BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. In the throes of the Beslan school hostage catastrophe last week, the Russian government reverted to the standard procedure employed in previous crises, from the sinking of the submarine Kursk, to the deadly 2002 theater siege, to the recent terrorist downing of two airliners. It lied. But is it possible that the latest embarrassment, which met with harsh criticism even on the Kremlin-controlled TV channel, will finally coax the government into being more honest with its people? Is it possible that an Izvestia front page consisting only of a harrowing photograph -- a man carrying a wounded Beslan school pupil -- bespeaks an end to the reflexive suppression of bad news? Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, believes he can answer those questions, and the answer is no.
FRED WEIR: On the whole, Russian TV was pretty tame. During the crisis, they reported exactly what they were meant to. They repeated uncritically what they were told, and there hasn't been any, any really loud or consistent backlash from them. The print media is a bit different and showed a little bit of spirit in the last few days, after having been fed such a diet of fibs and coverups last week. What that shows is that the Russian media isn't completely straitjacketed, that there are possibilities to express itself. But the aftermath of this hostage crisis, I think, shows that the Kremlin is extending its control to the print media.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess we should note that Rof Shakirov, the editor in chief of Izvestia, lost his job a few days ago because of his coverage of the crisis. Tell me what happened.
FRED WEIR: Well, he put very evocative photographs on the front and back cover. Izvestia is a broadsheet, so he essentially turned it into a poster with these very dramatic pictures, and it appears that he was fired for that. Why? I think that the idea in the Kremlin is a very Soviet notion that bad news should never be played up, and Shakirov had the idea that newspapers should reflect the mood of its readers, and therein was a clash.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there no concept in Russian life of the public's right to know?
FRED WEIR: Well, yes. You know, most of the people in Russia grew up in the Soviet times, they learned to read between the lines of the newspapers, and Russians have reverted to that. They continually listen to rumors and give more credence to rumors nowadays than, than what they hear on the news broadcasts. They are aware that they're being lied to, but how to change that is the central problem.
BOB GARFIELD: Can we take heart at all from the nearly four hours that Putin spent with the press? I'm trying to think of an American president who has had a four hour press conference. Certainly not President Bush. Can we take heart?
FRED WEIR: Don't think so. He met with foreign journalists and, and foreign academics at his dacha for three and a half hours, and he did talk across a broad spectrum of issues, but he does that. He's very well-informed. He's very sharp. And I think the Kremlin is quite worried about its image abroad, and that might explain why he met with this foreign group. Russian journalists are upset that in the aftermath of the school crisis he has yet to meet with them.
BOB GARFIELD: Putin castigated the Western press for calling the hostage-takers "rebels" rather than terrorists. The nomenclature of describing terrorism has been an issue in the West as well. Is this the first time questions have surfaced in the coverage of the Chechan guerrillas?
FRED WEIR: No. This is a standard theme on the part of the Kremlin, that there are double standards -when American targets are struck by militants of some sort, they are invariably called "terrorists," but when Chechans strike at Russian targets, they can be called "rebels, insurgents." Although, in the case of the school crisis last week, I, I think we all called them "terrorists."
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any sense that, as a result of this crisis and the handwringing about the coverage that has ensued ever since, do you think any corner has been turned that would permit news to be covered as news without being first vetted for its potentially negative political consequences?
FRED WEIR: I don't see any sign of that, and you must remember that every single time we go through these crises, whether it was the sinking of the Kursk or the Nord-Ost crisis two years ago, officialdom seems to congenitally lie. They tell such fairy tales about it, sometimes seemingly to no purpose at all, and we always go through this hangover afterwards as we, all of us, foreign and Russian journalists, realize just what a lot of malarkey we were told, and in all of those times, nothing has gotten better. Officialdom hasn't learned that it's better to tell the truth. If that happens as a result of this particular tragedy, the signs of that are yet to be seen.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Fred, as always - thanks very much.
FRED WEIR: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Fred Weir is the Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. [MUSIC]