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Alice in Wondergrad: An Adventure in Russian Media Fantasies

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The Wall Street Journal/Europe (February 20) published a piece called "Murders in Russia." It deals with aspects of Russia's contemporary media scene. The author, John A. Hall of Chapman University, laments what he calls a "disappointing reversal." The "loud and cheerful voice of the independent Russian media has now been dampened to a whisper," he claims.

I wonder if professor Hall has fallen down a rabbit hole, for his account of Russia's media is truly fantastical. He speaks glowingly of a "vibrant press corps" that was unleashed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a time when "independent newspapers and radio and television stations flourished." Why, they even pursued their jobs with a "youthful glasnost zeal," he says.

Back in the daylight, however, the circumstance of Russia's fledgling press was indeed much different. Those independent newspapers and radio and television stations weren't flourishing. They were virtually bankrupt. What's more, they weren't even independent. And the press corps? They were vibrantly struggling just to make ends meet.

Tax laws instituted at the start of the Russian Federation didn't allow the ad market to grow enough to support the media. The media weren't allowed to carry sufficient advertising content to be profitable, either. It was a double bind. The Yeltsin period was no time of sunshine and prosperity for the media. Those were the days of journalists taking bribes to report the news a certain way. Media companies were forming corrupt alliances with big spenders who were willing to pay to have the news distorted in their favor. Nowadays, those tax laws are gone, having been removed in Putin's first term. But the prevailing modus operandi became so entrenched in the 90s that it still exists today.

Much of professor Hall's piece also deals with the tragic murders of Russian journalists. According to Russian economist and media expert Dr. Alexei Izyumov, "These days a Russian journalist's work is full of risk. Do it one way and you can make a fortune, do it another way and you can get a bullet in your head."

Izyumov wasn't talking about the same murders as Hall, however. He was writing in Newsweek magazine back in March 1995! Apparently, there has been no escalation in violence against journalists, as Hall contends. Journalism has been dangerous all along. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports there were more than twice as many journalist murders under Yeltsin than during Putin's two terms as president. Is the professor trying to hoodwink his audience, or does he just have his facts wrong? In either case, his Wall Street Journal piece seems to offer opinion based on facts that aren't factual.

Professor Hall closes his piece by advising President Barack Obama on how to deal with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Well, I have some advice for President Obama, too: If professor Hall gives you a call, hang up. If you don't, you may just find the conversation getting curiouser and curiouser!


William Dunkerley is a media business analyst and consultant based in New Britain, CT. He works extensively with media organizations in Russia and other post-communist countries, and has advised government leaders on strategies for building press (more...)

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