Journalist David Filipov shared his experiences reporting in Russia for The Washington Post and covering the rise of a post-Cold War Russia, as well as his perspective on modern news media, last Thursday in a talk in Hamilton Smith Hall.
A former chief of The Washington Post’s Moscow bureau for two years, Filipov also shared about his personal experiences in Russia during and following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. He recalled, among other events, being in a Soviet rock band that performed at a nuclear powerplant, witnessing the rise of the Russian tri-color flag and being inside the Russian Parliament the day the Soviet Union voted to dissolve.
“What do you think the vote was?” Filipov asked attendees. “…A lot of people were kind of wondering, ‘should we really do that, like, maybe it’s not a good idea, let’s keep the Soviet Union together.’ If there were 200 people there, how many people voted against leaving the Soviet Union, ending the treaty, withdrawing Russia from the treaty that formed the Soviet Union? It’s like New Hampshire leaving the United States.”
After stating that he would give a dollar to anyone with the right answer, he revealed that only 16 out of 200 government officials that day voted to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), with 174 in favor.
It was not just events that highlighted Filipov’s experiences in Moscow, as he also remembered meeting several high-ranking Soviet officials, such as Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Russia President Boris Yeltsin during their signing of a peace accord in Crimea concerning the Black Sea Fleet and other territorial issues, as well as Yeltsin’s bodyguard who, according to Filipov, greeted him with a hit from his elbow. He also shared the times he spoke with General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and, in later years, future Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told the journalist that Americans asking him certain questions made him suspect that they were “working on me–the KGB ratted…”
Throughout his talk, Filipov expressed disappointment and concern with modern news outlets, especially television outlets, who he said sometimes, depending on the outlet, try to spread falsehoods enough times to promote a narrative, convince the public that they’re right or seed overall distrust in the media in the hopes of framing truths that don’t fit a certain narrative as lies.
“’…what about those battalions on the border there? What about that rocket system that you converted from a ship that is now illegal?…What about all that, it’s proof that you’re coming,’” he said. “And the thing is that even if an irrational Russian person knows that there’s no way in the world the United States is going to try and invade Russia, if you say something enough on TV, then you get 37 percent of Americans believe that the media is always lying.”
Filipov strongly disagreed with this assessment, stressing that that few of the journalists he encountered and worked with over the course of the past 20 years purposefully tried to lie, making claims of purposeful media deception especially concerning when it involves foreign happenings involving Russia and potential U.S. involvement.
“I knew two guys who did plagiarism and got kicked out and two guys who made things up and they got kicked out, but generally, reporters try to get what they can; they make a mistake because they generalize. They make a mistake because they’ve got 850 words and they need to get from here to here, and so they’ll say, ‘Ukraine’s former pro-Putin president Ninkovich,’ which is a mistake because Ninkovich is not pro-Putin…he was pro-money, he was pro-oligarchy, he was pro-stay-in-power-and-be-rich. He became pro-Russia when he fled to Russia. The proper way to say it is, ‘Ninkovich is a former president who fled to Russia after leaving power.’ That is correct; the other one is incorrect, but it’s a shortcut that everybody makes because it’s easy for us to say, ‘he fled to Russia…friend of Putin.’”
During his insistence that media, aside from commentators, do not lie and only get facts wrong due to mistakes, Filipov claimed that the media thinks that they have a “scoop” or a good lead only to exercise erroneous reporting, adding that he does not believe that “reporters at the [Washington] Post and the [Boston] Globe never go out [and say], ‘hey, let’s fool people.’” He said it “blows my mind” that the majority of the American public, beyond the “Trumps” and “Bernies,” believes that reporters lie because others continuously insist that reporters lie; this led him to conclude that, because Russians continuously hear that the Americans plan to invade despite a lack of transparency from their heads of government, they believe that an American invasion is in their future.
Filipov, according to The Washington Post’s bio page, left the Post in January 2018, where he covered Russia and the former Soviet republics as both a reporter and during his stint as bureau chief in Moscow. He also previously reported for The Boston Globe from Boston, Russia, Afghanistan and Iraq, per the webpage.
Those interested in hearing Filipov’s entire talk can listen to it above