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RECOMMENDED READING: “Debating the Debates: How Russian, Chinese, and Iranian State-Backed Media Covered the U.S. First Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates

October 27th, 2020 13:50

The Alliance for Secur­ing Democ­ra­cy, a project affil­i­at­ed with the US-based think tank Ger­man Mar­shall Fund, has pub­lished a study on how Russ­ian, Chi­nese and Iran­ian state-backed media has cov­ered the U.S. Pres­i­den­tial and Vice Pres­i­den­tial Debates, con­clud­ing that they used the debates to paint a pic­ture of the US polit­i­cal sys­tem “as deeply dys­func­tion­al if not irre­deemable.” Accord­ing to the study. titled “Debat­ing the Debates: How Russ­ian, Chi­nese, and Iran­ian State-Backed Media Cov­ered the U.S. First Pres­i­den­tial and Vice Pres­i­den­tial Debates”:

Russ­ian, Iran­ian, and Chi­nese state media cov­er­age of the first U.S. pres­i­den­tial debate was almost uni­ver­sal­ly neg­a­tive, reflect­ing broad­er crit­i­cism found in U.S. and oth­er glob­al media out­lets. Cov­er­age of the more con­ven­tion­al vice pres­i­den­tial debate was less acer­bic, with much of the neg­a­tive cov­er­age cir­cling back to crit­i­cism of the pres­i­den­tial debate. Although there were com­mon­al­i­ties in the cov­er­age from the three mon­i­tored countries—most notably, the idea that the debates reflect­ed a broad­er decline in U.S. democracy—Russia, Chi­na, and Iran’s cov­er­age also revealed their indi­vid­ual pref­er­ences and mes­sag­ing priorities.

The study went on to char­ac­ter­ize cov­er­age by the three influ­ence actors as follows:

  • Russ­ian state-backed media such as Rus­sia Today, Sput­nik, or TASS focused on four key themes: the sad state of U.S. polit­i­cal cul­ture, crit­i­cism of the U.S. media, divi­sions in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, and Trump’s refusal to con­demn white suprema­cy. Also, the issue of Russ­ian inter­fer­ence pro­vid­ed an open­ing to ham­mer the U.S. for its alleged “Rus­so­pho­bia.”
  • As for Chi­na, state-backed out­lets such as T‑House or Chi­na Glob­al Tele­vi­sion Net­work (CGTN) and its com­men­ta­tors likened the debates to a “kinder­garten dust-up” and crit­i­cized both can­di­dates’ per­for­mances, although the over­all cov­er­age was slight­ly more favor­able to the Biden-Har­ris cam­paign, accord­ing to the study.
  • Iran­ian state-backed media such as Press TV, Tas­nim, or Fars Agency echoed some of the themes present in Russ­ian and Chi­nese state media, i.e. that the debate was a deba­cle, but put more focus on issues relat­ed to Iran’s core inter­ests, such as the U.S. with­draw­al from the nuclear deal. Iran was also the only coun­try where diplo­mats and gov­ern­ment offi­cials did not shy away from direct­ly crit­i­ciz­ing the debates, some­thing Chi­nese and Russ­ian gov­ern­ment offi­cials large­ly avoided.

Final­ly, the study notes that while Russ­ian, Chi­nese, and Iran­ian cov­er­age of the Pres­i­den­tial debates was biased to a degree, none of the coun­tries engaged in out­right disinformation:

The unciv­il and chaot­ic first pres­i­den­tial debate pro­vid­ed Rus­sia, Chi­na, and Iran with an easy oppor­tu­ni­ty to cast the U.S. polit­i­cal sys­tem as deeply dys­func­tion­al and unpalat­able to audi­ences at home and abroad. While there was some hyper­bole and bias in each coun­tries’ cov­er­age, none of the three coun­tries engaged in out­right mis- or dis­in­for­ma­tion in their reporting—probably because there was no need to. In fact, most of the cov­er­age large­ly echoed, and indeed some­times direct­ly quot­ed, cov­er­age in U.S. and oth­er west­ern media out­lets. The col­lec­tive debate cov­er­age is yet anoth­er reminder that the Unit­ed States’ social and polit­i­cal ills are increas­ing­ly being weaponized by its adversaries—often with­out the need for much edi­to­r­i­al spin, let alone out­right falsehoods.

Read the entire study here here.