After dealing with a Soviet Embassy press operation that promises little and delivers it, many frustrated journalists at the summit are finding that some of their best sources are the 178 Soviets registered as members of the Soviet news media.
A group whose English ranges from almost perfect to almost broken, its members are like ad hoc public-information officers for their government, dispensing views about glasnost and perestroika, talking about summitry and explaining why they do not care about the details of Raisa Gorbachev's day.
Pravda, Tass, Izvestia, New Times, Oganyok, Moscow News, Gosteleradio -- the big names of the Soviet communications establishment are on display and willing to be interviewed by everyone from the television network anchors to a small-time anti-Soviet operation called Radio Voice of Afghanistan.
"It's so difficult to get in touch with Soviet officials," said Franz Koessler, a Moscow correspondent for Austrian television, after he interviewed a Pravda editor. "But these people don't say any word without the approval of officials of the government. You must consider Pravda the party paper."
Of the 7,000 journalists given credentials for this summit, only a few hundred actually witness the major events or even see the participants.
For example, when President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the arms-reduction treaty Tuesday, only 200 reporters were allowed to view history in the making, and then only about 50 at a time. The Soviets have chosen 350 reporters for Gorbachev's news conference this afternoon.
For the remaining journalists, who begin to tire of getting news from television, Soviet press tables at the J.W. Marriott Hotel's briefing room provide a fertile field for live interviews. Moreover, the Soviet journalists never seem busy telephoning their offices, reading newspapers or even taking notes during briefings.
"They're not in it for hard news or fast quotes," said a U.S. Information Agency official familiar with the Soviet media. "If you take a look at Pravda at this point, for example, you won't find any commentary. It's just the offical texts of the speeches, the bare bones of news reporting."
It is also mostly a group effort, said Vladimir Sukhoi, Pravda's New York correspondent. "We don't make any independent articles now," he said. "We make them together."
Of special interest to American journalists, several said, is how little the Soviets seem to be concerned with Raisa Gorbachev, whose schedule is more prized these days than some private White House telephone numbers.
"It's not in our tradition to talk about these things," said Evgeni Andrianov, a commentator from New Times. "We know practically nothing about their private lives."
Andrianov said he thinks that, in principle, such information should be available to the Soviet people but that some American journalists go too far. "We are doing too little, and you are doing too much. Let's do it somewhere in between," he said.
In a corner at the Marriott, the Soviet Embassy has been operating a press center where cordial but harried officials apologize for not knowing anything and recommend that journalists phone the Soviet Embassy.
Those who dial the number say no one answers.
Almost half of those who dropped by the Soviet press center Tuesday asked for Raisa Gorbachev's schedule. The answer is always the same: "There is still hope; there is still hope."
Perhaps there was still hope. But there was never a schedule.
"They tell you at the Marriott to come over here to the Soviet Embassy press center," said Greg Mathieson, who owns a photo agency here. "At the press center, they tell you to go to the Marriott. They play us off against each other."
Only a few of the Soviets' 178 sets of media credentials belong to women.
"This is just Russian orthodoxy, I'm afraid," said Andrianov of New Times. "In our country, women's work must be balanced with family."
He added that several leading journalists in the Soviet Union are women, although most are in areas other than international relations. "It is a false tradition," he said. "It must be broken," he said.
Although not exactly like America's Hearst-Pulitzer wars earlier in this century, Izvestia and Pravda have had something of a skirmish going since they began covering the summit.
Vladimir Sukhoi, a Pravda correspondent based in New York City, said his paper fired the first salvo by obtaining an interview with House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.). He was boasting good-naturedly to the Izvestia team about it.
Izvestia's reporters smiled. They had one-upped their rivals by interviewing President Reagan.
They had submitted questions almost a month in advance and had no face-to-face session. But the White House returned the questions with what were advertised as Reagan's answers, all translated in a way that Izvestia's editors deemed acceptable.
So, when the Reagan interview hit the newstands Dec. 4, Izvestia had a scoop, at least in the Soviet Union.
"We're delighted at their surprise," said Nikolai Efinov, first deputy editor in chief of Izvestia, referring to Pravda. "Their surprise is our pleasure."
Said Sukhoi, diplomatically: "They delivered the more dangerous blow."
One government official who studies the Soviet media for the United States said yesterday that there are only a few Soviet journalists or news organizations whose work is similar to western journalists'. He cited E.V. Yakovlev, editor of Moscow News, and Vitaly Korotich, editor of Oganyok weekly magazine.
The role of most of the others, he said, can be likened to that of U.S. government public-information officers.
"I used to say there was no such thing as a Soviet journalist, a person who takes notes or who tries to find out what else is happening," the official said. "These days there are a few who are acting like journalists."