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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cutting Through the Rhetoric

My father liked to say: "Things always turn out differently than you thought, but there's no telling just how they'll be different." He speaks from experience, having worked as the editor of a leading national newspaper and as the Soviet foreign minister. It was he who taught me to be skeptical of public pronouncements made by the political leadership. Even if they sincerely believe what they're saying, events have a way of taking their own course.

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I'm not saying that listening to such speeches is entirely without merit. In the so-called years of stagnation, the Soviet government released LPs of Leonid Brezhnev's speeches, replete with his various speech defects. It was a popular pastime for both Communists and non-Party members to get tipsy and listen to the records at high speed, enjoying his inimitable combination of sibilant, spitting and coughing sounds frequently interrupted by storms of applause.

Mikhail Gorbachev's speeches evoked mixed emotions. During the early stages of reform, Gorbachev's oratory literally raised his listeners' souls to new heights of appreciation for perestroika and glasnost. But five minutes later, not one normal person -- with the possible exception of foreign journalists -- could recall exactly what the speech was about. Even reading the transcript in the newspaper the next day didn't help. People finally stopped paying attention to him altogether.

Listening to Boris Yeltsin's public addresses, by contrast, was an absolute must. While he was still healthy, we always hoped that Yeltsin would amuse us with some nonsense or an indecent gesture during his speeches. In this he was similar to Ronald Reagan. But during Yeltsin's second term, when his health had deteriorated, those watching or listening to his speeches were almost taking bets as to whether he could hold on to the end of his next sentence. In this he was not unlike Konstantin Chernenko.

When I was working as a news editor, I had to orchestrate our coverage of speeches by various prominent statesmen. I approached the task in about the same way as Western reporters write obituaries: I would ask some leading political analyst in advance to write a commentary appropriate for all occasions. After the speech, I'd add a couple of colorful lines. The result was invariably a seemingly profound analysis.

Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn maintains that interviews with government leaders are the most senseless kind of journalism. No major figure will tell you more about the situation in the country than any taxi driver could. Cockburn likes to recount that, among all of the many interviews he has done, he recalls only his interview with Jordan's King Hussein -- and that only because he came down with food poisoning the night before and was afraid he might throw up on the ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Cockburn explains that journalists' pursuit of exclusive interviews and their attempts to ask questions at news conferences results mainly from a desire to please their editors, who gauge their own success in terms of the number of major politicians who appear in their publications.

You may wonder why I have devoted this column to such reminiscences rather than to President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin news conference last week. After all, he talked about journalists, and it was his longest news conference yet.

Because of the sheer length of the event, I couldn't even bring myself to read the transcript. Why bother, when things turn out differently than planned. The president himself probably wishes he knew what's coming around the bend.

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