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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What the Media Needs Is a Little Bit of Self-Respect

At the end of the May holiday season, Sreda magazine scored a triumph and I was plunged into gloomy reflection.

As the editor of Sreda, I entered three articles on the radio industry by our analyst Viktoria Sukhareva in the annual Radio Mania competition. All three articles made it into the final round. On May 7, Radio Day, we boarded a plane chartered by the organizers, Media Soyuz, to fly finalists and special guests to St. Petersburg for the award ceremony. At that point, I was the only one in our group who knew that we had won.

On the flight I sat next to an executive from a major media holding, who turned out to be a regular reader of my column in The Moscow Times. "Why did you go after Nemtsov?" he asked me, referring to my May 6 column on military reform. "There are far more serious issues to tackle on relations between politicians and the press. Take the case of Yevgeny Nazdratenko. The press investigated him for ages, he was sacked from his post at the State Fisheries Committee and the Prosecutor General's Office got involved. Then Putin goes and makes him a deputy secretary of the Security Council without a word of explanation to the press. Does this not demonstrate the administration's total lack of respect for the mass media? Does it not indicate that the Kremlin simply dismisses the press as a means of communicating with society? That's what you should be writing about!"

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"Of course the government has no respect for the press," I said. "But we have only ourselves to blame. Most of the officials in the Putin administration who deal with the press have worked on election campaigns in some capacity, so they know all the dark secrets of how the press works: how much editors charge for favorable articles; who's working for whom; how the press gets involved in smear campaigns. To these officials, the criticism that goes public is just the tip of the iceberg. To react publicly to what this shady machine churns out is not just difficult, it's pointless -- especially when you are or were part of it. Controlling two state-owned television stations and buying off, bullying or ignoring the others is a perfectly normal way for the government to deal with a press that it holds in disdain.

"Let's say I were to write about Nazdratenko," I continued. "I would have to conduct my own investigation. There's no way I could take on faith the newspaper articles that expose him as a thief. Nor can you pay any heed to television reports that make him look like an indefatigable champion of our national interests. Prolonged contact with the Moscow press would turn any normal person into an agnostic -- ready to believe anything but believing nothing at all. The same holds true for public opinion."

Little did I know as I lectured this naive media executive that in a few short hours I would find myself in Nazdratenko's shoes.

Three times they called out the name of our magazine during the Radio Mania ceremony. Three times they pronounced the name of Viktoria Sukhareva. She received the prize for the article the jury considered the best of the three. We went up on stage, said a few words and walked off, proudly clutching the "Golden Microphone" trophy.

"I don't see why the jury had to make such a spectacle of your articles," said a radio industry type who had come over to congratulate us. "It would have been more honest to admit that no one but Sreda bothered to enter."

A few minutes later, a television journalist walked over and said: "You'll probably be edited out of the broadcast. The whole thing looked way too much like a free ad for your magazine."

Each time I patiently explained that the competition this year was tougher than last year, that the winner was determined by secret ballot, etc. And each time I felt like a total idiot, making excuses for our success. More important, I caught myself thinking that if we hadn't won, I would probably be saying much the same thing. We in the mass media have become utterly cynical toward ourselves. This is far worse than not being respected by the ruling elite, which will quite justifiably despise us until we find a way to restore our self-respect.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (