It was TV chaos, Soviet style. Broadcast officials, political commentators and technicians milled around a cramped trailer yesterday amid the colored dials and illuminated consoles, shouting orders and frantically telephoning counterparts around town as they fed footage of President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Moscow.
"Mnogo funna, da!," one Soviet political commentator belted into the telephone. Translation: "Lots of fun, yeah."
Maybe it wasn't Letterman, or even "West 57th," but to the viewers back home, it probably beat the annual Red Square May Day parade. Courtesy of Gosteleradio, the state central broadcasting agency -- and with an assist from CBS News -- the Soviet public has been getting the most direct look it has ever had at life in the United States.
The conduit for Soviet broadcasts back to the Soviet Union this week has been the CBS office at 20th and M streets NW. For an undisclosed fee, CBS has provided a team of 40 Soviet broadcasting officials and commentators with two trailers and a truck as well as technical assistance for coverage of the historic summit week in Washington.
The broadcasts offer Soviet citizens unprecedented live coverage of events in the United States, according to both American and Soviet broadcasters: features on ordinary Americans' views on relations between the superpowers, interviews with American politicians and glimpses of American-style demonstrations.
"The Soviet Union is on the other end of a long pipeline of Washington Americana," said Jonathan Sanders, director of the working group on Soviet TV at Columbia University's Harriman Institute and a consultant to CBS. Soviet citizens have never seen so much live coverage of the United States, Sanders said. "As I understand it, they turned the cameras on at the White House ceremonies and only turned them off when the ceremonies were over."
The Soviets do edit some, Sanders said. "They did not have Gorbachev singing along with Van Cliburn ... It is subtle preemption rather than heavy-handed censorship."
Past Soviet depictions of the United States have tended to focus almost exclusively on the negative side of life in America, including homelessness and racism. Asked if the current broadcasts are a break with the past, Valentin Zorin, one of the Soviet commentators, said it was "both unusual and not" for Soviets to see this kind of coverage.
"Glasnost has been a reality for some time," he said. Soviet TV has been showing more objective coverage of the United States, American experts agree, though mainly as an example to its citizens, not because of intrinsic interest. For example, the Soviets recently broadcast a feature on McDonald's that emphasized its cleanliness.
What's new, Zorin said, is that the Soviet people are also getting a dose of radically different points of view that they have never had before. "They are hearing a lot of points of view that are not like ours. We want them to hear them."
During the Brezhnev period, he said, Soviet broadcasters couldn't show the whole picture. "We never lied, but I painted a one-sided picture ... I'm very very happy. I've been in TV for 40 years and dreamt about this for 40 years. I can now say what I think."
Zorin added that the Soviet audience, which has had its appetite whetted for more coverage of the United States, "doesn't want to listen" to coverage that is not objective. More accurate coverage of the United States is coming out of "the necessity to develop our society," he said. "Stalinism outlived Stalin but it also came to a moment where it outlived itself."
The Soviet broadcasts have showed "the supporters of peace but also the Zionist demonstrations," he said, apparently referring to Sunday's march on behalf of Soviet Jews.
Zorin said he had wanted to interview candidates running for president but that Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.)
had refused. Sens. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) are among the American politicians who did give interviews to Soviet television in the last two weeks.
"I thought it might be a good time to get across a few points about getting out of Afghanistan, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Ethiopia," Sen. Thurmond said. When the Soviet interviewer asked about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Thurmond replied that he was "inclined to support it" but waiting for hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I didn't ask them whether they would edit and they didn't say," Thurmond said.
Marci Robinson, a spokesman for Rep. Kemp, said requests for interviews came twice but were refused. "Granting an interview to a Soviet news agency would be like contributing to the Communist Party platform with a possible guarantee of being taken out of context," she said.
Jack Smith, senior producer for special events at CBS, said he did not know whether Soviet news feeds about America were objective because he does not have access to what is finally broadcast to Soviet citizens, but that in the programming they beam home "they've talked to everybody from congressmen to American journalists. They had Senator Kennedy on ... they had scores of them."
Smith said the Soviet TV agency began planning to use CBS facilities almost as soon as the summit date was set, and that the two sides have an agreement for receiving each other's footage this week. Soviet cameramen brought in particularly nice shots of Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev, he said.
"You guys had good material of Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev ... and of Mrs. Gorbachev over at the National Gallery," he told a Soviet editor in the trailer yesterday. "Their cameramen shoot very, very fine pictures. Just like our cameramen," he added. "Be sure to put that in.