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

 On December 9, 1985, then, ABC News opened its evening bulletin with its newscaster, Peter Jennings, saying: "Good evening. We begin tonight with another exclusive look at the Soviet Union's most famous dissident, Andrei Sakharov. Another secretly made and heavily edited film of Sakharov and his wife, Elena Bonner, has been made available by the Soviets to a West German newspaper, the Bild. And ABC News has purchased it. Soviet officials in Moscow said today that Sakharov, the former Nobel Peace prize winner, should not be considered exiled in the closed Soviet city of Gorky, where he is forced to live, because Gorky is just like Detroit or Cleveland. As we shall see, not quite."  

 ABC then showed two and three-quarter minutes of the latest KGB release (see tape 5,) using the original Russian dialogue (synchronous sound, recorded when the pictures were taken), but putting over it its own commentary spoken by Peter Jennings. In cutting the material down, ABC followed the shape of the original KGB version: first, Bonner in the visa office, then Sakharov on the telephone, then Bonner in the dentist's chair, then Sakharov talking about arms control and SDI, apparently while waiting for his wife, then Bonner rejoining her husband. The final shot are of Sakharov carrying his wife's bags onto the train for Moscow. Each of these sequences has been shortened. In the final sequence, for example, ABC shows only two of the shots instead of the three in the KGB original, cutting the time down from 58 to 15 seconds. Jennings' commentary which accompanies the tape give viewers information about the contents of the film (jennings paraphrases the Russian dialogue) and also alerts them to KGB methods. It is carefully worded script written by a highly professional newscaster. For instance, Jennings points out that: "Despite some prodding Sakharov will not take the official Soviet line that Star Wars, or SDI, enables the United States to strike first."  

 As it reads, ABC's script for the KGB material is unexceptional. It may seem somewhat tortuous in places, but it sounds less so when matched against pictures. Also to be explained by television news practice - that is, maintaining an appearance of objectivity - is the apparently illogical nature of part of the commentary. "Did they know they were being filmed?" asks Jennings at one point, when a moment later we are informed by another reported that, no, Bonner did not know she was being filmed.  

 From these two examples, then, it's fair to say that within its own terms of news values, ABC's handling of the KGB tapes in Nightline and the evening news was responsible and informed, as informed, say, as the New York Times or the Washington Post. It should also be pointed out that by buying the rights to the KGB tapes ABC forestalled their commercial exploitation by television companies more prone to Bild's sensationalist approach.  

 On the positive side, also, as Tatiana Yankelevich said in the Nightline program, the release of the first tape by the KGB showed that the Soviets were sensitive to western public interest in Sakharov's fate. She called "a minor victory." The KGB had been forced to respond to western media pressure, albeit in this highly objectional form. Since publicity in the West help the dissident's cause - is, indeed, their only weapon against the power of the totalitarian Soviet state - the arrival in the West of material showing Sakharov and Bonner in Gorky undoubtedly provided the couple with greater media exposure at a time when they certainly needed help from outside. In general, it seems that the television coverage was well handled. That the material came from the KGB using hidden cameras was clearly stated; obvious disinformation purposes were identified, well-informed commentators addressed important aspects of the case, and the views of Sakharov's family in Newton were freely aired. From one point of view, the news media were turning the tables on the KGB to the benefit of the Sakharov and their fellow dissidents.  

 Yet we have to ask: would the television networks have responded in the same way to the tapes if they had been offered by the Soviet embassy in Washington, London, Paris or Bonn? If the answer to this question is in the negative, then we have to consider the case from another angle. For what the Soviet succeeded in doing with their Sakharov taped was to preempt space on western network news outlets in prime time on occasions of their choosing.  

 Thus, two days after Bonner arrived in the United States, the KGB commanded two and a half minutes of lead time on American television network news; on the eve of Bonner's return to the Soviet Union, as she prepared to meet with Prime Minister Thatcher in London, the KGB commanded time on British television. On March 24, 1986, in the weeks following the publication in Britain and America of Sakharov's tortures at the hands of the white-coated members of the KGB, the KGB once again commanded time on the major television news outlets in the West.  

 And so in each case except the last (dare we say the eight tape is the last in the series?), each time the KGB released a tape featuring Sakharov, western news media responded by responding the fact and by incorporating parts of the tapes in television bulletins, thereby giving publicity to the alleged contents of the tape and confusing viewers over the actual facts. On seven separate occasions, therefore, the KGB succeeded in creating a news event for the benefit of the West's media. The news event should more accurately be described as a media event.  

 What this case study therefore confirms is the increasing tendency of the West's news media to divert themselves into stories about the processing of news, rather than the news itself, about surface operations, rather than substance. There can be little doubt it is television itself, with its visual emphasis and dazzling technology, that has largely brought about this changed perception of what constitutes news. We must now, finally, consider the KGB tapes in the light of the television medium itself.  

 Television is primarily affective, a medium of the emotions and not of the intellect. In the presentation of information, factual or fictional, its essential form is drama - dramatic music, dramatic graphics, dramatic titles, dramatic delivery by announcers, dramatic cutting from one scene to another, one shot to another, and - not least - dramatic advertising pitches. Given a choice between two visual images, we will always take the stronger, the more dramatic one. What is, therefore, being transmitted through this form is predominantly emotional information. When the verdict is delivered at a well publicized trial - Claus von Bulow's, for example - the camera will show us the defendant's face, his emotional expression, and not the foreman of the jury. When catastrophe occurs - say, the Challenger disaster - the cameras will focus immediately on the family of the victims. In talks shows, interest is generated by frequent changes of camera angles, that is to say interest arises from manipulation of the visual, or affective, element and not from what is being said. In news programs, brief excerpts from interviews are inserted more as an attention-getting effect than to provide significant factual information. Appropriately enough, the industry calls these brief excerpts "sound bites." They are intended to snatch at the emotions, not for intellectual digestion.   

In the tension that exists between words and images, the discursive, rational quality of speech is opposed by the intuitive, literally eye-catching nature of pictures. What goes on in the visual field will normally pre-empt attention, but we have to be told what it is we are looking at, and we will normally believe what we are told. In news programs in particular, visual information has to be communicated instantly, so that images are selected for their symbolic meaning, a meaning that will be grasped at once at an emotional level by the greatest number of people in the shortest possible amount of time.  

 Most viewers spend several hours each day in front of their television sets; what they retain from a viewing experience is an impression, not an orderly argument or clear record of facts. Separate program elements merge into a continuous kaleidoscope of sound and images and there is neither opportunity nor inclination for detailed analysis of the images. Ask viewers about a factual program they have seen, and most will tell you their feelings about it; and if you press them about their thoughts on the subject matter of the program, you will usually find that their thoughts are no more than reflections of their feelings.  

 On further point needs stressing. Since television news is the only source of information for most Americans about the outside world, their perception of events and personalities, their interpretation of reality, is based only on what can be seen. What cannot be seen, that is, looked at on a television screen, has no existence in popular imagination. This makes interpreting the true nature of closed societies like the Soviet Union to western audiences virtually impossible. In the 1970s small quantities of eight millimeter film made as appearance in the West, mostly taken secretly by dissidents and smuggled out. One film showed a Soviet labor camp near Riga, in Latvia, and it caused a sensation among European communist parties fearful of the effect on television audiences of such visual material. But the secret films were not in sufficient quantity nor of sufficiently interesting action to justify their fears. Thus the reality of the Soviet Gulag Archipelago, its vast extent, its past crimes and cruelties, its demoralizing effect at all levels of Soviet society, this reality is virtually unknown to mass audiences because it cannot be pictured on a regular basis. On this subject, and unlike its Nazi equivalent now encapsuled by the term"the Holocaust," there is no repertoire of symbolic images of the Soviet Gulag derived from previous viewing experiences to provide the visual references necessary to provoke an emotional response from western audiences. The problems encountered by ABC in its series "Amerika" are testimony to this difficulty.  

 

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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