Putin and Polarized Politics in the U.S.

By Paul Fredrick


For those who regularly watch American cable news, it’s not difficult to notice how often stories pertaining to Russian President Vladimir Putin are aired.  And why is this?  After all, Putin is not an American politician, and other world leaders such as David Cameron and Kim Jung-un seem to receive much less coverage.  Some would answer this question by stating that Putin has readily supplied newsworthy stories, including his controversial third-term election, his decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden asylum in Russia, his anti-gay laws, and his use of Russian troops to annex Crimea.  While those are important factors, after analyzing Putin-related stories that two major news networks have created, I believe the most significant reason for the frequent coverage of Putin comes from the divided and biased nature of the American cable news networks.

Today in the U.S., a very common way both media sources and everyday Americans display their political preferences is through their support or criticism of President Obama.  In the case of the media, an interesting phenomenon has occurred: in recent years, there have been a plethora of stories comparing and contrasting Putin and Obama.  With this strategy, both liberal and conservative news sources have been able to readily promote their own political agendas.

First of all, the left-leaning network MSNBC has readily made use of this tactic.  Right after Putin sent Russian troops to occupy Crimea, MSNBC published an online article entitled “Obama: Russia ‘violating international law’” (http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/putin-ups-the-ante-ukraine).  Upon reading the piece, it is easy to see that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are portrayed as taking a very strong, controlled, and commanding stance over the situation.  At the same time, the article employed diction such as “rambling” and “skewered” to describe the way Putin was handling the invasion—having the effect of making the Obama administration appear much stronger and organized than Russia’s government.  Obama was again elevated though comparison with Putin on the December 21, 2014, Melissa Harris-Perry show (http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/watch/who-had-the-better-year–obama-or-putin–375669827811).  Here, the commentator dedicated a segment of the show to presenting on how, by the end of 2014, Obama had a much more successful year than Putin.  Throughout the segment, Russia’s failing economy is contrasted to the American economy’s significant job growth in 2014.   Again, this same narrative was rehashed in the article “Against Putin, Obama gets last laugh” (http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/against-putin-obama-gets-the-last-laugh) where even something as simple as the article’s title highlights the way MSNBC portrays Putin as compared to Obama, as well as the political undertone it is attempting to promote.

On the other end of the political spectrum is Fox News, a cable network known for its conservative slant.  Throughout Fox’s coverage, Putin is usually built up as a strong, masculine leader who is then contrasted with a comparatively “weaker” Obama.  A prime example of this can be found in a March 4, 2014, segment of Greta Van Susteren’s show On the Record where Van Susteren interviews Rudy Giuliani about Obama’s reaction to Putin’s aggression in Crimea (http://video.foxnews.com/v/3293365041001/putin-more-of-a-leader-than-obama/?#sp=show-clips).  With regards to the crisis, Giuliani begins with the statement that “[Putin] has a predetermined plan, and [Obama] is trying to figure it out as he goes.”  Giuliani then continues to say the “White House should have had a game plan that was thought out a year ago of exactly how they were going to respond to [Russia’s invasion of Ukraine].”  By the end of the segment, it is agreed upon that the Obama administration was “ineffective” and “ill prepared,” and that his failure to successfully handle the situation consequently weakened the United States.  Moreover, Obama is again cast in a negative light in the article “‘Unchecked’ Putin puts pressure on Obama to take ‘decisive action’” (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/07/25/unchecked-putin-puts-pressure-on-obama-to-take-decisive-action/).  Throughout the article, Putin is continually portrayed as an independent, unfazed leader who “feels increasingly comfortable running roughshod over his neighbors in defiance of the U.S. and Europe.”  On the other hand, Obama is criticized for “fail[ing] to act” and allowing Putin to “test his limits.”  At the same time, the article allows Republican politicians to take shots at the Obama administration and raise the alarm about Putin’s increasing power and boldness.  Fox’s use of Putin to advance its agenda can be further seen through a short “entertainment” piece the network chose to create.  On August 1, 2014, an article entitled “Russian official burns Obama with Putin-leopard pic” reveals and explains a Twitter post made Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/08/01/russian-official-burns-obama-with-putin-leopard-pic/).  The tweet consists of two images set side by side: one of Putin holding a leopard, and one of Obama holding a small, fluffy dog.  The tweet also has an accompanying caption reading: “We have different values and allies.”  While not especially newsworthy, the article was deemed important by Fox because it would highlight Putin’s strong, masculine, “tough guy” image while displaying a representation of Obama that makes him appear weak.  In essence, the primary focus of this article is not on Putin himself; rather, it is on degrading Obama and his administration, yet again revealing the political reasoning for extensively covering Putin.

Taken together, it is clear that the U.S. network news has a passion for reporting on Russia’s president in order to further their own views of President Obama.  However, despite using the same basic tactic, the liberal and conservative media outlets contrast different aspects of Putin and Obama’s characteristics and policies to come out with different takeaway messages.  For instance, MSNBC contrasted Russia’s faltering economy with America’s economic improvement to downgrade Putin’s image while boosting awareness of Obama’s economic successes in 2014.  On the other hand, Fox News juxtaposed Putin and Obama’s different versions of foreign policy to paint Putin as a smart leader who commands respect and Obama as a naïve and incompetent president who cannot handle the pressure of leading the Free World.

Back in January, MSNBC revealed that it will continue to contrast Putin with liberal American politicians when the video Hillary Clinton does a mean Putin impression was posted on its website (http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/hillary-clinton-does-a-mean-putin-impression-387284547680).  And, as 2016 nears, there’s a good chance Putin will be used by Fox to elevate Republican presidential candidates and to tear down Hillary Clinton.  Ultimately, as long as Putin is able to be seen as a foil to American politicians, his name and face will continue to pop up in the network news.

Paul Fredrick is a sophomore at Miami majoring in history and political science.  This post is a condensed version of his honors assignment for HST/ATH/RUS 254.

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