William Allen White is credited with a “newspaper is as good as the town it serves” and to understand Russia today one needs only to look at its press.
It was thirty years ago that the Cold War and the differences between the United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) were at their starkest. The seeds of other future problems were planted then. The Soviet Union was involved in their war in Afghanistan; the US had its own hands full with the hostage crisis in Iran. The 1980 Moscow and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, boycotted eventually by each adversary, were the most public demonstrations of disdain.
But it was the press both print and TV that to both visitors and citizens alike showed the chasm between the two societies and their political systems.
Towards the end of Leonid Brezhnev’s long rule, that sclerotic old man was the image dominating Russian TV, haranguing the West, praising the merits of the USSR, which by then had lost any credibility both inside and outside. Russians, good at the offhand political joke had somebody flipping through four television channels: The first had Brezhnev talking; the second was the same; the third was the same. Flipping though the fourth there was a soldier with a gun pointed at the camera, barking, “What’s the matter, you didn’t like the other three?”
For decades before, Gostelradio, the “USSR State Committee for Television and Radio” was thoroughly flooding the public with state-induced propaganda preaching loyalty and duty to the Communist Party. It was not until Nikita Khrushchev that the Soviet Union admitted to Joseph Stalin’s purges of nearly 20 million of their own people. And it was not until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika that the press gained some semblance of freedom of speech and the public some access to information.
In the meantime the United States was undergoing its own sea of change of another hue. Social taboos were shattered when All in the Family debuted in 1971. Gone were the days of Ozzie and Harriet and few things were out of bounds: racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, miscarriage, breast cancer and impotence. It made American TV what it has become today, diverse and unavoidably partially crass as in “reality” shows.
Politically, a few years earlier it was Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America”, who departed from the way things were in the past by reporting on the atrocities of the Vietnam War and proclaiming it as unwinnable. His front-lines’ perspectives and criticism of the war had President Johnson say: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” Suddenly, America was launched into an era in which the media found the power to critique — to bring before American households even issues of national security. Skeptical and cynical journalism has flourished since.
In Russia by the time Boris Yeltsin took over in early 1992, the press went through the same kind of privatization as the oil industry and it too went wild with many of the same oligarchs controlling the media.
But all of that came to a screeching halt under President Vladimir Putin. And under Putin, the re-Sovietization of the Russian press was done in a weird, almost insidious way. TV and game shows in Russia today can be as silly and racy as in America and while sex and pornography are every bid as available there as in the US, but political coverage has reverted to pretty much the Brezhnev era.
Just recently, Russia made the International Press Institute’s watch list as one of five countries becoming repressive. Vladimir Putin made the top ten list of Worst Enemies of the Press, a list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists and includes other names such as Ayatollah Khomeini, Charles Taylor, Fidel Castro, and Robert Mugabe.
Last month, new Russian President Dmitri Medvedev issued a letter to the State Duma, opposing the passing of a bill permitting state authorities to suspend individuals who allegedly commit libel against state officials on television. This was an innocuous attempt to show Medvedev to be shifting away from Putin’s crackdown on any shred of independent and free press.
The facts are chilling. Twenty three journalists, the best known among them Anna Politskaya, were assassinated since Putin took over and none of the murders was resolved. Two of the three major television stations today are directly state-owned, while the third is owned by a company in bed with the Kremlin.
The often whimsical-turned awkward-turned deadly habits, honed during the Soviet times, are back. Recently, a well known Russian political scientist, Mikhail Delyagin took part in a TV panel discussion in which he made several critical comments of Vladimir Putin. But before the station would air the program, Delyagin had been mysteriously, digitally erased from the screen. In a still photo of the discussion Delyagin’s seat at the panel was empty- except his legs!
Dmitri Medvedev has apparently no qualms as he said: “In terms of quality and production, our television is among the best in the world and, to my mind, it is worth watching.”