Russians target State Dept. spokeswoman for media assault

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 25, 2014 

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer "Jen" Psaki.

DEPARTMENT OF STATE — McClatchy

— Among the Russian bloggers and social media activists who are loyal to the Kremlin, there’s a favorite target when it comes to pillorying the United States.

President Barack Obama and his chief diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, come in for a few licks. But for the unbridled ridicule particular to the Internet, there’s a bigger bull’s-eye: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Since the U.S. first began protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, Psaki has been relentlessly mocked for several missteps by a parade of bloggers and tweeters. She’s even the subject of a satiric song – “There is nothing more competent than Psaki” – by a group of radio deejays, and of a flurry of unflattering Photoshopped images.

The online attacks got broader exposure when RT, the state-sponsored broadcast network formerly known as Russia Today, took up the cause with an episode titled “Orwellian Jen Psaki,” as well as “ State Dept. Sideshow: Jen Psaki’s most embarrassing fails, most entertaining grillings,’’ a Web page that features links to clips of Psaki at the State Department lectern.

“She’s become a vehicle for them to unleash everything they don’t like about us, to twist the message,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who was once the focus of a similar online assault by what he said was a “fairly orchestrated” campaign by Russian activists loyal to Putin.

“It’s part of a larger anti-American campaign that is relentless,” said McFaul, who said he was pilloried “as the poster boy sent by Barack Obama to foment revolution in Russia.”

Psaki, or “psaking,” has even become a verb on Twitter, McFaul said, to describe “saying something stupid.”

Once the recipient of a Russian hat in happier times, Psaki said the personal barrage was aimed at U.S. support for a “strong and sovereign” Ukraine. She blames what she said were “vicious personal attacks” on what she and Kerry have called the “Russian propaganda machine.”

“While being attacked for supporting the people of Ukraine is a badge of honor, it does make you wonder whether spending time attacking me is behavior worthy of a world power,” she said.

The spotlight on Psaki, who served as a spokeswoman in both of Obama’s presidential campaigns, began earlier this year as tension between the U.S. and Russia rose over Russia’s takeover of Crimea in Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters at a daily news briefing in April, Psaki mistakenly said that natural gas arrived in Russia from Western Europe, rather than the other way around. She immediately recognized her mistake and corrected herself, but the Russians seized on the flub.

A month later, she became the Russian subject of ridicule when she told a reporter who asked her at a briefing that she didn’t know what “carousel voting” was, though the State Department talking points had cited “carousel voting” as one of several signs of potential fraud during a referendum in portions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine.

Russians use the term describe voters who cast ballots at different polling stations.

The Russian government is eager to poke holes in the U.S. contention that Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine and even minor mistakes make Psaki a target for its sympathizers, said William Pomeranz, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington.

“The Russians think these attacks, which are obviously excessive in many ways, will undermine the credibility of the State Department as it makes various statements about Russia’s intention in the region,” Pomeranz said.

He suggested that Russians may misunderstand Psaki’s position, as spokespersons in Russia have more elevated positions.

Still, he said, “from the Russian perspective it spreads some doubt about the reliability of the U.S. position if the official spokesperson for the U.S is making mistakes.”

The reporting isn’t limited to Psaki’s slips. After her deputy, Marie Harf, pitched in for a few briefings, Russian outlets reported – inaccurately – that Psaki had been fired, prompting a sarcastic Twitter campaign with the hashtag #savepsaki. “You’re the best comic actor in the world!” one tweet read.

Another Twitter user seized on the report to tweak U.S. reprisals against Russia, suggesting the “most brutal sanctions for Russian _ Psaki fired!”

News reports said Russia’s permanent United Nations representative, Vitaly Churkin, had chimed in, telling reporters he hoped Psaki would return, as he “found it very interesting to listen to her.”

Psaki blasted back at her critics on Twitter, writing, “Despite the Russian propaganda machine suggesting otherwise, I am still here as is a strong, democratic Ukraine.” She added a hashtag: #dontbelieveRT.

The channel took umbrage, with RT’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, writing on Twitter, “Psaki is under the illusion that there is RT scheming all around her. Dear Jen! We did not write of your firing! If you in fact had been fired, we couldn’t write – we would weep!”

The official newspaper of the Russian government, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, falsely reported last week that Psaki had rejected claims that Ukrainians were fleeing to Russia’s southern Rostov region, chiding her for apparently not being familiar with the geography in the area.

Matt Lee, an Associated Press reporter who the story said had prompted the discussion, said on Twitter that the purported exchange never happened.

Kerry has come to Psaki’s defense, writing that he’s “always proud” of Psaki, who, he said, “deals in facts.” Defending her on Twitter, he added a hashtag: #attacksareabadgeofhonor.

Psaki noted at a recent news briefing that she’s “just one of many American officials, especially women,” targeted by Russian propagandists. Indeed, her predecessor, Victoria Nuland, had few fans in the Russian government, Kerry recounted last September at Nuland’s swearing-in as an assistant secretary of state.

On his first trip abroad after Nuland had left as spokeswoman, Kerry said, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sized up his staff and said to him, “ ‘John, I see you finally fired that Toria Nuland.’ ”

To laughter, Kerry noted, “I took great pleasure in looking at him and saying, ‘No, I promoted her.’ ”

email: lclark@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lesleyclark

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