The recent conflict surrounding Izvestia, one of the oldest newspaper brands in Russia, gives rise to a new wave of talks about the situation in the media market. Though the major reason for layoffs and management shifts appear to be economically induced, in Russia one cannot help wondering whether these changes might be symptoms of social and political deterioration throughout Russian society.

 

The conflict at Izvestia went public at the end of May, when the new management terminated 60 percent of the editorial stuff. The journalists fired back in an open letter to the media with accusations of illegal actions. New publisher Aram Gabrelyanov is a successful media manager and deputy director of National Media Group, which publishes the popular yellow-journalism newspapers Zhizn’ (Life) and Tvoy Den’ (Your Day). The group also controls various TV channels, including First Channel, and recently expanded to the Internet with its extremely successful portal  lifenews.ru. Gabrelyanov made it clear that he’s going to make a brilliant and profitable newspaper out of a decaying and, in recent times, pretty-much useless Izvestia. Given the crisis in the global media market, the urgent measures to save one of the country’s oldest newspaper brands could be seen as decent and timely: Izvestia was founded in 1917 as an official voice of the Soviet government.

However, as is usually the case in Russia, there’s another side to the story.

He who pays the piper calls the tune, and that’s literally how most Russian businesses work. And thus was it clearly explained to the journalists of Izvestia who were offered jobs by the management, as one of them, Natalia Oss, put it in her comment to Gabrelyanov’s interview at slon.ru. This attitude toward the media is quite symptomatic of the so called “hybrid political regime” prevailing in Russia: most journalists are reduced to the status of useless cynical scribblers and cowardly sell-outs — not only in the minds of those who hold power but also in public opinion, too. To be fair, many journalists contributed a great deal to their own downfall. But not all of them. It might be not as clearly verbalized, but it is very well perceived that with the upcoming Duma elections set for the end of 2011 and subsequent presidential elections in the first quarter of 2012, Izvestia is expected to serve as a helpful resource for the United Russia party and for the next president — whether it’s Mr. Putin, Mr. Medvedev, or any third candidate. And the journalists are expected to serve, without raising questions, unless they want to get fired.

Gabrelyanov proved himself to be a real pro in bringing to life a profitable and successful business model within the yellow press market, but does it mean that he’ll be just as successful with a quality newspaper? He says it will be “cooler than Kommersant and Vedomosti,” two major quality newspapers in Russia. He says he’s going to incorporate the latest trends of the global media market in his work, stating that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are his role models for this project. Indeed, the new layout of the new Izvestia is so similar to the latter that it might even raise legal questions.

But there are two reasons that things are not going to go according to Gabrelyanov’s plan.

First, it is vital for a quality press to be based on strong moral standards. Gabrelyanov’s shark business style may be successful anywhere else, but not in this specific sector. This is where you have to be personal with business. This is where you have to face down the ethical dilemmas, make the hard choices. To take a position, as did Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, who, during the Watergate scandal, took the side of Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their investigation against the Nixon administration. Can Mr. Gabrelyanov make such a choice? It’s highly doubtful. His stock-in-trade has always been to sell everything that sells best — juicy details of celebrities’ private lives, sex scandals, bloody murders, pervert stories, and the like — anything and everything to feed the public’s base appetites. There’s no room for morality in his methods.

And second, it is also very well-known that Mr. Gabrelyanov is quite loyal to the current Russian government—the same government that over the past decade has destroyed most independent media outlets and established control over almost all the country’s television channels and wide-circulation newspapers. Quality journalism defines itself by its independent stance; it requires the freedom and the resources to serve as a real watchdog — to tell the truth to the government and to the public. The idea that Mr. Gabrelyanov will dedicate himself to create such a medium is laughable. Granted, Izvestia was no voice of freedom in the past, but still, the country deserves better than to have one of its oldest media brands relegated to the status of just another knockoff accessory to the current Russian government, like the concepts of sovereign democracy or rule of law in Russia.

Marshal McLuhan, the great theorist of media and communications, once shrewdly observed that the medium is the message. And it is actually quite clear what message the new Izvestia brings to the world: in Russia you can use the media for any purpose you want, so long as it serves the interests of the Kremlin regime.

 

Olga Khvostunova

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