Glasnost : TRUTH HELPS, TRUTH HURTS : Reporters Learn to Tell Hard Stories

<i> Charles Strouse, an American journalist, recently returned from the Soviet Union. </i>

General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign has meant more to the working press than any other group in the Soviet Union. Stories on controversial issues have appeared in the last year--on psychiatric abuse, corruption and drugs. Competition has entered the newsroom. Reporters work more aggressively, editors scour other newspapers for ideas and story assignments often become the object of violent infighting.

“We in the press here are experiencing what Poland did several years ago,” said the Soviet reporter who covered Warsaw during the rise of Solidarity. “Everything is being shaken up and that has made my job much more challenging.”

From May through December last year I traveled through the Soviet Union with a government-sponsored cultural exhibit, “Information U.S.A.,” meeting with hundreds of print and electronic journalists.

Since the beginning of 1987 many Soviet journalists have been allowed entry to any factory, excluding defense, without warning. Stories that would never have been considered during the Brezhnev or Chernenko years--about crime or misuse of power--have been published without fanfare.


Television, print and radio reporters were also given raises last year. A reporter in Kiev said his wage was increased with an added caveat--he would be more responsible for the accuracy of his stories. One of the central planks of the Gorbachev plan is higher pay for better work. A good story is often awarded a bonus and at several newspapers the “writer of the month” was posted on the wall, an honor bestowed by his or her peers.

Young Soviet reporters, most of whom have graduated from journalism school, often seem similar to their American colleagues. Bright and iconoclastic, they dream of working for the central newspapers in Moscow or Leningrad. Television is the most glamorous, print the most demanding.

A press law promised for some time early this year may validate today’s still-unofficial glasnost . Since the 1930s, the media in the Soviet Union has been under the tight control of party functionaries. Now, new rules on employment, liability and responsibility are being hammered out in the Kremlin.

Heartening as these changes are, the Soviet media still must surmount nonpolitical roadblocks to substantial long-term movement.


The most visible is chronic lack of good equipment. Only a handful of central newspapers in Moscow are computerized. Most stories are handwritten by reporters, then typed by secretaries and finally typeset. Almost every story except a major speech by a party official waits several days before publication.

More than once I was invited to newspaper offices only to have visits canceled at the last moment. The reason, I heard privately, was that editors didn’t want me to see the condition of their equipment. Television and radio suffer the same problem. On-the-spot reporting is nearly impossible and all broadcasts are extremely limited. Because television and radio have only one or two stations, the average Russian gapes at reports of the hundreds of American cable and commercial choices.

Just attending the story is a problem; basic transportation is in short supply. A staff photographer in the provincial town of Rostov-on-Don told me that he can rarely reach the news when it happens: “Even when I hear about things I can never get there. They rarely give me a car. That’s reserved for more important people so I have to take a bus. That doesn’t work for a fire or an accident . . . and when I do get a car, the roads are so bad that I can never reach it on time.”

The same photographer showed me a lengthy photo essay he had taken of punks and drug addicts last spring. Several of the pictures were printed in his newspaper but 98% of his work still involves shooting smiling workers and students. The more difficult, deep-seated problem of opening the media still lies in basic ideology. Since 1917, the press has been assigned to teach Marxist-Leninist philosophy. Reporting current events is secondary.


“I often disagree with my colleagues in the West on the role of the newspaper,” said a Soviet editor who had recently been in France. “You in the West pretend an objectivity, but we know that facts can be manipulated by the writers so we argue openly. . . . At our paper we do our best not to just report facts but to form the opinion of the public.”

The result is that in reporting events--especially those outside the country--the news favors the Soviet way of doing things. Thus glasnost has done painfully little to change the news from abroad. Most television reports show protests, poverty and disasters in the United States. Anything positive is usually censored. And although only about 8% of the population belongs to the party, a much higher proportion of journalists do. While this does not prohibit them from probing party officials, they know how criticism can kill a career.

At party “organs"--newspapers like Pravda, published to carry the party line--up to 90% of the staff members are Communist Party members. At non-party papers--until recently virtually undistinguishable from the party organs--the percentages are slightly lower.

Youth newspapers, usually published by the young communist organization, Komsomol, are staffed by few party members but most journalists have token membership in a communist group. Such papers tend to be more literary and less political, with art and poetry rather than party dogma.


Yet the youth publications have made glasnost appear to work. A young Rostov editor said, “Komsomolskaia Pravda, the largest youth paper, was the first to talk about prostitution, problems of misuse of psychiatric hospitals and homosexuality.”

Though the journalism curriculum is packed with courses on Marxism-Leninism, most of the young journalists I met cared much more about candid news reporting than their elders. They often lamented the overwhelming amount of moralizing.

Television is one of the worst offenders in presenting news from abroad. One night in September, I was watching a television news broadcast with a young woman, a political writer from Leningrad. There was 15 minutes of footage on the “glorious harvest of the Soviet Union” and eight minutes of raucous protests in the West. The woman reacted: “We all see the motivation in showing it this way, to convince us that it is bad there and good here. But I think when my generation is in power, things will change.”

Until then the West can hope Gorbachev will continue to help change come along.