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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Press Gives Moral Slant




Bringing home several foreign newspapers from a trip abroad during Soviet times used to be considered a sign of good form. People of an older generation still bring back foreign papers out of habit, although you can now buy them in the center of Moscow without much difficulty. What distinguished the foreign papers, of course, was that the Western press was free and the Soviet press was censored. But this was not the only difference between them.


Western papers were quite unlike ours. They did not have either official decrees or slogan-headlines and lengthy editorials. Yet they were a lot thicker than Russian papers. Any Russian holding The New York Times in his hands for the first time inevitably asked himself: Do they really have so much free time that they can read such a huge newspaper every day? Apparently, newspapers abroad were not only written differently but read differently.


A Soviet reader studied the paper from the first page to last, right down to the address and masthead of the publication, striving to extract hidden political ideas from insignificant details. Or he read only the headlines, thinking that everything there was to say had been said in them. The Western reader, on the contrary, looks carefully at only sections of the paper that are pertinent to him and does not pay much attention to the rest.


Soviet censorship has since been eliminated, and many publications have appeared that hold various ideological positions. Now that the arrival of capitalism has been announced in Russia, it would seem that the Russian press should become more like the Western press. But the differences remain striking.


The "Golden Age" of the printed word in Russia was the perestroika period. The censors were not much of a hindrance. Rather, they even helped the reputation of the journalists they opposed, given that Russia tends to sympathize with those who are wronged. The circulation of newspapers reached record levels. Publications were inexpensive and widely available. While exposing government misdeeds, they were still able to receive paper from the state at low, stable prices.


The style and content of the papers were defined by an angry, muckraking spirit. If Americans are used to seeing on the front pages "All the news that's fit to print," then the Soviet reader during perestroika generally expected not news, but discoveries and expos?s. Current events were of little interest compared to truthful information on incidents that took place a half century ago. Gradually, however, this muckraking spirit was replaced by irony.


Kommersant Weekly, for example, had a huge influence on the style of the post-Soviet press. This was a tabloid with amusing caricatures on the front page and paradoxical headlines. Later, Kommersant became a daily devoted largely to businessmen, providing detailed analyses of stock-market quotations and optimistic articles on business successes.


During the '90s, it became clear that the press simply could not compete with television as a source of news. In the West, the press formed its traditions when television had not yet existed or did not play a special role. Here, everything is different. The Soviet traditions have collapsed (even communist publications today do not work as they did under Brezhnev). New standards were adopted during the television era. Newspapers do not even try to outstrip the evening television news programs. But the press does enjoy commenting on them. Dailies have begun to resemble weeklies and weeklies have become more like monthly journals.


If you are not in a rush, you can spend much time reading the long interviews and roundtable discussions that can take up entire pages of Russian newspapers. No one is put off by this. For readers of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, for example, arguments about the meaning of life are still more topical than, say, the current stock market. Many Russian readers find the newspaper to be something akin to a customary Muscovite tea-drinking session. You can thoroughly discuss, contemplate and judge what is happening. The news that is provided is almost an aside.


The Western press is fond of news, and the Russian press is fond of commentary. For an Anglo-American journalist, getting accurate information is the main criterion for what is called a quality press. In Russia, it is the other way around. Russian journalists are convinced that it is in principle impossible to avoid mistakes in a daily paper. The main thing is not to distort the sense of the events.


The foreign press is worried about what happened. Russians are more interested in why something happened and what will come of the event. They ask the eternal Russian questions: Who is guilty? What is to be done?


In the United States and Western Europe, the press underscores its objectivity and impartiality. Editorials are usually hidden in the middle of the paper, and theoretical and moral questions are mostly reserved for the opinion page. In Russia, there could never be such a concept. Distinct opinions are expressed in every published article. A moral and political appraisal of events is given immediately after they are announced. Then analyses and forecasts may follow.


Lenin's criterion for the party press -- that it should propagate vanguard ideas -- is still alive in Russia, even in the most liberal press. It is quite another matter that there is no unity concerning which ideas can be considered in the vanguard.


The ideological nature of the Russian press can be considered its shortcoming. But perhaps Russians journalists are simply more candid than their Western colleagues?


Boris Kagarlitsky is a researcher at the Academy of Sciences Institute for Comparative Politics. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.