The Old 'New' Media Is New Again, and Powerful
MOSCOW — WHEN a Soviet turns on the television or picks up his morning papers these days, he probably can't help feeling as if his world has been turned upside down.The central television is populated by the faces of those who disappeared from its screens during the months of right-wing drift since last fall. The frisky democratic papers which used to peck away at the citadels of power are now the favorites of the new officialdom. Meanwhile the staid mouthpieces of the Communist Party press, banned in the early days after the failed hard-line coup, have reappeared, but only in the form of independent products of their staffs. And the once-powerful propaganda bosses whine about their unfair treatment at the hands of the new victors. In the media, as elsewhere in Soviet life, the division is now sharply drawn between those who collaborated by publicizing the orders of the would-be junta and those who resisted. In the newspaper world, the junta itself drew that line. It banned all papers but a handful of official Communist Party organs. Some 11 banned independent and liberal newspapers responded by pooling resources to publish an underground sheet, Obshchaya Gazeta (literally "joint newspaper"). "This coup or any other coup would have been a failure in any case," observes Vitaly Tretiakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, one of the leading independent papers. "But ... a huge role belongs to the independent press." While they could not crush the papers completely, the junta did have effective control over the television, taking the Russian republic's television station off the air and using the central television to broadcast propaganda. "We had absolutely no information," says Tolya, a doctor from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. "They showed us the ballet, Swan Lake three times a day." Within hours of the coup's failure, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, wiped out the powerful official media. The Communist Party press was suspended; the head of the state television and radio corporation, Leonid Kravchenko, was sacked; the official Novosti news agency placed under Russian government control; and shortly after, the director-general of the official Tass news agency, Lev Spiridonov, was also fired. The victims of the democratic revolution have rushed to defend themselves, though not convincingly to many who have watched them serve the interests of Communist officialdom for years. "Yes, we broadcast those documents," Mr. Kravchenko told reporters at the Soviet parliament this week. "I had only one choice at that time. No one could understand what was going on.... What could we do? Armed people, including civilians, were everywhere." But such excuses have not stopped the media upheaval. Mr. Gorbachev's press spokesman, Vitaly Ignatenko, has taken over at Tass, which he intends to make independent. The new television head is Yegor Yakovlev, the editor of Moscow News, arguably the most liberal weekly in the Soviet Union. The change has been most visible on the evening news show Vremya ("time"), the most watched and most influential program on Soviet television. The new leadership has opened up a competition between two news teams: one of Vremya reporters who were non-collaborators, and another from the popular late-night "Television News Service," which Kravchenko took off the air in the aftermath of the January military crackdown in the Baltics. In the newspaper world, the Communist press, including the conservative flagships Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossiya, which reappeared during the past week, without Communist symbols, as independent journals owned by their staffs. The key issue now is the fate of the huge Communist Party-owned publishing houses, now seized by the Russian government, where all the papers are published. Editors such as Tretiakov worry that the once-communist papers that are now independent might still enjoy an advantage from access to this press. Alternately one of the larger democratic papers, such as the former government daily Izvestia, might try to take control of it. Those papers "want to have the best pieces of this press for themselves," he worries. "And then intense competition will begin."