A Crooked Broadcast

An advertisement for Channel 5 overlooks the scene of one of two suicide bombings on Moscow's metro on 3/29/10. Source: ReutersIn the days following Monday’s deadly suicide attacks on the Moscow metro, Russian television has come under mounting criticism for largely ignoring the incidents during the first critical hours after they occurred. As opposed to radio and print media, which are overall less subject to censorship, state-controlled television remains the primary source of news for most Russians.

While Russian television has been routinely criticized for refusing to air prominent oppositionists, anti-government protests, reports containing scenes of graphic violence, and other events that could cast the government in an unfavorable light, the public response to its failure to cover Moscow’s worst terrorist attacks in six years has been uncharacteristically harsh.

In a column for the online newspaper Gazeta.ru, Natalia Gevorkyan argues that today’s Russian television has gone beyond the breaking point and become an alternative reality that only its producers seem to believe in.

A Crooked Broadcast
By Natalia Gevorkyan
March 31, 2010

Russian television has definitely ceased to be a form of news media. Its design of a virtual form of reality has reached the peak of perfection. TV has its own reality – with little jokes, idiotic talk shows that take one week to write, and programming that is in no way affected by reality. But in this country there is grief, the dead, the wounded, and shattered metro cars in the center of the capital. The result: on the day of the terrorist attacks, it was only the published news media that lay out the real reality, and not all at once. The remaining programs left the impression of a broadcast from Mars. They did not concern this life, or these deaths. (I’m not talking here about Russia Today. The television broadcasts for foreigners turned out to be more adequately realistic. This channel is in a different competitive milieu, the western one – normal, sensible, professional. They have to correspond.)

I was abroad when the events in Beslan began. Except for the breaks for headline news, which also began with Beslan, CNN showed only Beslan. RTR-Planeta at the time was telling me about prostitution. Now I’m in Moscow. The explosions occurred a kilometer away from my home. Or the explosions in Kizlyar, where another twelve of my fellow citizens were killed. Today. I turn on the television. Literally right now, Wednesday mid-day. Movie, movie, movie, drama, drama, drama, talk show about photography, talk show about court, something about Pasternak, songs, laughter. And only in the news breaks do you understand that people still haven’t been buried, people are still carrying flowers, still lighting candles, people are still crying, the prime minister is reanimating ten-year-old jargon, the Federation Council is apparently planning to institute the death penalty.

When cell phones stopped working on Monday, when cars with sirens sped off down Komsomolsky Prospekt and crowds of people moved towards them – if my arm had reached for the television switch, it would only have been as a last resort. The computer. The internet works. Everything is there. That’s all understood.

Then the radio. A more democratically accessible form of media. A separate thank you to radio hosts for their work on this black Monday. They did what television should have done. Right on time, the radio broadcast experts, opinions, and conversations, which are always better than silence and uncertainty. Even if they’re just empty responses to the primary questions: who, how, why? But the analysts, comparisons with analogous terrorist attacks, broadcasting information as it became available, interviews with news people – all of this is absolutely normal journalistic work. The radio flexibly reworked itself during the tragic events. It worked in person, live, broadcasting directly. A few radio stations even cut out their commercials.

The television managers couldn’t decide to do a live broadcast even in a situation that, in my view, obliged them to do so. They have betrayed their profession. They betrayed it long ago, when they allowed Putin’s TV watchdogs to erase live television from our lives, from the lives of citizens. They then began to design a country that was pleasant for the leadership to look at. This country, ideally, either cracks up at moronic jokes, or empathizes with the heroes of dramas, or is terrified at dissected corpses, or gets divorced together with a wealthy couple, or shares a child together with a famous singer, or is moved by its leaders, who crop up in the news clips so periodically that Brezhnev would have been jealous, or in a united fit of emotion even votes for them. This television, which the new president has not abolished either, looks like a meaningless, imitation Chinese vase, decorating the empty corner of a room.

Everything that radio did should have been done by television. Live broadcast, open studios where they could have questioned specialists, intelligence officers, doctors, witnesses of the events. Live. Effective editors, conversations, attempts to come together to understand, to overcome, to grieve, to calm, to unite. And the live programming, the latest information, the reaction of the government, the reaction of the world, the reactions of people in Moscow and Vladivostok, in Grozny and Irkutsk, and so on, that this television was already capable of doing ten years ago.

Guys, you already can’t do it, you’ve lost your instincts, you’ve killed them off within political labyrinths. Now you ponder what to let on the air and whether to let it on the air at all, but people are already dead, and your viewers already hear the emergency sirens; they already know what happened, they’re already pulling out the wounded and tying tourniquets. One day later, with you, the Caucasus don’t blow up; the screen shows some kind of different, glamorous life – while it’s already blown up into a multitude of dangerous splinters that get to us everywhere, including in the capital. Television has erased real life from its programming. It has wiped society off of its screen – living, reflective, disagreeable society that is unable to afford the new housing and utilities tariffs, is unemployed and hard-working, has not become spoiled, and has not ceased to think. It has wiped out everyone from its programming who was capable of asserting our right to monitor the authorities and control over the intelligence agencies. You didn’t notice when the country stopped trusting the state, the cops, the intelligence agencies, the prosecutors, the investigators, the courts. And you. You didn’t notice because you already have come to believe that the country consists of what television shows, prepares, dresses in Prada, writes on the prompter and sends out onto the air.

How many more tragedies have to happen, and what kind, so that those who answer for and create today’s television to trembled and shook, so that the viewer became more important than the government, so that they would decide to say in a stern voice: “We’re going live.” And so that instead of Karpov, as previously scheduled, Pozner‘s guest today was a girl saved at Lubyanka Station.

Translation by theOtherRussia.org.