by James Corbett, The International Forecaster:
Good morning, students. It’s time for Media Literacy 101. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.
Have you ever heard of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines? It is a journalistic maxim formulated by Ian Betteridge which holds that “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.'”
So let’s apply that rule to a randomly selected example. For instance, if you see a headline like “Did Russia Just Undergo Regime Change?” you can answer that question “No, Mr. Journalist man, Russia did not just undergo regime change.”
So what did just happen in Russia. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
In case you haven’t heard, Russian President Vladimir Putin just delivered his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly. This address, however, was anything but routine. In years past, Putin has started this speech with some political blather about how the Russian government will work to grow the domestic economy and provide for Russian citizens before pivoting to international concerns. See, for example, his 2016 address highlighting how the burgeoning Russian/Chinese partnership can serve as “a model for shaping a world order free from the domination of a single country,” or his 2018 address rebuking the US for its aggressive foreign policy and bragging about the capabilities of Russia’s modern military arsenal.
This year’s speech diverted from that pattern. He began with a lengthy introductory passage about the demographic crunch which Russia (and, although he didn’t stress it, almost every other nation) is currently facing and the various financial support programs that the Russian government will be introducing to encourage the Russian people to have more children. But then he turned to matters constitutional:
In this regard, I would like to spend a moment discussing state structure and domestic policy, which are defined by the Fundamental Law of our country – the Constitution of the Russian Federation. I keep getting these questions all the time, including at the most recent annual news conference.
After defending the “potential” of the country’s constitution—adopted in 1993 during the chaotic period following the fall of the USSR—from its critics, Putin then concedes that there is room for debate about how to amend the constitution to bring it in line with Russia’s current needs:
In the meantime, statements regarding changes to the Constitution have already been made. And I find it possible to express my view and propose a number of constitutional amendments for discussion, amendments that, in my opinion, are reasonable and important for the further development of Russia as a rule-of-law welfare state where citizens’ freedoms and rights, human dignity and wellbeing constitute the highest value.
What follows are a series of proposals for reforming the constitution of the Russian Federation. The ideas forwarded by Putin for amending the constitution include:
enshrining the supremacy of the Russian constitution over all international treaties and obligations;
forbidding top level government officials from having foreign residence or citizenship;
calling for a repeal in the clause limiting a president to two consecutive terms, or, alternatively, supporting that clause (depending on which translation you’re reading, or who is interpreting that translation).
and inserting a clause guaranteeing that Russia’s minimum wage will never fall below economic subsistence levels.
He then goes on to suggest creating a formal place for the country’s “State Council” in Russia’s governmental system (it currently exists as an informal body off the organizational chart of the government) and stripping the president of his power to appoint the prime minister and giving that power to the national legislature (the Duma).
It is at this point that I will stress: Do not take my (or anybody’s word) for this. Read the speech for yourself. If you’re pressed for time, at least read the parts of the speech dealing with these constitutional and governmental reforms. Because once you wade into the commentary that these proposals have generated among the pundit class (both mainstream and independent), you’ll find that there are as many hot takes on these moves as there are people talking about them.
The New York Times, for example, provides a helpful guide to the Russian reaction to the speech.
Under the headline “Big Changes? Or Maybe Not. Putin’s Plans Keep Russia Guessing.” (which just barely avoids Betteridge’s Law), this oh-so-insightful piece of journalism reports that Putin’s speech “has thrown the international cottage industry of Kremlin experts into a contradictory cacophony of prediction and interpretation.” It then goes on to note that many of the early attempts at analysis of the situation (presuming that the address was an attempt by Putin to find a way to stay in power after his second consecutive term as president ends in 2024) were quickly abandoned after the story quickly evolved.
Had the cabinet resigned in protest of the speech? Evidently not, since the new cabinet includes all of the most prominent members of the previous one. Analysts were even thwarted in their attempts to pin down precisely what Putin was proposing; the draft bill of the proposed reforms appears to differ from what was presented in Putin’s speech.
After reporting a range of other (evidence-free) interpretations of the events—including the theory that Putin is likely to resign before his term ends or that he was attempting to head off a coup attempt—the article ends by quoting one journalist’s poem about the mess, which seems to imply that everyone has it wrong.
To quote famed physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s withering critique of a young colleagues’ paper, the Times article is “not even wrong.” (Perhaps we should say “It’s not even worthy of a Dino.”) But in terms of shedding light on the situation, it’s of no use whatsoever.
So how about the independent media? Surely all these Russian bots and Kremlin agents in the conspiracy community have an inside track on what’s really going on here, right?
Actually, maybe not.