Renowned Russian-American journalist talks Trump, Putin, and the media

It was a chilly December evening, and just one week before winter break, but that didn’t stop students, faculty, and staff—as well as folks from outside the University—from seeing renowned Russian-American journalist and author Masha Gessen speak at Penn.

Hosted by the Annenberg School for Communication’s new Center for Media at Risk, Gessen, in the midst of her latest book tour, discussed Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she’s outspokenly critiqued, and his similarities to and differences from President Donald Trump.

She also intertwined, using her firsthand experience, what she believes is the biggest risk to media today. Interestingly, she said, it’s a lack of imagination.

“We couldn’t imagine [Trump as] a serious candidate, we couldn’t imagine him winning even when the polls were telling us that it might happen,” Gessen explained. But this sort of thing, she added, “doesn’t just happen with Trump, with presidential campaigns. I think we have to watch out for how it happens in all sorts of other areas.”

Her call, she said, “would be oddly not so much to fight fake news and disinformation, as to exercise imagination and exercise imagination better, and more, and most important, rigorously. Actually be intentional about being imaginative.”

Questions from the audience addressed Gessen’s thoughts on what she thinks is hindering imagination, how Trump and Putin use religion to enhance power, and how to handle political humor.

She was also asked about her thoughts on Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“I think we’re paying way too much attention to the issue of Russian meddling in the election,” she responded, “at the expense of paying attention to things that are actually evidenced, clear, and happening right in front of us.”

A fascinating talk, the conversation was followed by a reception where Gessen signed copies of “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which received the 2017 National Book Award for nonfiction.

Barbie Zelizer, the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication at Penn, and director of the Center for Media at Risk, says she couldn’t think of anyone better than Gessen to discuss Trump, Putin, and the media. A soft launch for the new Center, the event is a good example of what’s to come when it officially kicks off in April.

“My goal is to really start bringing more practitioners onto Penn’s campus,” says Zelizer. “If there’s one lesson that we’ve learned after the election, it’s that people aren’t talking enough to people who are different from them. And I think Penn can lead the charge in getting practitioners and scholars to be thinking productively about how to address such a central problem.”

The Center’s aim, Zelizer says, is to provide a forum for scholars and practitioners across journalism, entertainment, documentary, and online practice, to strategize about resisting political intimidation’s effect on the media.

“I think investment in information sharing, and common strategizing is the only way in which we are going to begin to make a difference again,” she says. “I think that the fact that media practitioners and academics, let’s face it, are beginning to lose their relevance in the current political climate, should tell us something. We have the tools to fight that, to create a counter presence, a counter voice. And my hope is that the Center will play a part in making that happen.”

The Center for Media at Risk, which will morph into a broader replacement of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication, will act as a central hub for all the other centers, projects, and programs at Penn that are involved in related media practice; it will affiliate with media-assist organizations that promote the safety of media practitioners; and it will continue to bring global scholars to campus, with a resident scholar every semester and a postdoctoral fellow every year.

“We want to start productively sharing information that can help identify all the big but also infinitesimal aspects of violations of free and critical media practice,” Zelizer says. “We’re hoping to create this as a go-to place for thinking about these issues.”

Masha Geesen