Russia’s Murrow moment

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The World

LONDON, United Kingdom — It is very rare for a working journalist to take a public stand against the media bosses and accuse them of failing to serve the public interest.

It does not happen often because journalists are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, don't want to lose their jobs or simply don't believe that complaining will do any good.

Edward R. Murrow, the most distinguished American broadcast journalist of his day, was a notable exception. His 1958 speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association accused the industry of putting profits before the public interest by promoting “decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.”

Murrow began his famous speech with the remark, “This might do nobody any good.” Indeed, it hastened his departure from CBS News, and failed to stem the tawdry entertainment and dumbing down of the news that persists today. Commercial interests and the bosses won.

Most Americans are not aware that a half century later, Russia recently had its own Murrow moment. The protagonist is a distinguished, stylish, broadcast journalist whose career has been threatened by the forces that are destroying the credibility of Russian television.

Leonid Parfyonov's stunning speech to Russian TV executives at an award ceremony in November was ignored by Russian state television, but you can watch it on YouTube. His black tie audience listened in deadpan shock as a very nervous Parfyonov said out loud what everyone in the audience, and indeed in all of Russia, knew to be the truth.

Following a post-Soviet decade in which Russian television was allowed a degree of editorial freedom, the Kremlin has turned the nationwide television networks into government mouthpieces. Television entertainment has become slick and professional — mindless amusement for the masses — but news has been put in a straightjacket.

Parfyonov spoke bluntly. “Media stories, and with them all of life, now fall into two immutable categories: those that can be broadcast on television and that cannot.”

Television news has become “state PR,” as it was in the time of the USSR. “These days a national TV channel correspondent's top bosses are not news makers but his boss' bosses.”

The story behind Parfyonov's speech was even more disturbing because in Vladimir Putin's Russia, journalists who reveal uncomfortable truths can not only lose their jobs. They can lose their lives. He told his audience he had just been to the hospital to visit Oleg Kashin, a journalist for Kommersant, Russia's leading daily newspaper.

Kashin was brutally beaten in November by thugs with steel rods, presumably for writing articles about a controversial government highway project that would slash through a forest. Kashin's assailants were never brought to justice; nor have any of the perpetrators of a series of murders of crusading Russian journalists in recent years.

Parfyonov concluded: “I speak with bitterness, having worked for Russian television full-time or freelance for 24 years. I have no right to blame any of my colleagues: Not being a hero myself, I cannot demand heroic deeds from others. But the least we can do is call a spade a spade.”

The parallel with Murrow is striking. Both are cases of high flying journalists who tried to fight the system. Although Murrow lost the battle for better broadcast news, he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy in a television program that helped end the senator's witch hunts. Parfyonov has taken on the Kremlin, a much bigger target.

I asked Miriam Elder, GlobalPost's Russia correspondent, whether Parfyonov's outspoken defiance has had any impact. She answered:

"Parfyonov's speech didn't change anything on the ground — it didn't lead to a public debate on the nature of state-run media or press freedom in Russia; it didn't lead to personnel changes at any of the major networks; it didn't cause a change in strategy. But that's not how change in Russia happens."

The tide of public opinion was already turning against McCarthy when Murrow took on the senator. In Russia, polls say 75 percent of the public still supports Putin and his acolyte Medvedev; but Elder believes that may be changing:

"His speech was mainly a symbol of how fed up the Russian elite [including those who profess to be pro-Kremlin in order to keep their livelihoods] is with censorship, which is in turn just one example of the Kremlin's overarching control of life in Russia," responded Elder.

One could compare it to the Khodorkovsky verdict — that also doesn't change anything on the ground in Russia [except obviously for Khodorkovsky himself and his family] but is a good symbol of what's happening to business and the justice system in Russia."

Years from now, both things [and I don't think it's an accident both happened in 2010, when we're seeing the first wide-reaching stirrings of dissatisfaction with the Putin regime] will be written into the history books as clean examples that illuminate the rot in certain sectors of Russian society."

Both Murrow and Parfyonov deserve to be remembered for their principled stands. Sometimes words speak louder than actions.

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