From 1983 until 1991, Watson Sims chaired a committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Soviet exchanges, traveling with five Soviet delegations in the United States and five ASNE delegations in the Soviet Union. He was also a moderator for journalism conferences in Moscow in 1988 and 1995 and directed a 1992 Gallup Institute survey on Russian attitudes toward freedom of expression. In this article, he describes the value of those exchanges and the evolving state of journalism in Russia.
ARussian journalist fell in love with a girl whose father, thinking her too young to marry, sent her to live with a distant relative. Years later, they met again, and the journalist learned that the girl had borne his son. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. “Father wouldn’t let me,” she replied. “He would rather have a bastard grandson than a journalist son-in-law.”
I heard the story from Vitaly Chukseev, foreign editor of Tass News Agency, as we returned from dinner at the home of Edward Bloustein, president of Rutgers University, in February 1987. I told Chukseev it reminded me of William Tecumseh Sherman’s reaction when the general was told three journalists had been killed during the siege of Vicksburg: “Good! Now we’ll have news from hell before breakfast.”
Chukseev was a member of the third delegation of Soviet journalists with whom I traveled during the cold war in exchanges between the American Society of Newspaper Editors [ASNE] and the Union of Soviet Journalists. For us to be able to laugh together in this way was quite remarkable, given the high level of tension between Moscow and Washington and the fact that our exchanges began in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. But as we came to know one another, it became clear that despite harsh rhetoric between our governments, as journalists we could communicate with one another. And I believe that these journalistic exchanges, in part, helped to end the cold war.
We shared a number of concerns. Among them was the perception and reception our reporting received from our respective audiences. Public image is a concern for all whose work reaches an audience. But it offers a special challenge for journalists, who rarely own the organizations for which they work and are often subject to guidance in their presentation of news. Publishers may demand excessive profits or special treatment for advertisers or sponsors. Governments may restrict reporting on grounds of security. Consumers generally prefer good news to bad news and can resent those who bring unwelcome messages.
With many masters to serve, it is not surprising that journalists often score poorly in public esteem. A November 2002 study by the Gallup Organization found only 26 percent of Americans surveyed rated U.S. journalists “high or very high” in honesty and ethical standards. (Nurses, by comparison, scored 79 percent and high school teachers 64 percent). A somewhat comparable poll by Professor Iosif Dzyaloshinsky of Moscow State University found only 13 percent of Russians willing to trust journalists.
Melting the East-West Chill
When ASNE suggested in 1969 that delegations meet to discuss their profession, the Union of Soviet Journalists replied, “We have nothing to exchange in that area.” A.M. Rosenthal of The New York Times was among American editors who held a similar view when a meeting was next discussed in 1983. In a letter to ASNE President Creed Black, Rosenthal wrote, “These are not simply journalists—in some cases not journalists at all—but officials of a society devoted to the repression of any form of free expression, particularly the press. I doubt that this gains us much respect even from the Soviet guests, who are far too sophisticated to feel that they and the American editors have anything in common.” Others disagreed, including Tom Winship, editor of The Boston Globe, who wrote: “I see nothing to lose by communicating at every level with our adversaries. We learn from whomever we communicate with, no matter what the circumstances are.”
After a divided ASNE board agreed on an exchange in 1984, many U.S. officials refused to receive the Soviet journalists. “Who’s going to be watching these people?” asked Tom Driscoll, press secretary to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. “There’s no way the speaker will see these guys,” said Christopher Matthews, assistant to House Speaker Tip O’Neill. “There are no journalists in the Soviet Union. If they find journalists over there, they lock them up.”
The 1984 exchange did little to improve understanding. In Washington, the Soviet delegation cancelled a meeting with Secretary of State George Shultz after a speech in which the secretary criticized Soviet policies. A Moscow roundtable ended with ASNE President Richard Smyser telling his hosts, “You are apples and we are oranges. It might have been better for you to have had an exchange with spokesmen for the White House or State Department.” It is doubtful that more exchanges would have occurred, had not Mikhail Gorbachev become president and instituted a policy of glasnost, or openness, which led to laws guaranteeing newspapers the right to publish and permitting journalists greater freedom to travel and report news.
Between 1984 and 1990, ASNE and the Union of Soviet Journalists exchanged five delegations, in which 63 American editors visited the Soviet Union and 52 Soviets came to America. Doors were opened to an extent unimaginable at the height of the cold war. Whereas few U.S. officials would receive the Soviets in 1984, on a single day in 1989 a Soviet delegation met with Vice President Dan Quayle, Secretary of State Jim Baker, House Speaker Tom Foley, House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. Soviet delegations visited hospitals, newspapers, universities, space research centers, television networks, polling organizations, and the National Organization for Women. They interviewed mayors of a dozen cities, attended Broadway theaters, the San Francisco ballet and services at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, and rode horses in Texas. ASNE delegations were exposed to a spectrum of Soviet life through visits to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tblisi, Riga, Tallin, Tashkent, Samarkand and several smaller cities.
Portraying Life on the Other Side
The hundreds of articles published as a result of the exchanges undoubtedly had an impact on public opinion in both countries. Not only in Moscow and Washington, but also in outposts such as Port Huron, Michigan and Almaty, Kazakhstan, readers saw familiar bylines from the other side of the Iron Curtain, often bringing unexpected views of life under capitalism or Communism.
“I am impressed by how little we Americans know about the Soviet Union,” Editor John Emmerich wrote in The Greenwood, Mississippi Commonwealth in 1987. “Much of our information is inaccurate or out-of-date. Americans don’t really understand Russians, and they don’t understand us. The Soviet people are cordial and friendly. Our group of 12 editors was well received everywhere we went. I encountered not a single incident of hostility or meanness. We met and talked with hundreds of people. Virtually all indicated they would like to be better friends with the United States.”
“An attentive, respectful attitude toward the client, worrying about whether he is comfortable, whether he is satisfied—this is in the blood of the American service industry,” Nadezjda Garifullina wrote in Lights of the Alatau, a newspaper published in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1988. “We were not asked for documents in a single hotel, which is done so unceremoniously in our own country. I hope readers will not accuse me of lack of patriotism, but why can they and why can’t we? Why is it that in any American store you can examine goods and no one demands to look into your purse when you walk out? Why are such things possible over there and not here?”
At roundtables and in many smaller conversations, Soviet and American journalists discussed problems—and contrasting styles—in covering news. During a 1987 meeting, Viktor Afanasyev, editor in chief of Pravda and chairman of the Union of Soviet Journalists, boasted that a telephone on his desk led directly to President Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin, then Moscow city boss, had criticized the party’s leadership, and Jim Gannon, editor of The Des Moines Register, had a suggestion: “Pick up the phone and ask Gorbachev what he’s going to do with Yeltsin.”
In a discussion of personnel, Afanasyev said, “I had a reporter who was useless. I talked with him many times and finally removed him from his job. He has sued in one court after another. Paper has flooded my office. Sometimes I think it would have been easier to keep him on the job.”
“We’ve been there,” said Gannon.
Freedom Confronts Economic Realities
Always there was the question of access to news. When John Driscoll of The Boston Globe told a Leningrad meeting in 1987 that both nations should allow reporters greater freedom to travel, the editor of Leningrad Pravda declared, “We vote ‘aye’ with both hands.”
Cautiously at first, some Soviet visitors acknowledged they were expected to serve an ideological purpose. “If we see a beggar in America, we make a big deal of it,” one visitor said in 1984. As the exchanges progressed, the Soviets increasingly diverged from their traditional role. When laws were passed to guarantee newspapers the right to publish, Soviet journalists were quick to exercise their freedom.
“We once did not write about such things as crime or earthquakes,” Pravda Editor Afanasyev told an ASNE delegation in 1987, “but now we have no taboos.” In Leningrad an ASNE delegation found Pravda campaigning against the sale of stale bread in city bakeries and failure of the city’s streetcars to operate on schedule. In Samarkand, a delegation found the newspaper Lenin’s Path under fire for publishing an article on suicide among young Muslim women. Boris Shegolikhin, the newspaper’s editor, said complaints came not only from the city council, but also from displeased readers. “Editors sit at different tables, but they eat the same bread,” said Shegolikhin. “An editor’s bread is tough to eat.”
After the Soviet Union collapsed into smaller states the bread grew tougher. Although Russia’s newspapers remained free to publish, there was no stream of advertising or comparable income to replace subsidies that supported the official media under Communism. Thousands of newspapers were launched, only to fail for lack of support. In 1995, Vsevolod Bogdanov, chairman of the Union of Russian Journalists, successor to the Union of Soviet Journalists, reported that Russian journalists earned only $30 to $40 per month. “The economy is poor, and most journalists know their papers can close at any time,” said Bogdanov. “When they work, it is under very dangerous conditions, with too many being attacked and murdered. Many journalists say they cannot live without subsidies.” He noted that much of the media’s support came from individuals, political parties, or criminal elements seeking to manipulate public opinion.
Although individual Russian journalists have won international acclaim for courageous reporting, their image at home has declined in recent years. A study by Moscow State University Professor Dzyaloshinsky reported in 1990 that 70 percent of Russians were willing to trust journalists, but by 2001 only 13 percent were willing to do so. The Russian government, equally distrustful, imposed stern limits on coverage of what it considers terrorist activities. And it uses financial pressure to punish media organizations of which it disapproves. The International Press Institute has placed Russia on its watch list for press endangerment, and the Committee to Protect Journalists added President Vladimir Putin to its list of 10 greatest enemies of a free press.
The Glasnost Foundation in Moscow said 17 journalists were killed in Russia during 2001 and about 100 were assaulted. Notable among casualties was Artyom Borovik, whose father led a delegation of Soviet journalists to America in 1984. Artyom Borovik won acclaim for reporting Soviet Army reverses in Afghanistan and exposing corruption among government officials before being killed in a suspicious aircraft crash. In an article published by the International Press Institute, Genrikh Borovik wrote that his son died in a losing battle for press freedom and concluded, “The plan to put the press in order is working.” The grieving father found small comfort in the creation by The Overseas Press Club of America of an annual Artyom Borovik Award for courageous reporting.
Looking back on the exchanges and their aftermath, I believe the decline of press freedom in Russia stems not from absence of brave and able journalists, but from history and economics. Lacking a sound financial base on which to practice freedom, too many newspapers and too many journalists supplement their income by performing favors for sponsors. This damages their product and weakens their support in a society long accustomed to authoritative rule and where officials are unlikely to welcome public scrutiny of their performance. In 1987, a sarcastic mayor of Leningrad asked his American visitors, “Can the editor of Pravda make the trains run on time or see that only fresh bread is sold in our bakeries?” The answer, of course, was no, but had not the issue been raised by a brave editor, the trains might have become slower and the bread more stale. Whether journalists remain free to ask such questions is by no means assured in Russia today.
Watson Sims, a 1953 Nieman Fellow, was a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press, editor of newspapers in Battle Creek, Michigan and New Brunswick, New Jersey, and is now a scholar in communications at the George H. Gallup International Institute, Princeton, New Jersey. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.