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US Congress Warned to Knock-Off Menacing Policies toward Russia Before It's Too Late

Official hearing reveals the extent of misunderstandings that are advanced by members of Congress

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Standing up to alleged Russian aggression was a central theme of a June 14 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Chairman Ed Royce set the tone:

"From invading Ukraine to bombing Syrian hospitals and schools, Putin has only become more belligerent, in part due to a lack of US leadership and credibility. We must work with Russia from a position of strength."

Committee members heard testimony from former ambassador Michael McFaul, former American ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, and American NGO official Leon Aron. Congress members also presented their own views, as well as questioning the distinguished witnesses.

I watched these proceedings with great interest, and formed an impression of the overall tenor of the discourse. Sadly, I must say, that it predominantly sounded like the babble of persons who are either badly misinformed or attempting to deceive Americans by presenting specious information. The job of untangling and debunking all that nonsense is more than what can reasonably be undertaken. To me the takeaway is the realization of how many American lawmakers espouse views that are almost totally unsupported by facts. 

Two speakers distinguished themselves by deviating from that nonsense: Ambassador Matlock and Representative Dana Rohrabacher. They were able to present perspectives that were not based upon fallacious precepts.
In advance of the hearing I was invited by Congressman Rohrabacher to submit a statement to be included in the official record of the hearing. It is reprinted below: 

Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Hearing on
US Policy Toward Putin's Russia

June 14, 2016

Statement of
William Dunkerley

Expert on Russia's Media Sector and on the Credibility of America's Media Coverage of Russia and Its Leaders

[Summary: Both US and Russian leaders demonstrably engage in formulating policy based on misinformation and consequent misunderstanding. This creates a tense and dangerous situation. It also forecloses opportunities for reasonable dialogue and constructive cooperation. A practical plan is offered for disrupting this problematic negative trajectory in relations.]

My name is William Dunkerley. I am a media business analyst and organization development expert based in New Britain, CT. I have extensive in-country experience in analyzing Russian media organizations from top to bottom and in investigating the credibility demonstrated by American media organizations in covering important issues regarding Russia and its leaders. I have several affiliations that are detailed in an appended bio.

Thank you for the opportunity to introduce evidence on the prospects for redirecting today's vitriolic and contentious US-Russia relationship toward areas of productive cooperation.

For many, such a redirection may seem as attainable as finding the end of a rainbow. Every week a battle rages in the media in which America expresses alarm over Russian international aggression and antidemocratic policies at home. In turn Russia expresses alarm over an overbearing US role in the world that includes threats to Russia's security.

My own research and analysis has shown that both sides are pursuing policies that contain a strong element of misunderstanding. I've found that this misunderstanding is propagated to a great extent by misinformation found in the media of the respective countries.

The award winning Stanford University professor emeritus Martin Hellman wrote: "The more I study Russian-American relations, the more potential I see for a misunderstanding to escalate into a crisis, and the more concerned I become about the world’s nuclear complacency. I sometimes feel like a German Jew in the early 1930s who has read Mein Kampf and tries in vein to alert his countrymen to the need for taking action before it's too late."

I share Hellman's perception of the dangerous potential of entrenched misunderstanding, and strongly believe it mandatory for the Congress to play a leadership role in diverting us from the current perilous trajectory of our approach to Russia.

I will propose a clear and practical plan for accomplishing that. But first I'd like to expand briefly on the facts about the mutual misunderstanding:

For me the misinformation alarm sounded in early 2000. News stories were proliferating that lamented Vladimir Putin's crackdown on Russia's free press. A February 16, 2000 Reuters report headlined, "Journalists say Russia press freedom at risk."

The flaw in that story is that Putin had inherited no free press on which to crack down. I knew that from personal experience with indigenous media organizations. The press freedom story is a fraud perpetrated by two oligarchs. They were engaged in nefarious activities that were frowned upon by Putin. Seeking an upper hand in the matter they used the trumped-up press freedom allegations to compromise him. They were simply seeking an advantage over Putin to protect their own interests. Few people saw through the ruse.

The truth is that Yeltsin era laws precluded the profitability of media outlets. They never had the financial independence to serve their audiences honestly and freely. Their bankrupt condition led them into subjugation by oligarchs, state and private enterprises, governors, mayors, legislators, and even the Kremlin. They all put money into the loss-making media enterprises in return for the ability to color the news to their own favor. I estimate that at least eighty percent of the media were then under the control of some level of government. Close to zero percent were free to reliably tell their audiences the truth.

As a means for citizens to be informed and exercise vigilance over their government, Russia's media were abject failures. Observers who believed the bogus crack-down story had looked only at surface appearances. They seemed oblivious to the fundamental realities, and therefore came to totally unwarranted conclusions. They misunderstood the actual realities. I give greater detail on this consequential problem in my book Medvedev's Media Affairs.

The fraudulent tale about press freedom's doom is actually prologue to many stories that were to afterwards.

In early 2007 the International Federation of Journalists commissioned me to study and report on media coverage of the November 2006 polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. My report to the organization's World Congress documented that the mainstream story accusing Putin of culpability was another fabrication. It was perpetrated convincingly by political enemies of Putin's. Their admitted ultimate aim was to destabilize Russia, foment a violent revolution, and institute a monarchy. That presumably would put them back in control.

Yet still today, after all the foregoing has been publically revealed, the fabrication is regarded not only as the truth, but as proof positive of Putin's criminal modus operandi. I don't know whether or not Putin was involved in Litvinenko's death. My research neither implicates nor exonerates him. But I have proved that those who concocted and advanced that story were lying. This is a very massive and sophisticated scheme that successfully bamboozled the world. I've written two books to document all the details. They are titled The Phony Litvinenko Murder, and Litvinenko Murder Case Solved.

The widespread misunderstanding created by these misinformation campaigns has led to a serious and untoward consequence. It is a phenomenon known as "confirmation bias." This is a psychological term for people's tendency to interpret information in ways that are in harmony with their existing beliefs, expectations, or hypotheses. It turns out the persistently phony Russia stories have spawned reactions at that level of unshakable belief.

According to Tufts University research professor Raymond S. Nickerson: "If one were to attempt to identify a single problematic aspect of human reasoning that deserves attention above all others, the 'confirmation bias' would have to be among the candidates for consideration. Many have written about this bias, and it appears to be sufficiently strong and pervasive that one is led to wonder whether the bias, by itself, might account for a significant fraction of the disputes, altercations, and misunderstandings that occur among individuals, groups, and nations." Indeed: disputes among nations.

What this means is when information confirms existing beliefs, it results in assigning credibility to that information, even if there is no apparent substantiation. Things that fly in the face of pre-existing expectations tend to be disbelieved.

This is a problem that must be addressed if any significant progress is to be achieved in promoting positive cooperation between the United States and Russia. I strongly urge that Congress address how to disrupt the dangerous downward spiral that's put a death lock on current relations.

Lamentably the information pool about Russia has become so polluted by maliciously-inspired misinformation that we need to start anew in our understanding the country and its leadership.

To that end I wish to advance the following solution:

Congress needs and deserves information on current events that is devoid of confirmation bias. It's been demonstrated that it cannot get that from the Western media, or from governmental, partisan, or commercial sources that have an axe to grind and benefactors to please. Something new is desperately needed.

I recommend establishing a commission comprised exclusively of citizen members that have the skill and expertise to validate or discredit news reports and to supply Congress with authoritative and confidential disclosures.

The commission would function in the realm of observable facts and realism, and not in the domain of ideology. It would be precluded from offering policy advice, and mandated to deal with just the facts on which members of Congress can base their own informed judgments.

Congress should invite Russia as well to set up a counterpart commission so that Russian leaders can have the benefit of their own reality-based information in a similar way.

I realize that the establishment of such a commission would face some critical obstacles. One for instance involves the need to avoid politicization and loading the commission with ideologues. But I have in mind ways to overcome this and other challenges. I'd be pleased to work with Congressional representatives in structuring the commission appropriately.

The United States and Russia are the two nuclear superpowers that uniquely possess the capability to pose an existential threat to human civilization as we know it. This is far too serious a matter to abandon sensibility to reckless partisan or ideological differences. The proposed commission will serve to weed through deceptive media rhetoric, thus avoiding false points of contention. It is our best bet for disrupting the desperate course of deteriorating relations. I urge prompt action on this important matter before it's too late.


William Dunkerley is an expert on Russia's media sector and on the credibility of American media coverage of Russia and it leaders.

Mr. Dunkerley has worked to remediate the very challenging problems that face Russian media organizations. His work has been supported by various American organizations and agencies. He personally conducted intensive interventions in 17 different Russian cities. Through his seminars he has worked with hundreds of Russian media managers literally from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. He is author of a book about Russia's media milieu, and has written dozens of articles about Russian media management. He served as principal consultant to the Publishers and Editors Association of Russia.

He also has done intensive work in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia, and Croatia. In both Croatia and Russia his invited advice to governmental leaders has been incorporated into their countries' laws governing the media. In 2006 Mr. Dunkerley delivered a key note address on the prospects for press freedom in Russia at the World Congress of the World Association of Newspapers.

Mr. Dunkerley has also closely studied the American media's coverage of Russia and its leaders. In 2007 he was commissioned by the International Federation of Journalists to analyze and report on the Western media coverage of the Alexander Litvinenko polonium death case.

He is now the author of three books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles dealing with the problematic aspects of Western media coverage of Russian issues.

Mr. Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, editor and publisher of Editors Only, a monthly for newspaper and magazine editors, and of STRAT, a monthly publication on digital and print magazine strategies. He has served as a columnist for the Moscow Times, SREDA (Russia's first media management magazine), and Komsomolskaya Pravda (Russia's largest newspaper). He is also a Senior Fellow at the American University in Moscow.

Note: See Guardian article titled "Six Reasons You Can't Take the Litvinenko Report Seriously" here.

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