Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Sputnik News Approaches to Impeachment Coverage
Sputnik News Approaches to Impeachment Coverage

Sputnik News Approaches to Impeachment Coverage

January 8, 2020

Post by Samantha Lai

Following the launch of the formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Democrats and Republicans have developed distinctly different accounts of the events leading up to the inquiry. As a result, the House’s impeachment vote was split mostly along party lines and the American public remains divided over whether or not President Trump should be impeached. Sputnik News, meanwhile, continues to follow the Kremlin’s 2016 playbook—publishing articles meant to promote preferred narratives within English-speaking audiences that split Americans along political and social divides. In the case of the impeachment proceedings, Sputnik appears to favor the argument that President Trump should not be impeached. 

At first glance, much of Sputnik’s reporting on the impeachment hearings might not seem all that different from that of mainstream American media, with standard updates on daily proceedings. That is, until one reaches the final paragraphs of typical Sputnik articles, which usually provide contextual information about the impeachment. These concluding paragraphs frequently repeat certain narratives that help push the position that President Trump is innocent. In particular, these three narratives appear in varying orders:

  • President Trump casts the impeachment inquiry as a “hoax” and a political “witch hunt” aimed at reversing the results of the 2016 election
  • There was no quid pro quo in President Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
  • President Trump has been cooperative and released transcripts of the July 25 call soon after the whistleblower complaint was made

Despite how frequently Sputnik reports on the impeachment hearings, the outlet does not mention much about the case for impeachment. Most articles dedicate a sentence to how the impeachment inquiry is “over a whistleblower complaint that claimed President Trump might have abused his power by allegedly pressuring Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky.” However, articles typically avoid reporting the specific contents of released call transcripts that Democrats consider to be damning evidence. Instead, Sputnik advances the narrative promoted by Republicans that Democrats “have yet to present one piece of evidence … that suggests that President Trump has committed a crime.” 

With specific articles, Sputnik elaborates on viewpoints that encourages readers to distrust certain key players. The outlet does this through:

  • Portraying the impeachment proceedings as motivated by partisan leanings rather than concern for national security
  • Redirecting attention to Hunter Biden’s questionable business relationship with Ukraine’s Burisma
  • Repeating the conspiracy theory of “alleged Ukrainian meddling in the US 2016 presidential election in favor of the Democrats” in order to justify Trump’s call to Zelensky
  • Pushing readers to question the legitimacy of the whistleblower by reporting on the person as someone who “had only third-hand knowledge of Trump’s conversation and based the complaint on what unnamed White House officials had told him in private.” (The outlet does not mention evidence supporting the whistleblower’s claims that have surfaced since.)
  • Misleading headlines, like “Ex-Acting CIA Chief Says ‘Thank God for Deep State’ Involvement in Impeachment Inquiry,” which mischaracterizes a joke made by former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin to support the “deep state” conspiracy theory
  • Diminishing the impact and reliability of testimonies provided by Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker. The outlet highlights how Sondland had revised his testimony and how the White House believed Volker confirmed there had been no quid pro quo.
  • Highlighting remarks by former National Security Council Adviser Tim Morrison through paraphrased language, like writing that he “noticed nothing illegal” during the phone call between Trump and Zelensky and that concerns over the alleged quid pro quo did not surface until “after a conversation with … Sondland.” This suggests that Sondland should bear the blame instead of Trump.

Fabrications are not always necessary to reshape mass perceptions. By choosing aspects of the impeachment proceedings to highlight and others to omit (i.e. selection bias), Sputnik News advances selected information supporting Sputnik’s preferred view to persuade the public that its favored narrative is the correct one. 

Sputnik also finds ways to delegitimize its opponents. The element of distrust is powerful—once it is present, there is little that Kremlin opponents can do to rectify the reputational damage done, as audiences will now be predisposed to dismiss anything Kremlin opponents have to say.  

Certainly, Sputnik-favored narratives and techniques can be found in domestic rhetoric as well. This makes it all the more critical to understand how foreign-sponsored media outlets differ from domestic U.S. outlets, and where foreign perspectives drive U.S. domestic coverage.

Sputnik News, as a Russian state-sponsored media outlet, seeks to advance its preferred narratives in order to divide Americans on the issue of impeachment. The more divise the issue is, the less likely compromise becomes. More resources are diverted to infighting, and less gets done. And when people begin to doubt the content of domestic news outlets and politicians, they begin to turn to alternative sources like Sputnik, not just on issues like the impeachment but others that Russia also has a vested interest in. With this, Sputnik successfully makes its way into American political discourse.