Readings — From the October 2016 issue

Glasnost Half Full

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From the transcript of a staff meeting at RBC, a media company based in Moscow, in July. An audio recording of the meeting was leaked to Meduza, a Russian-language news site, which translated the conversation into English. Elizaveta Golikova and Igor Trosnikov were appointed chief editors of RBC earlier that month. TASS is a state-run news agency.

igor trosnikov: Colleagues, you probably want to hear about our editorial policy. We’re not going to change the policy in any fundamental ways, and generally speaking we’re not taking any big actions at all.

journalist 1: Our chief editors were fired, as you know. So obviously our editorial policy won’t remain exactly as it was, because clearly something about it before didn’t work out.

trosnikov: Quite right.

journalist 1: If you fire people for something that wasn’t working out, then you probably don’t want any more of those things when you hire new people.

elizaveta golikova: Look, do you drive a car?

journalist 1: Yes.

golikova: Do you ever break the traffic laws? Ever get a ticket? Do you pay up?

journalist 1: Yes, of course.

golikova: Well, if you drive over the solid double line, they take away your license. Does this mean you’ll stop driving your car, or that you’ll start traveling by plane?

journalist 1: Where’s the solid double line?

trosnikov: Unfortunately, nobody knows where the solid double line is.

golikova: This is the road. The information space is a very sensitive place. The traffic is at a standstill, the drivers are growing anxious, and there’s a catastrophic stress overtaking the people outside and inside the cars. Our job is to show our professionalism in such a way that the traffic is safe for the people.

trosnikov: We’re all from the same school of journalism — believe me. We respect the same responsibilities before our readers.

journalist 1: The question was actually about something else.

trosnikov: And I answered you: no one knows where the double line is.

journalist 1: In your opinion, what was the previous management’s mistake?

trosnikov: Let’s just agree that we won’t comment on the previous management. Listen, do you want to find out about the future or the past?

journalist 2: But in order to understand the future, we’ve got to know what mistakes exactly not to make, right?

trosnikov: Look, you’re not going to hear any specifics today, because, for starters, there simply aren’t any.

journalist 2: But you’ve got to have some idea —

trosnikov: Ask us a direct question.

journalist 3: Currently we’ve got only one reason not to run a story: absence of proof. What I understand from what you’ve said about the double line is that some other factor might emerge that influences how we select our texts.

golikova: I’ll say it again: there are rules of the road. They were invented so traffic would be safe, and so people speeding at 180 kilometers per hour would understand that they risked their own lives doing this.

journalist 3: I don’t understand what you mean.

golikova: Guys, let’s stick to specific questions, and you’ll get specific answers. That way we won’t start talking about the double line again.

journalist 3: All right. We’ve read in the media that the reports that caused these problems were about Putin’s daughter. Do you think these crossed the double line?

trosnikov: I’ll be honest with you: I’m not going to answer a question like that. You want too much.

journalist 3: But this is a specific example. You asked for specific questions.

golikova: Let’s discuss future stories.

journalist 3: Well, we’ve got articles in the works about Putin’s daughter.

trosnikov: Send them to us, and we’ll read them.

journalist 3: But is this a story we can report?

trosnikov: You might as well be asking us how many of the computers aren’t working. Let’s move on. We all know the whole scenario. We’re definitely not going to answer questions about it, so you don’t even need to torture us with it. Let’s be serious. We’re absolutely not going to change anything so fundamental that it would make you ashamed to work here. So, for Christ’s sake, don’t give us this crap about Putin’s daughter. Let’s talk seriously, like adults.

journalist 3: These are the most serious questions there are.

trosnikov: Let’s move on.

journalist 4: Can I ask a question? There are certain situations — headline-making news — in which people who played a role in these stories, or people who are protecting the participants, or representatives of the authorities, start to make calls to the chief editors and the management, trying to influence a report’s content or its headline. Tell us, please, how you’ll deal with this sort of thing. For instance, would RBC run a story today about the Panama Papers? At TASS, they didn’t report on that until much later.

golikova: And you don’t sense a difference between RBC and TASS?

journalist 4: Well, what I mean is that you’re coming from TASS.

trosnikov: And so what?

golikova: What’s the connection?

trosnikov: If people here are thinking that you can always be so direct with everything, it isn’t so. It’s not allowed at Kommersant, it’s not allowed at Interfax, it’s not allowed at Vedomosti, and, as experience now shows, it’s not allowed here. I can’t tell you that there are no restrictions whatsoever. If people here think there aren’t any restrictions, then they’re better off writing on Facebook.

journalist 4: They’re locking people up for that now too.

trosnikov: Do you think that the presidential administration literally has a special little book lying around, titled Handbook on How to Determine Whether a News Article Is Acceptable?

journalist 5: Are you planning to change the heads of any news desks?

trosnikov: You come to some new department, and you think, “Damn, what a bunch of freaks. Now I’ll fire everyone.” And then it turns out that, on the contrary, these are amazing guys. I always work with those who are ready to work with us. Those who aren’t ready to work with us . . . well, sorry.

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