Once again, by showing what's going on, television has helped shape world events SOVIET CRISIS


August 22, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Television did more than just cover events this week in the Soviet Union. Once again, it became a player in the drama -- and probably affected the outcome.

That's what TV news executives and media analysts said yesterday, as they praised Boris Yeltsin's use of the medium and characterized leaders of a failed coup as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight" when it came to realpolitik in the global village.

"In any place wired for sound and image, political leaders ma now function in the relative safety of the world gaze made possible by television," said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor in the writing seminars at the Johns Hopkins University and author of "Boxed In: The Culture of TV."

"Television is a definite element in what happened this week in Russia," added Todd Gitlin, director of the mass communications program at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Left." "Boris Yeltsin used TV brilliantly to build international support [for resistance to the coup] right down to playing kissy-kiss with Diane Sawyer Tuesday night on the ABC news. . . . And that made a difference."

But the "world's gaze" alone was not responsible for the coup's collapse, he said. A comparison to Tiananmen Square in 1989 is instructive; television coverage didn't stop Chinese authorities from launching a brutal crackdown on students there.

"The difference is that Russia, unlike China, is not essentially financially self-supporting," Gitlin explained. "To rule Russia today you need some international support," which would be seriously threat

ened by televised outbursts of violence or the trampling of civil rights.

Another aspect of TV's role in the crisis is its use as an instant avenue of diplomacy -- as George Bush and Saddam Hussein demonstrated with CNN during the Persian Gulf War.

Bill Headline, vice president and Washington bureau chief for CNN, said virtually every editorial decision at the network involves "recognizing that this is a different TV world than it was only a few years ago and that in addition to covering events we are now playing a critical role in world diplomacy."

Such apparently was the case with Yeltsin's granting the interview with Sawyer on Tuesday; the Russian president was able to demonstrate for the coup's leaders both his resolve and how the international press was casting him in the role of hero.

But distinctions need to be made between what was seen by the people in Russia and those elsewhere in the world, said Ellen Mickiewicz, Soviet analyst for CNN and author of "Split Signals: Television and Politics in the Soviet Union." Becau se CNN is seen in the Soviet Union only in government offices, some hotels and a UHF frequency that has highly limited reception, some 200 million Russians could not see CNN.out, she said. Leaders of the coup probably had access to the cable network, but it is uncertain whether Yeltsin and his followers in the Federation Building did.

Mickiewicz said the striking thing about television's role within the Soviet Union is how ineffectively it was used by the leaders of the coup.

"Everything was shut down except state television. And understand that [state] television is no maverick organization. It is [traditionally] under close control.

But before the resignations of any of the coup leaders [late Wednesday], contradictory messages were already being broadcast. . . . a Wednesday afternoon news capsule, for example, carried all of Yeltsin's demands, criticism of the coup from around the world and harsh criticism from George Bush."

Mickiewicz said that 98 percent of the Russian population receives this channel and that viewers likely interpreted what they heard as evidence that the new leaders were confused and in trouble; what authority they had quickly evaporated.

"They did a lot of stupid things in terms of television," media critic Lawrence E. Mintz said of the coup leaders. "They didn't shut off media effectively and they didn't use it effectively."

An associate professor at the University of Maryland, he added, "They had old-fashioned ideas. The Russian people were used to seeing Yeltsin and Gorbachev looking very comfortable and relaxed and warm on TV. And now they see these old line guys talking in abstrations and looking totally out of place. In terms of TV . . . this is the gang that couldn't shoot straight."

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