Tuesday, September 22, 2020

How to read Pravda

Back during the Cold War when I was a newly minted engineer (Electrical, thanks for asking!) I took a job at Three Letter Intelligence Agency.  Everything there was burn-before-reading Top Secret, and the security clearances for some of the new hires hadn't been completed yet.  So what does a big agency do with these folks?  

Well, they sent us to training.  One of the things that the taught us about was Traffic Analysis which is absolutely terrifying in today's Internet Age.  However, some of the things were less techie.  One of these were techniques on how to read Pravda.

Pravda, of course, was the official newspaper of the Soviet Union's Communist Party.  It was well known to basically everybody that it was a propaganda sheet.  Indeed, there was an old joke from the time about Pravda and its sibling newspaper Isvestia, playing on the meanings of both names.  "Pravda" means "truth" in Russian, and "Isvestia" means "news".  The joke went "There's no news in Pravda and no truth in Isvestia".  Good times, good times.

As it turns out, that joke was wrong - at least according to the trainer at Three Letter Agency.  We were taught that there's quite a lot of actual information that you can get from Pravda, if you know how to read it.  Here from memory are some of the techniques for gleaning what is actually going on from the most famous propaganda rag in history:
  1. The Front Page belongs to the Party.  Everything you see on the front page is the Party's most important messaging.  The more prominent the article, the more you can assume that it is pure propaganda.  Front Page above-the-fold articles are nothing but propaganda.
  2. Most of the time there will be actual journalistic facts reported in the story.  You know, the Who/What/Where/When stuff.  This will in general be in articles buried inside the newspapers, and/or buried in paragraph 25 (under the assumption that most people will scan the front page and maybe the first 2 or 3 paragraphs).  Our trainer essentially taught us to read Pravda backwards, starting from the end and working our way back towards the front.
  3. Things that really, really bother the Party will be prominently displayed.  Things that really really bother the Party will be on the front page, above the fold.  While this seems to contradict item #1 above, it really doesn't.  Sure, the actual contents of the article are nothing but propaganda, the information to be gleaned is that the subject is something that the Party hates.
An example of #3 from the 1980s was the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars").  The Party hated this with the fire of a million suns.  It made frequent appearances on page 1 of Pravda, talking about how awful it was.  Duly noted - SDI got under the skin of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

As it turns out, this skill has turned out to be handy in getting actual information out of today's New York Times (and other, lesser news outlets).  There's a lot that you can get from the news today if you ignore the front page.  Lawrence has a great example of this - skipping past the Supreme Court stories (item #3 above - this really bugs the Great and the Good) to things from page A29 - like what's going on with China?  Quite a bit as it turns out, but you need to read our newspapers backwards just like you would read Pravda.


ZBM-2 said...

Seems like this would also be quite useful as regards Chinese state run media.

Old NFO said...

Ah yes, 'techniques'... :-)

HMS Defiant said...

the chinese media is really no different than the NYT. They're easy to read the real story if you know what you're looking at. We still take the Sunday NYT for the puzzles in the magazine and we'll probably quit our subscription to the WSJ which has morphed into the NYT. You only need one Pravda/week, really.

Windy Wilson said...

This seems to be very useful information.
Were you taught to read Isvestia in the same way?

Glen Filthie said...

I have said as much for years. But with the advent of the blogosphere and social media... I have dispensed with the mass media altogether. Haven't missed them one bit either.

Chuck Pergiel said...


Ed Bonderenka said...

Which is why I pay more attention to trusted aggregates and analysts than the source material.
But I get your point.

Borepatch said...

Windy, there's really no difference between, say, Isvestia and the Washington Post. So, yes.

LSP said...

What a helpful post! Thx.

markshere2 said...

Great info- thanks

I can quickly make a I stand on major issues that I am unaware of. All I have to do is see what CNN touts or is against.

99% chance I am diametrically opposed on that issue.

Useful, that.

Sam L. said...

Ahhhh, the NYT! I despise, detest, and totally distrust the NYT (and it's little dog WaPoo, too)! And all the "media".