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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Heroes' of Kursk Coverage

By universal acclaim, the only good news from the Kursk submarine tragedy has been the work of the Russian press. The Guardian of London on Tuesday went so far as to call the nonstate press "heroes," writing that "led by the independent TV channel, NTV, and its radio stablemate, Moscow Echo, as well as the newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda and Novaya Gazeta, they have been pointing out the contradictions in official statements, asking the searching questions, and running blistering headlines."

Click here to read our Special Report on the Kursk Tragedy.

The crown jewel in the press’s performance came when Komsomolskaya Pravda printed the list of seamen aboard the submarine, reporting it had paid a naval officer 18,000 rubles for the document, which the navy had previously declared a military secret. Immediately after Komsomolskaya Pravda broke the story, all the state and nonstate media began running the list. The Western press characterized this act as aggressive journalism in the face of government stonewalling and secrecy.As the crisis recedes, though, it is important for the press to examine its own performance, especially since the government will certainly be taking a look. Already, there are reports that the Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating the Komsomolskaya Pravda incident to determine whether anyone paid or received a bribe. I polled some editors in the United States to ask them specifically what they thought of this incident and how they would have acted. As I expected, the responses were anything but clear-cut.

In fact, the two dozen or so responses I got were almost evenly divided between strongly held extremes. "I’d pay for it and print it as a service to readers," wrote Kristin Rodine of the Idaho Press-Tribune. "And as a protest to a ridiculous policy." Norm Lewis of the Skagit Valley Herald was also ready to "spend money to pry out state secrets." Lewis thinks it is important "to put the government on notice that it can’t bottle up the truth, so it might as well fess up."

Others would never pay for information, "regardless of the importance of the story," as David Stoeffler of the Lincoln Journal Star wrote. "We certainly would not pay a military officer for information the government called military secrets, because that is likely a federal felony," answered Frank Denton of the Wisconsin State Journal. "I suppose I can imagine a situation in which I would break the law, but it would be very rare, and not in this case."

Many respondents pointed out that such information would emerge fairly quickly in one of two ways in the United States. The high road, so to speak, would be a combination of public pressure and legal action. Denton emphasized that he would immediately engage his lawyers to "directly challenge the governmental secrecy." He would also turn to his representatives in Congress and use his paper’s editorial voice to generate public pressure. The combination of representatives who are dependent on the goodwill of the public and federal bureaucracies (including the military) that are dependent on the goodwill of Congress can generate tremendous pressure for openness. There is a lesson here for Russia.

The low road — which mirrors the way things worked out in the Kursk case — would be that a tabloid or web site would pay for the list, and then the mainstream media would run with it. No one thinks this is the ideal solution to the dilemma, but they admitted that this is most likely what would happen.

As the media and society take stock of the Kursk case, we must look for ways to open up the high road for the next time such a need arises. Even though the information sought in this case is no longer of crucial importance, the media nonetheless should pursue its official release through the courts. We must challenge the government’s knee-jerk inclination to declare everything a secret and force it to make its classification processes and justifications public. Establishing a precedent in this case will make it easier to bring pressure to bear next time.It would indeed be a good thing if the government learned a lesson about openness and leadership from this incident. But I don’t think we can assume that it will.

Personally, I would rather get something in writing.

Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NPI. Soviet-Style Secrecy Endures in Sub Crisis, The Washington Post, Aug. 19. The Bellona Foundation Russian Naval Forces, The Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University Oscar II: Jane's Naval Forces Oscar: Federation of American Scientists Perry Slingsby Systems: the LR5 submarine Kursk Tragedy: A Message Board Save Their Souls: A Message Board on the Kursk Tragedy (in Russian) The Russian Ministry of Defense (in Russian)