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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On a Free Press, Free Market and Civilization

I must say that the June 19 issue contains one of the most amazing contradictions that I have ever seen.

The front-page story "Putin Pledges to Get Out of News" details President Vladimir Putin's support for a plan to liberate the media from the clutches of the government.

But "Zdanovich Should Be a Good Listener," a column by Yulia Latynina on page 10, reveals that Putin has just appointed an infamous KGB spy to a controlling position at RTR television.

Moreover, according to the news story, the plan backed by Putin to save the media calls for imposing the same system of "shock therapy" that almost every Russian thinks destroyed the national economy. And the plan comes after the government has seized control of all the major independent media outlets, closing down the Itogi magazine and taking over NTV.

With Rube Goldberg plans like these, it is no wonder that Russia remains such a backward nation.

Claude Dunes
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Future of Journalism

Recently, the U.S. State Department sent me on a five-day speaking engagement in Moscow to deliver a series of presentations to government press secretaries, reporters, leaders of national political parties and journalism students. The World Bank Institute and Press Development Institute hosted the programs where I was to address such topics as the importance of a free and independent press, the responsibilities and ethics of a press officer and the relationship between the government and the press in America.

Just like a lungful of Moscow air makes you realize how much progress we've made in environmental protection in America, fielding questions from any of these audiences makes you realize how far we've come since the days of Peter Zenger's New York Weekly Journal in the United States' near-300-year tradition of a free press.

To the press secretaries, I stressed just how important it is to be responsive and to welcome the adversarial relationship between a governor's spokesman and the press.

"If your programs can't stand the scrutiny of a reporter, they'll never stand the scrutiny of the voters." I told them.

That was a foreign concept to the press secretaries. Their bosses got elected without the help of a free press. "Didn't need a free press then, don't need one now," was the operating mantra.

Many see nothing wrong with the established practice of political leaders or their parties owning newspapers. If they need coverage, that's where they'll get it.

The press secretaries were astounded to be told that former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, for whom I served as chief spokesman, regularly held two or three public events or press availabilities each day. Their bosses participated in news events only when they absolutely had to.

When told of Whitman's difficulties attracting television news coverage out of New York or Philadelphia, the flacks asked why we didn't just buy a station.

Clearly Pravda is history, but it's going to be a while before officeholders embrace a free and independent press in the former Soviet Union.

Older reporters with whom I spoke saw themselves and their newspapers as extensions of the political elite. Many of the established reporters continue to embrace the idea that paying for news coverage was an acceptable practice.

Sharing the podium with Anna Politkovskaya, the war-sharpened correspondent from Novaya Gazeta whose passionate reporting of the war in Chechnya earned her personal hardship and worldwide praise, showed me that the new generation of Russian reporters are indeed committed to writing the stories straight, with an enormous commitment to personal and journalistic ethics.

Unfortunately for those reporters and their readers, their newspapers and television stations are chronically teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

But to the 120 journalism students at Moscow State University for the Humanities, Politkovskaya is an icon and an inspiration.

The journalism students understand that their most precious assets are their ethics and their belief that a free press is fundamental to democracy.

I told them that, despite the whining of politicians who may not be receiving the most flattering news coverage, the government and the press are in the same business -- to bring about positive social change.

U.S. politicians and editors may regularly differ on just what positive social change is, but our shared goal is to make our world a better place to live, work and raise a family.

The idealism of Moscow's next generation of journalists is refreshing. Though many will be corrupted by the conventions of established post-Soviet journalism, many will not.

The next generation of Russian journalists will tell the truth, and probably live. They'll be backed-up by the unfettered flow of information on the Internet. Their readers, like the readers of many U.S. newspapers, will expect and demand the truth.

The future of a prosperous Russia requires a free and independent media. Until Western investors can rely on the information they glean from Russian newspapers, dollars and euros will be slow in coming to the free markets of the former Soviet Union.

When public opinion and public policies are shaped by news reports delivered by editors, reporters and publishers who answer to a calling higher than personal enrichment, true democracy will be realized in the new Russia.

Though in the past 10 years our friends in Russia have come a long way toward a free press, they have a long way to go. Fortunately, with the idealism of their students and the growing influence of an Internet that knows no boundaries, they'll complete their journey.

Peter J. McDonough Jr.
Pennington, New Jersey

Leave the Market Alone

In response to "Foreigners Face Ban on Farmland," a story by Robin Munro on June 19.

It may interest you that during the 1980s and early '90s a similar question was raised in my home state of Illinois. At that time the worry was of the Japanese and, to a lesser extent, the Arabs buying rich Illinois land.

In the end, no laws were enacted and, indeed, they probably would have been ruled unconstitutional. The few foreigners who did invest did so at greatly inflated prices; they were "out bargained" by our local farmers.

By the mid-1990s all of the farmland in question was no longer in foreign hands, having been repurchased by our local farmers at greatly reduced prices. The free market worked as it invariably will if left alone.

John Naylor
Bloomington, Illinois

Zhirinovsky Go Home

In response to "Foreigners Go Home," a brief by The Associated Press on June 14.

I was provoked to write this rather unforgiving letter upon reading Vladimir Zhirinovsky's remarks that people from Asia and Africa need to go home and that Russians are a civilized people.

I have lived in Russia and understand the country and psyche very well. I am always amused to hear Russians desperately trying to convince themselves that they are civilized and European. Then they go off and riot after losing a match, attack and kill innocent and defenseless foreigners on the streets, butcher civilians in Chechnya, spread their cancerous business practices to neighboring countries, or simply descend in their droves on the Middle East and Turkey to prostitute themselves for money.

No civilized country does this, and civilized people have a certain dignity and knowledge of their place in the human race.

Sanjeev Singh
Parsippany, New Jersey

Putin and Willows

I have a mid-ranking belt in the sport of judo, so I was pleased to learn President Vladimir Putin has a black belt in judo. It might be of interest to interview Putin and ask how the philosophy of judo has shaped his diplomatic and governing style.

Judo is more that a sport; it is an attitude. To illustrate that, the world center of judo, the Kodokan, in Japan, has as its symbol the willow leaf. The idea is that in judo, like the willow tree in windy weather, one bends instead of giving stiff resistance like the large but shallow-rooted oak tree, which might fall over. Also, by taking the force and direction of the opponent and using it to your advantage, one succeeds over a larger and stronger opponent. The physics of judo are quite complex and interesting.

I wonder if Putin has had opportunities to be able to finesse his political relationships to his nation's advantage thanks to his judo training.

It would be an interesting interview, and no doubt a good way of getting people around the world who are avid judo fans to know a little more about Russia.

Terry Bowen
Sacramento, California