When reading international news, a reader is ideally presented with facts and then compelled to form an opinionated judgment based on impartial information. This process being a form of non-passive discourse that takes place in the mind of the reader as they assess information. While this scenario might be the lofty ideal of objective journalism, it’s rarely seen in international reportage. Instead news predominantly serves an ideological means to communicate certain information to a specific demographic, with the objective ideal only functioning as a comparative reference point. This format positions the reader as a passive spectator of subjective and agreeable news that has inherent value not in impartial truths but in simple limited truths. Aware of the disproportion between representations of the complexity of the ideal and degrees of the actual, readers have sought out media strongholds that have historically been reputable sources of unbiased news.
One such source is the British publication, The Economist. The weekly print and online magazine was founded in 1843 on the basis of 19th century liberalism and utilitarianism, and was politically described as “the extreme centre” by mid 20th century editor Geoffrey Crowther. This established position is appealing to discriminating readers of a Western, First World mindset seeking an equitable source of international news. Though the veracity of The Economist’s centrist position is questionable when examined through non-Western ideological perspectives. This is not entirely unforeseen, in that the magazine or newspaper as its called in the UK, is a product of and for Western society. And while open-minded cultural sensibilities to non-Western viewpoints are appreciated by an informed public seeking the “extreme centre,” in practice this has proven to be a complicated area for The Economist’s journalists. Namely representations of the Second World of the Soviet Bloc, or now the Russian Federation and its sphere of influence. Over time Russia has been depicted as a threat to Western interests, an ideological enemy, and as a confused entity that’s occasionally enlightened with Western values, that cumulatively amounts to an overall negative gestalt. These notions lead to the question of Russia being simply misunderstood or unjustly portrayed in the discourse of The Economist.
The first discursive point is the anonymity of most of The Economist’s articles. The publication’s website “About Us” page states:
Why is it anonymous? Many hands write The Economist, but it speaks with a collective voice. Leaders are discussed, often disputed, each week in meetings that are open to all members of the editorial staff. Journalists often co-operate on articles. And some articles are heavily edited. The main reason for anonymity, however, is a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it. As Geoffrey Crowther, editor from 1938 to 1956, put it, anonymity keeps the editor "not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself. You can call that ancestor-worship if you wish, but it gives to the paper an astonishing momentum of thought and principle."
By adhering to this principle, the magazine simultaneously realizes an aggregate ethos and a nullification of journalistic ownership. In the former, this allows The Economist to maintain a generic discourse that aids hard content rather than personal authorial flourishes. The magazine is able to move slower and more conservatively through current events that possibly turn into significant historical occurrences. The banal yet opinionated “collective voice” is most likely a component in its continuing longevity, and is what the website designates as “plain language,” while additionally 19th century editor Walter Bagehot describes it as a “conversational” writing style that’s used in the “most direct and picturesque manner.” This voice of The Economist is a device that’s able to weather ideological shifts in history while also playing a part in the creation of preserved epistemic history, or what Michel Foucault might term an épistème to define a set systematic and related events that characterize a historical period.
This épistème may be suspected of being something like a world-view, a slice of history common to all branches of knowledge, which imposes on each one the same norms and postulates, a general stage of reason, a certain structure of thought that the men of a particular period cannot escape – a great body of legislation written once and for all by some anonymous hand (Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge).
Events preserved in The Economist, no matter the validity or the point at which the “extreme centre” happens to be at the time, are a priori pieces of discursive information. As a priori knowledge, the articles are not written from a perspective of direct experience, as in a participant or witness to an event, but rather from a position that enables an opinion, inductive or deductive reasoning, or imagines an event that has or hasn’t happened. In this way, journalistic discourse operates in a speculative fashion as opposed to a definitive record of information. This allows the magazine to take authorial license in the creation of historical knowledge regarding a traditional ideological foe like Russia to the West.
Regarding journalistic ownership, authorial voices are eliminated to account less for individual viewpoints that could damage the publication’s reputation or hijack it altogether in the service of a few notable journalists. This discursive practice places greater emphasis on the interpretive abilities of the reader. It allows for multiple interpretations of a text thereby insuring a varied overall comprehension that would rarely extend to the polemical. With this method, the magazine manages to sustain an objective or “extreme centre” philosophy in its reportage. Hence The Economist uses a discursive construct more known to Literary Fiction than media journalism. The approach recalls Roland Barthes’ concept of “Death of the Author,” where the mind of the journalist is less an individualized viewpoint and more of a channel in which language distills a zeitgeist that is only truly complete with the receiving perceptions of the reader. The Economist does possess a definitive comprehensive standpoint that makes ideological shifts, though this fact is confounded by the anonymous nature of its discourse.
If The Economist can be said to have a Western bias, this does not mean its articles are false. In an article called “Crisis of Confidence” dated May 8th 1943 concerning the status of Poland during WWII, a Western leaning, conciliatory stance is established. The beginning of the piece mentions the need for “the Great Powers” (USA, UK, and USSR) to restore order to war-torn Europe after the then current war. The last sentence of the introductory paragraph reads;
The avowed principles of Britain, Russia and America on such matters as peace, disarmament, co-operation, neighbourly relations between states and respect for the rights of other nations very largely coincide; and however clear sighted the British people may be about the need for understanding, their major premise is always that it must be firmly rooted in justice and good will.
Textually, the sentence exaggerates the uniting “avowed principles” of the nation-states. These embellishments mark a desperate tone that’s not meant to communicate literal truths. Instead the text’s “principles” function to assuage an audience and call for an end to the war, regardless of conflicting ideologies. It was known then, as well as now, that the absolute uniting principle in the European theater was the defeat of Germany. Later in the article, The Economist questions unreferenced statements from the Russians. “The Russians want a ‘free and independent’ Poland. They have said so. Yet is it absolutely certain that the terms are not being used ambiguously? Could ‘free’ mean ‘Soviet’? Could ‘independent’ mean free only to opt for inclusion in the Soviet Union?” This works in the intertextual realm to establish Russian intentions because the magazine gives no indication as to where, when, or how contextually the paraphrased statements originated, making the resulting questions function as rhetorical accusations. This discourse would satisfy a Western audience that realizes cooperation with the USSR is necessary, but views the country as backward and dangerous. Though as time progressed through the end of WWII and the beginning of the Cold War, The Economist’s prophetic discourse turned out to be correct.
At times the language and discourse in The Economist are portentous and excessive, and exploits limited truths to misrepresent authenticity. In an article extravagantly titled, “The view from the Kremlin: Putin’s War on the West” from February 14th 2015, partial truths are utilized to invoke sentiment and subjective morality.
For Mr. Putin the only good neighbour is a weak one; vassals are better than allies. Only the wilfully blind would think his revanchism has been sated. Sooner or later it may encompass the Baltic states—members of both the European Union and NATO, and home to Russian minorities of the kind he pledges to “protect”. The EU and NATO are Mr. Putin’s ultimate targets.
In the first sentence of this section, the magazine inculcates that Vladimir Putin wants subservient nation-states as partners in a modern Russian feudalism. The next sentence attempts to qualify the first statement by invoking an ad hominem fallacy on a potential disagreeing party. It suggests someone, be it reader or one with differing views on the matter, is purposefully denying the previous claims as well as the cause of Russian irredentism or retaliatory expansionism out of willful ignorance. Then the language forewarns of potential consequences along the lines of crying wolf with boisterous claims and concludes with a reiteration of the article’s title. Comparing this writing from The Economist to a similarly anonymous piece in Al Jazeera called, “The Baltic and the Bear” dated July 29th 2015, the same issues are discussed;
For months, NATO has been building up its military presence in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania amid fears that, after the Russian sponsored separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine, their turn may be next.
But have these nations, part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s, been adding to the tension by discriminating against their large ethnic-Russian minorities?
The tone here is less harsh but just as suggestive. Instead of insinuating revenge incited expansionism, this article implies the statuses of four former Soviet republics may be linked through a faulty generalization. It also implies irredentism as the cause, but additionally gives a possibility for the fear generating rhetoric. Contextually these article excerpts discuss the same subjects, but in clearly different attitudes. Both fail to mention the historical scope of NATO as a Western military alliance created to thwart a Soviet attack, along with the condition in 1990 of German reunification and NATO membership that the USSR had been assured by US and West German governments that NATO would never expand eastward. NATO has not only expanded eastward but has member states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) formerly belonging to the USSR and Warsaw Pact, the Eastern Bloc’s military alliance created to counter NATO. While this history is fairly well known, the articles portray NATO as an innocent victim of Russian aggression. Qatar based Al Jazeera has Western ties that are subtly represented, while The Economist is naturally aligned to the West and yet uses saber-rattling language more akin to propaganda to sensationalize and exaggerate an unlikely Russian threat. The Western bias is so salient and overbearing that it disqualifies the content and ultimate veracity of the The Economist’s editorial voice.
The original neutral intentions of The Economist have been whittled down to narrow representations through the gradual internalization of a pro Western stance. This should not be surprising, but since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a unipolar world order that has been equated as a triumph of Western values, it has become harder to realize and then document an objective view. When ideological power shifts and generational time erodes past ethical values, a new tradition becomes the projection of moral good that seems to be the pinnacle or accumulation of all previous eras. In this cycle the origin is lost, though objectivity appears to reside with the holder of power. Jean Baudrillard defines this further; “The circularization of power, of knowledge, of discourse puts an end to any localization of instances and poles... The ‘power’ of the interpreter does not come from any outside instance but from the interpreted himself” (Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation). Essentially the original mid 19th century “collective voice” of a multipolar word order has had to adapt to a singular voice that serves a new version of normality. This can lead to reactionary and invective discourses that cease to be intellectually valuable. In an article titled, “What Russia wants: From cold war to hot war” dated February 14th 2015, The Economist states; “Anti-Americanism is not only the reason for war and the main pillar of state power, but also an ideology that Russia is trying to export to Europe, as it once exported communism.” This claim concerning the Ukrainian civil war is bold and once again rhetorically invokes Europe as a victim of Russia’s ideologies that could possibly require a Truman Doctrine-like response from the West. In the same article, a different Russian past is recalled; “Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolution consisted not in damping down Marxism but in proclaiming the supremacy of universal human values over the state, opening up Russia to the West.” This sentence grandly equates human dignity with the West and recalls the positioning of the “Other” in constructions of historical knowledge. For The Economist, Russia is the primary “Other” of the modern era that demands a transformation of itself in a way similar to Edward Said’s representations of Oriental (Middle Eastern) transformations through Western constructs;
One ought again to remember that all cultures impose corrections on raw reality, changing it from free-floating objects into units of knowledge. The problem is not that conversion takes place. It is perfectly natural for the human mind to resist the assault on it of untreated strangeness; therefore cultures have always been inclined to impose complete transformations on other cultures, receiving these cultures not as they are but as, for the benefit of the receiver, as the way they ought to be (Said, Orientalism).
The linguistic discourse in The Economist suggests the view of a Russia and its people desiring to be more democratic and Western-like. This is the narrow normality the magazine is functioning through. In this mindset, it seems ridiculous to think any culture would not want what the West can bestow.
Misunderstanding of the Russian psyche figures prominently into the deconstructive discourse of historical interpretation and prediction found in The Economist. As has been said, this misunderstanding doesn’t mean the magazine is incorrect. It means rather that The Economist in misunderstanding Russia conveys an unjust representation of that nation-state. This in fact hurts Russia very little in the reality of hard/soft power relations, and does more to damage the overall view of Western interpretive analyses of the non Western world. The notion that The Economist embodies the “extreme centre” further marginalizes the magazine into skewed journalism that survives by selling sensation. With this discourse in mind, the mission statement-like claim that the editorial voice is “not the master but the servant of something far greater than himself” construes a very different meaning than what was originally and now currently intended.