Reinventing a Free Press in the Former Soviet Union

May 03, 1992|By DAVID K. SHIPLER

A Pentagon employee was fooling around a few years ago with an Air Force computer programmed to translate between English and Russian. He typed, "Out of sight, out of mind" in English. The computer translated the aphorism into Russian, and then rendered the Russian back into English. It came out, "Invisible, insane."

For decades, Russians and Americans have been using similar vocabulary with different meanings: "democracy," "human rights," "the rule of law." During the Cold War, ideology created such a din that each side heard mainly its own voice. But the communications problems have not disappeared now that the Communist state has withered away; in the midst of an expanding Russian-American dialogue, we still encounter huge distances of culture and history.

This was the experience of about twenty Americans and twenty Russians -- newspaper writers, editors, publishers, lawyers, entrepreneurs -- who gathered for five days recently in the resort city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, to discuss the creation of a free and independent press in the former Soviet Union.

There is no better topic than the press for taking the measure of a society that is groping through the labyrinth of old authoritarian traditions toward more open forms. The press is a place of crucial interaction between economics and politics, testing the status of both free enterprise and free speech. We Americans pushed our conviction that the press probably cannot be politically independent of government if it is not economically independent, a concept many Russian journalists are beginning to accept.

But as we sat around a rectangular arrangement of tables covered in green baize, it quickly became apparent that we were conducting two mostly separate deliberations -- one Russian, one American -- in which each side listened intently to the other talking with itself about its own system.

"We come from a different world," Ivan Klimenko, who edits the business supplement of Moscow News, said at one point. "We are speaking a different language with you."

The Russians complained about Boris Yeltsin's efforts to restrict the flow of information, newsprint and state-owned printing facilities to favor some newspapers and magazines and punish others. The Americans preached the virtues of the First Amendment, market competition and private ownership. The Russians argued among themselves about how bold the press should be when government was so fragile and social disorder so close at hand. The Americans urged the separation of editorial opinion from news and of business from editorial considerations.

Paradoxically, the value of the meeting lay precisely in this juxtaposition of two societies, two traditions. As we talked past each other, we educated each other. I doubt that anyone in either group who was really listening could have come away believing that we were alike, and such recognition of differences is a useful corrective at this moment of American euphoria about Russia's alleged embrace of democracy. You want to root for them, but with realistic expectations.

The Russians who attended -- from Tass, Izvestia, Moscow News, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Nezavisimaya Gazeta and other news organizations -- seemed more eager for advice on business than on journalism. American discussion of journalists' rights and practices found little resonance.

Tom Winship, former editor of the Boston Globe, spoke of the relegation of opinion to the editorial page as "the separation of church and state." Clifford May, an editor of the Rocky Mountain News, gave examples of the differences between news, analysis and opinion. Maxwell King, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, noted that the most successful American newspapers, both commercially and in terms of influence, "are those that most emphasize the separation of news and business." And I added that they also emphasize the separation of news and opinion.

The Russians offered no reaction to this. They continue, as under the Soviet regime, to lace their reporting with their own or their papers' political opinions, a style closer to Western European journalism than to American.

During a coffee break, I asked Vitaly Ignatenko, a former spokesman for Mikhail Gorbachev and head of the news agency Itar-Tass, whether he thought this was good or bad. He shrugged. "Good or bad, it's our tradition," he said. The only positive glimmer came from Mr. Klimenko of Moscow News, who said that he had never considered it before, but could understand my argument that a reader should be given all sides of an issue to help him make up his own mind.

We had more of a dialogue, but no more agreement, about First Amendment issues. Boris Yeltsin had just signed a law on press freedom February 8 which contained 63 articles occupying 51 pages of text, a level of detail abhorrent to the Americans, who expressed their reverence for the sparse paragraph of the First Amendment.

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