Two Titans Meet

WALTER CRONKITE: Is Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, cracking down on the media? Are Russian reporters truly independent these days? Those are a few of the questions I asked Vladimir Pozner. Pozner became well known to Americans from his appearances on Nightline in the 1980s and when he co-hosted a CNBC Current Affairs program with Phil Donahue in the 1990s. Today, Pozner hosts Russia's most popular news interview program. Here are some excerpts from the Cronkite/Pozner conversation.

CRONKITE: Vladimir, of the so-called journalists who learned their trade under Stalin and the dictatorship as your country turned more and more toward democracy, were they in any way prepared to be good reporters, good journalists in a democratic society?

VLADIMIR POZNER: You know, you ask, Walter, a very interesting and complicated question. First of all, when Gorbachev came to power and the policy of glasnost, openness began to be practiced. The heroes, if you will, of the change, were the journalists. The very same journalists who had been trained in a totalitarian society and yet they were the ones who came riding out like, you know, knights in white armor fighting for democracy, for openness, for freedom of the press and all of that. And it was rather amazing to see how these people suddenly turned around. They became very partisan in what they did. They saw themselves not so much as journalists, but as people who took sides. As people who espoused certain causes. Almost, in some cases, like Messiahs if you will, who were there to quote-unquote "save the nation." So that, instead of getting the news period or getting two sides of a story, what you'd be getting would be the news as seen by so-and-so and you'd only be getting one side of the story. And that is still, to a very great degree, the situation here today.

CRONKITE: In your opinion, did the takeover of Vladimir Gusinski's NTV, the country's largest private television station, did that represent an attack on freedom of the press?

POZNER: The whole NTV story is basically one of personal enmity. Almost a vendetta between then Prime Minister Putin and the owner of NTV and of the whole MediaMOST as it was called, holding Mr. Gusinski. The two of them had two very serious falling-outs. The reason was not because of what NTV was showing or saying, the reason was because of a personal relationship between these two men. However, what happened was seen as a kind of signal. It was seen as the possibility of cracking down on local independent television and that has happened.

CRONKITE: Vladimir, it's a very discouraging report that you give us. Our press isn't perfect in this country by far but, quite clearly, as far as freedom of speech in the press goes, I do think that the United States is probably paramount in the world. And I'd like to feel that that was going to be true in a democratic Russia as well.

POZNER: What you say about the American media may be true but I worked for six years in the United States doing television with Phil Donahue. We did a show on CNBC that was called Pozner and Donahue. And I remember once, this was a few years back, I think maybe '94, when there was a lot of Japan bashing going on in the United States because Japan was not allowing American cars to be sold in Japan. And so, there was a lot of this. And we on our show with Phil basically one day said look, instead of going after the Japanese, the United States should make better cars. Japanese have better cars than the United States. Now, if the United States starts producing better cars, cheaper cars, more reliable cars, then, I think the Japanese will start buying them. Well it so happened that on our show we had advertising by General Motors. They pulled their advertising because of our show. We were called up to the top management and told in no uncertain words that we should never again allow ourselves to criticize in a way that would scare off our advertisers. Now let's talk about freedom of the press, well, that's that. So, I agree with you that there is much more freedom of the press in the United States than there is in Russia, clearly that's the case. But I wouldn't idealize it at all. I want to make that point. And I do believe that in Russia, down the road it will happen. But it didn't happen overnight in the United States. You look at the US press back in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century and you see that it was a very different kind of media and I think that down the road in Russia, it will also become what you would easily call an independent free media. But that's going to take a couple of generations, because it calls for a change in the mind set.

CRONKITE: Well, I'm delighted if you feel a couple of generations would do it. Then there is hope.

© 2001 by The Stanley Foundation
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