MEDIA WATCH: Good-bye, It Was Great Fun

It is not easy to say goodbye to this column. I have written 92 of them since June 1997, and I wanted to get drunk after writing the 100th. My position, however, has become untenable. I am now the editor of a new Russian business daily, which will be in direct competition with many of the papers I try to analyze in this space. My paper, Vedomosti, is going into dry runs starting Aug. 1.

As I was writing about Kommersant, Segodnya, Expert and other Russian publications, I was at the same time trying to hire away some of their best journalists. Naturally, I found out things about these newspapers that I could not publish in Media Watch, though my itch to do that got quite bad at times.

I have been totally unethical in the last few months, anyway. I criticized my competitors, I wrote about our project, I pushed the envelope, and my editors at The Moscow Times have been overindulgent. This has got to stop.

It has been a great ride. I got to where I identified myself with the picture in the middle of this column - yes, I am the guy with the fat nose and the watches in his eyes.

I treated this column as a hobby and never aspired to the role of a true media expert, as I told the many journalists and diplomats who wanted to discuss Media Watch subject matter with me. The folks at the Glasnost Defense Foundation, Moscow State University's Center for Media Law, the National Press Institute, the magazine Sreda and some polling agencies are the true experts. As for me, I tried to provoke rather than provide in-depth analysis.

Naturally, most of the mail The Moscow Times got about my columns was angry. At various times, Media Watch irritated famed commentator Nikolai Svanidze at Russian television, Itar-Tass star correspondent Tamara Zamyatina and Expert weekly editor Maxim Fadeyev. I am grateful to all of them for writing back. On some points, I stand corrected. On others, I still don't know why people bothered. There was, for instance, the BBC bureau chief who wanted The Moscow Times to correct me by saying the BBC does not pay for interviews. The Beeb's radio service still pays me from time to time.

I was not without guile in some of my predictions in this column. I have been saying from the start that someday big foreign publishers would come to Russia and finally build a commercially solvent, editorially independent Fourth Estate here. I knew about Pearson and Dow Jones' plans to set up our newspaper. But the prediction also bears itself out in the weekly Versia's partnership with the New York Daily News and I think more similar projects are coming.

Russia is a country with a lot of political money and little understanding of press freedom by the people who control the money. This will not always be so. I am convinced that even now, Russia is one of the freest countries in the world where the written and spoken word is concerned. What it lacks is the infrastructure needed to exercise that freedom. That, compared with our very recent legacy, is a minor problem.

We are a society of pessimists. The worst always does seem to happen. Few Russian journalists can disagree with that after seeing their salaries plummet, their publishers go broke, their independence sacrificed to various fly-by-night political interests. This column has often been harsh and sometimes cynical. I would like my 93rd Media Watch to end on an optimistic note, though.

As I have found out while hiring people for the new paper, there is a strong hunger among journalists for the chance to report objectively for newspapers that are not controlled by political and business interests. It cannot remain impossible for long. Regardless of whether President Boris Yeltsin will stay alive, who will win the upcoming elections or what happens in Kosovo, Russia can no longer be gagged as it was 12 years ago. The genie is out of the bottle.

Many thanks to everyone who read this column. I hope you had half as much fun reading it as I had writing it. Please watch this space.