Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 14

How the Media were Used

By Gleb Cherkassov

One of the clearest achievements of Boris Yeltsin’s campaign teamin the recent presidential elections was to establish completecontrol over the mass media.

The significance of this achievement was all the greater sinceYeltsin’s situation at the beginning of the campaign was closeto critical. The state television channels, in spite of theiroutward loyalty, were either harshly criticizing the presidentand the government, or supported it in a clumsy fashion, whichonly made matters worse. The non-government television channels,first of all, NTV [Independent Television] — which had significantinfluence on those who lived in large cities (potential Yeltsinvoters) — were openly hostile. The periodical press was alsoin open opposition to the government. At the same time, a numberof media outlets, first of all, NTV, Moskovskie novosti,and Obshchaya gazeta, began to boost the candidacy of GrigoryYavlinsky, who, if he ran a successful campaign and got perceptiblesupport, including from the media, was capable of creating a seriousthreat to Boris Yeltsin’s reelection plans.

Simultaneously, the media began to flirt with Gennady Zyuganov.Assertions that the KPRF leader himself was a moderate politician,and that he just had to be drawn away from his excessively-radicalentourage, spread like wildfire.

This does not at all mean that the media were trying to endangerYeltsin’s reelection. On the contrary, they were simply tryingto describe the situation in the Russian leadership at the beginningof the presidential campaign, and were trying to call the government’sattention to its failures.

Establishing, or, more accurately, restoring, control over themedia by the presidential administration led to a substantialnarrowing of the freedom of the press, and to the media’s becomingstrictly oriented towards achieving Boris Yeltsin’s electoralgoals. First of all, the leaders of Yeltsin’s campaign team establishedsolid ties with the leadership of virtually all the central periodicalpublications, newspapers, and television channels. Their virtually-completeloyalty was secured, with the exception of Obshchaya gazeta,which supported Grigory Yavlinsky. The official inclusion of NTV’sgeneral director Igor Malashenko in the president’s campaign teamwas a bit of a slip-up — this fact was exploited by the Communistsand naturally, left Western observers dumbfounded. The fact thatthe sponsors of non-government mass media outlets supported thepresident also influenced the position of these organs. The financialgroups, "Most" (Vladimir Gusinsky), and "Logovaz"(Boris Berezovsky), control two television stations and severalinfluential newspapers. The "Kommersant" publishinghouse also actively supported Yeltsin, although its sponsor —Stolichny Savings Bank (Aleksandr Smolensky) — took virtuallyno part in the Yeltsin campaign.

The work on forming a favorable attitude towards Yeltsin’s candidacywas made easier by the fact that the leadership of virtually allthe mass media really did fear the Communists’ coming to powerand expected that it would bring unpleasant consequences. Theseexpectations were shared by a significant number of ordinary journalists.In reality, this result was an indirect consequence of the workof the president’s campaign team, which implanted in the publicconsciousness the idea that the presidential elections were astruggle between Boris Yeltsin and the Communists, and that Russiawas faced with a choice between freedom and the Gulag.

Openly "buying" journalists, both by paying them fornormal reporting and for articles they commissioned on a widevariety of themes, was another way that the Yeltsin campaign exertedinfluence over the media. Anatoly Chubais’ staff chose the mainthemes, and the "Effective Policy Foundation," headedby Gleb Pavlovsky, selected concrete topics, preparing materials,and disseminating them.

As can be supposed, the media were used both to campaign for BorisYeltsin and to discredit all of his rivals for the presidentialpost, the KPRF most of all. After Aleksandr Lebed concluded hisagreement in principle with the Kremlin, his media campaign wasgiven the green light, and the campaign to discredit him virtuallystopped.

The massive scale of the media campaign for Boris Yeltsin canonly be compared to the referendum campaigns in the spring andwinter of 1993. Reports on his campaign trips and meetings withvoters were the first item on television news programs and onthe front pages of the newspapers, and they always had a favorabletone. Publishing the president’s polling numbers, according towhich the president’s popularity and the number of his supporterskept going up, became a weapon in Yeltsin’s campaign arsenal whichhad a perceptible effect on undecided voters. The idea was therebyimplanted in the public consciousness that Yeltsin’s victory wasinevitable.

Every bit of leverage that the Yeltsin team had over the mediawas used to the greatest possible extent. Obviously, special carewas taken with television, since there was not even a hint ofYeltsin’s physical weakness or strange behavior in the reporting,and the same was true in the case of newspaper articles.

But the president’s team tried a little too hard in its work withthe media to increase the campaign’s propaganda success. Yeltsinwas overexposed in the "information space," and thetone of the reporting about him was too sicky-sweet. This costthe president a number of votes, mostly among the intelligentsia,who, in the first round, voted for Yavlinsky, and in the secondround, in large part, voted against both candidates. Of course,Yeltsin’s vote increased significantly, but if the campaign hadlasted another two or three weeks, the strategy would have backfired.

The counter-propaganda against Gennady Zyuganov was just as massive,and it was more elegant. First of all, the KPRF and Gennady Zyuganovwere virtually deprived of access to the mass media, and the candidate’sappearance on the television screen was limited to the free airtime offered him by the Central Election Commission . His campaigntrips were reported on and interpreted in an unfavorable light.

The Communists were depicted as the direct heirs of the executionersof the Gulag, and were blamed for everything bad that happenedin the country in the last seventy years. Thanks to the massivework of the media, Yeltsin’s campaign team was able to preventthe KPRF from achieving its main campaign goal — the creationof the an image of a new, civilized party, and of Gennady Zyuganov,the candidate of all the national-patriotic forces, going to theKremlin to put an end to the country’s decline and ward off acivil war.

Exploiting the mistakes made by the Communists in forming theirelectoral coalition, the media, in speaking of Zyuganov, alwaysequated him with Viktor Anpilov, Albert Makashov, Valentin Varennikov,and other radicals. It must be noted that the radicals themselvesopened themselves up to criticism, continually making extremestatements and disclosing plans for the future, which, by theway, were nothing at all like Zyuganov’s own plans.

Another, very effective, method was to distribute falsified materialson a massive scale, which were passed off as internal KPRF analyticalmaterials, and later commented on, "discussed," andpresented as Zyuganov’s plan of action if he came to power. Sincethe KPRF did not have the possibility of thoroughly refuting thesefalsifications, the candidate’s image was distorted even further.

At the end of the campaign, television simply declared a boycottof the KPRF, denying it the possibility of paying for televisiontime or even of airing its own commercials during its free airtime.

At the same time, the KPRF itself made a number of large and smallmiscalculations, the biggest of which was the fact that it didnot have its own mass media, which could work with the non-Communistvoter. Pravda, Sovetskaya Rossiya, and Zavtrawere aimed at the opposition voter, who had defined his positionlong ago. This was pointed out by Stanislav Govorukhin, one ofthe opposition leaders, who told the newspaper Zavtra thatits position discouraged the undecided voter from supporting theKPRF leader.

But the Communists had one trump card, which they used to theend — the local small-circulation newspapers, which enjoy stunningsuccess in small cities and in rural areas. Virtually all thesepublications worked vigorously for Zyuganov, which helped himto win in so-called "provincial Russia," but did notbring him a single vote in the large cities, where a majorityof Russian voters live.

Translated by Mark Eckert