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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

My Advice to the KPRF: Smear Yourselves

For journalists, the summer months are a time of intense creative activity. So little happens during the traditional vacation period that reporters have to wrack their brains and use a little imagination to keep the pages filled. When the campaign season arrives in the fall, journalists can actually relax. Sure, a lot is going on, but it's all so similar to what happened during previous campaigns in 1993, 1995-96 and 1999 that all the hacks really have to do is update stories from the archive.

Take a story that ran last week in Novaya Gazeta, for example. Valentin Kuptsov, second in command of the Communist Party, complained at the Election 2003 forum that the major television stations were muzzling his party. Monitoring of prime-time programming in July on Channel One, Rossia, NTV and TV Center revealed that the Communists received a total of six minutes and 50 seconds of airtime. United Russia, the "party of power," garnered about seven times as much: 46 minutes and two seconds. The thing is that the Communists have been complaining about this imbalance for the past 10 years.

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In a column that ran on Feb. 18, 2003, I advanced the thesis -- backed up with facts and figures -- that dominance of the airwaves in Russia results in a poor showing at the polls. The more the major stations pander to a particular party, the fewer votes it collects on election day.

It seems to me that our political strategists have failed to take into account two major factors determining the behavior of Russian voters. The first is anarchism: figuring out what the establishment wants and doing the exact opposite. The second is a tendency to sympathize with the underdog. Television's main role in election campaigns is to make clear what parties and candidates are backed by the establishment and to demean everyone else.

This general rule comes with exceptions, of course, notably when the establishment itself is split and gets caught up in an internecine information war. You probably remember the brutal propaganda campaign in 1999 that ORT and RTR waged against the Fatherland-All Russia coalition, led by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. The networks accused Luzhkov's coalition of everything under the sun, including embezzlement and corruption. According to the election coverage rule, this sort of attack should have spelled a landslide victory for Fatherland-All Russia in the Duma election. Unfortunately for Luzhkov, two other major stations, NTV and TV Center, backed his coalition and savaged the Unity party, which ORT and RTR were doing their best to promote. The struggle for the airwaves left the average voter disoriented. How were people to know which candidates to vote against?

Luzhkov also fell victim to the assumptions of Russian voters, tempered by long experience of politics in this country. There's no free lunch, so if the networks back a particular party, the obvious conclusion is that the party has paid for the privilege. And if the party can pay for positive coverage, that means it has money. And if it has money, that means it has stolen it from somewhere. In other words, the support for Luzhkov provided by NTV and TV Center was perceived by voters as indirect corroboration of the charges leveled at the mayor's coalition by his opponents.

The campaign this fall is expected to be much simpler, without any confusing information wars.

United Russia has such a stranglehold on the mass media as to leave no doubt in anyone's mind: This is the establishment party. The Communists are in a trickier position: They're being muzzled but not attacked. My advice to the Communist Party's campaign managers would therefore be to launch a savage smear campaign against their own party. They could save money by recycling the battle-tested ads used against the party in the 1996 presidential election, when the Communists raked in 40 percent of the vote, a huge improvement on the 20 percent to 25 percent they usually receive.

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