Academic journal article Policy Review


Academic journal article Policy Review


Article excerpt

Remedies for The Russian Press

SIR, -- Herman J. Obermayer's piece on "Russia's Dysfunctional Media Culture" (August/September 2000) was a welcome attempt at describing a situation so bizarre that it almost defies understanding by Westerners. Thus I can understand why he turned to characterization and generalization to get his points across. Lamentably, those techniques may leave the reader with some mistaken or erroneous impressions that these characterizations apply universally. They do nor. He paints a picture that is generally correct, but not always specifically correct.

But more importantly, I am writing in dismay over some of his closing recommendations. One is for the discontinuance of U.S. assistance for the emergence of press freedom in Russia. He justifies such by criticizing the work of USAID contractors such as the National Press Institute. To me, however, this seems like the old shooting-the-messenger fallacy. Contractors are hired to do the bidding of the contracting agent: USAID. And it is that agency that has spent tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in pursuit of press freedom in Russia -- without a viable strategic plan for accomplishing that goal. The result has been a discordant array of programs that, while successful in their own right, have failed to put a real dent in the problem. The remedy should not be to discontinue aid, but to use it according to a realistic plan aimed at enabling press freedom to emerge. I remember that in 1998, for instance, the National Press Institute proposed a newspaper recovery plan in the wake of Russia's financial cris is. It was a very good and comprehensive plan. But USAID simply chose to fund a few isolated components of the plan, thus nullifying its potential impact.

Mr. Obermeyer's other recommendation is that providing interventions for mid-career Russian media professionals is counterproductive. He implies that too many years of Marxist indoctrination have made them virtually unsalvageable. Instead, he proposes, "Bringing all of Russia's college journalism teachers to America for a few weeks." First, I hope everyone realizes how preposterous it is to think that a problem as complex and enigmatic as the one that is the focus of Mr. Obermayer's article could be solved in two weeks. Furthermore, there is a disconnect in his thinking: If the mid-career media managers are so damaged as a result of their prior Marxist background, how will journalism teachers be any different? His assertion that there is an insufficient level of retail commerce to support independent newspapers is also incorrect.

What then is the solution? Indeed, what really is the problem that must be solved? It is that Russia maintains an assortment of laws and policies that actually preclude real press freedom from existing. Mr. Obermayer is correct that greater advertising revenues are needed by newspapers if they are to become independent and self-supporting. Yet there are currently laws that work against that. They limit how much companies can spend on advertising, and limit how much advertising a newspaper can carry. Advertising revenue possibilities are further diminished by the presence of state enterprises and monopolies (private or public) operating in the economy. They have the effect of minimizing commercial competition. And after all, advertising is only needed when there is competition in the sale of products and services. But that situation flows not from the state of the Russian economy, but from the policy and legal parameters that are involved.

As a result, newspapers can not receive enough money from advertising and circulation for operating profitable businesses. Indeed, based on their actual newspaper operations, practically every newspaper in the country exists in a virtual state of bankruptcy.

The revenue shortfall is made up in two ways. The first is by publishing for clients, paid public relations stories masquerading as news. …

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