One of the fun parts of travel is how it can mix up one’s routine, which is why I found myself eating breakfast on a couch and watching CNN on a flat screen television a couple days ago. Neither I nor my friends who turned on the television were expecting something particularly mind-expanding; we just wanted to see how the mainstream media was covering the stories of the day. I say this to make it clear that our expectations going in were low, so you understand how disappointing it was that CNN still failed to meet them.
To discuss Russia’s arrest of a US citizen (Paul Whelan) on espionage charges, CNN interviewed Bill Browder, who was introduced as simply a “Critic of Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin.” Their website with part of the segment describes him as a “Russian-American business man” but doesn’t fill in the gaps as to either the man’s history, expertise, possible agenda, or any other reason he is qualified to talk about the topic (there are a lot of critics of Putin). So I did the rational thing and Wikipedia’ed “Bill Browder,” here’s first paragraph of the article:
William Felix Browder (born 23 April 1964) is an American-born British financier and economist. He is the CEO and co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund that at one time was the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia. He gave up his U.S. citizenship in 1998 to avoid paying taxes related to foreign investment.After having business in Russia for ten years, Browder was refused entry to Russia in 2005 as a threat to national security; he has said it was because he exposed corruption.Copied on 01/04/19
Further context, Hermitage Capital Management operates primarily within emerging markets and is known for investigating corruption in the companies it owns. Hermitage was a major investor in Russia, exposed corruption within some of its holdings while Browder (and the firm) proclaimed Russia would be led into the 21st Century by Putin, until 2005 when Browder was banned from the country as a threat to national security. Since then Hermitage Capital’s offices have been raided, assets seized, and at least one of its lawyers has been arrested (and left to literally die) by the Russian State.
Given that Browder was mentioned by Putin in the infamous Helsinki press conference with Trump, so it is fair to say he is one of the more prominent critics of Russia, but it’s also important to understand why. His positions, and agenda, seem to resolve around a desire to make money. Which brings this article back to CNN, and my problems with the segment. In no particular order…
- Browder’s history and expertise are never presented or justified.
The watcher is left to assume the man has knowledge of national security issues, or Russia, or some expertise that would allow him to talk about a possible case of international espionage and ransom.
- Browder’s agenda is shrouded from the viewer, even as he pushes it.
Knowing he is a former investor in Russia whose fortune has come from working in emerging markets paints Browder’s calls for greater market access to Russia in a different light. He has a particular financial desire for this, and his issue with Russia is in part the lack of “market access” (a line he pushes harder in the full segment). Further, because he is working in other countries with corruption similar to Russia, he may fear that the Whelan case could hurt his business elsewhere.
- Browder appears to have a nominal-at-best connection to the intelligence community.
Both autocracies and hyper-capitalism blur the line between the state and the market, but this diplomatic row/crisis is still fundamentally a national security issue. From all I’ve been able to see, Browder is not a national security expert—he is an investor with a particular focus on corruption and a personal bone to pick with Putin.
- Burying Browder’s US legal troubles.
I actually agree with some of the things Browder has done, or tried to do, over the last decade visa vie Russian human rights and corruption issues . But there are outstanding questions he ought to answer—including why there is a video of him running away from a subpoena in New York City, NY, USA. The subpoena is for a money laundering case, and the NYC incident is just another episode in a bizarre saga rife with Browder avoiding legal cross examination in the US. It is CNN’s duty and obligation, as a news organization, to ask Browder about his behavior and scandals—or at the minimum not gloss over them as if they don’t exist.
- Disingenuous approach to nationality.
Easily the least important of the list, but Browder is neither Russian nor American; he was born in Chicago but gave up his US citizenship in the late ‘90s and now lives in the UK.
The Whelan case isn’t an obscure story with few experts. Russia isn’t some random country with next to no academics or advocates who have dedicated their entire lives to understanding what’s going on. The interview wasn’t a 30 second hit with no time to introduce the guest. Browder wasn’t the only possible guest on the topic, and there was more than enough time to at least mention who Browder is.
All my life, there has been a growing distrust in the mainstream media, from the left and the right. This is just a micro example of why. If we are giving Browder and CNN credit, then CNN did a highly mediocre job booking a guest for a segment provided no information on who he was or why we should listen to him—nor what his angles, motivations, and biases are—and called it informative.
When someone bothers to scratch the surface of a segment like this, the entire show gets called into question as pushing a hidden (almost always corporate) agenda. Even if a deeper dive into the guest’s history reveals them to be better than the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article implies, the taste of distrust remains justified and impossible to wash away. This distrust builds and builds, until the entire network is viewed as a mouthpiece for their masters (be they the corporate elite or The Clintons, for the left and right respectively, it amounts to the same thing). The ability of the mainstream media to say “This is true, this is not” dissolves into thin air and the power of a blowhard with a microphone to reshape the conversation and deny reality grows.
If reality is a collective hunch, then the mainstream media is how we make sure the hunch is collective. But every time I see something like this, I remember why I, like so many others, have given up on mainstream “journalism” to fix, or even improve, the world.