MOSCOW — If Russian journalism has a patron saint, his name is Yasen Zasursky.
The ailing 85-year-old headed the Moscow State University (MGU) journalism department for more than 40 years before becoming its president emeritus in 2007.
The roster of respected journalists who received their diplomas from him is astounding: Yury Shchekochikhin, longtime investigative journalist who died suddenly and mysteriously with symptoms resembling acute poisoning in 2003; Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was murdered in Moscow in 2006; Mikhail Beketov, the former muckraking editor of Khimkinskaya Pravda who died in 2013 of injuries suffered when he was savagely beaten in 2008; and many others.
But Zasursky is far from impressed by the work of others who have taken his courses — and are now stars of Russian state television under the government of President Vladimir Putin.
In fact, he is deeply disheartened.
“It is unpleasant for me to see what they are conveying,” he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “It is pointless trying to get your information from television. Everything there is official announcements. There is nothing analytical, so you risk being turned into a person with blinders on.”
“There isn’t even one journalist there who I would say has his own opinions,” he adds.
It is a harsh assessment coming from someone who devoted his entire life to producing his country’s journalists.
Zasursky cringes a bit when told that one of his students, state TV news presenter Ernest Matskyavichyus, recently declared that Russia is in the throes of an information war and journalists must reject formerly accepted international standards of journalism. “Let’s remember how journalism was in 1942,” in the midst of World War II, Matskyavichyus said. “Did they present both sides of the story — interview one side and then the other in turns?”
Matskyavichyus was “an excellent student,” Zasursky says.
“But, no, I don’t agree with that,” Zasursky says of the Vesti presenter’s rejection of one of the basic principles of balanced journalism. “People are only disarmed when they have insufficient or incomplete information. Then we have surrendered even before the enemy attacks.”