Study of Coverage of USSR in U.S. 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
audiences with 'the truth,' for it is a risky business to
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
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
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
In the large, the news about Russia is a case of
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
I must go on and say that I find the view of the
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
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
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
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
The result, as Dorman stated, was that the media's
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
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."
the vanguard of Armageddon.
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,
Published in Sources Summer 1983
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