In her first segment for NBC News, Megyn Kelly interviewed Sergey Brilev, described only as a “Russian broadcaster,” who criticized claims that the Russian government influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. While Kelly’s viewers might have come away from the segment thinking that Brilev is an independent journalist, he’s actually a top executive at a state news agency who played a key role in one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda efforts.
Kelly’s segment was shot in St. Petersburg and previews her upcoming interview with Putin that will air on the premiere of her new NBC newsmagazine show, Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly. Kelly presents the question of whether the Russians influenced our election as a he said, she said debate between the U.S. intelligence community, which declared that Putin “ordered a hack of Democratic officials and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” and Putin, Brilev, and Russians on the street who deny that happened.
“They sincerely hope that the Americans, with your marvelous, magnificent history of democracy, will come to terms with yourselves,” Brilev tells Kelly of the notion of Russian hacking efforts as they walk through a square. After Kelly responds by saying that it would be a “pretty big deal” if Russia acted to interfere with our election, he replies, “It's humiliating -- self-humiliating for such a great country as the United States of America to think that your election was decided in Moscow.”
Asked by Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie what surprised her about the interviews she conducted with “people on the Russian streets,” Kelly responded in part, “Almost none believes that Russia interfered with our election.”
Kelly seems surprised that Brilev and the Russians she spoke to don’t believe their government played a role in our election -- and her viewers may be as well. Missing from her segment is any acknowledgment that the Russian media those average Russians consume are state-run propaganda outlets that have been parroting Putin’s line -- and that Brilev is among the nation’s leading propagandists.
Brilev is deputy director of Rossiya, a Russian state-owned television network, where he anchors a weekly news program. He is also affiliated with the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. State-run news outlets like Rossiya serve as propaganda outlets that are allowed to exist in order to promote Putin’s worldview. “Brilev is a Putin man,” Helena Goscilo, a professor at The Ohio State University who specializes in Russian culture, confirmed to Media Matters in an email.
Brilev is perhaps best known for his role in Direct Line with the President, the annual live broadcast in which Putin takes phone calls from Russians. The program “was presented to the public as a spontaneous exchange, [but] evidence point to the fact that it was thoroughly prepared and scripted,” writes Michael Gorham, a professor at the University of Florida who focuses on Russian communication, journalism and culture, in an essay for the 2012 book Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon.
According to Gorham, Brilev was a “trusted newsreader” who anchored the first seven broadcasts of the program and subsequently “received the state Friendship medal… for [his] service.”
In his book After Newspeak: Language Culture and Politics in Russia from Gorbachev to Putin, Gorham writes that the broadcasts were designed to create a “multi-layered image of a country that was as vast as it was united in its ethnic, demographic, and geographical diversity -- a country that shared the patriotic sentiments of its President, revered that leader, and looked to him as a ‘final authority’ when all other venues for grievances had been exhausted.”
It beggars belief to suggest that Brilev could without reprisal dispute Putin’s statements on whether Russia interceded during the 2016 election. “Like most of Putin's supporters who are entrusted with commentary, he's quite well trained,” Goscilo commented. “The idea that he would concede that Russia attempted to interfere with the elective process is laughable.”
Outlets that fail to push the Russian president’s views as fact are punished harshly; in 2013, Putin eliminated a “state-run news agency widely viewed as offering professional and semi-independent coverage.” News agencies that are not owned by the state face even greater challenges, including legal restrictions and violence against their reporters allegedly directed by the government.
Interviewing Brilev without providing this context, as Kelly does, represents a failure of judgment that does not bode well for her upcoming sit-down with Putin.
UPDATE: After the publication of this post, in a subsequent segment on tonight's NBC's Nightly News, Kelly identified Brilev as “one of the country's top broadcasters, who works at a state-run channel.”