As of the Voice‘s Monday deadline, the CBS News report on Boris Yeltsin that helped rock world markets last week seems to have been wrong–and was certainly without even one named source.
On Thursday morning, CBS broadcast this “special report” from Moscow correspondent Richard Threlkeld: “CBS News has learned, from sources within the Kremlin and close to the Yeltsin family, that Russian president Boris Yeltsin today signed an order resigning from office. The resignation is not dated, and will await the confirmation of his prime-minister designate, Victor Chernomyrdin, by the Russian parliament, which is expected to be sometime next week. Under the arrangement, we are told, Yeltsin would then formally resign, and Chernomyrdin would become interim president of Russia, pending new presidential elections within three months.”
Threlkeld’s report carried no comment from Yeltsin’s office, nor any indication that he had sought one. From the very start, Yeltsin associates in the Kremlin denied the report, but that didn’t stop CBS’s Yeltsin “news” from being passed on widely.
As most Voice readers presumably know, Yeltsin appeared on Russian television on Friday and said he has no intention of leaving office, but that he would not run for reelection in 2000. There have been no reliable reports that Russian presidential elections are forthcoming in three months.
Efforts to reach Threlkeld in Moscow were unsuccessful. On Monday, a CBS spokeswoman rather surreally told the Voice: “We stand by the story.”
You’d hope that one benefit of having multiple news sources would be that they can act as a check on one another. That didn’t happen. All day, in between gasps over the stock market plummet they were helping to accelerate, CNN and CNBC anchors mouthed the same reports that were coursing through the Associated Press and other electronic outlets, attributed only to CBS.
The New York Times–which would never dream of printing, say, the widely reported encounter between Monica Lewinsky and a particular tobacco product–put the following on Friday’s front page: “Mr. Yeltsin’s future is so much in doubt here that rumors circulated that he had signed an undated letter of resignation. While the rumors were strongly denied by his spokesman, they seemed to suggest a widening political vacuum in which an early resolution of the crisis was slipping away.”
Clearly, there are times when printing rumors is necessary–such as when rumors lead people to action that must then be explained–and the crisis following the fall of the ruble may be one such occasion. But this Times standard–the rumors “seem to suggest” something–could be used to print just about anything.
The Times press office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with either the rumor story author, Celestine Bohlen, or its editor.
There are some gray areas here. For instance, Yeltsin is widely said to be mentally unstable; he might have signed something and then rejected it. And Threlkeld’s report did contain this strange loophole: “The sources emphasized that Yeltsin’s resignation will not be final until he authorizes it, and that in coming days, Yeltsin could change his mind and unsign what he has just signed.” We may never know, because, by Friday evening, all media references to a Yeltsin “resignation letter” had magically disappeared.
Their Crooks, Our Media
In addition to dressing up threadbare rumors as news, the media exhibited a mass amnesia last week about who, exactly, implements and benefits from “economic reform” in today’s Russia. For years, the more inquisitive members of the Western press have served up impressive exposés showing that much of the Russian economic elite are connected to, among other unsavory things, organized crime.
The principal beneficiary of media forgetfulness last week was Boris Berezovsky, the flamboyant tycoon who once served on Yeltsin’s national security team, and is one of the much-touted “seven oligarchs” that have dominated the Russian economy in the Yeltsin years. Thursday’s Times printed a lengthy story detailing Berezovsky’s behind-the-scenes moves to get and keep Chernomyrdin in power. On Monday, the Times called Berezovsky “a capitalist in the bloodless image of Commodore Vanderbilt.”
That description is astonishingly incomplete. As Times reporters and editors know, Berezovsky was the subject of a massive 1996 investigation by Forbes, entitled “Godfather of the Kremlin?” The Forbes piece laid out in convincing detail the links between Berezovsky and several violence-for-hire outfits, a supposed criminal conviction of a close Berezovsky associate, and Berezovsky’s supposed link to the murder of a well-known Russian broadcaster.
Granted, this is thorny material for journalists, because Berezovsky denies the connections and sued Forbes for libel in Great Britain in early 1997. But that suit was thrown out last fall on jurisdictional grounds–and besides, in a week when “rumors” about Yeltsin were deemed to be news, why not mention published material about Berezovsky?
One reason why Berezovsky gets such favorable treatment in the U.S. press is that, unlike Yeltsin, Berezovsky employs an American firm, Edelman Associates, to handle his public relations (the account is managed by, of all people, former Reagan aide Michael Deaver).
But another reason why some in the U.S. media tread lightly on Berezovsky is that he is fast on his way to becoming a global media player. This past July, he was invited to Rupert Murdoch’s annual media mogul bash in Sun Valley, Idaho. This made sense, since–although few American newspapers took notice–this past spring Murdoch bought 38 percent of a major Russian telecommunications firm, PLD Telekom, for about $80 million, and sold half the shares to a firm controlled by Berezovsky. That an allegedly mob-tied man sits at the head of both Russian businesses and media companies speaks of widespread corruption–one major reason Yeltsin’s opponents have called for renationalization of some industries. But you’d never know that from reading the U.S. press.
Another questionable outfit helped by last week’s hands-off press coverage is Menatep, the seventh largest bank in Russia, headed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, also one of the seven oligarchs. Menatep, too, has ties to the Western media. As a chart in Friday’s Washington Post detailed, Menatep owns 10 percent of the company that publishes The Moscow Times and St. Petersburg Times, as well as Russian versions of Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Good Housekeeping.
What the Post–and everyone else–neglected to say is that for at least part of this decade, it was illegal for any U.S. bank to do business with Menatep. A 1995 CIA report identified Menatep as one of the world’s most corrupt banks, with close links to organized crime.
Just One Book
The excellent poet Martín Espada wrote me last week, with a depressing update about America’s best-known incarcerated journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal. According to Espada, Abu-Jamal had in recent months become a kind of all-purpose reference library for many inmates in Pennsylvania prisons who say they’ve been beaten by guards. In one such incident reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a beaten inmate watched as a guard spelled the letters “KKK” in a pool of the inmate’s blood on the floor.
By way of retaliation, Espada writes, the Department of Corrections created a new rule requiring inmates to keep all belongings in a single box, 12-by-12-by-14 inches. This meant that Abu-Jamal was forced to part with 17 boxes of books and legal papers. Along with personal hygiene items, Jamal–whose confinement already keeps him isolated from nearly the entire world, including fellow inmates–had room for a single book. His choice: Toni Morrison’s Beloved.