By Melissa Akin
MOSCOW (Reuters) - For one evening last week, Fox News was among Russian television's best sources of information on the swell of protest in Moscow against alleged fraud in a parliamentary election that handed victory to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party.
One of Russia's state-controlled national television networks was quick to seize on the U.S. news channel's erroneous use of footage showing rioting in Athens to illustrate its reports on comparatively sedate protests in central Moscow.
For many Russians, especially those in distant cities with access only to the country's three state-controlled terrestrial channels, it was the first they had seen and possibly heard of the protests that had gone all but unreported in Russia.
The editors were using one of their old moves to evade the threat of state retaliation for reporting on politically inexpedient facts. Instead of reporting the news itself, they reported on the foreigners reporting the news on Russia.
The move cut both ways. Even as it announced there was open dissent in the capital, it flattered the notion, promoted by Putin himself, that Moscow's Cold War enemy was encouraging and exaggerating dissent.
"There was informational schizophrenia about the unfortunate job done by Fox," said Anna Kachkayeva, dean of media communications at Moscow's Higher School of Economics and a media commentator for Radio Liberty's Russian language station.
That oblique report gave some insight into the pressure that Russia's state-controlled media are under, despite some signs of resurgent independence in the newsrooms where Moscow journalists make the news for the vast majority of the country.
"Everything is happening in a strange way, a nervous way," Kachkayeva said. "There are endless meetings, an endless tug-of-war. Television bosses are in the frying pan. They could make a mistake. They are trying to agree positions, trying to do whatever they can do while the window of opportunity is open."
The allegations of fraud tore through social media such as Facebook, where organizers raised a protest movement on a scale unseen since mass resistance to an attempted Communist power grab as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Ten days after the start of protests, one big question is whether they will bring real change not only to politics, but to the national televised media which have helped uphold Putin through his 12 years in power as president and prime minister.
That question appeared to receive an answer on Saturday, as tens of thousands of protesters returned home from the biggest demonstration yet over the December 4 election.
Some of their hopes shifted to their television sets and an unlikely opposition hero - Alexei Pivovarov, a slight, redhaired news anchor for NTV, a national channel controlled by state natural gas monopoly Gazprom for nearly a decade.
Pivovarov was a reporter with NTV's feisty news team in the heyday of Russian television news, a free-for-all backed by wealthy industrialists who bankrolled the media to maintain political support for their business empires.
NTV news was all that and more -- independently owned, feared and sometimes exploited by the country's most powerful politicians. When its owner fell foul of the Kremlin, it ran into financial trouble and was taken over by Gazprom.
Under effective state control and financed by the energy giant, the channel went the way of other state channels, moving away from hard-hitting news toward serialized glamour and largely benign accounting of the day's events in Russia.
"For the past 10 years the television has reflected society's demands," said Kachkayeva, who says the state media agenda reflected a sort of social contract under which the government offered material comforts in exchange for consent.
"After the previous decade, which was romantic and unnerving, there was a buildup of wealth and consumerism," she said. "Serials were concordant with stability, a little island where everything was good."
Those demands changed, she said, on September 24, when Putin, who had already served the constitutional maximum of two consecutive terms before ceding the presidency to his ally Dmitry Medvedev, announced he would run for president again and hand the premiership to Medvedev.
The implication was that he would win and all had been decided long before the March 4 presidential election. He still is widely expected win - but perhaps not as easily as seemed likely before September 24.
GENIE LET OUT OF THE BOTTLE
"They let the genie out of the bottle on September 24. Putin would have easily won the election on March 4 if they had not treated people in such a way," said Ilya Ponomaryov, one of the protest organizers and a former member of the parliamentary committee on media for the Just Russia party.
"There were a lot of nice ways for Putin to return but this arrogant, undemocratic job swap alienated so many people, even their own followers, that his ratings started to fall."
Kachkayeva said it became clear that the "social contract" was not forever and television and politics could not longer co-exist with so much cynicism.
Unlike some former NTV colleagues who fled Gazprom-controlled NTV for radio and Internet broadcasters, Pivovarov is among a hard core of NTV veterans still working for the channel.
A newspaper reported on Friday that Pivovarov had said he would not read the news if he could not report on the demonstrations.
When the 7 p.m. news came on after Saturday's protest, Pivovarov was behind the desk on the blue and green NTV news set, describing the throngs on a central Moscow square.
"When we saw Pivovarov and the main news item was not biased, we were overjoyed," said Lada Bakal, a Moscow graphic designer whose family and friends turned out en masse for the protests.
"If we achieved that much, it's already something. But we can't stop now and say 'We did it'."
MORE COVERAGE TO FOLLOW
The head of NTV news, Tatyana Mitkova, told reporters the channel would keep up its coverage as she left the upper house of parliament on Wednesday with the heads of other national television channels.
Pivovarov could not be reached for comment. Sources at NTV said they could not confirm the authenticity of the report but, whether true or not, it had become a sign of the news team's discontent with tight political control.
A veteran Moscow reporter who spoke with Pivovarov said the agenda that night was decided the way it has been for years - with a phone call between the channel's owner - Gazprom Chief Executive Alexei Miller - and its top executive, Vladimir Kulistikov.
Though national attention was pinned to Pivovarov, she said, the deciding factor was Kanal Rossiya, owned by the state media holding, which led the evening news on the protests.
"Miller and Kulistikov spoke on the phone, and said, well, Rossiya did, so we probably can too," the veteran reporter said.
The protests have become common currency on national television, with public approval from Putin and Medvedev, who called them a demonstration of civil rights in Russia.
"The Kremlin was in a lose-lose situation. They had to show the pictures because otherwise they would have faced too much anger," Ponomaryov said.
"But the pictures they showed to viewers across Russia were of peaceful protests, not State Department-sponsored, radical revolutionaries. Next time there will be more people and calmer people, less revolutionary people who turn out in bigger quantities."
PUTIN STILL HOLDS THE LEVERS
The Kremlin appears willing to run the risk that coverage of the protests will bring more people out into the street on December 24, when the next protest is scheduled in Moscow.
"The channels will have to keep covering the protests now they have starting showing them, but Putin has not lost control of the media," said political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser.
Television coverage remains guarded. It excludes direct criticism of Putin and one clear taboo remains - the reason the protests began in the first place.
The editor of a prominent weekly news magazine said on Wednesday he was sacked by the owner of the publishing house, mining tycoon Alisher Usmanov, after publishing a story on ballot fraud featuring a photograph of a ballot marked with an obscene phrase directed at Putin.
The issue has yet to receive an airing on state television. NTV'sSunday night news magazine, Central Television, a Russian hipster's answer to U.S. Sunday night institution 60 Minutes, was all about the protests.
"There is nothing else to talk about," its host, Vadim Takmenyov, told the camera, staring intensely from behind angular, thick-rimmed spectacles.
There may have been something else. In a public exchange on Kachkayeva's Facebook page, members of Moscow's media discussed a report prepared by another NTV veteran, Pavel Lobkov, on the ballot fraud itself. The report was not aired.
Lobkov, participating in the discussion, wrote that he had not made any guarantees to his sources that the piece would run. He did not respond to a request for comment.
"It is not about the legitimacy of the Duma, but about Putin's own situation," Kachkayeva said. "Because everything that is connected with the falsifications is undermining his own legitimacy."
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Denis Dyomkin, Timothy Heritage and Elizabeth Piper; Writing by Melissa Akin; Editing by Timothy Heritage)