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Minding Our Business



August 2013

US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission

Meeting on Mass Media
St. Petersburg, Russia
August 1, 2013

Remarks of Charles Bierbauer, U.S. Delegate

I was asked, in part, to reflect on my time as a foreign correspondent here in Russia, then the Soviet Union, and how we — our two countries and our journalists — perceived the relationship.

Context is critical. It was the Cold War. I came to the Soviet Union for the first time in 1968. I was the ABC bureau chief in Moscow in 1978-80. And I have returned on several occasions. I covered every US-Soviet summit from Ford-Brezhnev in Helsinki in 1975 to Clinton-Yeltsin in Vancouver in 1993.

We are all affected by our inherent biases — national, cultural and personal. I believed then and believe now that the journalist's responsibility is to identify those biases and be honest about them. That should mean separating our reporting from the biases. I know how I felt about the Soviet Union, but here is what I have observed and what I believe it means. In today's media environment, at least in the U.S., those lines have been blurred. The reporting and the advocacy are not as clearly delineated as they once were.

Charles Bierbauer in St. Petersburg RussiaMy responsibility was to explain what I observed in the Soviet Union, put it into context, primarily in the context of the Cold War superpower competition, and convey to readers, viewers and listeners what impact that could have on them.

I was not here to tell people what I liked or disliked about the Soviet Union, but rather what the Cold War meant. From time to time, Soviet officials did not like what I wrote. From time to time, when I was a correspondent in Washington, US officials did not like what I wrote.

I looked at politics, geopolitics, economics, military strategies and postures, dissidents and protests, culture and, to the best degree I could, how the lives of Soviet citizens related to those in my audience.

Let me characterize that through a few brief anecdotes.

The Vienna summit — Carter/Brezhnev in 1979 — produced a strategic arms treaty that was immediately put on the shelf by the US Senate. The Senate would not vote on ratification.

Foreign minister Andrei Gromyko held only one news conference in the 2 1/2 years I was in Moscow. It was after the Vienna summit. I noticed that all the Soviet correspondents were passing notes to the moderator. So I wrote a note saying I would like to ask an устный вопрос — oral question. I’m a TV guy. I needed a sound bite, and I knew Gromyko spoke English well. I asked "would you consider reopening the negotiations?"

Gromyko: "Impossible. Unthinkable. Preposterous!"

Loved it. That was everybody's story lead. Three words. Grounded in considerable antipathy between the US and Soviet Union.

By the mid-80s, a few things had changed. Reagan was president. Gorbachev was party first secretary. And I was CNN's senior White House correspondent. (Good things come in threes.)

From Geneva to Reykjavik to Washington to Moscow, a series of summit meetings took place that dramatically shifted the tenor of the dialogue, indeed, crafted a dialogue where none had been.

At the signing of a 1987 arms treaty in the East Room of the White House, President Reagan not only put his signature to paper but added his signature aphorism: Доверяй, но проверяй. Trust, but verify. Possibly the only three words of Russian he could string together.

"You always say that,” Gorbachev observed.

"I like the sound of it," said Reagan.

It took a while, but we had gone from "impossible, unthinkable, preposterous" to “trust, but verify.”

That was the context for reporting on the Cold War confrontation.

Now, as a journalist in Moscow, I dealt with other issues. Dissident trials — Orlov, Ginsburg, Scharansky. Refuseniks — Jews who could not emigrate to Israel.

Peace demonstrations in Red Square. I was manhandled into a police station and told it was illegal to film demonstrations. "If you want demonstrations, we will stage them for you," my interrogator told me.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I interviewed (Nobel Peace Prize recipient) Andrei Sakharov about that. Sakharov suggested the Soviet Union should be denied its opportunity to host the 1980 Olympic Games. Two days later, Sakharov was arrested and exiled to Gorky. I felt pretty badly about that. But his wife assured me that Sakharov knew what he was doing.

It was a generally hostile time. There were some 25 Soviet correspondents in the US and the same number of Americans here. If one got expelled one place, one was certain to be kicked out of the other.

Officials were not forthcoming. I would, perhaps provocatively, call the foreign ministry spokesman from time to time to ask about an issue. The response, invariably, was "read TASS. When we have something to say, it will be on TASS."

[To my Russian host for this conference I added, “I would presume that is more valuable guidance now and reading ITAR-TASS today is a useful endeavor.”]

This was also a time when the correspondent was much more on his own. No Internet. No twitter. No cell and satellite phones. We had to book international telephone calls, though not because the technology did not exist.

The strictures on phone calls were relaxed during the 1980 Olympics and revived after the games. We sent our scripts (to ABC) by telex. And when we did send television reports via Gosteleradio (Soviet television) at Ostankino (its broadcast facility), we risked having a censor pull the plug on us.

It was, in short, a very different time to be reporting the major international story for an American audience about a vast country of which not a lot was known. That was true partly because of the limitations of American familiarity — a whole woeful story in itself — and the limits imposed by an insecure, to put it kindly, dictatorship.

People used to ask me if it were fun being a Moscow correspondent. I would respond, "Fun? No. Frustrating, fatiguing and fascinating."

What's changed? Where are we now?

I can only add this from my distant observation post in South Carolina.

The end of the Cold War diminished US interest journalistically in Russia. It was, in some ways, an oversimplified black/white issue. Post Cold War, the world became more complex in its multiple shadings and nuances, not that the Cold War was without nuance. But there were other things that interested the US media beyond the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Media proliferation added players. CNN did not yet exist when I was here. Nor Fox News. Nor Al Jazeera.

On the one hand, today there should be more media entities interested in the news. On the other, the audience is fractured. Maintaining foreign news coverage is an expensive proposition. Some US news organizations have pulled back merely as a financial expedient or necessity.

That was probably premature and precipitous. Russia is still an important global force. President Putin is a figure we need to understand. The dynamic between the Kremlin and White House can make geopolitics easier or more complicated. And, regretably, Americans probably know less about Russia today than they did about the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

That is certainly why this commission has merit.

|   The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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