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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Debate Truly Disturbs, Demeans, Distorts

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Two scandals related to television erupted earlier this month. One came from abroad, from Britain, while the other was a purely homegrown production. In reaction to the first scandal, the Foreign Ministry sent a letter of protest to its British counterpart calling for it to stop Britain's Channel 4 from broadcasting fragments of an interview with Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev. British authorities responded that they did not have the right to interfere with the programming of a private television channel, especially as it was not breaking the law. For the British, Basayev may be a sinister figure, but he's someone else's sinister figure. Channel 4 introduced the interview by stating that though viewers might find Basayev's words disturbing, they needed to be heard to help people understand how someone could rationally justify murdering children. To further disturb viewers, the channel cut between Basayev's interview and footage from Beslan and other evil deeds Chechnya's main terrorist had a hand in.

The second big scandal came here in Russia, but it didn't lead to any protests from Russian authorities. On Vladimir Solovyov's political debate show "K Baryeru!" on NTV, two generals faced off: Alexei Leonov, a cosmonaut who was twice named Hero of the Soviet Union, and State Duma Deputy Albert Makashov, who from here on I'll simply call "M." Long, long ago, a colleague of mine, upset about the doings of another scandalous deputy, started referring to him by the first letter of his last name, "Zh," in all his articles. So, we'll just call him M., to avoid giving him more credit than he is due.

My friends kept telling me not to write about this show, that it was disgusting, that a week had gone by and I'd missed the boat. I'm afraid, however, that this boat won't be setting sail anytime soon. And I just can't keep my mouth shut when everyone is asking how this could happen and why.

Moreover, I just can't get the closing minutes of the show out of my head. Solovyov, shaking with rage, made a last angry speech and proudly walked off the set. The final results of viewer voting appeared on the screen. M. did not know he had soundly beat his opponent, as the program had been prerecorded but the voting was conducted as the show aired. But old M. felt he had won. Cosmonaut Leonov, smiling in confusion, held out his hand -- obviously, the participants in the one-on-one debate had been instructed to civilly shake hands at the end. Then came M.'s real moment of triumph: He tossed out his hand in an impolite gesture -- you could read his lips saying, "Take that!" -- spit and walked away as the audience applauded wildly.

Why was this scene left in when it could have just as easily been edited out? Why was this highly respected man humiliated in front of the entire country? To further disturb viewers? But as the voting showed, the majority of viewers were delighted.

"In the past, people did not show their anti-Semitism publicly. In the past, they tended to this need in private," wrote philosopher and cultural critic Boris Paramonov. Those who voted for M. seemed to be saying that nowadays people should tend to this need in public. By serving the public a repulsive dish, television acted as a kind of laxative -- excuse the simile -- that cleaned all the gunk out of society's system.

Some might have felt relieved, but other completely innocent viewers, horrified at what was going down in the studio, had to stomach this muck.

If I were to give a detailed account of the retired warhorse's hour-and-a-half-long rant, I would be demonstrating a profound lack of self-respect. I will only say that a more pathological and inveterate anti-Semite has never graced the Russian airwaves.

Solovyov had obviously decided that he could easily take M. down and that this would make for a winner of a show.

But it didn't. Confronted with his guest's Neanderthal manners and open, very personal hatred for the show's host, poor Vladimir lost heart. He was hurt. He started pouting and was only capable of shouting stupidities in response to M.'s absurd savagery: "So, I crucified Christ? And I murdered anti-Zionist World War II hero David Dragunsky, did I? Or was it my parents?" M. boldly answered, "Yes, you did. And you're also to blame for the fact there's no running water." This sparked laughter and applause from the studio audience.

Later, many people insisted that Solovyov should have prepared better for the debate and should have found a hard-core polemist to oppose M., not some intellectual cosmonaut. Then everything would have turned out differently.

Yet I am sure that there would not have been any genuine debate under any circumstances. You don't debate with folks like M. You don't let them in the front door, you don't shake their hands, and, if you happen to run into them, you walk the other way to make a point.

There is another way to look at this whole scandal: You have to know your enemy. But don't we already know what people really think without testing the public waters? Did M. surprise us in any way? Unlike the British television viewers curious about what Basayev had to say, we know M.'s point of view perfectly well. Basayev is someone else's problem for the British, but M. is all ours.

At the end of the program, which had turned into a celebration of anti-Semitism, an insulted Solovyov drew things to a close, saying, "Our viewers pick the winner. Does their response show us where Russia stands? On the eve of pogroms as in 1904? In 1930s Germany? Or is this the way things really are in Russia in 2005?"

Everybody knows how European Russia voted. But this does not represent the entire country. In several cities in Siberia and beyond the Urals, Leonov won.

Importantly, interactive voting by telephone is not the same as an opinion poll. It all depends on someone's luck -- the lines are always busy -- and viewers' moods. Many listeners told Ekho Moskvy radio that they simply turned off the television in disgust halfway through the program. It also depends on how many aggressive half-wits happen to be watching the boob tube on a particular evening. It is likely that the numbers running across the screen have a hypnotic effect, and some people, without having a clear idea what the show is about, will simply go along with the majority.

Finally, and most importantly, even if the show measured the level of anti-Semitism in Russian society accurately, there is nothing worse that playing the prophet. At the same time, while we can never know how our words will be interpreted, perhaps it's time to try. Unfortunately, history has provided us with many instances -- some of them very recent -- of what can happen when the proclamations of people like M. are interpreted in a certain, terrible way.

Irina Petrovskaya writes a media column for Izvestia, where this essay first appeared.