#16 | Special Issue, September 4, 1997  smlogo.gif


In This Issue
Feature Story


All The News That Totally Sucks

by Abram Kalashnikov

There are a great many code words in journalism. If you work in the business long enough, you can learn to skip reading newspaper articles entirely and go straight to the code buried in them. The code is a great time-saver. It helps journalists keep track of their colleagues without having to do themselves the indignity of reading anyone else's work.

In general, the rule is: the more conservative the publication, the more obvious the code. The New York Times, that great beacon of stodgy journalistic integrity, is a great example. Its actual newsprint is too fine for an ordinary person to read, but its code jumps off the page in boldface. Just ask Michael Specter, the Times's chief cryptologist in Moscow.

"The figures are preliminary," he writes in a recent article, "much of the evidence is anecdotal, and the emerging sense of optimism may not translate to other parts of Russia. Still..."

The phrase "much of the evidence is anecdotal" is a classic code phrase. It means the journalist began writing a story, discovered later that it was based upon a totally spurious assertion, and decided, in the interests of saving time, to lay it on his readers anyway, in the hope that they'll take his word for it.

Specter has an advantage. He writes for the New York Times, the so-called "paper of record." Most people, even intelligent people, will tend to believe what he writes, no matter how ridiculous his piece is. He could write that pink cows graze on Russian farmland, that a disembodied head was named economics minister, or even-and this is a reach-that post-Soviet Russia is experiencing a Baby Boom.

Specter last month took his leeway for a test drive. The abovementioned piece was headlined, "In Moscow Baby Boom, a Vote For the Future." It asserted that Russia, a country which Georgetown demographer Murray Feshback recently concluded had the lowest replacement rate of any country in peacetime in the 20th century, was experiencing a sharp rise in births due to newfound optimism over-get this-Boris Yeltsin's re-election.

"The increase in pregnancies began in the summer of 1996," he writes, in what may be the most preposterous sentence to come out of a Western bureau this year, "immediately after President Boris N. Yeltsin defeated his communist challenger in a presidential election widely seen as a turning point for Russia."

Now there's a video image I missed on CNN last summer-women of child-bearing age coming out of the polling booths and jumping straight into bed. I mean, he said "immediately," which, code aside, I took to mean, "immediately." Personally, I know those early poll returns from the Jewish Autonomous Oblast made my sperm motility count jump. And by the time Kaliningrad came in, I was ready to mate with ANYONE.

We Russians have an expression: In principle, it is forbidden, but if you really want to, it's okay. Specter has been here too long. His article is a classic in the genre of making a story that isn't there to achieve a predetermined end, which in this case is to support the overall party line, which is increasingly observable these days, that U.S.-supported capitalist reform is working here in Russia. That 90% of the population (and 100% of the non-Muscovite population) would disagree is irrelevant.

Specteru zakhotelos, poetomy mozhno.

As evidence of his Baby Boom, Specter cites an increased birth rate at the Center for Family Planning, a Western-style clinic in the center of Moscow. The clinic caters to better-off Russians, who, naturally, are feeling pretty optimistic and are probably darned likely to have a little critter or two. Specter conveniently left out the rest of Moscow, which in 1996 posted a birth rate that was less than half of the municipal death rate-a figure that was worse only in Rwanda and Lebanon.

Specter doesn't even bother to provide Andrew-Kramer-style anecdotal evidence for the reasons behind the boom. He simply cites "clear economic indicators-a rise in the standard of living, more job opportunities, and an apparent end to the nation's disastrous industrial decline."

"Apparent" is another great code word. It means "it could be argued." A dog with pink sunglasses on will report having buried an apparently pink bone. I bet that a few million apparently unemployed Russians would be thrilled to discover Specter's apparent end to the nation's industrial decline.

At least then, instead of actual employment, they could have apparent employment, which I suppose is good for something-in New York, at least.

Specter wrote his piece because it is now vogue for publications with powerful financial backers to report rosy news about Russia's emerging middle class. That there is no middle class doesn't matter. "Emerging middle class" is also code, not meant to be taken literally. It really means, "good stock market returns."

That the New York Times cares about babies only as long as they support their rhetorical needs was demonstrated that same week by Specter's partner, Alessandra Stanley. In a piece about adoption in Georgia, Stanley asserted that babies in ex-Soviet countries were in such poor health that American couples who tried to adopt them were actually "saving" them. In code, the piece really meant: "Write your congressman and ask him to pressure Georgia to allow you to adopt[buy] Georgian babies."

It's hard to see how a baby boom is good news, if all the babies are so sick that they need to be airlifted to the West. Granted, Specter was talking about Moscow, while Stanley was in Georgia. But the Russian provinces aren't much better off than Tblisi. Side by side, then, the two pieces seem to be contradictory.

But in code, they are in perfect harmony. In code, they're both headlined:
"Our Interests Come First."

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