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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Deep-Seated Complex

Seeing Troy go up in flames, Cassandra could have been proud of herself. Her predictions had come true, ensuring her immortality. But I imagine that King Priam's daughter would have felt better if her countrymen had heeded her warnings and avoided the city's destruction.

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On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin addressed a session of the Council for Assistance for Developing Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights. "Journalists should choose specific principles of conduct that should neither discredit them nor involve them in commercial practices," Putin said. "Once they are drawn into such work, they no longer see their job as informing their readers, but as promoting personal commercial interests."

These words probably exacerbated some Cassandra complexes, including mine.

In January 1992, liberal economic reforms turned mass media into one big information racket. Despite the ill will of my colleagues and indifference of politicians, I have been trying to highlight and expose these practices ever since.

Foreign Cassandras seem to have more luck. In early June, speaking to a 59th World Newspaper Congress audience that included Putin, Gavin O' Reilly, president of the World Association of Newspapers, also focused on the problem. "Today in Russia, there is still a widespread, corrupt culture of selling news space and influence to politicians and businessmen in too many parts of the industry," O' Riley said. "This unethical practice of paid-for journalism is unacceptable, and we condemn it everywhere." Six months later, it appears that Putin was listening.

Unfortunately, the diagnosis and prescribed treatment bear about the same relationship to the actual problem as "sovereign democracy" bears to democracy. The idea of individual journalists on the take, receiving low salaries but enjoying high incomes, has lost most of its relevance.

These texts are now prepared not by journalists, but by advertising or PR agencies and placed through news outlets. I know of at least one case last year where articles written and paid for by United Russia propagandists covering a party event were published in both Izvestia and Moskovsky Komsomolets, pushing out articles by the newspapers' own reporters. The journalists themselves aren't the problem here, so a journalistic code of conduct won't provide a solution.

If Putin is so indignant about these practices, then the best approach would be to get the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service to file a series of lawsuits against the "black market" leaders. These include, for example, Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda, both owned by Gazprom-Media, and Moskovsky Komsomolets, an independent. The fines, if the publications are found guilty, should be designed to bankrupt them. If the president wants to achieve a structural reorganization in the Russian mass media in such a way as to make it more profitable and avoid corruption, he should follow the advice of William Dunkerly, a U.S. media business consultant with substantial experience in developing markets. Dunkerly has said the social discrediting of corrupt practices is one of the first steps in addressing the problem.

It is possible that Putin is already doing exactly that. Until now, media executives have done everything but brag openly to each other about the money they had made off of these hidden advertisements. Putin's address may make these practices seem less in vogue. And if the president continues listening to the wise and competent advice from the West, then our sovereign democracy might even come to resemble the generic variant. And then it won't be Cassandra who gets into the history books, but the Russian Priam.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Mediaprofi, a monthly magazine for regional media professionals.