The Breakfast Table

Glad to Be Here

I really don’t know what will happen to the Most Media empire. It feels like some sort of twilight zone. I heard the best definition of this state of things when I interviewed Scott Blacklin, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, a few weeks ago. “This crisis is like a hydrogen bomb,” he said (I am translating back from the Russian here). “People are getting up, looking around, and thinking, ‘I seem to be still alive.’ But they’ve already been irradiated, and they might drop dead in three weeks–or just throw up.” That’s how it feels around the office: All indications are that we are still alive, though reason tells me we shouldn’t be. I don’t have a lot of faith that we will get away with just throwing up–i.e., laying off some staff, cutting other expenses–but somehow, we keep coming out every week.

The oddest thing is, we still have advertising. A few weeks ago Vladimir Yevstafyev, president of the Russian Advertising Agents Association, estimated that the advertising market would shrink from about $2 billion this year to $10 million next year. That’s half of what Russian Cosmo alone took in in advertising revenue last year. I agree that watching TV feels surreal–the advertising breaks are filled with these peculiarly Russian clips announcing that you are about to see an ad, then freebies like Greenpeace ads, and then again the “you’ve just seen an advertisement” clip. At the magazine we have advertising contracts running through the end of the year, so we are printing our crisis stories on the flip side of ads for Gucci shoes, Louis Vuitton purses, and De Beers diamonds. The Louis Vuitton is my favorite: It’s a two-page homoerotic spread that lists stores in Paris, Nice, Cannes, London, Prague, Dubai and New York City–but not anywhere in Russia. Everything about it says to our reader, “This is not about you.” Advertising as pure art.

I’m finding the advertising more interesting than news content these days. Perhaps this is because the ads might actually tell me something I want to hear. I like the ways copywriters (those few who still have their jobs) find of adjusting to the situation. Remember the ads running two and a half years ago, when everyone was waiting for the world to end with the presidential election? At the time advertisers pushed the certainty line. Like an ad for school products: “September will come no matter what.” Now Moscow Cellular is inviting people to “call and find out about our new payment plans that take the current circumstances into account.” I thought this might mean my phone hadn’t been turned off for nonpayment–no such luck. Or a real-estate commercial: “We would especially like to stress that we accept payment in rubles.” But my favorite is a radio jingle that asserts that “real men buy women sable despite the fall of the ruble.”

I would definitely rather think about that than, say, the Pasko case. Actually, the implications of this case are even more sinister and far-reaching than Segodnya indicates (in fact, the paper’s assertion that he is being charged for a report to an ecology congress is erroneous). Most of the charges are related to work that Pasko did for the Japanese TV company NHK–though the Foreign Ministry has assured NHK’s lawyers that the company is not accused of anything, and NHK has not even encountered accreditation problems (while just about everyone else has). What’s even worse is that FSB, the secret police, claims that the documents Pasko collected, while unclassified, added up to a state secret. If the court upholds this, it would mean that any journalist, Russian or foreign, could unknowingly violate the law on state secrets just in the process of doing his job.

Really, the Pasko case is vintage military and vintage FSB. The guy clearly engaged in professionally unethical behavior: He doesn’t deny that he used his unique access as a military journalist to make money by working for NHK. He should have been fired from the Navy newspaper long ago. Instead, they let him do this–quite openly–for several years and then decided to punish him but good. Barring major political shifts in this country, when Pasko’s case finally gets to the Supreme Court, the military court’s conviction (which seems certain) will probably be overturned. But by then he will have spent three or four years in prison, and his health will have been ruined–to say nothing of his career. Another depressing thing about this case is that the guy has lousy representation because none of the good Moscow lawyers, who might represent someone like this pro bono, can afford frequent trips to Vladivostok (about $1,000 round trip, economy class). Anyway, the two best guys in the field are already representing Nikitin and are terrified that if they took on Pasko, Nikitin would be marred by the association. At least Nikitin had the good sense to resign from the military before he got into reporting on military-related ecological disasters.

I have to wrap up now and start making calls to some journalists in the provinces. We are putting together a cover package on the death of the Russian media, and I need to assign some stories in the regions. But our long-distance service at work has been cancelled, so I have to make the calls from home. The saving grace is that, hyperinflation willing, by the time the phone bill arrives, the ruble amount will seem ridiculously low.