Russian journalists interview New York Times correspondent

Feb 202008

Russian journalists had the opportunity to discuss journalism, politics and the relative merits of subway systems in a wide-ranging discussion with a New York Times correspondent based on Moscow. About a dozen journalists at Moi Rayon-Moscow got a personal introduction to Western-style journalism when Andrew Kramer, correspondent for The New York Times, visited the newsroom for a lunchtime discussion on Feb. 18, 2008. Discussion topics ranged from reporting styles to the comparative merits of the New York City subway and the Moscow Metro. The reporters and editors of Moi Rayon were able to discuss journalistic standards from an important Western news source, while Kramer said his reporting could benefit from the contact with local journalists.

Kramer, who primarily covers business for the New York Times from his Moscow posting, briefly described his years of reporting in the United States, where he attended political conventions and covered elections for the Associated Press. One aspect of politics in the United States is that the outcome of political races are frequently surprising, said Kramer.

He did not need to mention that the only unknown outcome in the current presidential campaign in Russia is the exact victory margin for President Putin’s selected successor, Dmitry Medvedev.

The Russian journalists were interested in Kramer’s opinion about the news he reports from Russia. Did he think it is more positive or negative, one journalist wanted to know.

“In my case, because I write about business, it’s probably mostly positive right now,” said Kramer. However, he noted, that journalists should not be obligated to present mostly good news, contrary to a proposal recently made by a Russian officials.

“I don’t think it’s unpatriotic to write negative articles about one’s homeland,” said Kramer.

In the United States, Kramer said, the example of Woodward and Bernstein, who reported on the Watergate scandal more than 30 years ago, continues to inspire journalists.

“That’s still the big prize for many journalists, the big scandal, but I think basic reporting of good honest information is just as important,” he said.

One reporting technique that served him well when working at the Associated Press, said Kramer, was the use of large data bases. These data bases could be useful in election coverage, for example, showing the level of government services provided to different election districts. Kramer noted, however, that Russian journalists are likely to have more restricted access to the information that makes such data base reporting possible.

Indeed, some of the tools that reporters in the United States use just are not available, he acknowledged. Kramer praised the Freedom of Information Action as a useful tool for U.S. journalists, but Anastasia Melnikova, an editor at Moi Rayon, said Russian journalists also have a right to information, a right that is rarely enforced.

“What happens when officials just ignore your request?” she asked.

Kramer answered that rarely happens in the United States, but he said clear similarities exist for reporters in both countries.

“The bureaucrats always want to control the information. That’s the same everywhere,” he said.

Following the discussion, Dmitri Surnin, Moi Rayon editor-in-chief, noted that Kramer mentioned problems that Moi Rayon editors often discuss with reporters, such as the problems with using anonymous sources and the mixing of facts and opinions.

“I think it was good for them to hear it again, to know that this is the way the New York Times operates too,” he said.