Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Compromise: Sergei Dovlatov, there and here

A friend sent me a copy of Sergei Dovlatov's 1981 novel The Compromise, translated from the Russian by Anne Frydman in 1983. The full context in which my friend recommended Dovlatov will remain unblogged for now, but it was hard not to read into the book, however anachronistically, a hyperbolic spoof on Journalism In America Today.

Dovlatov's brief (148 page) novel is a smackdown of journalism (and public honesty, generally speaking) in the Soviet Union. Dovlatov the author worked as a journalist before he emigrated to the U.S. in 1979. Dovlatov the thinly-fictionalized journalist begins each of his eleven tales with a brief article written to meet government requirements as conveyed by bureaucratic and indifferent editors; and continues with a sad (and utterly compromised) story behind the story.

Vodka is always involved. And life is never as it's reported.

The tenth compromise, for example, is a manufactured correspondence between an Estonian dairymaid called Linda Peips and Leonid Brezhnev, the (actual) General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1964-1982. The story behind the story is a pathetic, drunken, girls-in-wet-bathing-suits junket by Dovlatov-the-journalist and a photographer colleague. In the five hungover minutes before leaving to catch the train home, Dovlatov dashes off his assignment: a ghost-written letter to the General Secretary, describing, in her own falsified voice, Peips' "unprecedented" achievements. And what are these? Why, obtaining a record-breaking quantity of milk from a single cow; and, even better, being invited by her farm-comrades to become a member of the Communist Party. Hosanna!

Dovlatov had done his homework, of course, before composing his letter to the General Secretary. She spoke with Peips through a translator the day before:
"Translate this," I said, cutting him off. "How did Linda manage such high results?"


Bella translated. The dairymaid fearfully whispered something back.


"Write this down," Bella said. "The Communist Party and its Lenin Central Committee --"

"Got it," I said. [...]

I found myself laughing out loud at the author's dour absurdities, from the one just quoted to an editor's refusal to let Dovlatov-the-journalist choose, for the subject of a series titled "A Meeting with an Interesting Person," a gentleman who studied carcinogens. Why? Because "cancer is too sad a subject. It engenders negative emotions. It calls up associations with a certain notorious banned novel..."

(The banned novel, for those to whom the Cold War is but a recurring theme in old James Bond movies, is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward. Solzhenitsyn's books laid bare the horror of the Gulag, and were banned in the Soviet Union; he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.)

So what does Soviet-era journalism have to do with the state of news media here in the 21st century U.S. of A., as this blog post's lede suggests?

Perhaps you caught this little montage on YouTube recently, reminding us of what Fox News had to say about a U.S. President's ability to influence oil prices as the tenure of George W. Bush came to its ignominious close:



Can't bear to watch 5'26" of Fox News? No worries. Here's a transcribed snippet (emphasis added) of Cal Thomas, summing up for the whole pandering cast of anchors and pundits: 
Well one of the problems we've had for a number of years with the media, the entire media, especially journalists, is that these charges get put out there, either against the Bush administration or somebody else, and journalists don't really examine the substance of them like they do during a political campaign. At least in the Washington Post, and sometimes on O'Reilly with his reality check on this channel, they look at certain claims or promises to see what the facts are behind them. And the facts are [...] that no president has the power to increase or to lower gas prices, those are market forces.
Compare this to a few select tidbits reported by Fox this month:

Romney to Obama: Fire 'gas hike trio' (18 Mar 2012): President Obama ought to fire his top energy advisers, Mitt Romney said Sunday dubbing the group the "gas hike trio" for what he says is their desire to see gas prices go up. The Republican primary front-runner said Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson are all responsible for implementing policies that are contributing to rising gas prices.


Obama seeks halt to tax subsidies for oil industry (16 Mar 2012): In the weekly Republican address, Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said his constituents have been hard hit by an increase in gasoline prices and were "fed up with the way the president is handling this issue, and rightfully so. The most forceful thing the president has done about high gas prices is try to explain that he's against them."

Yes, government policies could help bring down the price of gas -- today (13 Mar 2012): [I'd break out in hives if I quoted at length from this smarmy paean to the altruistic role of commodities speculators. Read it if you like, and weep, especially over the part about how "Speculators are taking a real risk with their own money."]

Would the 'Merican take on corrupt journalism, corresponding to Dovlatov's The Compromise, be Al Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them? Or is there room to take Fox's reporting as something other than highly biased and selected spin, but instead as "just the facts" transcription of the damndest things that politicians say?

I suppose the billboard pictured above gives away my answer to those questions.

In any case, it wouldn't be fair or balanced to end this post without a little something for those who'd rather see the full half of the glass. Consider this, then, from NPR's new ethics handbook:
In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.

[...]

At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports.
"Fair and balanced"? Shabby "he said, she said" spin journalism? If you take Fox News as a reliable source of information your answers will differ from mine. Here's hoping NPR lives up to their handbook for many years to come.

But in the broader frame, for all Fox's slick production values and for all Senator Franken's wit, I don't suppose we have anything on the 20th century hypocrisy of the Soviets.

An English translation of The Compromise isn't currently in print, but check your local used bookstores and libraries. It's a perfectly astringent mood-setter for these campaign-saturated months that all but demand the bitterest, darkest irony.





Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism
Democracy makes your head hurt? What else you got?
Story matters
Things people believe

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