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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Media Shows New Maturity in the Crisis

Relations between the authorities and the media during the "Nord Ost" crisis were distinguished by a spirit of professionalism and cooperation.

You might think such relations normal in this kind of situation, but think back to another national tragedy, the sinking of the Kursk. Throughout the incident the media treated the government with suspicion and hostility. And the government later took its revenge in full measure.

The cooperation demonstrated in recent days is all the more remarkable because the government bears far more guilt for the "Nord Ost" hostage crisis than it did for the Kursk. At the end of the day, the Kursk sailors perished in the line of duty, while taking part in a training exercise. The president, who had been in power for less than a year at that point, could hardly have been blamed for events taking place a hundred meters below the ocean surface, thousands of kilometers from Moscow. The "Nord Ost" attack was the direct result of a war that the Putin administration launched and which it has many times declared to be over. It was the result of government negligence during a time of war, which led to the seizure and death of innocent civilians.

It is tempting to say that the "fourth branch of power" was frightened of the first and muzzled its criticism. But that's not the whole story. The state-controlled television stations -- Channel One, Rossia and TV Center -- regularly broadcast information that could have made the authorities uncomfortable. The private stations -- NTV, TVS and RenTV -- aired an extremely wide range of opinions, positions, scenarios and prognoses. I didn't get the impression that critical voices were being silenced. And the same goes for the newspapers.

In my opinion, there are two main reasons "Nord Ost" was covered differently from the Kursk. First, government spin-doctoring during the Kursk events was extremely inept. The release of information was painfully slow and disorganized. The different agencies involved provided conflicting accounts. The result was an information vacuum. The government dominated the news, but as the object of criticism. It failed to set the tone or shape the content of news coverage.

The second reason is that the leading media outlets -- the empires of Boris Berezovsky (ORT) and Vladimir Gusinsky (NTV) -- clearly pursued a hidden agenda in their coverage of the Kursk. They were speculating on Vladimir Putin's demise. They had no use for a strong, popular president. They wanted to force the president into a position of dependence on their propaganda support, or to use the Kursk to unseat the president. Either outcome meant big money and influence for the media oligarchs. And the result was that coverage of the tragedy turned into an anti-presidential farce.

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During the "Nord Ost" events, which could have proven far more damaging for the president, the authorities managed to dictate how events were covered. They released information in a timely fashion, and gave the impression of being open and forthright. They suppressed their instinct to curb press coverage of controversial subjects, from the anti-war demonstrations organized by relatives of the hostages to the rising number of dead as a result of the special forces' raid. The government pushed a number of positive themes that the media couldn't ignore -- most importantly, the call to distinguish terrorism and terrorists from ethnicity and religion.

Finally, by the time of the "Nord-Ost" events there were no significant media outlets left living by the principle: "The worse it is for the president, the better for us." In other words, neither the authorities nor the media owners prevented journalists from doing their job. And the journalists checked their own propensity for sensationalism at any cost.

The authorities led the way and the press followed. Media loyalty was not bought or compelled. And the press kept its distance from the official line without sinking into hysterical denunciations. The authorities and the media scored high marks with one another and, I'm certain, with the public also.

Can they keep it up now that the crisis is over?

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)