Media : All the News That Pays They Print : Some Russian journalists are accepting bribes to advertise products or advance politicians. They say it is the only way to survive.
Something very peculiar is happening in the Russian media.
You’ll be watching the evening news, and suddenly, somewhere between squibs on the Cabinet meeting and Bosnia, a glowing report appears on how BMWs at a certain Moscow dealership are selling like hot cakes.
Or you’ll be reading a major national newspaper and come across an article whose only point seems to be lavish praise for a certain commercial bank.
This, to cop a Russian phrase always delivered in sinister tones, is not a coincidence.
It is the Russian media’s dirty little secret that in the last year or two it has become common practice for poorly paid journalists and financially struggling media companies to accept money not only for advertising but for reports passed off as legitimate news.
“I know newspapers where for $300 they’ll publish a nice story on your firm or something bad about your competitor,” said Pavel Gutiontov, head of the Russian Journalists Union. “They’ll write on the front page that the chief prosecutor of Russia is interested in your competitor and demanding documents from him.”
It is a sad joke played on Russian readers and viewers. So soon after the media finally got free of the Communist Party’s stranglehold, they fell into such dire financial straits that reporters began to sell out en masse to the country’s new business people, bankers and politicians.
If Soviet journalists once were vulnerable to party pressure, the new Russian press must fight the temptations that come with earning $200 or $300 a month in a country where many prices are higher than in the United States.
The scale of the sellout is difficult to determine. Reporters tend to keep quiet about the money they get on the side, and it is nearly impossible to prove that an article was inspired by an under-the-table fee. But it has reached the point where Russian reporters, asked about it, shrug knowingly and say, “Everybody does it.”
“There can’t be an island in society. Corruption is everywhere, and it can’t be absent in journalism,” said Boris Pilyatskin, foreign advertising chief at the daily Izvestia. “I open newspapers and sometimes, just because we’re acquaintances, I know a person got $500 or $1,000 for a story.”
The Russian Journalists Union’s new code of ethics, drawn up only this summer, warns twice that journalists should not take money from anyone but their bosses. “The very combination of journalism and advertising activities is considered ethically impermissible,” it says.
But the audience is made up of very different sorts from the would-be Woodwards and Bernsteins who have populated American journalism since the two reporters broke the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon in 1974.
“Who are Russian journalists?” asked Mikhail Gurtovoy, formerly a top investigative reporter and now head of the independent International Center for Research of Political and Business Ethics. “They’re people who used to write on the orders of the party. They’re used to having a master who pays for everything.”
Gurtovoy recalled the privileges he enjoyed from the Communist regime as a Pravda reporter--dacha, car and prestige--and the clout he wielded as an agent of the party, when every shortcoming he revealed would be promptly corrected. The ethics were clear too, he said, recounting the tale of a journalist who accepted a cut-rate mink hat from the manager of a fur factory he wrote about and was ignominiously kicked out of the party and ostracized.
“There were ethics, but when there was a call from the Central Committee of the party, the ethics fell away,” he said.
Gurtovoy sees reporters who sell out largely as those who cannot deal with the loss of their former position.
“Put yourself in the place of a journalist,” he said. “He’s used to being privileged, his wife is used to being better dressed, to the prestige--and now who is he? No one. He comes to some organization and says he’s from Izvestia and they say: ‘So what? Hit the street.’ ”
The new Russian journalism enjoyed a real heyday in 1989-91, when the engines of glasnost powered revolutionary democratic change. But its fortunes changed
abruptly in 1992, when newly freed prices sent paper and other costs soaring, and the Communist Party no longer provided subsidies.
“The suddenly dispossessed and completely lost journalists, who were already disposed to take bribes, and the (rich businessmen known as) ‘new Russians’ who were ready to give them finally embraced one another,” wrote free-lance journalist Oleg Pshenichny in the English-language Moscow Times.
He said he has received more than a dozen offers to write positive stories about films, computer firms and politicians. Like other journalists, he complained, he must face an ugly set of choices: work honestly but lack the money to feed his children, moonlight for foreign media or take bribes.
And even working for the Western media has its corrupt side.
Ask Artyom Borovik, editor of the popular monthly Sovershenno Sekretno (Top Secret), which specializes in investigations.
Borovik dispatched one of his top reporters to look into what promised to become a sensation--the tale of a retired KGB officer who had taken part years earlier in an operation to harm then-renegade author Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn by planting a suitcase full of radioactive material near him.
But before Top Secret could get the story into print, it broke elsewhere--in a British newspaper, a Spanish newspaper and even on Russian television, which cited the Western sources. The reporter, Borovik said, made no bones about having sold his story to the foreign newspapers, even though he had worked on it for Top Secret.
“He said: ‘Artyom, you’d be able to offer me maybe $100. They paid me $4,000,’ ” Borovik recalled. In the end, Top Secret reprimanded the reporter and docked his salary but did not fire him.
Borovik said he and other editors also “look through their fingers” at made-to-order articles, because they do not want to force out their best journalists. Eventually, he believes, all this will pass--though not without a trace.
“It’s a means of surviving,” he said. “When the market stabilizes, and an editor can pay as much as is needed for correspondents to maintain a normal level of life, this will disappear, but it may remain as a bad habit.
“Definitely, it demoralizes the world of journalism,” he added. “A correspondent looks at any theme through the (prism) of money, and if he understands something won’t bring in money or fame--but mainly money--he won’t do it.”
It does more than demoralize, believes Mikhail Berger, chief of Izvestia’s economics department and one of the most vocal opponents of this Russian twist on checkbook journalism.
“These people undermine our authority with the public and abuse the trust of the readers,” he said. “Also, they’re robbing their colleagues, because the $500 they get for a story means the paper won’t get a $2,000 ad,” revenue that could have gone toward salaries.
Made-to-order reports serve mainly businesses these days, but before December’s elections for Parliament, demand soared for hidden political propaganda.