US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission
Meeting on Mass Media
St. Petersburg, Russia
August 1, 2013
Remarks of Charles Bierbauer, U.S. Delegate
I was asked, in part, to reflect on my time as a foreign correspondent
here in Russia, then the Soviet Union, and how we — our
two countries and our journalists — perceived the relationship.
Context is critical. It was the Cold War. I came to the Soviet
Union for the first time in 1968. I was the ABC bureau chief
in Moscow in 1978-80. And I have returned on several occasions.
I covered every US-Soviet summit from Ford-Brezhnev in Helsinki
in 1975 to Clinton-Yeltsin in Vancouver in 1993.
We are all affected by our inherent biases — national, cultural
and personal. I believed then and believe now that the journalist's
responsibility is to identify those biases and be honest about
them. That should mean separating our reporting from the biases.
I know how I felt about the Soviet Union, but here is what
I have observed and what I believe it means. In today's media
environment, at least in the U.S., those lines have been blurred.
The reporting and the advocacy are not as clearly delineated
as they once were.
My responsibility was to explain what I observed in the Soviet
Union, put it into context, primarily in the context of the
Cold War superpower competition, and convey to readers, viewers
and listeners what impact that could have on them.
I was not here to tell people what I liked or disliked about
the Soviet Union, but rather what the Cold War meant. From
time to time, Soviet officials did not like what I wrote. From
time to time, when I was a correspondent in Washington, US
officials did not like what I wrote.
I looked at politics, geopolitics, economics, military strategies
and postures, dissidents and protests, culture and, to the
best degree I could, how the lives of Soviet citizens related
to those in my audience.
Let me characterize that through a few brief anecdotes.
The Vienna summit — Carter/Brezhnev in 1979 — produced a strategic
arms treaty that was immediately put on the shelf by the US
Senate. The Senate would not vote on ratification.
Foreign minister Andrei Gromyko held only one news conference
in the 2 1/2 years I was in Moscow. It was after the Vienna
summit. I noticed that all the Soviet correspondents were passing
notes to the moderator. So I wrote a note saying I would like
to ask an устный вопрос — oral question. I’m a
TV guy. I needed a sound bite, and I knew Gromyko spoke English
well. I asked "would you consider reopening the negotiations?"
Gromyko: "Impossible. Unthinkable. Preposterous!"
Loved it. That was everybody's story lead. Three words. Grounded
in considerable antipathy between the US and Soviet Union.
By the mid-80s, a few things had changed. Reagan was president.
Gorbachev was party first secretary. And I was CNN's senior
White House correspondent. (Good things come in threes.)
From Geneva to Reykjavik to Washington to Moscow, a series
of summit meetings took place that dramatically shifted the
tenor of the dialogue, indeed, crafted a dialogue where none
At the signing of a 1987 arms treaty in the East Room of the
White House, President Reagan not only put his signature to
paper but added his signature aphorism: Доверяй, но проверяй.
Trust, but verify. Possibly the only three words of Russian
he could string together.
"You always say that,” Gorbachev observed.
"I like the sound of it," said Reagan.
It took a while, but we had gone from "impossible, unthinkable,
preposterous" to “trust, but verify.”
That was the context for reporting on the Cold War confrontation.
Now, as a journalist in Moscow, I dealt with other issues.
Dissident trials — Orlov, Ginsburg, Scharansky. Refuseniks — Jews
who could not emigrate to Israel.
Peace demonstrations in Red Square. I was manhandled into
a police station and told it was illegal to film demonstrations. "If
you want demonstrations, we will stage them for you," my
interrogator told me.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I interviewed (Nobel Peace
Prize recipient) Andrei Sakharov about that. Sakharov suggested
the Soviet Union should be denied its opportunity to host the
1980 Olympic Games. Two days later, Sakharov was arrested and
exiled to Gorky. I felt pretty badly about that. But his wife
assured me that Sakharov knew what he was doing.
It was a generally hostile time. There were some 25 Soviet
correspondents in the US and the same number of Americans here.
If one got expelled one place, one was certain to be kicked
out of the other.
Officials were not forthcoming. I would, perhaps provocatively,
call the foreign ministry spokesman from time to time to ask
about an issue. The response, invariably, was "read TASS.
When we have something to say, it will be on TASS."
[To my Russian host for this conference I added, “I
would presume that is more valuable guidance now and reading
ITAR-TASS today is a useful endeavor.”]
This was also a time when the correspondent was much more
on his own. No Internet. No twitter. No cell and satellite
phones. We had to book international telephone calls, though
not because the technology did not exist.
The strictures on phone calls were relaxed during the 1980
Olympics and revived after the games. We sent our scripts (to
ABC) by telex. And when we did send television reports via
Gosteleradio (Soviet television) at Ostankino (its broadcast
facility), we risked having a censor pull the plug on us.
It was, in short, a very different time to be reporting the
major international story for an American audience about a
vast country of which not a lot was known. That was true partly
because of the limitations of American familiarity — a whole
woeful story in itself — and the limits imposed by an insecure,
to put it kindly, dictatorship.
People used to ask me if it were fun being a Moscow correspondent.
I would respond, "Fun? No. Frustrating, fatiguing and
What's changed? Where are we now?
I can only add this from my distant observation post in South
The end of the Cold War diminished US interest journalistically
in Russia. It was, in some ways, an oversimplified black/white
issue. Post Cold War, the world became more complex in its
multiple shadings and nuances, not that the Cold War was without
nuance. But there were other things that interested the US
media beyond the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Media proliferation added players. CNN did not yet exist when
I was here. Nor Fox News. Nor Al Jazeera.
On the one hand, today there should be more media entities
interested in the news. On the other, the audience is fractured.
Maintaining foreign news coverage is an expensive proposition.
Some US news organizations have pulled back merely as a financial
expedient or necessity.
That was probably premature and precipitous. Russia is still
an important global force. President Putin is a figure we need
to understand. The dynamic between the Kremlin and White House
can make geopolitics easier or more complicated. And, regretably,
Americans probably know less about Russia today than they did
about the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
That is certainly why this commission has merit.