In British reporter Chris Ayres’s memoir War Reporting for Cowards, he describes the arrival briefing he got from the woman he was replacing as New York correspondent of the London Times: “‘Lift and view, Chris, is what we do here … We lift from the New York Times.’ She held up the copy on her desk. ‘And we watch the news.’ She pointed to CNN. ‘We lift … and view. If you get the hang of that, you too can be a foreign correspondent’.”
As a description of how even prestigious media organizations work, it’s very revealing. Research indicates that the vast majority of English-language media stories are taken, almost word for word, from just two sources: a handful of press agencies (primarily AP), and government or corporate press releases. The existence of a large number of media outlets might lead us to believe that we are getting a wide variety of takes on world events. In reality, no matter what we read or watch, we mostly get the same few stories told in exactly the same way. This is especially true of foreign affairs, as the number of Westerners working as foreign correspondents is extremely small.
A glaring example of the practice of “lift and view” was the coverage this weekend of the murder of Daria Platonova (Dugina), the daughter of Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin. Leading English-language media outlets ran almost identical, and identically wrong, headlines, and repeated almost identical, and identically wrong, claims within the stories which followed. The coverage revealed not just the widespread tendency to cut and paste (or “lift and view” as Ayres puts it), but also a disturbing lack of knowledge.
The BBC led with “Darya Dugina: Daughter of Putin ally killed in Moscow blast.” Author Leo Sands told readers that, “It is thought that her father, the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, who is known as “Putin’s brain,” may have been the intended target of the attack. Mr Dugin is a prominent ultra-nationalist who is believed to be close to the Russian president.”
The New York Times’s version of the story used much the same language. “Russia Opens Murder Investigation After Blasts Kills Daughter of Putin Ally,” it said, adding that, “Daria Dugina’s father, Aleksandr Dugin, is said to be a key influence in shaping President Vladimir Putin’s views.” For good measure, the Times also ran an article about the victim’s father, with the headline “Alexander Dugin, a chief promoter of Russia’s war in Ukraine, is sometimes called ‘Putin’s philosopher’.” Others took much the same line. “Daughter of Putin ally killed in suspected car bomb attack near Moscow,” said the CBC.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post raised Dugin to the status of “key” ally, with the headline: “Car explosion kills daughter of key Putin ally Alexander Dugin, Russia says.” The Independent newspaper raised Dugin up still further with the title, “Daughter of Putin’s ‘spiritual guide’ killed in car bomb ‘meant for her father’.” And the Globe and Mail opted for the words “Car blast kills daughter of Russian nationalist known as ‘Putin’s brain’.”
And so on and so forth. The lack of variety is quite striking. But the problem is not just the almost identical wording, it’s that the chosen angle is completely wrong. Dugin isn’t a Putin “ally” let alone a “key” ally, “Putin’s brain,” “Putin’s philosopher,” or Putin’s “spiritual guide.” In fact, as he tells anyone who cares to ask, “I have no influence. I don’t know anybody, have never seen anyone. I just write my books, and am a Russian thinker, nothing more.”
As the articles about his daughter’s murder are keen to point out, Dugin is generally considered a “far-right” or “ultra-nationalist” thinker. These terms are rather imprecise, but they equate to “bad.” Presenting Dugin as Putin’s “ally” thus serves to taint the Russian president. But it’s a fiction. The idea of Dugin as “Putin’s brain” dates back to a 2014 article in Foreign Affairs with that title, by Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn.
Since then the claim has been repeated so often that people assume it to be true. In fact, there is no evidence of any connection between the two men. Until he issued a condolence message this Monday, the Russian president had never mentioned Dugin, let alone cited his words or given any indication that he has read his work. Furthermore, in 2014 Dugin lost his job at Moscow State University and ever since has found himself without any opportunity to speak in the mainstream Russian media. He has in effect been blacklisted as too radical.
Far from being “allies” of the Russian state, so-called “nationalists” such as Dugin have been highly critical of it for being too soft on the West and on Ukraine. Dugin may be many things, but Putin’s “ally,” “brain,” or “spiritual advisor” certainly aren’t among them. One would be hard pressed to find a single serious student of Russian affairs who considers the philosopher to be anything other than a marginal figure in the world of Russian politics. Were just one media outlet to have characterized Dugin incorrectly it would be a simple case of poor reporting. The fact that almost the entire Western press corps has done so is indicative of a more systemic failing. The impoverished picture one gets of the world as a result of this failing leads to ill considered policies, grounded in ignorance. It’s a problem that needs urgent attention.
Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.