On what topics do our political journalists remain silent?
Larysa Ivshyna, editor-in-chief, The Day:
Perhaps, of course, the answer could be as follows: our journalists very often keep silent about new owners of enterprises privatized for pennies or supposedly for the repayment of debts. Or, about what decisions are taken in response to quite specific demands by one country or another. Our journalists do not have real access to certain serious facts. But on these specific topics we have begun to express ourselves more seriously, and the scope of political journalism is being seriously expanded. It is obvious, however, that we should not so much concentrate on WHAT topics are skipped by our political journalists as HOW they are presented by authors. Very often, our political journalists focus on marginal issues, ignoring the vital ones. Journalists are typically too emotional and prefer to concentrate on personalities, rather than be objective and impassive. They usually give priority to reporting rumors and intrigues, settling scores and pinning labels, instead of going by accepted journalistic standards. What matters here is not so much the political class that such journalists serve, instead of serving society, as the qualities of the journalists themselves.
When we turn to specific examples (such as the shooting down of the Russian Tu-154 airliner) it is clear that our journalists are often not aware of basic things — they are not interested in digging for substantive information and cannot assess the facts they have, choosing to rely on the first expert they can find. Here, incidentally, one can see the other side of the coin: many of those who can provide a comprehensive assessment are reluctant to do so, which cannot be said of laymen eager to get into the public eye. As a result, journalists deal with a political caste that is easily available but decides nothing. We have succeeded in establishing domestic criteria for our provincial life (covering up the specifics of our own mentality) instead of abiding by world standards of quality. In sum, I would like to stress that there are many things in Ukrainian political journalism which is not journalism as such, let alone the political journalism. What was regarded as bold before is no longer such any more. Boldness today must be displayed in unbiased thinking.
Lavrenty Malazoniya, general producer, TET Television:
Let us assume that we retain only two dreadful secrets, state and commercial ones. And there are political journalists trying to uncover these secrets, understandably, with the exception of those who want to use journalists as skeleton keys. A state secret, that is HOW we live, is nonexistent for Ukrainian political journalists. Those more or less involved in the trade write, speak, and show everything about HOW we live. Sometimes, even more than everything — to a degree that the end result becomes zero. It becomes a quasi secret, for readers, listeners, and viewers know themselves HOW they live, HOW they would like to live, and HOW others live. A commercial secret, that is, WHAT we live on, is a well-guarded zone. The issue is not so much that someone wants to know WHAT somebody else lives on, while concealing such information about himself — this is unacceptable for any individual in any country, despite its seeming to be so natural. The issue is in WHAT the country lives on and WHAT it intends to live on in the future. One can engage in lengthy and eloquent explanations why all this is such a deep secret, but suffice it to state that it is a taboo for especially Ukrainian political journalists. And if any muckraking journalist starts to investigate this secret, certain interested parties will be all over him (and others) before he knows what is happening, showing WHAT the nosy scribbler lives on himself. And I dont think the inquiring party would be happy about this, for it is its own small commercial secret. This is the secret of anyone involved in the unrewarding business of political journalism. The conclusion is simple: stay away from terrible commercial secrets, for they spell health problems for those who want to reveal them. You could encounter a major health problem and some physician might eventually order you covered with a sheet, including your face.
Oleh Medvediev, journalist, political technologist:
There is no full-fledged genre of political journalism just as there is no community of political journalists. There are isolated journalists writing on political topics. They churn out interesting, captivating, and sometimes quite objective stories, but they are all underground, that is, on the Internet and sideline outlets. Thank God, things have not gotten so bad in Ukraine to have samizdat. Television channels and mainstream dailies with more or less substantial circulation are bereft from any serious political analysis. Perhaps this is because political analysis, not potshots by the opposition, requires an unbiased vision of the track records of the chief executive and other political heavyweights. It seems to me that in real life covering the activities of the head of state is a pain for the owners of mass media outlets. Given existing circumstances, writing on this topic is like walking through a minefield. Under the current situation it pays to shun them rather than utter words that might backfire, same as an unloaded gun goes off once in a while. That is, of course, if such words are taken out of their context, highlighted with a felt-tip pen, and put on the chief executives table. In fact, those isolated political journalists I mentioned are well aware that it is customary among the countrys most influential political figures to tell the chief executive about materials published by newspapers owned by their political rivals. Presented out of context, such quotes might seem simply murderous, with no one much caring about the wider context.
Such is a quite civilized form of informing. Hence, it pays to look the other way. I am not going to name anyone because editors will see red and say it is all untrue. I suppose that I understand them because I was once an editor-in-chief myself. As a rule, materials about the president published by these newspapers are merely slightly reworded Interfax reports or merely quotes from Interfax. The texts provided by this agency are treated as canonical, providing a good umbrella for editors against any possible charges.
Another serious hindrance to the development of political journalism in Ukraine is our political and business elite. The matter cannot be limited to the impact of a single person — the nature of this elite and the level of control it has over the mass media are more important. In our tradition, we have been taught to perceive the hand of an oligarch behind any material in a given newspaper, even on masturbation among truck drivers. Journalists do not belong here, no matter what they write, but the characters of their stories believe that media barons are behind them, although in many cases media owners have nothing whatever to do with such publications. Against this general backdrop a list of taboo political topics exists, topics best skipped by journalists. The best political media writers belong to the underground. Even in the Soviet period the authorities, while certainly not encouraging the underground, condoned its existence. I would specifically single out two quite good political web sites. Half a loaf is better than none. At least now, inquisitive members of Ukrainian society, those not indifferent to what is going on in the country, know were to find a wider span of opinion and make themselves heard. Still, the Ukrainian Internet cannot as yet be viewed as a mass media outlet, but a medium of group communication.
‘The Day, No. 31, 6 November 2001