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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Weakness May Be Our Greatest Strength

In this space two weeks ago, I chose not to comment on the hot-button issue of the moment: press coverage of the Beslan tragedy. I had written a column full of anger, directed in particular at Raf Shakirov, forced out as editor of Izvestia on Sept. 6. A few days after the tragedy I had shown a female coworker the Sept. 4 issue of Izvestia that got Shakirov fired. The front page was covered with a photograph of a man carrying a tormented, half-naked girl from the school. After looking through the paper, my coworker said: "What did you do that for, Alexei? I was just starting to recover."

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Showing those photographs to even one person was a cruel experiment.

I also ripped into those who criticized state television for its coverage of the tragedy. To my mind, the only people with an interest in having complete coverage of crimes like this on TV are the degenerates who send terrorists into schools to kill children.

Society's right to reliable and accurate information is not the same as the journalists' professional interest in packaging the news as sensationally as possible, I concluded. When human lives and the mental health of the nation are at stake, we must practice restraint. Criticism, exposure and denunciation must wait until the tears have dried and we are able to consider events rationally.

Having completed this passionate monologue, I decided to follow my own advice and I submitted a column on a different but related issue.

In the two weeks since, press coverage of Beslan has stayed in the news. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's media freedom office called the authorities' detention and harassment of journalists covering the Beslan crisis "a serious drawback for democracy." The State Duma's Information Policy Committee rejected one member's proposal to bar the electronic media from covering terrorist attacks. A group within the Academy of Russian Television tried unsuccessfully to incite their colleagues to protest censorship on television. In a meeting with news agency chiefs, President Vladimir Putin called on journalists to turn the press into a weapon in the war against terrorism.

A leading authority on media ethics, Claude-Jean Bertrand, submitted an op-ed to my magazine in which he called for self-regulation in the media community. "You give the news as succinctly as possible: no particulars or comments," he wrote. "A man was kidnapped today in Baghdad at nine o'clock. Period. No assumptions about the kidnappers. No echo of their demands. No reference to his wife's anguish or photos of his children's tears."

As the shouting and arguments continued, I was called in for jury duty. When I showed up at the courthouse, three policemen were smoking and chewing the fat outside the entrance. Not only did they fail to check my ID, they didn't bother to react when the metal detector went off as I entered the building.

That's when it hit me: What difference does it make how we journalists cover the news when rank-and-file policemen, less than two weeks after a series of horrific terrorist attacks, leave their posts not even for a bribe, but simply because they want to step outside for a smoke?

For the first time, I saw the connection between Putin's proposed changes in the structure of the state and the war on terrorism. And I felt for the president, who seems intent on taking full responsibility for the actions of every police precinct in the country. Nothing will come of it, of course, but God help him.

I'm beginning to think that our real strength is our weakness. At some point the terrorists will decide that -- with or without the assistance of the press -- they have frightened us long enough. And they will wait for us to come crawling on our knees. But we won't; we'll carelessly step outside for a smoke. Then they'll understand that we can't be defeated and turn their attention to countries where people take their security seriously.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals. []