Moscow's media message

Western politicians often use the press to make their pitch to the public - bypassing parliaments, congresses, or nettlesome political opponents in the process.

Now the Kremlin seems to be trying the same tack. And it's showing increasing sophistication in its understanding - and use - of the Western press.

The latest example is the interview given by Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko to the Washington Post on Tuesday. It was his first face-to-face meeting with a Western journalist since taking office in February.

Mr. Chernenko challenged the Reagan administration to make an effort to agree on ''at least some of'' the Soviet Union's proposals in four specific areas: a moratorium on space-weapons testing and negotiations on preventing the militarization of space; a ''freeze'' on nuclear weapons at present levels; ratification of 1974 and 1976 agreements on underground nuclear tests; and a pledge of ''no first use'' of nuclear weapons.

He hinted that if Washington obliged there could be movement on nuclear arms negotiations.

Chernenko's proposals amount to a restatement of known Soviet positions. But the way in which they were projected publicly via the press rather than through private diplomatic channels, and were put forward just before the American election - not to mention just before this Sunday's presidential debate on foreign affairs issues - suggests a comparatively newfound Soviet zeal for getting its message across in the Western news media.

The Russians, of course, are experienced at attempting to manipulate the media. Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, declared that newspapers should not only be ''agitators,'' but ''propagandists'' as well.

However, until recently Soviet officials have kept the Western media at arm's length - apart, that is, from selective quotation to buttress their own views, or the occassional denunciation Western journalists.

But over the past few months, Soviet attitudes have undergone a perceptible change.

Perhaps the most notable example is the practice of holding regular ''briefings'' with a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman. In addition, the Soviet leaders have very selectively allowed into the country representatives of the Western media, as well as occasional prominent Westerners such as evangelist Billy Graham. Presumably they hope these visitors will portray their society in terms they would not find too objectionable.

The Soviet Foreign Ministry ''briefings'' are conducted by a former Soviet journalist. Vladimir Lomeiko, a tall, bespectacled first deputy chief of the Foreign Ministry's press department, not only articulates Soviet foreign policy - occassionally adding a few nuances that are lost in official dispatches - but also routinely handles pointed questions from Western journalists.

These briefings, called at short notice and irregular times, seem for now to be the favored method of getting the Kremlin viewpoint across.

Some electronic media have also enjoyed a bit more access recently. For example, segments of NBC-TV's ''Today Show'' recently originated from the Hotel Rossia in downtown Moscow. For an entire week, a veritable parade of Soviet movers-and-shakers faced questions from host Bryant Gumbel, who managed to glean a number of newsworthy snippets from them.

NBC-TV news reporters also enjoyed unparalleled access to the country for an accompanying series of reports.

''Why are the Soviets doing it?'' asks one observer. ''I think they're finally willing to just take their chances in the Western media.''

Others are not so sure. One Western diplomat takes a skeptical view, arguing that the Russians are merely ''playing games'' by giving the appearance of openness with the media while continuing to exercise tight control over newsworthy events.

The Soviets still place tight controls on news about unpleasant subjects. For example, official explanations of the unexpected removal and subsequent reappearance in a new role of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the former chief of staff of the Soviet military, were belated and, some analysts say, ambiguous.

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