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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For a Watchdog Press

Objectivity was the prescribed modus operandi for Russian journalists covering last month's parliamentary campaign and, like many other strategies orchestrated by the Yeltsin government, the plan backfired -- for the objectivity card played directly into Vladimir Zhirinovsky's outstretched hand.


The neutrality policy was dictated by presidential decree and implemented by the government-appointed Central Election Commission, with the noble intent of allaying domestic and international fears of pro-government bias on the part of the state-owned media.


State media were enjoined to distance themselves from the political fray, avoid pointed or probing questions, and let the facts and the principles speak for themselves without the "intrusion" of reporters and journalists.


Russia's broadcast and print journalists, always more comfortable with opinion than fact, groaned a bit, off the record, then dutifully fell in line.


At one point Yeltsin even sought to prevent candidates from putting each other in the hot seat by declaring negative campaigning off-limits -- a restriction he also tried to impose on criticism of the draft constitution.


The Russian experience underscores the fact that "objectivity" in itself and of itself is an overrated journalistic virtue. Americans learned to be skeptical of this late-developing value during the McCarthy Era, when the wire services of most other media found it safer and easier to report the "facts" of Senator Joseph McCarthy's accusations in his own words, rather than investigate the charges and present them and the refutations in context. It took four years of McCarthy's reckless allegations and the courage of Edward R. Murrow on his famous television broadcast, "See It Now" to debunk McCarthy and expose the pitfalls of objective reporting.


The Russians got it wrong this time. In their effort to try to choreograph fair, balanced election coverage, they lost sight of the fact that journalistic objectivity is a means, and only one means, to an end, which, in a democratic society, is a well-informed electorate. And the painful truth is that without an independent, aggressive, and omnipresent watchdog press constantly nipping at the heels of those in power or aspiring to power, the people have not a clue as to what is really going on and whom they are voting for. What Russia needed was fewer well-intentioned media regulation imposing constraints on journalists and at least one Ed Murrow.


In another effort to minimize journalistic intrusion on the campaign, paid political advertising and a mandated "equal-time" hour for every party on each federal channel appeared on Russian television for the first time. Together, these "packaged" presentations comprised 63 percent of election programming on the three federal channels, compared with 37 percent for the news and public affairs.


In fact, the distinction between ads, equal-time hours, and news coverage was lost on Russian viewers. Four of the parties purchased no advertising at all and three of these managed to win seats in the new parliament. Clearly, in all genres of election coverage, the candidates were calling the shots and determining what the Russian audience knew about them.


During news interviews with the candidates, nervous reporters, fearful of overstepping the foul line, routinely lobbed soft questions at their unruffled guests who returned the volley with great ease and occasional prowess. Several candidates brought their own friendly "reporters" to the studios to conduct pseudo interviews during their allocated hour of free time. As a result of the kid-glove treatment, Russia's vast television audience learned very little about the hundreds of candidates or the 13 newly honed and frequently misnamed parties -- beyond what the candidates wanted them to know. In this cushy environment, the charismatic Zhirinovsky took charge, racking up more hours of television exposure on the three federal channels than any other party leader.


Many of Zhirinovsky's more outrageous plans, e.g., annexing Alaska, annihilating Turkey, wafting Russia's radioactive waste across the border into Finland, were simply never brought to public attention. Instead he was free to pluck at the heartstrings of a nation engulfed in economic and social chaos, self-pity, and nostalgia for the good old days. Few could take issue with Zhirinovsky's notion that the military draft should be extended to snare the sons of the intelligentsia as well as those of the working folk; few could resist the misty-eyed account of how he fell head over heels in love at first sight of his future wife. Does a guy like this really want to bomb Germany, and Japan too? He didn't say, and worse, nobody asked.


Moreover, the banning of Zhirinovsky from Bulgaria and Germany, the attitude adopted by Central and Western Europe to the ultranationalist can only compound the errors and play into Zhirinovsky's hands. What better way to confirm the xenophobic thinking of his constituency back home and further wound their pride than to reject this duly-elected political leader and send him packing -- his eyes ablaze with righteous fury over his mistreatment by the hostile foreigners.


In his 1801 inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Beautiful words, proven wisdom. Unfortunately the idea is one the Russians have not yet understood, and an idea that we in the West must keep reminding ourselves of as we continue to encourage the establishment of democratic institutions in Russia.





Elisabeth Schillinger is a codirector of the Russian-American Press and Information Center in Moscow and coordinated the Center's recently completed study of Russian television, radio, and newspaper coverage of the Dec. 12 elections. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.