April 2, 2003
A Bias Ekes Out Of War Coverage
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Flip through Russian newspapers or surf the television channels and one thing becomes clear: no one supports the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.
The more popular publications and channels, such as Moskovsky Komsomolets, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Channel One and Rossia, are more explicit in their anti-American sentiments, while the media outlets striving for Western-style professionalism are trying to provide more balanced coverage.
A recent front page of the Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid had the headline "Good Morning, Iraq!" and a large photograph of U.S. President George Bush walking through a cemetery.
The government-owned Rossiiskaya Gazeta had a front-page report Saturday by a reporter who traveled with Kuwaiti aid workers and British troops who tried to distribute aid in Iraqi villages. The convoy failed after hungry Iraqis began attacking the poorly guarded vehicles. The headline reads: "We are hungry but will not surrender."
State-owned Rossia television's "Vesti" program has a banner over the war coverage on its web site reading simply "U.S. Aggression."
On the other side of the spectrum, Izvestia has attempted to take a more neutral stand by printing a daily timeline of what happened and who said what together with question-and-answer interviews.
Media watchers said the tone of commentaries and even of some newscasts show journalists are displeased with what they see as the bully-like attitude of the Bush administration and its disregard for international law and order.
"Everybody wants this war to be over quickly, and it is clear that America will win," said Alexei Pankin, editor of the Sreda media journal. "But everybody wants America to be dealt as many blows in the face as possible. There is a feeling of surprising satisfaction with the fact that the U.S. military machine hasn't turned out to be as mighty as advertised."
The same sentiment was raised by Moskovsky Komsomolets commentator Alexander Minkin in an analysis Friday of the wave of anti-American commentary in the Russian media.
"The entire world would like to see Bush swatted on the nose by having a hard time achieving victory," Minkin wrote. "But how many American soldiers have to die for that swat? A hundred? A thousand? ... How strange. By wishing the U.S. a very hard-won victory, we are wishing death to thousands of soldiers."
Komsomolskaya Pravda's weekend edition had a photo of an American soldier with the headline "Does His Mother Wait for Him in Vain?" and photos of the Bush administration with the headline "Party of War" and Saddam Hussein and his Cabinet with the headline "We'll Die but Not Surrender."
"We are trying to print what is most interesting for the general reader," Komsomolskaya Pravda's foreign editor, Andrei Baranov, said Tuesday. "As for our presumed anti-Americanism, public opinion polls and our Internet polls show that an overwhelming number of our readers are against this war."
The Russian media -- like media in other countries -- is turning the war into a ratings game, said Anna Kachkayeva, television analyst with Radio Liberty. Russian television channels dispatched correspondents to the area before the war started, and they now are competing strongly for viewers.
Rossia beat its competitors by being the first to report the beginning of airstrikes in the early hours of March 20, while Channel One upped the stakes the next day by starting around-the-clock coverage of the war. When the initial excitement wore off in the following days, the channels started to adopt a less objective tone.
Channel One reporters, for example, have several times used the term "okkupatsionnye sily," or "occupation forces" to describe the U.S. and British forces. The phrase has a very negative connotation in Russian.
"This is clearly excessive for a national channel in a country that is not fighting on the side of Iraq," Izvestia television critic Irina Petrovskaya said, adding she was shocked the first time she heard a reporter use the phrase.
Like the bigger channels, NTV and TVS report in great detail about antiwar protests around the world and U.S. military misfortunes, but they are noticeably striving to deliver more balanced coverage.
"I don't think that NTV and TVS are against the war to a lesser extent," Kachkayeva said. "But they treat the information more carefully."
Unlike the television channels, newspapers have few reporters in the war zone and rely on Moscow-based journalists to wrap up the news and opinion. The reports, which are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Iraqi resistance, add a note of sarcasm to triumphal statements uttered by U.S. and British generals while reporting in detail about allied blunders such as helicopter crashes.
Konstantin Eggert, chief editor of the BBC Russian Service's Moscow bureau, said there is probably no reporter who fully supports the war.
"The popular press obviously follows mass prejudices," he said. "If the masses don't like America, they will be hitting at America."
Pankin compared the Russian press coverage of the Iraq war to the Western coverage of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
"The very situation dictates that there cannot be a 100 percent objective attitude about it," he said. .