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Study of Coverage of USSR in U.S. Media
Media Preoccupation with Demonology, Bone-deep Current of Darkness

By Barrie Zwicker

 

THE JOURNALISTIC FAILURE of three Toronto dailies in their coverage of the Soviet Union over a six-month period is an echo of a failure uncovered in the American media around the same time.

". . . if the American people are ever to be permitted to authentically debate matters of foreign policy and defence, the mainstream news media . . . must end their preoccupation with demonology and instead embrace journalism," declared William A. Dorman in one of three major papers prepared for the conference on War, Peace and the News Media at New York University in March.

"Until then," Dorman concluded, "Americans are likely to continue to be obsessed with their own Great Satan, to borrow a phrase from Khomeini's Iran . . ."

Dorman rated as "dim" the prospects for a great national debate over defence policy and relations with the Soviet Union, because it "will not easily shake 40 years of Cold War rhetoric and 65 years of accumulated fear of communism in general and the Soviets in particular."

Dorman and a fellow researcher undertook an intensive study for most of November 1982 of five prestige dailies (The New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times), Time, Newsweek, selected stories from UPI and AP and the evening news programs of NBC, CBS and ABC.

Dorman avoided judging the media "on whether they provided their audiences with 'the truth,' for it is a risky business to assert what that may be," and rather concentrated on "whether the (media) used loaded frames and labels to characterize Soviet life, intentions and behavior; whether journalists presented a range of plausible alternative explanations for the course of events; whether the news media reported all that was reasonably knowable at the time; and perhaps most important, whether journalists remained independent of the foreign policy establishment in their judgments."

He found "Russian intentions and behavior to be painted in the darkest possible shades." Journalistic themes "persist in echoing those of official Washington, Americans' worst fears go unchallenged in the press, and labels continue to be substituted for analysis."

Dorman harked back to the classic critique by Walter Lippman and Charles Merz of how The New York Times covered the Russian Revolution. In a special supplement to the New Republic in 1920 titled "A Test of the News," Lippmann and Merz examined thousands of clippings and concluded:

From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all.

In a passage that anticipated, as Dorman noted, press coverage for the next six decades, Lippmann and Merz wrote:

In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see . . . The chief censor and the chief propagandist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors . . .

The big phrase in coverage then — the equivalent of today's "Soviet threat" — was the "Red Peril." Lippmann and Merz warned: "You cannot make truce with Peril."

George Kennan, writing 60 years later, felt compelled to make the same point:

I must go on and say that I find the view of the Soviet Union that prevails today in large portions of our governmental and journalistic establishments so extreme, so subjective, so far removed from what any sober scrutiny of external reality would reveal, that it is not only ineffective but dangerous as a guide to political action.

Dorman noted simultaneous conflicting stereotypes about the Soviet Union that could hardly be true of any country. For instance, one stereotype is of a nation in a hopeless mess ("economic paralysis" according to Robert Gillette, Los Angeles Times; "economic system doesn't work," Dan Rather, CBS News). At the same time, the Soviet Union has "far surpassed" the United States as a military power, is in "an expansionist period" and is "hugely menacing."

The Soviet Union is in a no-win situation in the U.S. media. Some say it's a threat because it's strong; others (for instance Time, on Nov. 22) say "the Soviet Union could be less predictable and more dangerous when it is economically weak."

Many unflattering observations in the mainline media about Yuri Andropov, Dorman noted, came verbatim from "a report written by the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau" that was conveniently declassified just after Brezhnev's death. Only two journalists in America, so far as Dorman could find, "directly quoted from the report and clearly identified their source."

The media, he said, "are often little more than spear carriers for official Washington."

He found the U.S. media unified in their historical view of the Cold War: the theme of a "long-suffering United States pitted against a ruthless and intractable Soviet adversary."

The U.S.-as-unsuccessful-good guy theme carries over into other areas. "Journalists unanimously agreed that the Soviet Union killed both detente and Salt II by the invasion of Afghanistan. The media did not assay the possibility that Congress might still have ratified the treaty had public opinion not been whipped to a frenzy, or, yet another possibility, that Salt II was in deep trouble in the U.S. Senate (from the American right) long before the invasion, and would never have passed under any circumstances."

As we did in our Toronto press survey, Dorman found "little attention was accorded the Soviet people and their reactions to events. The New York Times was practically alone in running a news feature on Moscow's citizen-in-the-street." For the most part, "the views and feelings of Russians rated only passing mention in news accounts. Newsweek concentrated entirely on dissidents, while Time devoted a single paragraph (within) its 23 pages of coverage (at the time of Brezhnev's death)" to Soviet citizens' feelings and views.

Dorman noted the fact, true in the Toronto coverage also, that the media "are preoccupied with Soviet dissidents," carrying a "flood" of stories about them. If the media in any other country were to report Canada largely through the medium of Canadian dissidents, most of us would consider this — at the least — bad journalism. But no double standard appears too blatant to be applied to the Soviet Union. No ball is too foul to be counted fair in the Cold War, perhaps the war more than any other in which truth was the first casualty.

The result, as Dorman stated, was that the media's "interpretation of Soviet history, behavior and intentions was unrelentingly negative." The emphasis was on a "bone-deep current of darkness."

History has its reasons, Dorman paraphrased filmmaker Jean Renior, "yet American journalism pretended that it does not. Successful propaganda, as Jacques Ellul has observed, is based not on lies but on the interpretation truths receive."

Kennan has written in frustration of the insistence of the press — shown in the Toronto survey — to provide "an endless series of distortions and oversimplifications" of the USSR, "a systematic dehumanization of the leadership of another great country," "routine exaggeration of Moscow's military capabilities" and "monotonous misrepresentation of the nature and attitudes of another great people."

This would be an incalculable journalistic crime in itself. But it may not be without incalculable cost to those in the media who perpetrate this integrated Manichean distortion and to the public that depends upon the media for a view of the world.

For it is exactly this view which permits and justifies the plans for nuclear war that are being refined and rehearsed.

For André Dumas, the lie is biblically portrayed as "the first and most poisonous source of injustice."

"The essential violence" of media misrepresentation about the Soviet Union and the arms race, suggests Alan Geyer in The Idea of Disarmament, "is that it destroys communication, trust, and confidence — and eventually generates hostility and death." Lies are the vanguard of Armageddon.

 

"*The Image of the Soviet Union in the American News Media: Coverage of Brezhnev, Andropov and MX," a paper presented by William A. Dorman to the conference on War, Peace and the News Media, at New York University, New York City, March 18-19, 1983. The conference was sponsored by the university and the Gannett Foundation. William Dorman is a professor of journalism at California State University, Sacramento, California.

 

Published in Sources Summer 1983

 



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