You’d need a heart made of granite not to be moved by Marina Ovsyannikova, the Russian television producer who on Monday jumped onto the set of the state-run network Channel One during a live broadcast and shouted, “Stop the war, no to war!”
Perhaps the most touching aspect of Ovsyannikova’s action was the nature of the sign she held, which featured small Ukrainian and Russian flags and the words “No war. Stop the war. Don’t believe propaganda. They lie to you here. Russians against war.”
It wasn’t a slickly designed placard, produced by graphic designers paid by an NGO funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Instead, it was hand-drawn, with some letters getting narrower near the right margin as she realized she was running out of space. Did she make this at home on her dining room table? Did she have an office at work with a door she could lock? At some point the paper had clearly been rolled up in a tube because as Ovsyannikova held it up, it was trying to curl back on itself.
So this was a single solitary person — maybe with a small support network — realizing that she had the means (an understanding of reality), the motive (telling the truth about matters of life and death), and the opportunity (access to a live TV broadcast) to take a stand, making international news. And while it’s impossible to know how many Russians know what Ovsyannikova did, given the severe clampdown currently taking place there, it seems implausible that the video has been completely prevented from filtering back from overseas.
But where are the other Marina Ovsyannikovas? There must be thousands of individuals across the world with the same means, motive, and opportunity. And while many countries have far less repressive media environments than Russia, the opportunities anywhere to challenge stultifying government and corporate propaganda on TV are still few and far between. For instance, there were exactly zero questions during the 2020 U.S. primary and general election debates about the U.S. drone program. In 2019, the main nightly and Sunday news programs spent a munificent 0.7 percent of their airtime on the climate crisis. Both subjects cry out for some Ovsyannikova-style treatment.
It can’t simply be that humans are averse to running on camera and making a scene. Huge numbers of people have realized live television is a great opportunity to take off all your clothes for an audience of millions: at the Oscars, Wimbledon, innumerable cricket matches, and the Eurovision Song Contest. The ratio of streakers to people making political statements must be 100 to 1.
One of the small number of examples similar to Ovsyannikova is Vladimir Danchev, a Soviet English-language radio announcer during the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. In 1983, Danchev began quietly including truth in his broadcasts: e.g., referring to the war as “an occupation,” one fought against Afghans who were “the defenders against the Soviet invaders.” Amazingly enough, no one powerful seemed to notice until the BBC World Service ran a segment on Danchev. At this point he was quickly bundled off to a mental hospital in present-day Uzbekistan. He later was able to return to his radio network but not as an on-air announcer; he apparently was given a job organizing the record library.
In America there’s Michael Moore, who won the Best Documentary Oscar for his movie “Bowling for Columbine” on March 23, 2003, just days after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began. Moore used his acceptance speech to say, “We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. … We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you.” When Moore and his wife got back to their home in Michigan, they found three truckloads of manure dumped on their driveway. The studio that had signed a contract to fund Moore’s next movie backed out. He received so many death threats that he eventually required a large 24-hour security detail. (I worked for Moore several years later, and even then the amount of hate directed his way was extremely voluminous and alarming.)
There have also been disruptions of American newscasts. In January 1991 — just as the first Gulf War started — activists from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, snuck onto the set of the CBS Evening News. They shouted “Fight AIDS, not Arabs,” before being dragged away as the network went black for six seconds. Other protesters attempted to do the same at the “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” on PBS but never got on air.
On extremely rare occasions there have been U.S. hosts like Danchev, willing to challenge the basic rationales for war. Phil Donahue had a show on MSNBC starting in 2002 and then was fired in February 2003, even though it had the network’s highest ratings. An internal memo said Donahue seemed “to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives,” and that it would be a mistake to have a show that was “a home for the liberal anti-war agenda.”
Then there’s Abby Martin, an American who had her own RT show “Breaking the Set” and used it to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea on air in March 2014. Martin left RT the next year, although she has said RT never exercised editorial control over the show. Martin now hosts the crowd-funded series “Empire Files.” YouTube recently deleted all 550 episodes of “Breaking the Set” — meaning that in this instance, remarkably enough, the company is being more censorious than the Russian government.
There are more examples, but not that many. There are far more instances of those with access to live TV who are unwilling to break ranks on air, whatever their private misgivings. At an early 2000s dinner party, Peter Jennings, then the anchor of ABC “World News Tonight,” asked Henry Kissinger, “What does it feel like to be a war criminal?” But you can search long and hard in the ABC archives without finding Jennings broadcasting that perspective on Kissinger to the country.
Likewise, Katie Couric told the National Press Club in 2007 that “People in this country were misled in term of the rationale of [the Iraq War]. … I remember feeling, when I was anchoring ‘The Today Show,’ this inevitable march toward war and kind of feeling like, ‘Will anybody put the brakes on this? And is this really being properly challenged by the right people?’” It apparently did not occur to Couric that, as one of the most famous and well-paid people on TV, she might be one of the right people to properly challenge the case for war. In any case, when it mattered she discreetly did not mention any of these doubts, instead telling her audience such things as “Navy SEALS rock!”
Any explanation for this dispiriting reality is necessarily speculative. But it seems plausible that the answer is simple: Like many other kinds of mammals, human beings are pack animals. We evolved to depend on our pack for survival. Maintaining good relations with the pack feels far more important than abstract concepts of right and wrong, no matter how many constitutions we write or paeans to free speech we deliver. You can see this devotion to the pack in the eyes of the host of the show that Ovsyannikova interrupted: She continues reading her prescribed propaganda without ever glancing back at the woman shouting about war behind her.
If this is correct, there will never be many people who will seize the opportunity of live television to tell some desperately-needed truth. But there could be more. The most likely way to make this happen would be for everyone impressed by Ovsyannikova to try to psychologically form our own pack — which is of course a challenge, since it has to be a pack for people who hate packs.