The Failure of U.S. Assistance to the Russian Media

(Congressional Testimony: Before the House of Representatitives Committee on International Relations, September 21, 1995)

My name is William Dunkerley. I am a publishing consultant and organization development practitioner from New Britain, CT. I have worked extensively with publishers from Russia and other former Eastern Bloc nations since 1992. In the past two years, I’ve made eight trips to the region. And I welcome this opportunity to present information relevant to U.S. assistance to the Russian media.

For some time now, the United States has been providing funds to assist the development of a free and independent press in Russia. During this time, however, the plight of the Russian media has gone from bad to worse. The Russian media is losing its battle for freedom. Its plight has never been more imperiled than now as national elections approach. Given how essential a free press is to the democratic and economic reforms Russia is undertaking, this is a problem of utmost concern.

Why is this tragedy besetting the media?

A truly free press has not emerged in Russia because media enterprises are dependent for financial support upon political, commercial, and even criminal forces. These groups offer money to color what the media reports and to buy a chance at influencing society. A Newsweek story characterized it: “Press: The Best News Rubles Can Buy.”

As long as media enterprises are unable to support themselves from circulation and advertising revenues, they will remain vulnerable to continued corruption of this kind. The media will continue extensive selfcensorship for fear that financial sponsorship will be withdrawn. The press will not be free to tell the truth.

For the news media to become truly independent, the Russians will have to bring about change at both the micro and macroeconomic levels. Some laws will have to be changed — like the ones that limit media advertising revenues. For the press to become free, some monopolies will have to be broken. Paper manufacturing, printing, distribution, antenna and transmitter facilities, for instance. And the media operators will have to learn entrepreneurial skills.

How have our assistance efforts impacted the situation?

Actually, we’ve had very little impact at all. It isn’t that we tried and failed. It isn’t that the Russians have been unresponsive. We simply have not focused on the central and pivotal issue of media financial selfsustainability in any serious way.

According to the Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to the New Independent States, our media assistance goal is “ broaden access to news, information and opinion supplied by fully independent, financially viable organizations in both the electronic and print media across Russia.”

Certainly that goal seems consistent with addressing the underlying problem. But when you look at how the United States has tried to achieve the goal, it’s a different story. The projects we’ve implemented are of tangential value, at best. They have focused on teaching Russian journalists how to write better, on reportorial skills, on desktop publishing, on philosophical discussions of ethics.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these things. Indeed, I’m sure the projects were quite successful in their own right. But they have little do to with solving the problem underlying the media’s lack of freedom.

Even a $10 million program that was designed with a focus on the business side of media operations seems to be missing the point. It is sponsoring such similarly mistargeted projects as providing reports from shareholder meetings of Russian companies, developing a university curriculum, and producing a pilot episode of a dramatic series!

How can we be so inept in carrying out our objectives? Why are we sponsoring irrelevant projects? Why aren’t we implementing projects that will work synergistically toward achieving our goal with regard to the Russian media?

In my opinion, it comes down to a basic failing in management. According to the American Management Association, the two fundamental activities of management are planning and controlling. Both are absent in this case.

What’s the plan? There is none. There exists no detailed, unified, strategic plan for helping the Russians to develop a truly free and independent press.

As a result, the various agencies and organizations that decide how we will spend our assistance money do not have a common vision of what needs to be done. (At USAID, even among the various offices working on NIS assistance, there is parochial goal setting that precludes giving the Russian media the help it needs.) The result of this overall approach is the discordant array of initiatives we have taken. It is like an orchestra playing not only without a leader, but with each musician reading from a different sheet of music!

Doesn’t this sound like a situation needing to be brought under control?

Indeed, where are the controls? There are none. When President Clinton appointed Richard L. Morningstar as Coordinator of U.S. Assistance to the New Independent States, he said, “Mr. Morningstar will preside over the allocation of the U.S. assistance resources and direct and coordinate the interagency process on the development, funding, and implementation of all U.S. Government bilateral assistance and trade and investment programs related to the NIS.” That would seem to be a mandate for strong leadership.

Well, either Mr. Morningstar is not doing his job, or the President has not given him the necessary authority to carry out this responsibility.

From what I can see, the only limited control he is able to exert is through the budgeting process. And that’s inadequate for the job that needs doing.

What’s the solution?

It can be expressed very simply: Mr. Morningstar needs to develop a strategic plan for helping the Russians achieve self- sustainabilty for their media. And he needs to be given — and to use — adequate authority in dealing with the U.S. agencies and organizations that are charged with implementation. In that way, America can make a unified effort to move in a strategically significant direction. Anything short of this will merely perpetuate our ongoing failure to be supportive of Russian media’s fight for freedom and financial independence.

The Russian government is not of one mind when it comes to freedom of the press. There are forces within that seek to subjugate the media. However, there are also forces that are staunch supporters of press freedom. Each faction has had success at different times in courting the favor of President Yeltsin. I believe the strategic approach I’ve outlined will give support to the advocates of a free press — and if followed by appropriate overtures for assistance from the United States, some real inroads are possible.

Thank you for this opportunity to testify. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call on me. I will be happy to be of service to you in any way that I can.

Respectfully submitted,
William Dunkerley
Publishing Consultant
275 Batterson Drive
New Britain, CT 06053