In Russia, media ignore Communist's campaigning Noncoverage carries undercurrent of revenge


MOSCOW -- Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has made some far-fetched claims on the stump. In recent weeks, he suggested that Josef Stalin respected the Russian Orthodox Church in his heart. He also said that the Russian mass media are conspiring against him.

On at least the second claim, he has a point.

Mr. Zyuganov was making his first campaign tour as a presidential candidate in southern Siberia, giving detailed news conferences and long, impassioned speeches in factories, farms and town halls. He was followed around by 14 journalists, but only one of them was Russian -- a reporter for the small news agency RIA-Novosti.

Mr. Zyuganov, architect of the Communist Party's comeback, is, according to most polls, the most likely candidate to beat President Boris N. Yeltsin in the June elections. But in Russia, his campaign is getting about as much air time as Lamar Alexander got after the New Hampshire primary.

Mr. Zyuganov calls the neglect of the Russian press "black propaganda." It is really more of a blackout. The Communist leader's campaign trip was not mentioned on either the state-controlled television news broadcasts or on the main privately owned network, NTV. No mainstream newspapers wrote articles about his trip. Itar-Tass ran a short bulletin by a local part-time correspondent.

Russia's fledgling effort to create a genuinely independent press is being put to the test by Mr. Zyuganov's candidacy. Despite his assurances that he will preserve pluralism and free speech, many reporters fear that his victory would mean a return to censorship and strict government control of the news media.

The Russian press is now much more independent and adversarial than it was under Communist times, but it still has a long way to go before it reaches the standards of impartiality and balanced coverage that are considered normal, or at least the ideal, in the West.

Like their European counterparts, most Russian newspapers have a pronounced political slant that readers take for granted. But respected newspapers that are labeled democratic and have been critical of the Yeltsin administration until now, have switched their focus -- and their undisguised hostility -- to what they view as the greater evil, Mr. Zyuganov.

But what of the noncoverage of his candidacy? There is an undercurrent of revenge in that. Since the Communists did not play fair when they ruled the country, the "democratic" newspapers figure, why should we?

It is fairly obvious why the state-controlled networks ignore Mr. Zyuganov -- their directors have made it clear that they serve the president's interests first. But NTV has been just as reticent. Its deputy news editor, Stanislav Marmitko, explained, "We didn't have a bureau nearby. So what if it is his first campaign trip? We're not obliged to cover it."

And there are things that the Russian networks are doing that would be terrible breaches of U.S. journalistic protocol. It would be unthinkable for CBS' president to formally advise the Clinton campaign; but Igor Malashenko, NTV's chief executive, will continue to run the station while he works as a top adviser to the Yeltsin re-election campaign.

Izvestia has recently published several pieces reporting rumors of splits within the party leadership, as well as more investigative stories about the Communists' economic programs. All major non-Communist newspapers have run passionate editorials warning against Mr. Zyuganov's election. But the candidate's speeches and trips are barely covered.

There is a self-defeating aspect to this. Without close, daily scrutiny, Mr. Zyuganov can easily fudge facts and distort history with impunity. While every mistake and gross exaggeration by the U.S. candidates on the campaign trail is scrutinized, they slide by undetected in Russia.

Trying to appeal to nationalist sentiments by stressing his respect for the Russian Orthodox Church, Mr. Zyuganov told his audiences that Adolf Hitler told Nazi occupiers that to subdue the Soviet nation they would have to install Protestant priests in every village. A Zyuganov adviser later cheerfully admitted that the candidate was taking "poetic license" with the facts.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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