An area of particular fascination for me has been what can be loosely called ‘controlling the narrative.’ In almost every sphere of life it is of unquestionable importance to be able to take control of how people perceive you, the message you try to send out, and the agenda you attempt to push. This does not matter if we are talking about business, diplomacy, politics, or even war. Controlling the narrative ultimately becomes almost as significant as reality. In some cases, when it comes to the media, you might even say it is more important than reality. Which is why it is so curious how the issues of controlling the narrative, media perception, and actual international diplomatic reality diverge when considering the personalities of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, the respective heads of state for the Russian Federation and North Korea.
In terms of media perception here in the United States, it is hard to argue there are bigger villains today than Putin and Kim. Vladimir Putin has been accused of everything from attempting to co-opt (or outright corrupt) the American presidential election, having collected compromising material on the current President of the United States (which he may or may not be using to the benefit of his own country), personally affirmed (if not outright demanded) the attempted assassination of a former double agent in Great Britain, and numerous other examples of illegal behavior. Interestingly, in each of the three explicit examples listed above, because of media saturation and the overwhelming spoken position of expert pundits invited on to television and radio to talk about them in the U.S., the vast majority of Americans believe Putin has absolutely committed these three ‘crimes’ and that there is substantial evidence to prove it. The only problem, of course, is that no such direct evidence exists that would convict Vladimir Putin in an American court of law (not to mention that a foreign head of state would never be forced into such a court anyway, but I digress). What does exist is the media saturation trying to ‘control the narrative’ that portrays Vladimir Putin as a major media villain. Forget about the old clichés of the media never creating narratives but merely reflecting the narratives that already exist within the American public. This Putin narrative exists simply because it is far sexier and far more lucrative than any shaky, over-intellectualized, non-evidenced story that would require the American people (who admittedly do not have the attention span) to try to truly understand and learn about the issues of international law, information technology, hacking, and bio-chemical warfare (all of which you need to know if you wish to thoroughly and cogently understand the three issues mentioned above). Since American mainstream media knows to whom it is speaking, we end up with a perfect storm of ineptitude: incomplete and purposely partial stories being represented as complete and conclusive to a barely attentive public not interested in knowing more deeply.
The media villainy of Kim is a bit more progressive and documented, but still with ample examples of tenuous evidence, rumor, and presumption of animosity based on the North Korean regime’s past behavior. Unlike Russia, which has historically never shied away from media spotlights, North Korea has always been rather obsessive about avoiding media scrutiny (especially Western media). So, it is difficult for us to know how many of the atrocious stories of abuse, corruption, insanity, and outright criminal murder coming out of North Korea are true, based on truth, contain a kernel of truth in them, or are simply not true at all. What can be established is the American media narrative when it comes to the North Korean leader: immature, potentially insane, fat, unfashionable, worthy of mockery. If you have any doubt, one only need conduct media research on how many skits have been broadcast portraying Kim in exactly these ways, whether it be Saturday Night Live, Real Time with Bill Maher, or any various selections found on Comedy Central. The point is not that these skits are not hilariously funny (they are). It is that most of the ‘facts’ upon which the skits are based come from serious media outlets that have pushed unsubtle narratives not fully vetted or not fully evidentiary-based, making the leader seem more buffoon than boss.
Why this matters is because in both cases I have rarely seen such a stark difference between the narratives pushed here at home by media (and believed in by the vast majority of the public) and the actual achievements on the international stage by the objects of those narratives’ derision. Indeed, if anything, the global Q ratings of both Putin and Kim over the past two years have done nothing but go up, not down. Putin, always savvy with the media and absolutely obsessed with opportunities to poke fun at the American public, finds himself in an almost surrealistic world where he did not in fact bring electoral victory home for Donald Trump, but loves making sure people in America are still willing to consider it; where he likely did not orchestrate the purposeful moral compromising of an American president, but loves having mainstream media in America believe he did;where there are no smoking guns connecting him directly to the orchestration of any assassination anywhere, but symbolically pulls a wink wink on global reporters who fear they may be in the presence of a master assassin.
Kim is not much different. While we spend time commenting on his weight, his hair, his sanity, his wife, his brother, his sister, his fashion sense, he has successfully tested multiple missile launches, made the entire world (if not necessarily America) convinced he can reach almost anywhere on the globe with those missiles, constructed a massive global media moment by meeting with and shaking the hand of South Korea’s President, and managed to convince most of the media outside of America that he and not President Trump is in control of setting up an American-North Korean summit. When taken in concert, it is almost breathtakingly hard to fathom how there could be a bigger divergence between how poorly and laughable we see two global leaders at home while the rest of the globe sees the same leaders as two of the most powerful (and most effective!) heads of state in the world today.
Understand that this is not a missive trying to push for the beatification of Putin and Kim. They are not saints. But it is arguable that no world leaders are. What would behoove America moving forward is to stop being so fascinated by how it might push ‘sexier’ narratives or how to push more salacious stories rather than the more salient. Salacious over salient matters because it produces an American public horrifically disconnected from true global reality. It produces an America that does not realize how controlling the narrative is not the same thing as controlling reality. For now, as crazy as it sounds, Putin and Kim control the latter far more.