Democracy in Russia Vis-a-Vis the Russian Media

It is hard to imagine a democratic, civil society that does not have a free press. Indeed, how else but through mass news media can citizens become sufficiently informed to choose elective officials wisely and to maintain vigilance over their government?

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” said Thomas Jefferson in 1789. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin recently remarked, “We should continue to build a full-fledged, capable civil society, inconceivable without genuinely free and responsible mass media.”

Phantom Freedom — Phony News

Since the start of the Russian Federation, the country has had no real press freedom. Gone is the monolithic control of the media that existed in the communist era. But, it was replaced by a corrupt system of pluralism. Under it, Russian citizens have had little alternative to media outlets that propagate distortions of the news at the behest of financial overlords, instead of truthfully informing citizens.

How could such a fate befall Russia’s fledgling democracy? In short, press freedom was precluded by a collection of laws enacted in the Yeltsin administration. They made it virtually impossible for media outlets to be profitable on their own. As a result, the media turned to politicians and business people who put money into unprofitable outlets in return for an opportunity to color the news. (Euphemistically, this practice is called “hidden advertising.”) Thus the news outlets have served the interests of their sponsors and owners, not the needs of the citizenry.

In contrast, truly free media must be self-sufficient and consumer-responsive, if the needs of the electorate are to be paramount.

What’s the Answer?

Indeed, how can this practically be achieved? In economic terms, if the full cost of professional news gathering and reporting were to be borne by consumers alone, it would be too expensive. That is where advertising revenue comes in. For some, however, it is hard to understand how income from advertisers is significantly different from the corrupting support of sponsors or owners. One notorious misunderstander of how a consumer-responsive press can operate was Vladimir Lenin. Addressing the First Congress of the Communist International in 1919, he said, “In capitalist usage, freedom of the press means freedom of the rich to bribe the press, freedom to use their wealth to shape and fabricate so-called public opinion.”

Giving the Media to the People

What Lenin did not understand is that in a free society with a free economy, it is possible to establish a truly exquisite system that puts the needs and interests of the people at the pinnacle. It is accomplished through the following dynamic:

a. companies seek to sell their products or services through advertising;

b. they know that their advertising will be most effective if it is exposed to potential buyers through a trustworthy media vehicle;

c. media companies therefore seek to aggregate an audience with that in mind;

d. consumers will prefer a news product that has integrity and is reflective of their interests;

e. therefore, media companies will produce and market a news product that is in demand by the consumers, offering honest and relevant news;

f. as an end result of this process, the advertising money will produce results, the consumers will get the kind of news product that they want, and the purposes of democracy will be well served through the freedom of the press.

George Krimsky, founding president of the International Center for Journalists explains, “For the public to believe what it reads, listens to and sees in the mass media, the ‘product’ must be credible. Otherwise, the public will not buy the product, and the company will lose money. So, profitability and public service can go hand in hand.”

Failed Remediation

But, haven’t Western countries spent a lot of money on promoting Russian press freedom? Why has that allowed corrupt pluralism to emerge in place of press freedom?

Speaking of the U.S. initiatives, Senator Richard Lugar recently observed, “They are effective in training journalists, but they stop short of ensuring that the media in a developing country has the necessary legal protections, follows basic rules of fairness and equal access, and can sustain itself financially.” Truly, training Russian journalists and media managers to improve professional skills, without first establishing a legal and economic foundation for press freedom, is like getting the trainees all dressed up with no place to go. How can well trained journalists and managers succeed in a system that is stacked against them?

A Fresh Approach

The Russian Media Fund (RMF) is a project that illustrates the practicality of guiding the legal and economic restructuring of a country’s media sector. The project is backed by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, the Media Research Center SREDA in Moscow, and media business consultant William Dunkerley.

RMF has articulated a methodological hierarchy for promoting press freedom. Level one is an essential starting place. Success at each successive level presupposes attaining the conditions required by the former step. These levels are represented by the following questions and comments:

1. Will the government allow it?

If a country’s government is opposed to press freedom, there is practically no way that it will emerge as a mainstream form of mass communication. Any government, for as long as it remains in power, is in a position to quash press freedom. If the United States wants to promote press freedom in a country, someone will first have to convince the government that press freedom should be allowed. Without this, working on the issues below will be fruitless.

2. Will economic conditions support it?

To be free and independent, media enterprises will require advertising revenue. If the full cost of professional news gathering and reporting were to be born by consumers alone, it would be too expensive. For a country to have press freedom, it will have to have a sufficient level of economic competition to create a demand for advertising opportunities that can support the media. Tax and media laws must allow media companies to be profitable from advertising revenues. Without this, working on the issues below will be fruitless.

3. Is there a palpable impetus to adopt press freedom?

If the media are to transition away from governmental or partisan financial support to economic self-sufficiency, there will have to be a sufficient motivation to change. Media managers will have to see a convincing vision of the benefits from change if they are to overcome the risk-avoidant behavior that is natural in the face of change. Without this, working on the issues below will be fruitless.

4. Do media enterprises possess sufficient business acumen?

If a media company cannot sustain itself as a business, it will have two choices: One is to cease operating. The other is to accept subsidies from those who wish to color the news. Any free and independent media company will need expert plans, strategies, and personnel for the challenging job of operating as a profitable business. Without this, working on the issue below will be fruitless.

5. Do journalists have appropriate professional skills?

Press freedom will deliver its ultimate benefit to the process of democracy when journalists have the skills to (a) recognize the kind of news consumers/citizens desire, (b) collect such news in a timely fashion, and (c) present it to consumers in an honest and appealing way.

Historically, American media assistance efforts have approached this hierarchical structure from the wrong end. Assistance began with training journalists. Eventually some of it migrated up to dealing with business management.

Implementing the Hierarchy

Since 2001, RMF has been successfully advocating for a change in Russia’s media regulatory structure. As a result of the changes made, it is now possible for a media company to operate profitably without a need for corrupted revenues. That doesn’t finish the job, however. It merely brings us to the 3rd level of the hierarchy, “Is there a palpable impetus to adopt press freedom?”

The mere fact that a conducive economic and legal structure has been established doesn’t mean that the media are ready to take the leap of faith to change from the current corrupt system to one that would enable press freedom. The next task for the RMF is to bring about a change in the business culture of the Russian media sector. Our experience with that is that the people won’t change based on merely reason or on principles, without a concrete motivation to do so. The sources of corrupted funding have to be replaced.

RMF has an active plan for doing that. It consists of a comprehensive public affairs advertising program that will indelibly characterize hidden advertising as an intolerable social ill. As a result, sponsors will be dissuaded from the practice by anticipation of public ridicule.

Problems and Solutions

This road to press freedom surely will be paved with resistance from some factions. Clearly anyone with a stake in the existing corrupted and coercive system of media finance and control will perceive the RMF plan as a threat. Amelioration of this problem will come from the active participation of major advertisers and the Putin administration. Initial discussions have found their openness to cooperate with the RMF plan.

Help is On the Way

Another important ingredient of the RMF plan is extensive support for media companies to help them make the transition to consumer-responsive businesses. This will include a comprehensive educational and coaching program. It will provide media companies with the necessary plans, strategies, training, and coaching for them to become successful under the new rules of the game. It also will show advertisers how they can use legitimate display advertising as a better way of achieving their marketing objectives than hidden advertising.

What Will Be the End Result?

At the successful completion of this project, what advances will have been made toward the emergence of press freedom in Russia?

1. The era of corrupt pluralism in the Russian media will be brought to an end.

2. A media sector will emerge that is focused on serving the needs and interests of citizens/consumers instead of those of corrupt sponsors/owners.

3. The Russian media will be reborn as a functional Fourth Estate, thus enabling citizens to make enlightened political choices and to maintain vigilance over their government.

For More Information...

Read Business in Russia Vis-a-Vis the Russian Media for more details on the Russian Media Fund project.