To the Editors:
Andrei Amalrik at present is in poor health in a Soviet prison camp and not due for release until May, 1973. Therefore, he is unable to reply to the following remarks about his provocative article on how foreign journalists operate in Moscow (March 25). But despite some reluctance to debate a man whose hands are tied and his mouth gagged, I thought your readers might want the view of an American correspondent currently working in Moscow. And because Andrei reserves some of his sharpest jabs for me personally, I wanted to assure your readers that The New York Times was continuing to present the news from here “without fear or favor.”
Early in his article, Andrei makes the point that a foreign correspondent here has “clearly two choices,” either to seek contact with unofficial Russians or to accept the official line. Ironically, Soviet officials seem to believe the same thing also. They make it quite clear that a correspondent, in their opinion, is engaging in “non-journalistic work” if he spends any time with the Amalriks or the militant Jews, just to mention two broad categories of dissidents. And, even more ironically, some political dissidents think the foreign correspondent is failing in his work if he reports on such people as Voznesensky or Yevtushenko, who, while not official, are not dissidents either.
It is clear that no American newspaper sends a correspondent to Moscow to report on one aspect of Soviet life. Nor does any serious newsman here think he is doing a good job if he writes only—let us say—on diplomacy, and ignores the Jews, or only on the dissidents and forgets about the Soviet economy.
But these concepts of “balanced reporting” in which American newsmen have been trained are alien to the Russian experience, and completely foreign to the history of the Soviet Union. The press to a Russian is something to be “used.” The officials want to impress the world with their achievements through the foreign press, and the dissidents want to expose how evil is the system through the foreign press.
One of the more fruitless tasks here is to persuade either a Soviet official or a political dissident that the American public wants as wide a spectrum of opinion and information about the Soviet Union as possible. Of course, gathering information here is more difficult than in most other countries. Andrei is correct when he describes our problems—the isolation of foreigners from the community, the doubts about the trustworthiness of sources, the KGB pressures, et al. But most newsmen here do try to meet Russians of different walks of life, do not rely on their Russian translators for important stories, and in fact, in many cases, speak and read Russian well.
Like his colleagues in other posts, a correspondent here must constantly select the news he sends to his newspaper. Much has been said—and will continue to be said—on how this selection process takes place. Much depends on the training and whims of the correspondent and his editors, the space available in his paper, and the interests—or supposed interests—of the readers. The Times bureau here, on the assumption that its readers want to be informed on as much as possible, tries to provide a “mix.” In recent weeks, for instance, I’ve filed on sit-ins by Jews at Soviet offices, Brezhnev’s keynote speech to the 24th Party Congress, Pyotr Yakir’s appeal to the Congress against what he regards as growing Stalinism, Gromyko’s foreign policy speech, and so on. I’m sure most of my colleagues have done the same.
I tried in my brief acquaintanceship with Andrei to explain that everything that happened to him or to any other single dissident was not automatically news, just as everything that Tass moves over its machines in a 24-hour period is also not automatically news. He obviously does not agree with me. But he also never checked with me on the specific examples that he criticizes me for, and all I can say is that I wished he had, because then he wouldn’t have made mistakes.
He mentions that there was no story in the Times about the search of his apartment—the third that we knew about. We had just printed a full page interview with him and a shorter article on one of his protests, and so we decided to hold off on the search story to see what eventually transpired. He was eventually arrested and in a full story on the arrest on May 22, the search was mentioned as part of the harassment against him. Andrei probably does not know it, but his conviction was front-page news on November 13, under my byline, and on November 15, again under my byline, the Times printed his moving final plea which had been smuggled out of the courtroom.
Andrei, again for reasons I don’t understand, complained that if it had depended on me, the Times would not have published news about a moving letter from 40 Jews protesting an anti-Zionist campaign that was going on in the winter of 1970. I, in fact, was one of the few correspondents to report the letter (of 39 actually) and it was published in great detail on March 11. A similar letter from 20 Leningrad Jews was included in another story on Jewish developments on March 18. In passing, I might note that Izvestia attacked me and four colleagues for printing the Jewish protests, and said we were representing “international zionism.”
I am sorry that we did not print the moving appeal by the wife of the dissident General Grigorenko and his diary. By the time I got to the lengthy document and began translating it, it already had been published abroad.
Andrei’s article was written, I believe, in April, 1970, and a lot has happened here since. Andrei Sakharov has formed a small civil rights group, a biologist Zhores Medvedev was detained in a mental hospital, provoking protests at home and abroad until he was freed, twelve people were tried for a planned hijacking, and many others—all of which have been published in the Times. It has also been a time of vigorous diplomacy between Moscow and West, the continuation of the SALT talks, a new economic plan with emphasis on the consumer. These have also been reported.
Chief Moscow Correspondent
The New York Times