`Soviet Barbara Walters' thrusting her mike at Americans

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Edith Brunelle probably doesn't know it. But she is going to become a conversation piece on Soviet television. She just happened to be having a sandwich in the folding room of the Hartford Courant when Svetlana Starodomskaya, the ``Soviet Barbara Walters,'' came through with a camera crew.

As a result, Edith is going to be a prime exhibit when Ms. Starodomskaya reports to her viewers on what Americans know about the Soviet Union.

It all began with a trip that Toby Moffett, a Hartford television newsman, took to the Soviet Union last summer. Mr. Moffett, a former US congressman, prepared three segments for Soviet television, a first for American TV reporters. Moffett invited Starodomskaya to visit Connecticut in return, and prepare segments for WVIT in Hartford.

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Starodomskaya, a pert and charming woman with a throaty accent, dismisses comparisons to Barbara Walters. ``I'm not so popular and I'm not so aggressive,'' she said in an interview.

But she definitely isn't shy. She thrusts a mike at all comers and has a way of asking loaded questions: ``Is there anything that would get you fired?'' she asked the Courant's publisher.

Through a hectic day, she alternated playing reporter and subject. At a gathering of Connecticut high school students, most of the questions focused on the glasnost (openness) policy of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov.

That glasnost has limits was clear from her answers. One does not question Soviet foreign policy, for example. Her statement that the Soviet Union merely seeks a neutral Afghanistan was greeted roughly the way an American statement that the US merely seeks a neutral Nicaragua would be in Moscow.

But under glasnost she has been able to show such ``objective facts'' as the unhappiness of young Soviets with the Afghanistan war. Domestic problems such as housing shortages and workplace mismanagement seem fair game. ``This helps the government get rid of a lot of drawbacks,'' she said. ``If I bring just positive information [now], nobody will let me on the air.''

Asked whether this made her an ``adversary'' of the government, she made a significant distinction. The ``government,'' or leadership, did not regard the press as an adversary, she said. ``But, of course, those people who are bureaucrats ... are not happy.''

One student asked if she regretted her role before glasnost in helping cover up the nation's problems.``Yes, yes, yes,'' she replied. ``I was not alone.''

Her visit to the Hartford Courant had an element of the absurd. Here, after all, was the American news media covering the Soviet news media covering the American news media covering ... the Soviet Union.

The morning highlighted the ironies that inevitably arise when a Soviet perspective meets an American.

At the outset, Moffett explained that the Courant is the only daily newspaper in Hartford. Starodomskaya seemed a bit surprised at the lack of competition.

Then, she and her camera crew sat in on a meeting of the Courant's editorial board. One item of discussion was the corporate takeover tactics of financier T.Boone Pickens. Such takeovers made the economy more efficient, one participant argued. It turned out that he is the publisher, and the representative of the Los Angeles Times, which bought the Courant just a few years ago.

When Starodomskaya asked him later if anything could get him fired, someone said jokingly, ``I want to hear this.''

The most heated debate concerned the conviction of former Wall Street Journal writer R.Foster Winans, for tipping off investor friends as to what his columns were going to say regarding particular stocks, and then pocketing a portion of their resulting gains.

John Zakarian, the Courant's editorial page editor, said a First Amendment issue was at stake. How could the US, he argued, put a reporter in jail for doing what reporters do: divulging information? Someone observed that the US does not punish reporters for compromising national security. Yet it does when they compromise the stock market.

When a reporter explained this point, Starodomskaya smiled but offered no comment. (On economics, she showed definite consumerist tendencies. ``I like commercials,'' she said. ``They give you rest. You get the news on how to buy.'')

Speaking with Zakarian afterwards, Starodomskaya indulged in what sounded like propaganda. ``People in my country are more educated and informed than here,'' she said.

Then, she took her camera crew down to the Courant's printing and folding operations, to talk to blue-collar workers.

She asked Richard Amarello, a semiretired folding-machine operator, whether he thought people had freedom in the Soviet Union.

``I think they are free in their own right,'' Mr. Amarello said. ``It's what they are used to. Change things and they won't like it.''

(As it happens, Moffatt said, much of the opposition to glasnost does come from older workers who say strong central authority is necessary to check corruption and who resent entrepreneurs making more money than everyone else.)

Amarello said he could work only so many hours a week or he would lose his social security payments. ``We have the same thing,'' Starodomskaya said.

Then came Edith Brunelle and her daughter, who were sitting at a lunch table. Starodomskaya asked what they read about the Soviet Union.

``I haven't read too much about it,'' the daughter said. ``I don't have time.''

``I'm afraid if I ever went there, they wouldn't let us out,'' Edith added.

``Do you know about Gorbachev, the leader of our country?'' Starodomskaya asked?

``No.''

Starodomskaya noted this all day. ``I was very upset,'' she told the high school students. ``I will show this on my show.''

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