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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Moscow News You Can't Trust

Russian Television Studio - adapted from image at USAID.govFrom: Sergei Roy <sergeiroy@yandex.ru>
Subject: Re: Tim Wall in 2011-#17-Johnson's Russia List
Date: Wed, 02 Feb 2011

"Moscow News You Can't Trust"
Sergei Roy, Moscow News editor in chief, 1995-2004

In his 27 January editorial "News you can trust" Tim Wall, current editor of The Moscow News, deplores the fact that there was no breaking news on Russian TV on the day of the Domodedovo bombing, so that "millions of ordinary Russians" had to rely "on online media for news they can trust." Apparently the existence of the radio, which has been around for a hundred years or more, has slipped Tim Wall's mind. I, like "millions of ordinary Russians," heard the news of the bombing within half an hour of the event on one of the country's countless radio stations. But that's just by the by.

The truth is that reports on the bombing were indeed delayed by most Russian TV channels. This was surely made up for by nearly round the clock discussion of the event for days on end on all channels, continuing even now, when all the world, excited over Egypt, seems to have forgotten it. Just for balance, the MN editorial could have mentioned the fact, but editor Tim Wall has other ideas. According to him, this no breaking news "has its origins in Soviet-era TV, which was designed to control the newsflow." The Soviet era was followed by the Yeltsin era, when news broadcasting was just fine, then by the Putin regime, under which "a tradition of non-scripted broadcasting and breaking news" has been lost.

I do not believe that Tim Wall is guilty of a deliberate lie. What we have here is just a case of sloppy as well as biased journalism, a tendency to repeat nonsense spouted by vested interests instead of doing some honest research. Tim Wall would not have to go much farther than the back files of his own paper to find out the real reason for this clampdown on breaking news in cases of terrorist attack. I personally wrote a fierce piece on just such an instance of breaking news reporting. Contrary to what Tim Wall believes and says, breaking news flourished already in the Putin era, as on the occasion of a gang of Chechen terrorists seizing a theater with some 800 hostages in Moscow. At that time, some eager beaver TV reporter overheard Special Forces planning an attack through a ventilation shaft, and it was broadcast immediately on TV as a hot piece of breaking news. Needless to say, the terrorists watched TV very closely, and immediately booby-trapped the ventilation shaft. The episode was written off as just another instance of TV idiocy. To quite a few "ordinary Russians" it looked more like treason. Anyway, a lesson was drawn from that occasion, though the precautions did not always work: there was quite a ballsup with TV involved when terrorists later seized a school in Beslan. Also an interesting study, though not to Tim Wall, apparently.

Why study anything when a few preconceived, borrowed ideas would do. Take this gem: "During the 1991 hard-line coup, for example, Soviet channels temporarily controlled by the junta ignored the battles on Moscow's streets, instead showing the ballet 'Swan Lake' in an effort to lull the population into inactivity." So what's the idea, is the current Russian government also trying to "lull the population into inactivity"? This seems to be Tim Wall's notion, and it is patent rubbish, with all the feverish activity to step up vigilance and shore up security going on in this country at all levels.

But what would you expect of a writer talking of hard historical facts with incredible frivolity. He gets plain sloppy indeed as he speaks of "battles on Moscow streets" while "Swan Lake" was on. I don't know where Tim Wall was in August 1991 (at school?). I was out in the streets of Moscow, canvassing support for Yeltsin, helping build a barricade by Entranceway 6 of the White House of Russia and standing guard over it for 72 hours running along with a bunch of the finest men and women I have ever been privileged to know, the folks who have gone down in the history of the Living Ring around the White House as the 118th Hundred.

Again, I wrote up the event in MN on at least two anniversaries. Had Tim Wall looked through MN's back files, he would not have written nonsense about those street "battles." There just weren't any. There was one nocturnal violent incident in an underpass near the White House, where a few chaps threw a tarp over an APC's turret, the poor kid soldier at the controls hastily reversed and crushed three of the boys to death. All the other "battles" are simply an indication of the editorialist's laziness, a reluctance to learn and tell things like they really happened.

The same goes for his view of the role of TV in those days. Let me stress, it was still very much Soviet TV. The "Swan Lake" was no clever gimmick by the junta "to lull the population into inactivity," that's just Tim Wall's idle fantasy. It was simply something that came to hand to some low-level shnook of an editor, to fill the time between the pronouncements of the Gheh-Kah-Cheh-Peh junta. You only had to see the dead faces of the announcers reading those declarations, heads bowed, and hear their even deader voices to realize what they felt about it all. Then there was Sergei Medvedev's famous recording of the junta's press-conference, focusing on "Acting President" Yanayev's trembling hands of a veteran alcoholic, and Tatiana Malkina of what was then the real Moscow News standing up and asking, innocently batting her eyelashes, "Do you realize that what you are doing is a coup d'état? A crime?" She nearly had the audience rolling in the aisles, despite the tragic atmosphere. And it was all shown on Channel 1, to the delight of an entire country. No, Tim Wall, it was not all "Swan Lake" on TV in August 1991.

One of the nastiest, most tired clichés pervading Tim Wall's brief skit of an editorial is this contrast between the beautifully democratic 1990s under Yeltsin and the current "Putin regime's" alleged clampdown on free speech. Tim Wall has nothing but praises for the 1990s NTV channel where "although oligarchs' views were often peddled there was also a tradition of non-scripted broadcasting and breaking news." Look, Mr. Wall, why don't you read something solid on the role of TV in those years? Whole libraries of books have been written about the period. What "oligarchs' views" are you talking about? NTV then belonged to Vladimir Gusinsky, as did MOST-bank, and the two were just weapons in his fight against other oligarchs (including Berezovsky, who by then had Channel 1 in his pocket) and the government. In the summer of 1998 Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky joined forces in their endeavor to topple the country's shaky government, and did so, by paying for the "railway war" waged by desperate workers who often had not seen their wages for months and even years. Gusinsky's NTV was full of that war, though not in the "breaking news" format. It just wasn't necessary. The government fell, and with it toppled the ruble. A total financial meltdown followed, and the nation defaulted on its debts. Probably the most shocking aspect of the role of oligarch-owned media in the whole ruckus was Boris Yeltsin's TV appearance a day or two before the national default to assure the nation that the ruble and the government had never been stronger, or words to that effect. Then he disappeared from view, hiding, as was his wont, in some luxury retreat "to work on documents," mostly in liquid form.

That was the sort of "views" the NTV peddled, helping the country to go to the dogs. No, Tim Wall, NTV did not favor the "breaking news" format at the time, nor did it need to. The news was broken to the populace whenever they stepped into a shop with a purse three times lighter than before, or stormed a bank in a vain effort to get their savings back. I personally needed the breaking news format less than others, as the fights at the entrance to Smolensky's SBS-Agro occurred directly under the balcony of my MN office in Pushkinskaya Square. So please forgive me if I do not share this ardent belief in the beneficent effect of one TV format over another.

For all these reasons, Tim Wall's appeal for reintroducing the breaking news format on Russian TV leaves me cold. Format alone does not make the news you can trust. Selection of what you show or write is by far more important, as reporting on the Dubrovka hostage taking clearly showed, I hope. Or consider the Domodedovo bombing. Of all the atrocity's numerous aspects, The Moscow News chose to discuss the rumors "that the attacks had been orchestrated by the authorities" (JRL #16). The fugitive tycoon Berezovsky's fertile mind invented the lie, to suit an earlier occasion, as far back as 1999, and still there are people repeating it and newspapers keeping it alive. The newspaper in question being The Moscow News leaves a particularly bitter taste in one's mouth.

Look, in 1995, the year I came to MN from Moscow Magazine, it was just a few sheets of paper with translations, in garbled English, of articles from Moskovskie Novosti, the Russian-language sister paper. Over a few years I put together a team capable of producing a sound newspaper in its own right, a team that was, by the way, good enough to work for the US State Department's FBIS agency on the side. The joke then was that the State Department was looking at Russia through Moscow News' eyes, and it wasn't all that funny as jokes go. It was then that I invented MN's motto: "Russian Views of Russian News."

Need I say that the puerile nonsense purveyed by MN in its current form does not fit that old motto at all. The paper may be useful as a venue for airing the editors' complexes and prejudices or, at best, crass ignorance. It is definitely not a good source on Russia, nor is it good for Russia.

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