We’re just a few steps away from Putin-style reign in America under the Trump regime, New York Times media reporter Jim Rutenberg implied in his “Mediator” column on the front of Monday’s Business Day: “From Russia Comes a Warning for Americans.”
Rutenberg, who in August wrote a front-page column warning his colleagues off covering Trump as a normal candidate (“The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity") was in Miami Beach to talk to Nadya Tolokonnikova of the Russian activist collective “rock band” Pussy Riot. Tolokonnikova suffered harsh imprisonment with hard labor under the regime of Vladimir Putin for invading a Moscow cathedral and singing a protest song about Putin. The text box: “Beware of creeping authoritarianism, a punk rocker warns.”
On Tuesday, Donald J. Trump wrote on Twitter that people who burn the flag should be punished with “perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
Two days later, I went to a little cafe here to meet with Nadya Tolokonnikova of the Russian punk band and activist art collective Pussy Riot. The group’s 2012 guerrilla performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, which viciously mocked Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, resulted in a two-year prison sentence for Ms. Tolokonnikova and another of its members.
Rutenberg used Tolokonnikova, who has also attacked Trump, to make dubious parallels between the Russian media situation and America’s: “...as an emissary from a dystopian political-media environment that seemed to be heading our way, with governmental threats against dissent, disinformation from the presidential level and increasingly assertive propagandists who stoke the perception that there can be no honest arbiter of truth.”
Pussy Riot became an international symbol of Mr. Putin’s crackdown on free speech; of how his regime uses falsehood and deflection to sow confusion and undermine critics.
Now that the political-media environment that we smugly thought to be “over there” seems to be arriving over here, Ms. Tolokonnikova has a message: “It’s important not to say to yourself, ‘Oh, it’s O.K.,’” she told me. “It’s important to remember that, for example, in Russia, for the first year of when Vladimir Putin came to power, everybody was thinking that it will be O.K.”
Of course, the United States has checks, balances and traditions that presumably preclude anything like that from happening, she acknowledged as we sat comfortably in sunny Miami Beach while it played host to a celebration of free expression (Art Basel).
If influential advisers to Mr. Trump continue to so loosely issue jail threats to journalists for doing their constitutionally protected work after Inauguration Day, well, that’s a big change to the institution of the presidency in my book, as well as in the one the founders wrote.
Rutenberg found his inner punk activist while talking to Tolokonnikova.
She was planning a lecture that night urging artists to become more engaged and pick up where the politically conscious punk bands like the The Dead Kennedys left off -- their messages largely lost in the music of corporate-label imitators who hardly said boo through the debates over two wars, the Great Recession and racially charged police shootings.
Rutenberg seems to think anti-Trump videos (like the ones Pussy Riots releases) are in actual danger of being banned under a scary swing to the right. If one wants an example of an attempt to ban a video, one could go to the FEC’s attempts to ban from television an anti-Hillary movie put out by a conservative group before the 2008 election, which led to the famous Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision that loosened up campaign finance and free speech regulations.
The last video they released, in late October, was called “Make America Great Again.” It showed fictional Trump agents in red armbands raping and torturing in a campaign against Muslims, Mexicans, women who have abortions, gays and lesbians.
It was certain to offend. But it wasn’t illegal, at least not here -- at least not yet.
Rutenberg leaned hard on thin parallels between Russia and the United States while defending his media colleagues.
That’s why the top Russian propagandist Dmitry K. Kiselyov can assert that “objectivity is a myth” and, here in the United States, the paid CNN Trump-supporting contributor Scottie Nell Hughes can declare: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts.”
When there is no truth, invasions are “liberations” and internment camps are “relocation centers.”
Ms. Tolokonnikova has also co-founded a news site called Media Zona. She said it avoided opinion so that readers would accept it as a just-the-facts counter to disinformation.
“You are always in danger of being shut down,” she said. “But it’s not the end of the story because we are prepared to fight.”
Her counsel for United States journalists: You better be, too.