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(SAKHAROV, THE KGB AND THE MASS MEDIA Cont'd)

It 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:  

 "Bugged: You can even hear Mrs. Sakharov coughing"   
(August 23, 1984)   

"Intelligence Service filmed them from a box"   
(August 23, 1984)   

"9 Photographs - The horrible sufferings of a human being"   
(June 28, 1985)   

"Eating too much is killing him"   
(June 28, 1985)   

"Sakharov: Tapped Day and Night"   
(March 24, 1986)   

"Sakharov on the Telephone: 'All the best, Love and Kisses'"   
(March 24, 1986)   

What 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."[11] 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 diplomatic exchange.  

 For 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.  

 In 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.[12] 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.   

In 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.  

 Nevertheless, 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.  

 When 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.[13] 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.  

 It 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.  

 Having 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 strong point."  

 Before 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."  

 ABC 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.  

 This 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.  

 Having 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.  

 Nightline 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.  

Index of Papers   1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10 
11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  References 


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