The Russians Are Melting

You want oligarchs? We got oligarchs!

The motley crew of Russians had a slightly shell-shocked look as they settled around a conference table in a well-chilled Post Oak office building late last week. The Insider had seen those glazed faces before on newcomers who have just had an eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with a peak August midday sun and then scrambled for dear life into the nearest air-conditioned enclosure. The tour had only been in town a day, but the group body language read "when do we get out of here?"

Call it fear of Houston.

The eight Russian media types ranged from the chairman of a state-owned TV/radio company to a self-billed independent newspaper reporter/public relations person. They flew into town just about the time when anyone else with sense or cents hits the road for a last summer vacation. They had one more day before heading out to San Francisco, and the main group concerns seemed to be finding a good Mexican restaurant and a club with some live music. How do you spell "Richmond Strip"?

The Houston office of the Institute of International Education had the unenviable task of choreographing this leg of the U.S. State Department-sponsored trip, ostensibly dedicated to helping the Russians get a better understanding of the U.S. political process, though most of the stops here were media-related. The Russkies were being dutifully ushered through a series of office doors that they couldn't wait to get past.

Inexplicably, the IIE decided the Russians should meet with the Insider for enlightenment about Texas media and politics. For his part, the Insider was curious as to what sort of independent Russian journalists would be chosen by the U.S. embassy in Moscow for a tour financed by the U.S. government. Try to imagine U.S. journalists in similar circumstances accepting a junket sponsored by the Russian government. It wouldn't be good for their professional reputations.

Earlier in the day Democratic Party chair Sue Schechter had called for tips on what she should tell the Russians. It seems they were scheduled to drop by her office the next morning. It was just as well no suggestions were forthcoming, since one of the first questions -- whether Russian journalists enjoy the same freedoms in the age of KGB-trained Vladimir Putin as their U.S. counterparts -- seemed to hit a sensitive nerve. Perhaps the heat had shortened some fuses, but Yekaterina Golovkova, a round-faced woman with short dark hair who serves as press secretary to a Duma [Congress] bigwig, stomped on the inquiry.

"The biggest nonsense for all of us is that among Americans, specifically in the media, the first question asked is, 'Is there freedom of speech in Russia?' " Golovkova said, with what looked like a condescending air, and sounded like it via a translator.

" 'Can journalists write what they want to, say what they want to, and so forth?' At first we were very active in answering this question and went into great detail, but now we're in our second week." She quickly marched through the shorthand version. "Yes, we do have freedom of speech, and yes, we can write what we want."

Of course, Golovkova conceded that such freedoms did not exist before Mikhail Gorbachev came along. Surprisingly, this new generation of Russian media seems to have little memory of what went on before. That's the case even though most members of the Houston tour are old enough to have had careers before the liberalization and breakup of the Soviet system in the mid-'80s. None of the eight could recall being punished or inconvenienced for their journalism, an indication they weren't doing much of consequence or else didn't want to own up to it.

The Insider offered a short history of the Houston Pressand free weeklies in general, tracing their roots to the anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers of the '60s. Then one Russian exclaimed, "So you are dissidents!" Well, yes and no. Some troublemaking over the years, but thankfully no gulag.

Knowing the group's schedule called for a visit the following afternoon to the editorial offices of the Houston Chronicle, we felt obliged to explain a fond nickname we've long had for Texas's biggest newspaper: Pravda. Toes the party line and generally buries the news between the lines. Several of the visitors smiled and nodded, as if it were the kind of paper with which they'd had more than a passing acquaintance.

Just to give the visitors some ideas for questions when they "dialogued" with Chroneditorial page editor Frank Michel, we briefly sketched the 20th-century history of Houston media and how most news outlets in the city were controlled for decades by two rich and powerful families, the Jonesesand the Hobbys. There were no Republicans in power in those days, so the Jones-owned Chronicle represented the downtown establishment and the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. And the Hobbys' Posttended to be more progressive in its editorial positions. Censorship came in the form of what wasn't published, particularly investigative stories about the pals of both clans. In the interest of brevity, the Insider skipped over the long, sad tale of the Post's decline and eventual cannibalization by the Chronicle.

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