COMMENTS: Bye Bye Boris

The aftermath of the Virginia Tech campus killings was Story of the Day, chosen as the lead by both ABC and NBC. The choice was uninspired, more like a hangover from last week's binge of reporting than the consequence of any newsworthy development. CBS' instincts were correct in looking for another lead but its choice--the flaws in the FDA's food safety inspections--was just as bland. The day's most eyecatching coverage consisted of obituaries as all three networks tried to make sense of the life of Boris Yeltsin, dead at the age of 76.

Yeltsin, the first president of post-Communist Russia, was so colorful and contradictory that the three obits, taken together, raise more questions than they answer. NBC assigned the task to its diplomatic correspondent Andrea Mitchell. She included reminiscences from Bill Clinton, Yeltsin's contemporary as President of the United States, and Tom Brokaw, who covered Yeltsin as NBC Nightly News anchor. CBS and ABC both chose correspondents who had been based in Moscow during Yeltsin's time in office, Elizabeth Palmer and John Donvan (subscription required) respectively.

Consider how unresolved Yeltsin's legacy is. His background was either a Communist Party "boss" (Palmer) or "hack" (Donvan). He stood on that tank against "a Communist coup" (Mitchell) or "a coup threatening then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev" (Palmer). His political ideology was "a champion of freedoms that have since been eroded" (Mitchell) or "at least for a while could be called democratic" (Donvan) or was "reinvented as a democrat, that is, until democracy got in his way" (Palmer). In his economics he "allowed a group of corrupt cronies to steal the nation's wealth" (Donvan) or he "dismantled" the Communist "economic system. It was shock therapy forcing millions out of work" (Mitchell).

Yet there were two aspects all agreed on. Standing on that tank he was "an heroic figure" (Mitchell); he "changed history, a pivot point in the collapse of the Soviet Empire" (Donvan); he "cast himself as a fearless defender of Russia against tyranny" (Palmer). And he was "erratic, often visibly drunk" (Mitchell), "frequently embarrassingly inappropriate or just drunk" (Donvan), "his weakness and increasing confusion made every public appearance a spectacle" (Palmer). As Palmer pointed out: Yeltsin "loved power as much as he loved a drink or three" and left power with "vast wealth."


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