The Soviet news media, apparently reflecting Kremlin determination to keep itself clear of any inadvertent slip that could provide fuel for its critics in the U.S. Senate, has given only sketchy attention to the SALT II debate since it began July 9.
The central newspapers have included relatively brief accounts of the first two days of hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, but so far have shunned any direct mention of the treaty's Senate critics or what they have said.
This approach follows firm recommendations made earlier this month by Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) during talks here with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and in the Crimea with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. In June, during and after the Vienna summit at which the strategic arms limitation treaty was signed, both Brezhnev and Gromyko earned headlines in the United States by warning that the Kremlin would not renegotiate SALT II if it is altered or amended by the Senate.
Seen from here, the cautious play being given to the SALT debate both in Pravda and Izvestia, as well as on national television news programs, indicates concern at high levels within the party and government over the dangers to the Soviets from further tough comments about the Senate of the eventual outcome of the debate.
Byrd said he told the Soviet leaders that they should moderate their public statements and let the SALT debate run its course to a full Senate vote sometime in November. He told the Soviets that little good could come of exaggerated language.
"The Soviets have made their point publicly that it is unthinkable that the treaty can be renegotiated and now they are keeping a low, safe profile," one senior Western analyst said today.
The Soviet caution has led its newspapers to drop from mention such favorite targets for rebuke as Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) and Paul Nitze, the former SALT negotiator turned opponent. For months, Soviet news dispatches on strategic matters have called these opponents and others cold warriors. The, watered-down approach has erased Jackson and Nitze from public mention, substituting instead much more general treatment of the treaty's opponents.
Describing the opening of the debate, the July 10 issue of Pravda told its readers carefully that "both opponents and supporters of the treaty will be given a chance to express their opinion. After the hearing, the SALT II treaty will be sent for ratification to the Senate, which is expected to vote in November."
The coverage has quoted Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Defense Secretary Harold Brown, and a number of pro-SALT senators, such as Frank Church (D-Idaho) and Gary Hart (D-Colo). Pravda, which so far has carried Tass agency dispatches instead of reports from its own Washington correspondent, quoted Byrd as expressing deep concern that "the "the rejection of the treaty may render harm to the prospects of real arms control. If this process is violated, it will be very hard to start it all over again."
In such coverage, there seems little likelihood that the Soviet public will ever hear of Lt. Gen. Edward Rowny, who denounced the treaty last week after resigning from the SALT delegation in protest. Nor will they learn much of the substance of the opponents' views.
Indeed, the central newspapers' coverage of the debate stopped after Wednesday, thus ignoring some of the key points raised against the treaty. There has been no substantial press commentary since then and as yet, no analysis of the proceedings so far. By contrast, within 12 hours of President Carter's Sunday night energy crisis speech, Tass was critically reporting it as a presidential attack on the oil-producing Middle East states.
Such omissions and tailoring of news are not uncommon in the Soviet Union. The Soviet media paid almost no attention to the Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Poland in June, even though many here listened to coverage on Western radio stations and thousands in the Baltic republics went to extraordinary lengths to see some of the visit in fringe television reception areas along their western borders.