Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Journalists are in the same madly rocking boat as diplomats and statesmen. Like them, when the Cold War ended, they looked for a new world order and found a new world disorder. If making and conducting foreign policy in today's turbulent environment is difficult, so is practicing journalism.
At least one sector of the press is suffering from a serious case of obsolescence. With the defense industry, armed forces and the espionage business shrinking, many correspondents in the military/security field require difficult retraining in more relevant specialties. So do yesterday's Kremlinologists. Gone are the days when clues to Moscow politics could be read in the lineup atop Lenin's tomb and between the lines of the official press; when Kremlin intrigues, while shadowy, followed certain logical patterns. Now the Russian political scene is more open but chaotic, with most familiar signposts-left/right, radical/conservative, communist/nationalist-having lost most of their meaning.
But the problem is much larger. The press is faced with at least six new factors: history, geography, global optic, journalistic agenda, sensibility and audience.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The new history is really ancient history newly discovered. Journalists are taking crash courses in the blood-drenched background of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, North Ossetians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Two social scientists, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph, recently maintained in The New Republic that the "ancient hatreds" constantly mentioned in reporting of strife from the Balkans to India are really new hatreds instilled by contemporary politicians. The argument is only partly convincing at best, but the writers have a point when they say that simply using the catchall label "ancient" is intellectually lazy. Like other Americans, U.S. journalists have often neglected the study of history; they have much remedial work to do in trying to understand who did what to whom, why and when-and who did it first. Today's victimized Croatians were yesterday's fascist oppressors of the Serbs; today's brutal, rampaging Serbs see themselves as avengers for a Muslim invasion that began in 1389. These are among the more familiar instances of a process in which revenge is elevated to an all-embracing historical principle.
American history itself is not as remote from this condition as one might think. Understanding Woodrow Wilson's role in the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of World War I and the promotion of the double-edged concept of self-determination is pertinent to much of the evening news.
The new geography involves the republics of the Soviet Union and the remains of the former Yugoslavia. This new geography brings with it a fresh cast of characters. Such names as Stanislav Shushkevich, Askar Akayev, Mircea Ivan Snegur, Momir Bulatovic, Saparmurad Niyazov and Ratbek-haji Nysanbai-uly,1/4 for instance, are still unfamiliar to most Americans, even to readers of Foreign Affairs. Just as the State Department must appoint ambassadors to many of these self-created states, the press must send correspondents. But for private-sector publishers and broadcasters, the financial strain is serious, the logistical problems horrendous. Many news organizations are forced to "parachute" correspondents into these places for stints of a few days or weeks, with the usual risk of superficiality that comes with quick reporting. Moreover, despite the sweep of democracy in former communist countries, there are stubborn rearguard actions against press freedom and access by politicians who do not understand-or understand only too well-the role of independent journalism. Most major news organizations have actually coped well, given the difficulties and dangers. In a piece about covering the Balkan wars, a reporter for The New Yorker has described how "often we barely finish hiding one accreditation [press pass] when it is time to fish out a totally different one, and God help those who get them mixed up." In the fighting to date, 30 journalists have been killed in the former Yugoslavia.
NEW WORLD ANGLE
The new global optic results from the disappearance of the bipolar world. The conflict with communism prompted a great Western system of alliances; even the creation of the European Community was partly a defensive effort against communism. Among the first to see the difficulties arising from the absence of that unifying force was then-Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who in 1989 said almost wistfully that the Cold War, for all its risks, "was characterized by a remarkably stable and predictable set of relationships among the great powers." He might have been speaking as an editor.
The superpowers' prolonged confrontation furnished an organizing principle for analysis. Virtually every foreign policy move and world event, from a coup in Central America to cultural legislation in France, was to a great extent judged by its relation to the Cold War. Journalists often criticized this view as oversimple, but they usually followed it willy-nilly. The press is now searching for a different organizing principle-North-South tensions, religion versus secularism, nationalism versus internationalism. These formulations are accurate enough but none by itself offers a satisfactory pattern.
NEW WORD ORDER
The new agenda consists, first of all, of some long-familiar topics that have been transformed by events and must be treated with fresh insight. In economics, the new forces of the information society are sweeping across national boundaries and eroding sovereignty; they are also reshaping standard concepts, such as capital and labor, making much of the old economic vocabulary used by the press misleading. In the Third World, old patterns of reform, revolution and reaction have begun to change, and journalists are finding that the move toward free markets and democracy is complex and sometimes deceptive. (The "Third World," incidentally, urgently needs to be renamed, and not only because the "Second World" has collapsed. The inadequacy of a label covering everything from dysfunctional non-countries in Africa to emerging industrial powers in South America indicates a lack of press understanding and attention.)
Crucial among the newer topics journalism must address are tribalism and ethnic self-assertion, phenomena about which social scientists, let alone reporters, know little; likewise with religion, a subject most journalists have found unsettling ever since it wandered from the Sunday religion pages to the front page. Religious wars, large and small, seem increasingly likely in the decades ahead. Time magazine recently tied together in one cover package the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City by Muslim fundamentalists, the siege in Texas of a group of cultists whose leader apparently thought he was a messiah, and the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Bosnia. This link was legitimate but fragile, because these were very different manifestations of "religion." Not every Muslim fundamentalist wants to blow up New York City, and few Christian fundamentalists belong to cults ready for Armageddon. The press must discuss such distinctions knowledgeably and conscientiously.
The new sensibility is best understood if one recalls how the present period started, how the Soviet empire collapsed. The press by and large was surprised by these momentous events. So was practically everyone else, including, as far as we know, the CIA. Some critics of the press maintain that one significant reason journalists were unprepared is that they paid too much attention to governments and officials (especially former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, around whom the press built an extraordinary personality cult). They did not pay enough attention to "civil society"-the many forces and people who move events quite independently of governments. (The press made a similar mistake years ago in Iran when it concentrated on the shah and disgruntled intellectuals rather than on mullahs and bazaars.)
THE END OF JOURNALISM
The new sensibility will require avoiding such mistakes, which may not be as simple as it sounds. Professor Robert Karl Manoff, who heads the New York University Center for War, Peace and the News Media, invokes Hegel to underline this point. Hegel believed in Spirit as the driving force of history. The press as a whole, argues Manoff, is poorly equipped to deal with Spirit, having dwelled for too long on the State as the final arbiter of human affairs. What is needed now from the press is a form of self-consciousness through which the world can seize the new opportunities for freedom. A tall and perhaps impossible order for the press. Unlike historian Francis Fukuyama, who also noted the work of Hegel, Manoff does not proclaim the end of history, but the end of journalism (by which he means, one hopes, only journalism as we know it).
The new audience is new in the sense that its receptivity to news has changed. Americans, like most people, are not very interested in foreign affairs unless they perceive the national interest to be involved. The Cold War outlook could turn anything into an issue of national interest if communism was somehow implicated. That easy link is gone. As James Woolsey, the new director of the CIA, recently put it, the big dragon may have been slain, but the world is still full of poisonous snakes. How does the press explain where the snakes lurk and why they are dangerous? It will not be easy, unless there is an increase of blatantly hostile acts against the West, such as terrorism by groups from abroad.
Even so, how does the press relate national interest to more or less obscure civil wars in remote areas, to communal strife in India, corruption in Brazil, aids in Zaire or overpopulation worldwide? How does it make clear to the public (and to some of its own) that the old dividing line between foreign and domestic affairs is getting ever thinner? To the extent that it can be done at all, it will take all the skills of reporting, writing and reasoning, plus a few tricks of the trade usually described under the heading of "human interest."
That often means an appeal to terror and pity, the stuff of tragedy (and sensationalism). In an earlier era of satellite transmission, in 1977, correspondents Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite each managed joint interviews with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; Sadat first made his historic offer to go to Jerusalem, if invited, while talking to Cronkite. Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, a magazine editor and former U.S. ambassador, once observed that TV journalism was replacing diplomacy. That fact is even truer today, not necessarily through anything as conventional as interviews, but thanks to instantaneously transmitted images that now have even greater impact than they did during the Vietnam War.
It is the heartrending television pictures of starvation (the sort of pictures one never used to see from many other zones of famine and slaughter around the world) that helped persuade Americans to police the tribal wars and banditry in Somalia. The same phenomenon has led many sober people, including commentators who were certified doves until recently, to cry out for raining punishment down on the Serbs. This episode illustrates the tremendous and growing responsibility of the media in exercising their ability, often haphazardly used, to stir the emotions. The ability to stir reason, however, lags behind.
FREEDOM TO FAX
The press is up against another phenomenon that did not result from the end of the Cold War, but partly caused it. By wide consensus, a major reason for the Soviet Union's collapse was its inability to control information and insulate its people from outside messages and signals. Ideas and images were not delivered solely by the officially sanctioned Soviet outlets, but by daring people with fairly primitive technology, including mimeograph machines and telephones. Technology worldwide is getting less primitive and more widespread. The world has entered, it has been said, an age of terrorists with fax machines and guerrillas with software.
Something similar is happening in the United States. The forces of information are bursting through the conventional bounds, beyond the control of the established media. Ross Perot is, in a sense, a guerrilla with software. In last year's election campaign, he used the latest computer, telephone and electronic technology to assemble a vast organization in a stunningly short time. He transmitted his message through call-in radio and television shows, which are major new carriers of public anger and favor. If the "electronic town meeting" does not exist yet, it is certainly feasible, evoking the highly unsettling vision of instant referendums on every conceivable issue.
Americans will soon have cable systems with hundreds of channels, hungry for program fare. There will be many C-Span-like services bringing us constantly close to the action, including politics at every level. Telephone companies may get into the information business. The traditional media will lose even more of their role as mediators between events and the public. In short, the force that was instrumental in bringing down the Berlin Wall is likely to bring down many walls in our own society.
Amid this bewildering welter of communication, who will pay attention, to what and how carefully? The sifting of truth from falsehood, fact from propaganda, sentiment from argument will be even more difficult-and necessary-than before. It will not be the end of journalism, surely, but in many ways the beginning of a new one.