(SAKHAROV, THE KGB AND THE MASS MEDIA Cont'd)
can be said of this new commercial journalism, more entertainment
than information, and which tends always toward erotic arousal,
that it desensitizes viewers - and therefore readers - to the real
subject matter by reducing everything to the same level of melodrama.
In the pages of Bild, therefore, the fate of Sakharov and
Bonner is trivialized through overemphasis and kitsch language.
It's as if Bild were advertising a television soap opera,
as these sample headlines suggest:
You can even hear Mrs. Sakharov coughing"
(August 23, 1984)
Service filmed them from a box"
(August 23, 1984)
Photographs - The horrible sufferings of a human being"
(June 28, 1985)
too much is killing him"
(June 28, 1985)
Tapped Day and Night"
(March 24, 1986)
on the Telephone: 'All the best, Love and Kisses'"
(March 24, 1986)
probably makes Bild an attractive distribution center to
KGB media operatives is the paper's editorial adventurism, what
other journalists describe as a "hit or miss" approach to the news
and quality of "deniability."
You can easily disavow a Bild attribution because no one
respects the paper's journalistic integrity. At the same time, by
favoring Bild with sensitive information before releasing
it officially, the Soviets help promote the paper's commercial success.
Early in 1986 the Soviets chose Bild for the public release
of two letters from Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, to West Germany's
Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and it was Bild that first disclosed
that Anatoly Shcharansky was to be freed as part of an East-West
its part, Bild is just as aggressive in giving publicity
to what the KGB wishes to have said as it is in declaring that its
source is a secret videotape made by hidden KGB cameras. Either
way, Bild will attract attention and sell its copies. In
this dubious alliance between a conservative German institution
and the Soviet state, one is reminded of a similar liaison formed
after World War I to get around the provisions of the Versailles
Treaty between General von Seeckt, the architect of Germany's secret
military revival, and the new Bolshevik regime.
the United States press coverage of Soviet affairs has always been
of uneven quality. Some western correspondents are critical of their
own colleagues in Moscow, citing cases of unprofessionalism, inexperience
and careerism which make them easy targets of disinformation and
personal manipulation which characterize Soviet dealing with the
press. News organizations are also nervous of losing the favor of
Soviet official in Moscow to commercial rivals.
Although the Sakharov-Bonner saga received comparatively timely
and well-informed coverage in national daily newspapers like The
New York Times and the Washington Post, reporting of
human rights abuse in the Soviet Union generally has been poor,
according to most Soviet exiles. Of regional papers, the Boston
Globe through its proximity to the Sakharov family in Massachusetts,
could be expected to take special interest in his case. But reporters
from the Boston Globe, like most American journalists, tend
to believe that Soviet dissidents are biased in what they say about
the Soviet Union and that this bias needs correcting in the interest
of objectivity. Such an attitude, of course, plays into the hands
of Soviet disinformation experts who encourage the idea that the
Soviet Union and the United States should be treated as equal societies.
The West's news media as a whole, say critics, seem fearful of contributing
to a new cold war atmosphere and so are unable on a day to day basis
to provide an objective context for their coverage of Soviet affairs.
the case of the KGB videotapes, it seems that wire agencies and
newspaper correspondents seldom, if ever, took the trouble to investigate
the material in detail for themselves. Are they, indeed, competent
to do so? As a result, the print media usually reproduced Bild's
statements about the tapes, which statements, in some significant
details, often reproduced KGB distortions.
until recently it has been the print media that have provided the
main lifeline whereby the plight of Soviet dissidents was made known
to western public opinion. And it was largely in response to the
pressure exerted on the Soviets over Sakharov by the print media
that the KGB began releasing their videotapes.
the first videotape turned up in Bild's hands in August 1984,
television news stations throughout the western world showed immediate
interest. The three American networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, competed
for exclusive rights to the material, with ABC winning the auction.
It os thought that ABC paid some $50,000 for these rights, though
one account quoted $67,500.
In Europe, extracts from the tapes were shown at various times in
Britain, France and Germany - America's major NATO partners - and
elsewhere. That the western alliance was intended as the KGB's main
target is suggest by the inclusion in the tapes of Europe and America
periodicals - Bunte Illustrirte, Paris Match, Il
Sabato, Time, and Newsweek.
is safe to say that had either of ABC's rivals won the auction with
Bild they would have handled the material in much the same
way as ABC did, the editorial attitudes and practices of the three
networks being virtually identical. ABC's approach, therefore, can
be studied as being typical of the American television news media.
secured exclusive rights, then, ABC News featured the first KGB
tape in its Nightline program on August 23, 1984, promoting the
fact with stills form the tape in its main newscast and in Nightline
the evening before. Announcing the program, ABC declared that the
tape was "almost certainly a production of the Soviet KGB, which
may be one of the world's most feared secret police organizations.
But when it comes to making movies, subtlety is obviously not its
showing the tape, Ted Koppel, the host of Nightline, briefly sketched
in the background facts, such as they were known. Koppel went on
to warn viewers to watch out for a number of points. Sakharov on
hunger strike? asked Koppel rhetorically - he's shown eating. Both
Sakharov and Bonner are said to be in poor health, Koppel continued,
but she's shown smoking, shopping, driving a car, and he's shown
reading, chatting and walking. Koppel pointed out that the KGB had
provided visual evidence for the date of scenes by clumsily inserting
shots of western news magazines; and he ended his introduction by
noting the visual effect of the "fulsome Travelogue" (which ABC
did not show) with which the KGB had begun their film in order,
as Koppel put it, "to diminish the impact of exile."
then broadcast five minutes of the videotape with its Russian narration
translated into English, giving viewers a fair idea of the original.
After the screening of the tape, Koppel introduced viewers to three
people with specialized knowledge of the case. In Boston, there
were Tatiana Yankelevich, Sakharov's stepdaughter, and Ladislav
Bittman, "a former deputy chief of the disinformation department
of the Czechoslovak intelligence service who now works and lives
here in the United State" (Bittman teaches at Boston University,
where he heads a center for the study of disinformation). In New
York was William Hyland, "Soviet expert," editor of the prestigious
journal Foreign Affairs, and a former deputy director of
the National Security Council.
was a formidable array of experts. Between then they corrected many
of the KGB falsifications in the tape. Bittman disposed of Victor
Louis, the KGB contact man who brought the tape to Bild,
and spoke of KGB methods and intentions, such as trying to drive
a wedge between Sakharov and his wife. Tatiana Yankelevich spoke
about the physical appearance of her mother and stepfather, saying
how their ordeal had aged them, but agreeing that since the tape
seemed recent it looked as if Sakharov was not now on hunger strike.
We were shown additional scenes from the tape while she was talking,
a technique often used, but one that can be confusing, especially
to viewers who may not have been listening attentively. Hyland discussed
how this disinformation campaign fitted in with wider Soviet political
objectives. With a break for advertisements halfway through, the
studio portion of the program lasted 14 minutes in all.
established a special interest in Sakharov and the KGB tapes, ABC
protected its investment in the subject, as it were, by purchasing
the rights to the next tapes as they appeared, showing excerpts
from them in their evening newscasts in June, July and December
1985, and in March 1986.
is broadcast late in the evening (11:30 to midnight in major East
coast markets) and compared with the mass audience for prime time
entertainment its audience is small and selective. In contrast,
the television network news is broadcast in the early part of the
evening (6:30 to 7 p.m. in some markets, 7 to 7:30 p.m. in others)
when the competition for audience share is at its most intense as
each network builds up to the hours of peak viewing, "prime time,"
when the audience size will normally amount to some thirty million
viewers for each network. The television network news, therefore,
has to appeal to the mainstream of the population in the context
of popular entertainment. It is the principal means whereby the
public informs itself about national and world affairs. On December
9, 1985 the latest KGB tape formed the lead story in ABC's evening
bulletin. The way the network handled the story is once again typical
of American television news practice.
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