BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Twenty years ago this Wednesday, the world experienced the worst nuclear accident in its history. In the early morning hours of April 26th, an inexperienced technician at the Chernobyl power plant was running an experiment for a safety test, an experiment that triggered an explosion in one of the reactors. Over the next 10 days, radiation equivalent, by some estimates, to as much as 100 Hiroshimas spewed into the atmosphere. The human toll is far less clear. In the immediate aftermath, casualty figures ranged from two people, as reported by Soviet media after a three-day blackout on any information, to two-thousand people, as reported by an American wire service. A UN group has estimated that radiation will ultimately kill some 4,000 people, but this week, a new Greenpeace report concluded it would be more like 93,000. It's a reminder of all that still remains murky about the disaster, including the physical state of the concrete and steel barrier built to seal in the reactor in the days following the accident. In 1987, long-time CBS Moscow correspondent Jonathan Sanders analyzed the initial media coverage in an article called "Comrade X was Wrong." The title referred to a 1940 Clark Gable film about a cynical American reporter in Moscow who went by the alias "Comrade X." [FILM CLIP]
WOMAN: Honestly, you make me sick. Two years ago, I looked up to you as the best reporter in the business, and now look at you.
CLARK GABLE (REPORTER): Face the facts, baby. There ain't no news in Russia. [END FILM CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Ain't no news in Russia. I guess that was the nub of the problem when Chernobyl occurred.
JONATHAN SANDERS:That's right. The Russian news media was an organ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, so it did what the master said. In 1986, the media was beginning to open up. Gorbachev had done a great deal of talking about glasnost, which means openness or candor, but it was just creaking the door open a crack.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, this wasn't some sort of Politburo purge or a failed wheat crop. A nuclear catastrophe couldn't be contained within Soviet borders, and I guess, neither could the reporting of it. How did the story break and how were Soviet citizens first informed?
JONATHAN SANDERS: The news came out when a radioactive cloud started drifting over Sweden. And the men in charge of information to foreign journalists in Moscow started saying it must be a nuclear leak in Sweden. Seventy-two hours, nothing was heard, and then finally, on the Evening News, the equivalent of CBS, ABC and NBC all rolled into one, there was a six-sentence announcement. [RUSSIAN NEWS ANNOUNCEMENT]
JONATHAN SANDERS:An accident has taken place at the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. Help is being given to the victims. A government commission has been established. That was all. But that was a big “all,” because in their media system, people learned to read between the lines. And for smart people, that was a monstrous declaration because they never announced accidents; accidents happened somewhere else. They happened abroad. Bad things didn't happen at home.
BOB GARFIELD: For the Western media, I guess there were two stories going on. One was about the accident itself and the other about the Soviet reaction to it and how the moral bankruptcy of Soviet Communism was revealing itself and so forth. Did that storyline in the Western press ever veer into gloating or jingoism or propaganda of its own?
JONATHAN SANDERS: Jingo-ism and propaganda in the American media? Bob, that would never happen!
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
JONATHAN SANDERS: Saying “we're better than you” at the time that Ronald Reagan was calling them an evil empire? How could you say that? Of course it did. Part of it was our fearful reaction against Soviet technology. There was a great "gotcha" element to the political reporters who were covering Gorbachev. “Gorbachev, you're talking about openness and candor, and suddenly there are all these lies coming out. How can we trust you? We're talking about arms control talks and you're lying to the people about atomic energy.” There was a great deal of this moralizing. And to this day, if you talk to Gorbachev about it, he says that enemies in the West exaggerated what was going on and took this out of the harsh anti-Soviet Reagan administration play book to ridicule and to point a finger at Russia.
BOB GARFIELD: And, in fact, it was a "gotcha" moment, I suppose, and one that must have been most revealing, indeed, for Soviet citizens themselves. Now, what about the practice of journalism was there a sea change there? Did journalism cease to become propaganda all the time and actually mutate into something more genuine?
JONATHAN SANDERS: Chernobyl is like that expression "put the pedal to the metal" for journalists who wanted change. They wanted to cover the consequences of their own war in Afghanistan, much in the way they saw the better American journalists who covered the war in Vietnam. And Chernobyl is one of the things that many people think of as a significant turning point, not only in the media change in Russia, which has swung like a big pendulum on a big grandfather's clock, back and forth and back and forth - and we may be back to where it was when Chernobyl exploded - but to the larger political context in which the Soviet Union collapsed. In those early years after the Soviet Union fell apart, you might say that what then became Russian journalism was freer, had more possibilities to do different and frank and critical-minded things than any media system, including our own.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it's 20 years later, and there is a democratically elected President in Russia, Putin, and it seems to me that the Russian media occasionally, at least in the face of national disaster, behaves ever more like Soviet media, with the submarine disaster and the Beslan siege, even where it was unclear for many hours, even days, what was taking place there.
JONATHAN SANDERS: Well, I think on the massest of mass media, Putin has returned to, you know, "Gunsmoke." The marshal's in town. The marshal keeps order. Television has the same kind of saintly image of the leader. Now it's Putin. Then it was Gorbachev or, before him, Chernenko. Accidents don't get reported. But the people in charge of the Russian media system, while they've cracked down tremendously, while they've re-harnessed the television industry on a national level, they realize that they don't want to return to the days of people standing, handing out underground self-published newspapers on the corners With the exception of things coming out of the terrorist camps in Chechnya, so far there has not been the censorship we've seen in China. And, in part, this is policy wisdom. They don't want to turn the country into a pressure cooker. They want it to be a tea kettle, in which some steam can escape and sound a warning now. But, you know, one of my friends got her teeth kicked in a couple of weeks ago because she had been responsible for putting out some very unvarnished, raw information about what was going on in the investigation - or non-investigation - of the Beslan school massacre. So you know, "bad days are here again" is part of the song, and as they get ready for there to be another presidential election in a couple of years, I think you're going to see even more crackdowns, even more restrictions, even more of a straitjacket thrown on the Russian media.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Sanders served as CBS's Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1997. He produced the film "Three Days in September," about the Beslan school siege. It will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Mayday. Jonathan, thank you very much.
JONATHAN SANDERS: My pleasure, Bob. I wish it was a better story. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]