So, if we were to craft a headline for this article that avoided Betteridge's Law, what would it be? "Something Just Happened in Russia But No One Is Sure Precisely What." Hmmm.
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.
Kit Knightly over at Off-Guardian opts for the Betteridge's Law headline: "Russian Reforms: Is Putin planning for his successor?" and admits "even the alternative media are confused on this one." The article concludes that "Whether or not Putin wants to be in power for life is an answer known only to the man himself" but notes that there's no reason to believe that from his speech.
Even Bernard over at Moon of Alabama, who usually only writes about subjects he has deeply researched (with some glaring exceptions) admitted in the confusion immediately following the speech that "[e]ven Russian analysts near to Putin seem not to know if Putin and Medvedev had planned today's 'regime change' or if it was a totally spontaneous move by a pissed off Medvedev."
Perhaps the most thorough review of this event, however, has come courtesy of Gilbert Doctorow in a pair of articles published on Antiwar.com.
The first article, "Vladimir Putin Prepares His Succession," written in the immediate wake of the speech, finds answers to some of the questions raised by Putin's address in the broader context of Russian domestic politics:
"Overall, the constitutional reforms and tilt towards a strong, functional legislature mark a sharp break with the rule by decree and struggle for control between parliament and president that Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin. Except for the brief premiership of Yevgeni Primakov in 1998, during the whole period from 1993 until his resignation on New Year’s eve, 1999, Yeltsin had largely ruled by decree and in full defiance of the oppositional, Communist controlled Duma. Step-by-step, Putin has encouraged the parliament to take greater responsibility and to raise the professionalism of its legislative initiative and framing of laws. Evidently he now hopes to reap the benefits of that policy as his political legacy."
His second article, "Making Sense of Russia’s New Cabinet," written a week after the speech, provides something more like a conclusion regarding the events:
"As for the proposed constitutional changes, I believe they serve a very clearly defined purpose: to prepare Russia for the post-Putin era by introducing checks and balances that will prevent any one branch of government, meaning the executive, from ‘running away with the show’ and changing the vector of Russia’s development and its orientation in the world as the result of the unforeseeable popularity and electoral victory by a candidate to the presidency put up by the Opposition, or even by factions within the Ruling Party and other ‘Duma parties’ in 2024 and thereafter.
This seems to me, in light of the available evidence, the most likely explanation for the sudden reforms. The Russian presidency is being redesigned so that no future politician will have the amount of control that Putin has enjoyed during his reign.
There are those who, like Tom Luongo, suggest this is being done to "purge the West from the Kremlin." There are others, like Doctorow, who suggest this is because Putin "is a once in a hundred years political phenomenon" and no one will be able to fill his shoes. But whatever the case, it seems most likely that Putin will step down as planned in 2024 and the next president will have less power to shape the course of Russian politics single-handedly.
As always, I think this needs to be kept in the perspective of the bigger picture. Putin is just another politician who, like every other politician, believes that some magical process grants him power to tax, rule and manage the nation. And, like any would-be ruler, he's not trying to upend the system in any fundamental sense; he simply wants a better seat at the mahogany table. Thus all the talk about the multipolar world order and building a new system guided by the UN charter.
Having said all of that, we still live in a statist system, and there can be no doubt that the events of the past two weeks will reverberate throughout Russia and around the globe in the years to come. But the real meaning of what has just taken place remains obscured under layers of layers of secrecy. In fact, we probably won't have a clear understanding of where the country is heading until Putin's presidential term ends (?) in 2024.
And that's where we're at.
So, if we were to craft a headline for this article that avoided Betteridge's Law, what would it be? "Something Just Happened in Russia But No One Is Sure Precisely What." Hmmm. One sees why headline writers opt for the intriguing (if misleading) questions.