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All the news the party wants. Glasnost and the official press

PRAVDA: Inside the Soviet News Machine, by Angus Roxburgh. New York: George Braziller Inc. 285 pp. $19.95. BOOKS on the Soviet system usually focus on The Man at the Top, with brief excursions into The Party and The People. This short, unpretentious, scholarly work tells us much more by examining a minor cog that shows how the machine works as a whole.

The subject is Pravda (daily circulation: 11.3 million), the official organ of the Communist Party's Central Committee - and thus the flagship of the Soviet media.

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As a British specialist, Angus Roxburgh is refreshingly free of the passions that afflict too much American writing on this subject. Avoiding cheap shots at Pravda's very obvious bias, he spends one-third of this admirably cool, businesslike book explaining the paper's purpose, procedures, and format. The rest contains excerpts - including some very blunt letters from readers - since Brezhnev's death in 1982 brought flux and change to Soviet life.

This book is clearly for Moscow-watchers who, in the glasnost era, require a guide to the most authoritative and accessible (an American firm now publishes a daily translation) Soviet newspaper.

The rules of the Soviet press game are complex: Leninist practice defines political truth as anything that benefits the revolution. Falsity is that which harms it. Dangerous truths must be avoided, or rationalized away. Beneficial lies have their uses. And capitalist jeers can be ignored.

So Pravda's purpose is avowedly political and propagandistic. This is in sharp contrast to the Western democratic tradition of fact-oriented and human-interest news, scoops, and muckraking.

Such a focus is not for Pravda, which began in 1912 during the Bolshevik struggle against czarism, and which continues to battle for The Cause. Hence its virtually religious zest for exhortation and moralism, for denouncing this and upholding that, and for slanting its news accordingly.

Those gushing reports on workers who have surpassed production goals, the instant silence that descends on fallen public figures, the enthusiastic criticisms of American life - all this is the stuff of Pravda. At the same time, it evokes ridicule in the West and mirrors the Soviet reality of a one-party, intensely politicized and combative society, isolated in a hostile world.

Pravda's role in informing the Soviet public is, however, distinctly secondary to its party function in laying down the line to the faithful - and to the Soviet press. It lets each Communist know where he or she must stand on any major issue.

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More than 90 percent of the party members read Pravda daily. These readers understand that it cares far less about capturing a fast-breaking story than in giving events the most authoritative Kremlin interpretation, assessing them in light of Marxist doctrine and Soviet policy.

Pravda's editor put it clearly in 1982: ``We inform the masses of the decision of the Party and government, propagandize these decisions, mobilize and organize the Soviet people to carry them out, accumulate and mold public opinion, and concentrate people's efforts on solving precisely those tasks which are most important.''

No Western paper would perceive itself this way. Hence the emptiness of American criticisms of Pravda as biased and untruthful. True enough - but also irrelevant for a paper with an explicitly political purpose.

Roxburgh helps explain Pravda's rigid format, which consigns certain categories to certain pages, no matter how important that day's news might be. Soviet economic news, and especially production statistics, often fill the first pages. This is a way of underscoring the importance attributed to ``material conditions'' in a Marxist society.

So the positioning of stories often is not significant - something not always understood by would-be Kremlinologists. It stems from tradition and convention, which carries surprising weight in such an avowedly revolutionary paper.

How is glasnost affecting Pravda?

Roxburgh's book was completed a full year ago and is noncommittal. But there are signs of change, of liveliness, of interest - heightened by the Chernobyl disaster - in investigative reporting, in probing and inquiry. A new breed of Soviet journalists may be emerging, less cautious, more demanding.

The big question is whether, having raised expectations in this field as in others, Gorbachev safely reins them in if things go too far.

Leonard Bushkoff reviews books on history and politics for the Monitor.

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