamber — will never bubble up. Or you have entire narratives that are self-contained and will never be contaminated by other narratives.

This is an example from eight years ago, but it really struck me, because it was the moment I understood how dysfunctional the media had become. I was editor of an online political analysis publication in Russia, and I had this young guy who came across a news item. This was like 2003, and we’re doing something that now would be called aggregating. It was something from the wires, and we needed to put up an item about it. The item was that several Russian soldiers had been released in Chechnya. They had been in captivity, and they’d been released. He said, ‘How do I do it? Just say they’ve been released?’ I said, ‘Well, look. Probably money changed hands, but we can’t say that, because that information is not available to us.’ And then I realized that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that he didn’t know there was a war in Chechnya. Because as far as the Russian media had concerned, the war in Chechnya had disappeared. And this was 2003. He was 22. He’d been a freshman in college when the war started being covered. So where does he begin, if he’s writing for someone like himself? Does he tell them there’s a war in Chechnya? ‘The first thing you need to know is, there’s a war in Chechnya. And people have been taken captive.’

And then another thing that happens is that your frame of reference gets shifted. And this is something that happens here as well, it’s just so much more dire in a country that’s far out of whack in a country in terms of its media balance . So you think you’re being more normal than the crazy, but the crazy is so crazy that your normal is pretty crazy as well. And again, I can tell you stories 

In fall 2002, Denmark arrested a Chechen man who was the deputy prime minister of the Chechen government in exile. Russians had a warrant out for his arrest. He was in Denmark for a conference. Denmark arrested him, held him for a month, and then didn’t extradite him. So he went back to where he still lives, and all was well. So a couple weeks later, I was in Sweden, visiting with a Swedish journalist who was the Moscow correspondent for one of the Swedish papers. She said, ‘I can’t believe they did that.’ I thought, ‘What, is she crazy? She thinks she should have extradited this guy?’ And she said, ‘I can’t believe they detained him.’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, she’s right. Denmark should not have detained him on a Russian warrant. They know Russia is at war with Chechnya. They know this guy was elected in Chechnya. How could you possibly detain the prime minister on the warrant of a country that is waging war on them? That’s insane.’ But sitting in Moscow covering it, I was engaged with the question of whether they should extradite him or not. And I was completely oblivious that they shouldn’t have detained him in the first place. And that’s a really good example of how your framework shifts. My normal was sort of like, ‘No, they shouldn’t extradite him!’ And all the state media were saying, ‘Yes, they should extradite him.’ But even asking the question is insane.

Was it a sense of a different audience? Was that the difference?
No, unfortunately that wasn’t inside my head. There’s a public conversation, and you can only take so many steps away from the public conversation before you’re not even there.

Do you see that at work with the way the U.S. covers other countries that you know well? Situations where we get things wrong because our frame of reference is so far removed? Let’s take Ukraine. Whenever there were rumblings about Russia’s possible invasion of Crimea, I tried and tried, reading American media, to get any sense of how it would look to a supporter of Putin: a more or less level-headed Russian person whose presumption was in favor of the Russian government. What would they even say? What was their point of view, even if it seems crazy to us? And I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find any stories that explained Russia’s perspective.
That’s interesting. I haven’t seen that deficiency at all. In fact, I think the opposite is the problem. Again, I think there’s a trap that the media fall into — and I think the New York Times is particularly guilty of this — which is being beholden to State Department narratives. The State Department is not a neutral party. The State Department is a political actor, in relationship to Russia and in relationship to Ukraine. Maybe I shouldn’t single out the New York Times, because NPR has been horrible on this as well. But the terminology they use: the State Department and President Obama, they have not used the word ‘war.’ They have not used the word ‘invasion.’ They have used the word ‘adventurism.’

About Ukraine in particular?
About Ukraine in particular. And the other thing they’ve used is ‘Russian-backed rebels,’ when there was ample evidence that there were actually Russian troops on the ground in Ukraine. Now there’s a reason for the State Department to do that: Saying there are Russian troops there has foreign-policy consequences. But when reporters look at the two parties in the war as the two actors, and then the State Department — the U.S. government — as an impartial observer, that’s just wrong. You know? And again, if they went to academics, they would have another way of appraising the situation, and maybe they would then have a way of using the word ‘war.’

What do you think is at the root of that? Is it a matter of deference to the State Department?
There’s something structurally integrated with foreign coverage. Reporters often default to thinking of their government as the sort of ultimate authority.

Is true of the Russian media as well?
It’s definitely true in Russia.  And there’s another thing. How do I diagnose this problem? I think American reporters — and this is definitely more true of American reporters than it is of European reporters — reporters and editors — tend to have a kind of deference to government, and to this idea of legitimacy, that they transfer directly to non-democratic countries.

There was an interesting example just last month: I was in Estonia at a Russian studies conference, and people were talking about Putin, and Trump, and an American reporter stood up. Before I registered who he was, I knew the point of the question was going to be. I knew he was an American mainstream newspaper reporter. He said, ‘Well, but Putin is so popular — isn’t that just like democracy?’ And… I mean, there are so many steps between populism, and popularity, and the democratic mechanism — representative democracy — that Americans systematically ignore … This question also had to do with sort of the way that the scholars speaking used the word ‘populism’ in a derogatory manner. ‘But isn’t that the ultimate legitimacy? The ultimate legitimating factor? That somebody’s popular?’

The willingness to defer to the mob’s opinion on the part of American reporters is really striking. Every time I talk to somebody about Putin, it’s like, ‘But isn’t he vastly popular?’ Is that really the most important question? I mean, we can unpack his popularity. I think it’s manufactured. I think it’s manufactured through totalitarian mechanisms. It’s manufactured through control of media, it’s manufactured through the threat of terror. But ultimately, that’s not the most important question. There are other ways of evaluating whether somebody’s evil or good, other than asking, ‘Isn’t he popular?’

And you’ve found this to be specific to American reporters? Do you think it’s part of the American psyche?
I think it’s maybe because the democratic system here has been so stable for so long that people don’t think about the way it works, or maybe their civics classes are just not good enough. I think Europeans are a little bit more aware of the way democracy works. It’s got all sorts of complicated mechanisms, and just because somebody’s popular, it doesn’t mean they’re a legitimate leader.

I come back to this question of our sense of exceptionalism in how our law enforcement and court system work. We have a sense that there are secret police and manipulative tactics in other countries, but even if we see deficiencies in specific cases here, we put our system in a totally different category. We have a hard time thinking of the FBI having anything close to an equivalency with the FSB or the KGB, for instance. Do those seem to you like symptoms of the same thing?
Maybe. If I had $10 for every time I’ve been called a conspiracy theorist since I published the book, I would have made more money on it. There does seem to be huge suspicion of how I question the FBI. I don’t think the FBI and the FSB are essentially similar. What I do think is that unchecked power is dangerous in all forms, and that the FBI at this point in history has unchecked power. And it has unchecked power, not because it’s in power, the way that the FSB is in Russia. It’s not. But it doesn’t have civilian oversight, because we have a completely unfunctioning Congress. This is a recent development. After 9/11 there was civilian oversight, and there was a profound investigation into what had gone wrong before 9/11. And we’ve lost that in the 15 years since. So I don’t… 15 years is kind of a long time, and it’s long enough for something terrible to happen, but it’s short enough for it not to have quite penetrated the public consciousness. But ultimately, any agency that can work in secrets, that can employ extralegal mechanisms — and any secret service, by definition has that. And that’s probably fine. All countries have to have secret services that have those capabilities. But they should also be kept in check by civilian oversight. And that’s just what we don’t have. And you’re right, we don’t have a public that’s demanding this civilian oversight. And we don’t have media that facilitate the public demanding it. And anybody who does demand it is laughed at as a conspiracy theorist. I’ve ended up in that basket, and I’m not alone.

Circling back to Orlando: It seems to me like a problem that when something like this happens, you know right away how our presidential candidates are going to respond. Even though the guy was born in New York and lived in Florida, you know they’re going to say, ‘We need to take more military action against ISIS,’ and in Trump’s case, ‘We need to clamp down on immigration against Muslims.’ There has to be something wrong with the media when they can be so reliably expected to say that and the public swallows it. So what do you think the media’s role is? Is there something broken in the mechanism?
The media’s role is to question the assumption. I don’t know if you saw my piece in the New York Review of Books on Monday, but I wrote about that, and it’s called, ‘Terrorism: The Wrong Conversation.’ I mean, look. They said exactly what they’re expected to say, and they defined the extremes of the conversation. So on one extreme, you have Trump, who is basically narcissistic , and on the other side you have Hillary, who is reasonable, and essentially they’re saying the same thing — which is, ‘Let’s go to war with ISIS. And President Obama said the same thing too.

What I think is really striking is the difference between the way Obama himself responded after the Newtown shootings and after the Boston Marathon bombing. There are two modes he has a politician. One is the mode of mourning, and he’s amazing at that. He cried after Newtown. He basically led the church in mourning after South Carolina. And he has the steel resolve, ‘We will go to war,’ for the acts of terror — when there’s a Muslim involved. He goes into war mode. He’s not the only one. As I said, the presidential candidates did the same thing. In fact, all western leaders do the same thing. We saw, after Charlie Hebdo, western leaders, with their steely faces, linking arms and marching through Paris. I’ve written about this before, and I keep saying this: there’s nothing the terrorist wants more than to be recognized as this individual with awesome power. The power to declare war on a great nation. One day you’re a loser in sweatpants. Unemployed. And the next day you declare war on the United States. And the United States accepts that declaration! Which is, like, the stupidest thing ever. Instead of saying, you know, ‘You fucker! You stupid common criminal!’

Imagine yourself as somebody who shot people at Charlie Hebdo. And Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, they march against you through the streets of Paris. You get them to march in formation. You rule the fucking world at that point. And I think the psychological mechanism of wanting to do that is very understandable. We are terrified of terrorism. There’s a desire to imbue it with meaning and to create an antidote to the fear. If the fear is this huge, then there has to be something really big on the other side, like ISIS — not an asshole in sweatpants. So I think there has to be — I mean, we actually know what the response should look like: it should look like President Obama crying, President Obama singing in church. It has to be mourning, which is emotionally much more honest, and it’s factually much more true. The people in the gay bar in Orlando didn’t die for their cause, they didn’t die for Omar Mateen’s cause, they died absolutely senselessly. As a culture, we grapple with senseless death in the school shootings.

Right. In Newtown, we settled for it being some asshole.
Yes. And maybe because it’s children, and maybe because the perpetrators are white and recognizable. You just know it’s senseless. Maybe it’s because the coverage of Columbine was so good. Dave Cullen’s book was so good. The movie Bowling for Columbine was so good. Maybe that helped us to sort of come to terms with the idea that it can have no meaning, or that the meaning can be found in mourning and sort of being together in mourning. But the easy way out is to believe the terrorist: that there’s a war on, and that lends a kind of valour to these deaths.

And I have almost as big a problem — and this is probably going to get me into huge trouble — but I have almost as big a problem with my friends who are saying, ‘Why did they died? They died because of homophobia.’ No, actually, they didn’t. They died because of the availability of assault weapons. They died because this guy — because of the tolerance for violence. A lot of the people I’m talking to on social media are queer, but I’m freaked out by how normalized domestic violence is and how pathologized homophobia is in this reaction. Frankly, I’m a little more comfortable with homophobia than I am with domestic violence, as a thing that exists in somebody else’s house. Because homophobia in somebody else’s house is not a threat to me. Domestic violence in somebody else’s house is. Homophobia in my house is not something I’m going to tolerate. But this incredible attention to homophobia and much smaller attention to the actual violence that is actually a very good predictor.

When Obama puts on this steely, ready-for-war temperament, it’s not really a question of him setting the tone or the press setting the tone. It’s like everyone knows at the same time what role to assume. So it must come from some deeper level.

Well, this is how we’ve decided that we’re going to talk about it. We decided this after 9/11. It’s perfectly understandable that we’ve decided this. I think it’s shifting a little bit, and maybe that’s completely solipsistic, because a year ago I could barely place a piece like this. Now at least it runs in the New York Review of Books. I remember, actually, last year after South Carolina, I was trying to place a story that said, ‘Stop demanding that Dylan Roof be called a terrorist.’ Not because he’s not a terrorist — he is — but because it’s useless. It’s a completely useless term, and the function of that term is to other the perpetrator. So my argument was, we should stop using the word ‘terrorist’ at all, not demand that we should use it more and more widely. Slate said, ‘No, we don’t want that piece,’ and Slate is my go-to place. It’s a place where I’m used to be able to publish anything. They’ve been publishing me for 20 years — since they started, basically. Reuters finally ran that piece, and it didn’t get a lot of play. This piece in the New York Review of Books is getting quite a lot of reaction.

And solipsistically, I feel like, maybe I’m starting to get somewhere with this argument. But it leads someone who’s not much bigger than me to be a radical about saying, ‘Let’s just stop talking about it this way. Let’s talk about it in a completely different way.’ That’s a very hard thing to do right after a tragedy. It might work, I don’t know, if one of the parents of the survivors in Orlando did it. Or if Obama did it. Hillary Clinton can’t do it; she’s a presidential candidate. I don’t know that she would be inclined to, but I know she can’t.

So what do you think the ideal coverage would look like? In an inverted-pyramid story, would the various groups that he’d pledged allegiance to — ISIS, al-Qaeda — be anywhere near the top of the story?
No, they wouldn’t be near the top. Because what else did the guy say? It’s giving him a lot of credence. The thing is, I actually had an interesting media-consumer experience. I was flying from Moscow to New York on Sunday. I was boarding the plane when a friend messaged me. She was working the wires in Israel. She’s a journalist in Tel Aviv. She said, ‘Did you see what happened in Orlando?’ I was scrolling through my Facebook feed. Of course, all my American friends were asleep. It was 4 in the morning. My flight was at 5 in the morning. At that point, none of the big media were reporting it, because the police hadn’t stormed the club yet. They stormed it at like 5:30. So there were local media reporting items like, ‘Reports of mass casualties,’ but nothing else. So I wasn’t seeing anything. And she said, ‘Well, it’s definitely happening.’ And just before I turned off my phone, I looked at the local media in Orlando, and they had those kinds of items.

And then when I landed, eight hours later, or nine hours later, it was late afternoon in New York. It was late afternoon by the time I turned on my phone. And the first things I saw were, ‘Terrorist, terrorist, terrorist.’ And at that point, it was just, NBC had reported that Mateen had made that 911 phone call in which he mentioned ISIS. I think ISIS had not yet taken responsibility. Obama was just about to utter the word ‘terrorist.’ I even wrote a Facebook post saying, ‘Why even call him a terrorist? There’s actually less basis. There’s one unconfirmed report of a 911 call. And there’s no evidence of a political manifesto.’

What makes him different from Dylan Roof is the absence of a political manifesto. The thing about terrorism is that there’s no single definition of terrorism, but basically most people agree it has to be aimed at non-state actors, and the goal has to be to draw attention to political issues or a political agenda. There’s no evidence that he was trying to draw attention to a political agenda — unlike Dylan Roof, who had an incoherent manifesto, but it was a political manifesto. In his modus operandi, he was a terrorist. And yet, nobody was calling him a terrorist early on. Everybody was calling Omar Mateen a terrorist. And it was very clear, the word ‘terrorist’ preceded Obama’s announcement.

There was a moment of choice. They didn’t have to call him a terrorist. After Obama said it, there was no choice. But there was a moment of choice for him as well. And in fact, he had an opportunity to say, ‘I’m not going to dignify this by calling him a terrorist.’ He had the opportunity — I don’t particularly like the term ‘hate crime’ either — but he had a beautiful opportunity to say, Let’s not call this terrorism. This is a hate crime.’ I think it would have traction. It would have gotten, certainly, a really positive reaction from the gay community.

Let’s talk about Trump for a moment. Lately the media has taken a more critical stance toward him than they take toward anything. A week or two ago, CNN had a headline like, ‘Trump claims he never said this or that.’ And then in parenthesis — ‘He did.’ It’s funny how his campaign has come to occupy its own category in news coverage, where it’s assumed that things he says are supposed to be fact-checked and taken skeptically. It’s totally different than the way they report on something like the conversation that’s taken hold after this shooting: they don’t question the assumption that we should respond by escalating our military action against ISIS.
Trump is different. I actually think this is a good thing. Because I think where the failure was early on, is that the media seemed to think that just his being a presidential candidate lent him enough legitimacy to treat him with some deference. And I think taking off the gloves — better late than never … I think in this country, we tend to err on the side of two things: one is deference before anything that is connected to the democratic process, which is usually a good thing, and anything that’s connected with free speech, which is also usually a good thing.

Europeans are different in this way. Europeans will say, ‘This is obscene. We have a contract as a society to not tolerate this in the public sphere, under any circumstances. Although — I’m saying that, but they’ve got their own Trumps in every single country, and they face their own issues with dealing with them. The Trumps of the world are really good at manipulating the free press and manipulating freedoms in general. And that’s a good thing. It’s good to have moments where our mechanisms are tested.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Masha Gessen on the Media