Fair and Balanced?

There is nothing like a little war to challenge the journalistic ideals of fair and balanced reporting.  This much is certain:  the idea of being “fair and balanced” has nothing to do with loyalty.  In fact, it is easily argued that loyalty makes the ideal of fair and balanced reporting an impossibility.

It’s one thing to try to remain objective when the only things flying around the air are insults and denunciations traded between parties almost as if they were preludes to diplomacy.  But when bullets and bombs start whistling past a reporters ear, well, that will challenge your preconceptions about the depths of your journalistic independence.

Perhaps the best and most lasting advice given to a young broadcast/writer reporter headed for Russia were the words first coined by the late Whitman Bassow, Moscow Bureau Chief for ‘United Press International’ beginning in 1954 and later the founder of Newsweek magazine.  The man who took those words from Bassow, held on to them tightly during his tour of Russia, and then gifted them to me years later was Nicholas Daniloff, Moscow bureau chief for ‘US News and World Report’ until his arrest on spying charges by the KGB in 1986.

What were those all-important words?

First, a short introduction to Daniloff.  It would be worse than brash for me to call Mr Daniloff a “mentor” as this writer considers himself nothing in comparison to such a giant in the world of international reporting.  To the point, Daniloff was a man whom any side of an issue or conflict could trust to be honest, fair, and balanced.  That of course makes nobody happy!  Readers usually have a need to see things in print or on broadcast which buttress their preconceived opinions.

Nicholas Daniloff radiated everything which could be expected of a Moscow news correspondent:  fluent in Russian, of Russian descent, professional, painstakingly thorough to a fault, and with the hardy constitution necessary to survive life in Moscow during the Soviet period.  His favourite writing style was “first person” which enabled Daniloff to weave the reader into the story in such a vivid way that left audiences thinking they had traveled every step at his side.

Daniloff was American.  He was Russian too.  His great-grandfather, Alexandr Frolov (Александр Фролов), was an officer in the Tsar’s Imperial Guards and a prominent member of the Decembrist uprising (Восстáние декáбристов) in December 1825. Russian army officers led about 3,000 soldiers in a protest against Nicholas I’s assumption of the throne after his elder brother Constantine removed himself from succession. Because these events occurred in December, the rebels were called the Decembrists (Декабри́сты). In 1836 Frolov was sent to Siberia along with his wife and children where he remained imprisoned until being released shortly before his death.

150 years later in 1986, just weeks before his scheduled return to duty in the States, Nicholas Daniloff was arrested on spying charges and held in Moscow’s famous Lefortovo prison, the same prison which held his great-grandfather.  His eventual release came with a complete exoneration and apology from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.  KGB archives indicate that Daniloff had been arrested simply as retaliation for the expulsion of KGB operatives from Britain and the United States.

Lefortovo is no “Hilton Hotel” setting and one could almost give Daniloff a pass had he emerged embittered and angry towards Russia.  But that wasn’t his style.  He understood that loyalty is most often the enemy of fair and balanced.  So, his words to a younger reporter echoed what he had learned in international journalism.  One could say that in a Soviet prison the unraveling of “why” he had been falsely charged and arrested was due to his adherence to those timeless principles.

Ah, those words uttered so long ago!  Such a simple phrase, yet so profound. The ideal behind this phrase doesn’t just work in Russia.  Or Georgia.  These words form a universal principle, a standard, that works anywhere.

“To uncover the truth you must find the story within the story.”
(William Bassow, 1959; Nicholas Daniloff 1989)