Saturday, February 24, 2007

Exposing Neo-Soviet TV News

So What is Their Profession Now?
Aleksandr Golts
Yezhednevniy Zhurnal
June 29, 2007

The newspaper Kommersant recently ran a story that shows with unusual richness both the situation that has developed in Russia, and the essential nature of the current authorities. It turns out that a few days ago, secretly, without any sort of publicity, the Kremlin awarded honors and medals to several dozen television workers. Afterward, the honorees along with their supervisors were hosted by the head of the government, who held an extended meeting with them. In other words, the best professionals of Russian TV (the worse would certainly never be decorated) listened for several hours to the thinking of the head of the government. And even had their photographs taken with Putin and his beloved Labrador retriever. But then made no mention whatsoever, neither of their awards nor of what the President said, on a single television station. Their photographs with the President and his dog also have not appeared anywhere.

One should note that members of every profession have their own way of dealing with government awards. Military service members wear them with pride. Decorations are for them visual proof of the bravery they showed on the field of battle. Intelligence officers hide their awards in their safes at work. Not out of any natural modesty, but just because that is the security practice of their profession. Decorations in the intelligence services are given out for successfully recruiting valuable agents. Heaven forbid that some foreigner might see the citation for such an award, and then compare it with the service record of the officer who served, for example, under diplomatic cover. The counterintelligence service might then find out with whom the humble embassy adviser met, where he liked to visit and eat. And voila, they might expose the recruited agent.

But journalism, as everyone knows, is a public profession, where secrecy is not at all expected.

According to one conception, assumed in countries with a democratic tradition, journalism is the fourth column of governance, called upon day and night to protect the interests of society against attempts by the first three columns to infringe upon them. Here any question about decorations would seem somewhat inappropriate - it would be quite odd for a person to receive an award from exactly the people he is by definition charged with criticizing. If a journalist does nonetheless receive an award, it is only for being one of the very most talented, and then on the occasion of their retirement.

There is another conception, one which yours truly had hammered into him by members of the Party cadre of publishers some 35 years ago, according to which journalism is the drive belt connecting the authorities to the people, and its job is to transmit the ideas and wishes of the leaders to the subordinate population. In this case the journalist is a government worker, whose labor, if successful, can and should be recognized by honors and medals - which in turn should be displayed with pride.

In the case of our home-grown television journalists we have something a bit unique. They are, of course, in no sense “watchdogs of freedom”, but people having the absolute trust of the authorities. They are glad for the good fortune of having the president address them exclusively. They feel no obligation whatsoever to inform their fellow citizens of what the exactly the president said. But, having been turned essentially into bureaucrats, they at the same time are embarrassed to wear their service (there can be no doubt that they earned them for something) marks of excellence. Hence, the model for their conduct is closer to that of secret agents, working under cover.

In the Soviet era close to half of all international journalists accredited overseas were actually employees of the KGB or GRU. Nowadays many journalists, although not wearing the sapphire-striped shoulder boards [TN: of the KGB], consider themselves secret agents in the service of the Kremlin. So I can imagine how a television worker might at the end of the workday pull out his box full of medals and fondly go through them. This medal was for the Yukos affair. This other one, for discrediting the “March of Those Who Disagree”.

Just one question remains. With the secret agent it is always clear: he conceals himself from those against whom he works. In the present case the fact of the awards has been hidden from you and me. So it would be interesting to know, in that case: Against whom is Russian television working?

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