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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

RAMED Is Obfuscating The Real Issues

The Russian-American Media Entrepreneurship Dialogue missed the point. Media association officials from both countries met in the days preceding the summit and then on Friday briefed Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin on their conclusions.

What did they say? RAMED's interim report asserted that "consensus on precise recommendations is still premature," among other things.

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Tom Richardson, a staff member of the U.S. National Security Council (where the RAMED idea was cooked up), told me that its purpose is to address the "need for media to have a more independent, entrepreneurial base" in Russia.

How can there be a lack of consensus about that? There is a fundamental, core problem with Russia's media sector, and just about all the media's problems flow from this underlying issue.

In Russia it is generally not possible to operate a media company that abides by the law and also generates reasonable profits. The obstacle to legitimate profitability is government interference through policies that forestall the development of a robust media advertising market; laws that forbid media organizations from carrying sufficient advertising to be really profitable; and unfair competition coming from the state-controlled media. This leaves media companies in a state of "legislated unprofitability."

And this is exactly what has sent struggling, private media companies straight into the clutches of oligarchs, governors and mayors, and state-controlled enterprises. Where else could media companies turn for money to recoup financial losses? Who else would want to put capital into loss-making media companies other than those seeking to color the news?

That is the problem on which RAMED should focus. The sooner this problem is solved, the sooner Russia's media will be able to attract legitimate capital and begin to operate like normal media companies.

Following the summit, I spoke with Stanley Hubbard, one of the U.S. participants in the media dialogue (his focus is on broadcasting concerns) and asked him what RAMED's recommendations were. He told me, "The government has got to get out of the television business and get out of the business of selling advertising." He added "Having one agency sell almost all the advertising is bad, and that agency was founded by Mr. Lesin, the media minister."

Why is it hard to get a consensus on a clear statement of such an obvious problem?

RAMED's interim report is replete with a litany of secondary issues. It even includes discussion of the need for strong and viable professional associations in Russia. Of course, there is a need, but why is RAMED talking to Putin about that? He isn't needed to form a new association. He is, however, needed to get laws changed to fix the core problem of legislated unprofitability. Why isn't the Media Dialogue asking the president to do that, right now?

Over the years, Western media assistance efforts have missed the point, too. But, they did not have the clout RAMED has for urging fundamental reform.

The Media Dialogue has brought together a lot of smart, concerned people. It has the weight of the U.S. president behind it and the ear of the Russian president. This is an unprecedented opportunity. It should not be wasted through failure to achieve a forthright consensus. Its thrust should not be diffused by introducing secondary issues.

William Dunkerley, a media business consultant working in Russia and other post-communist countries, is a principal in the Russian Media Fund

(www.publishinghelp.com/RussianMediaFund). He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.