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Russia / September 10, 2008

You probably didn’t know that CNN censored Putin for being just too darn sensible. Yep, it’s true. About two weeks ago, Putin gave the network an exclusive 30-minute interview. And you know what happened? Nothing. It was never allowed to air. CNN doesn’t know it yet, but that decision might have cost them their Russian broadcasting rights.

On August 29, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met with senior political correspondent Matthew Chance for a CNN exclusive interview. “This was unprecedented access to Russia’s powerful prime minister, the former KGB spy now increasingly at odds with Washington,” an overly dramatic voice-over introduced the segment as Chance and Putin enjoyed pre-game banter and a walk through the courtyard of Putin’s palatial Sochi residence. Once seated, Chance didn’t waste any time with his provocative questions:

Matthew Chance: But it’s been no secret either that for years you’ve been urging the West to take more seriously Russia’s concerns about international issues. For instance, about NATO’s expansion, about deployment of missile defense systems in eastern Europe. Wasn’t this conflict a way of demonstrating that in this region, it’s Russia that’s the power, not NATO and certainly not the United States?

Vladimir Putin: Of course not. What is more, we did not seek such conflicts and do not want them in the future.

That this conflict has taken place—that it broke out nevertheless—is only due to the fact that no one had heeded our concerns.

I think both you and your—our—viewers today will be interested to learn a little more about the history of relations between the peoples and ethnic groups in this regions of the world. Because people know little or nothing about it.

If you think that this is unimportant, you may cut it from the program. Don’t hesitate, I wouldn’t mind.

It was a prescient comment. Not only did CNN delete Putin’s historical roundup of relations between Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia going back to the 18th century that followed, the network cut out almost everything else as well. Despite the “unprecedented access” hook, for its U.S. feed, CNN reduced the 30-minute interview into a series of sound bites that seized and ridiculed Putin’s crackpot theory that the Republican party started the war to boost McCain’s ratings. CNN’s international audience, enjoying the news from hotel rooms all round the world, got to see a little more of the footage. But most of it had to do with Russia’s ridiculous “non-political” decision to ban some American poultry importers from doing business with Russia because of their poor quality control standards. CNN’s intentions were clear: Putin must come off looking like a fool. And it seemed Putin gave them the perfect material. Embargoes on dead chickens and global neocon conspiracies? Gosh, what serious self-respecting world leader would start talking this kind of gibberish? Even Ahmadinejad doesn’t sink that low. Well, the chicken meat embargo might have been a little weak, but the neocon conspiracy I’m not so sure about. But more on that later.  (You can see the heavily edited interview clips on CNN website, but the network never made the full version available. But you can see it on Russian TV.)

Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down none too good with the Prime Minister. See, as it turns out, when Putin told CNN he wouldn’t mind if they cut some of his comments, he wasn’t exactly being honest. Not only did he mind, but he was sovereignly pissed off to find the entire interview censored. After all, he is the one that usually does the censoring. And it’s not like he gives out TV interviews every month, or even every year. If I’m not mistaken, the last interview Putin gave to American TV was waaaay back in 2000, when he was on Larry King Live making crude comments about the sinking of the Kursk submarine.

And then there’s the issue of Saakashvili’s CNN time. Just in the past month, Saakashvili has appeared a dozen times on the network giving interviews averaging 5 to 10 minutes each. As CNN correctly pointed out, Putin is a former KGB spy, so he knows all the details, down to the nearest second. And that’s exactly why he’s taken it as a personal insult from CNN’s headquarters (and probably more proof of an international media/government conspiracy against him). But he just might have the last word.

The word on the street here is Putin is out for blood. It’s payback time. According to a source with high-level government connections, the Russians are planning punitive actions against CNN. At this point, it is just a rumor, but they are preparing to kick out about half of the half-dozen Western journalists working at CNN’s Moscow bureau. Sooner or later they’re going to have to apply for a visa renewal and that’s when it’s gonna go down. They’ll be denied, clean and quiet like. We can only pray that the tool Matthew Chance is up for a new visa soon.

Matthew Chance: the soon-to-be-jobless hack.

So why did CNN decide to cut the interview? The thing is, Putin came off pretty darn well. Sure, the chicken embargo was embarrassing, but the McCain/neocon conspiracy theory wasn’t as crazy as some would want you to believe. Gary Brecher has been saying all along that this little war had the mark of a half-baked neocon plan for world domination. As Gary says, Georgia’s move makes no sense at all from a Georgian perspective. Somebody must have told those idiots they’d be safe to retake South Ossetia. And who better than Cheney?

In general, Putin was able to strike an unusually sympathetic chord during the interview. It sure wasn’t anything like the grotesque interview he gave eight years ago, where he made that cruel “it sank” Kursk joke. This time around, he was level headed, reasonable and, most importantly, very convincing and believable—not what you’d expect from the evil Stalin/Hitler hybrid personality being pushed on the American public. And that worried the hell out of CNN editorial staff, enough to make them crudely censor the entire thing and hope no one noticed.

So, what parts of Putin did CNN leave on the cutting room floor?

Putin the anti-Stalinist:

Therefore, those who insist that those territories must continue to belong to Georgia are Stalinists: They defend the decision of Josef Vissarionovich Stalin. [It was Stalin who first split up Ossetia and gave the southern half to Georgia.]

Putin the caring:

For us, it is a special tragedy, because during the many years that we were living together the Georgian culture—the Georgian people being a nation of ancient culture — became, without a doubt, a part of the multinational culture of Russia….[C]onsidering the fact that almost a million, even more than a million Georgians have moved here, we have special spiritual links with that country and its people. For us, this is a special tragedy.

Putin the peaceful:

You and I are sitting here now, having a quiet conversation in the city of Sochi. Within a few hundred kilometers from here, U.S. Navy ships have approached, carrying missiles whose range is precisely several hundred kilometers. It is not our ships that have approached your shores; it’s your ships that have approached ours. So what’s our choice?

We don’t want any complications; we don’t want to quarrel with anyone; we don’t want to fight anyone. We want normal cooperation and a respectful attitude toward us and our interests. Is that too much?

Putin the conscientious businessman:

Construction of the first gas pipeline system was started during the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, and for all those years, from the 1960s until this day, Russia has been fulfilling its contract obligations in a very consistent and reliable way, regardless of the political situation.

We never politicize economic relations, and we are quite astonished at the position of some U.S. administration officials who travel to European capitals trying to persuade the Europeans not to buy our products, natural gas for example, in a truly amazing effort to politicize the economic sphere. In fact, it’s quite pernicious.

It’s true that the Europeans depend on our supplies but we too depend on whoever buys our gas. That’s interdependence; that’s precisely the guarantee of stability.

Yasha Levine is an American journalist based in Moscow. You can reach him at levine@exiledonline.com.

*****

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