Dec
01
1987

The Media and the Summit

Continuing the Cold War Legacy

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meeting in the Oval Office during the December 1987 summit.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meeting in the Oval Office during the December 1987 summit.

US media themes for the summit were established well before Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Washington. Despite the pretense of “objective reporting,” coverage of the arms race has often resembled "rooting for the home team.”

This was all too evident in the summer of 1985, when Gorbachev declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons tests and urged the US to join in making it a permanent, bilateral test ban. Following the Reagan administration’s lead, the US media dismissed Gorbachev’s proposal so quickly that most Americans are, at best, dimly aware that the Soviets stopped testing nuclear weapons for 19 months. CBS News characterized the Soviet initiative as mere “posturing.” A New York Times editorial (7/31/85) denounced it as “a cynical propaganda blast” that “would ring hollow even if it had not come after an energetic series of Soviet test explosions.”

The Times editorial echoed national security adviser Bob McFarlane’s claim that the Soviets had accelerated their testing program in the months preceding the moratorium. But the facts were contrary: The Soviet testing pace in 1985 was actually slower than in previous years, and lagged behind US efforts. The Soviets set off seven blasts through August 1985, the US nine. The Washington Post (9/2/85) defended the administration's rejectionism in an editorial, “Nuclear Tests Are Necessary.”

The media have also been cool to peace initiatives coming from rank-and-file Americans. When polls showed three out of four citizens supported a bilateral nuclear weapons freeze, the Times (10/25/82) editorialized against the measure. The Post (10/6/82) attacked two leading women’s organizations in the Freeze movement as “Soviet stooge groups.” (The charge was later retracted.) Even at the movement’s height, Freeze leaders were generally excluded from national TV debates about the arms race.

The pattern continued during coverage of the Washington summit, as disarmament proponents were virtually banished from the networks. Only right-wing critics of the INF Treaty were considered newsworthy. Even Sen. Mark Hatfield (R.-Ore.), who on December 3 delivered a blistering attack against the Reagan administration for reckless nuclear arms deployments, was blacked out of the national media (Oregonian, 12/7/87).

Typical of the narrow spectrum of TV opinion was NBC's summit wrap-up (12/10/87), in which Tom Brokaw interviewed INF critic Richard Perle and Sen. San Nunn (D.-Ga.), two of the dozen or so regulars who made the rounds on the networks. Nunn was the “dove” in TV discussions--despite his 25 percent rating from SANE for his 1986 voting record.

On December 4, SANE/Freeze, America’s largest peace group, claimed partial credit for the treaty on behalf of the peace movement, and announced plans to mobilize for quick ratification at a Washington news conference. It garnered little media coverage, whereas a press conference on the same day called by the Anti-Appeasement Alliance--which denounced Reagan as a "Kremlin idiot"--became a big news story.

Adding insult to injury, Secretary of State George Shultz denigrated peace activists in the Washington Post (12/15/87): “I would hope that the people in the movement would admit that they were wrong. In order to have peace, you have to show some strength.” Like Soviet dissidents, US peace movement leaders had to endure an attack in a national newspaper by a government official for positions they hadn't been allowed to enunciate themselves. “Shultz is given free rein to make the case against us,” complained SANE/Freeze press secretary Brigid Shea. "We aren't even given one inch to tell our side of the story.”

With peace viewpoints muted, pertinent questions were not even raised in the media: Why does the president resist a ban on nuclear bomb tests? Would the White House agree to a mutual halt to missile flight testing? What is Reagan's response to Soviet proposals for a ban on sea-based nuclear weapons in Northern Europe and a nuclear arms-free corridor in Central Europe?

Instead we were treated to a litany of scare stories about Soviet military superiority in Europe. Nationally syndicated columnist George Will claimed that Soviet advantages in conventional forces “are enormous” (Newsday, 12 /7/87). Yet Pentagon reports--easily available to journalists--show that Warsaw Pact military superiority is a myth. (See "The Myth of Soviet Conventional Superiority," Extra!, 12/87.) Other news stories falsely asserted that the USSR has a “near monopoly on chemical weapons” (WABC-TV, 12/10/87).

Soviet dissidents recommend reading articles from bottom to top to get the most out of Soviet newspapers. This method might have helped New York Times readers understand the front-page lead story, “US Says Kremlin Broke ‘72 Treaty Covering the ABM” (12/3/87), by Michael Gordon. While Reagan’s allegation of an ABM violation dominated Page 1, it isn’t until page 11 that we learn there are numerous holes in the White House story. Near the bottom of the 32-paragraph article, a non-administration source is finally cited: Sidney Graybeal, a negotiator of the ABM treaty, who pooh-poohed the charge.

Responding to a complaint from FAIR, a Times editor contended that Gordon’s story “made plain [the] charge was a political act” designed to placate conservatives. Whether or not it was a truthful act seemed less important to the US media. Meanwhile, many reporters shrugged it off far more substantial Soviet charges about US attempts to abrogate the ABM Treaty in pursuit of Star Wars. (See “Inflating Soviet Star Wars,” Extra!, 12/87.) Soviet opposition to spreading the arms race into space was referred to as “doctrinaire” or—as Tom Brokaw put it--“hostile” (NBC Nightly News, 12/8/87).

The principal media obsession during summit week was Gorbachev’s public relations acumen, as though the Kremlin had somehow cracked a prized American code. “He transformed cynical Washington into simpering Washington," declared US News & World Report (12/21/87). A front-page New York Times headline (12/10/87) chimed: “Soviet Visitor Is Turning On All His Charm.”

Curiously, a later Times edition changed this headline to “Soviet Visitor Mixes Charm With Venom.” The byline changed as well, from Joel Brinkley to Andrew Rosenthal. But the text changed only slightly, with the addition of several paragraphs describing Gorbachev’s meeting with news executives. Extra! contacted the Times writers for an explanation. When asked about the venom, Rosenthal said that Gorbachev took a hardline position at the meeting. “You might think this is a cop-out,” he added, “but headlines are written by editors not reporters.... I didn’t use the word ‘venom’ in my story.”

In addition to Gorby-as-PR-wiz, another media theme was the Soviet coder’s “misconceptions about America”—particularly his notion that a “military-industrial complex” dominates the US. ABC World News Tonight (12/6/87) and Newsweek (12/14/87) derided Gorbachev for suggesting that Reagan was a “pawn” of this mysterious complex.

Perhaps reporters have forgotten that it was President Eisenhower who warned—in his 1961 farewell speech-—of the military industrial complex’s undue influence over US policy.

Another one of Gorbachev’s “misconceptions” concerned human rights problems in the US. At one point, CBS anchor Dan Rather (12/8/87) questioned one of his correspondents about the Gorbachev/Reagan talks. “Any give on human rights?” Presumably, Rather was not asking if Reagan had made concessions by promising structural reforms to reduce homelessness and illiteracy in America. Correspondent Wyatt Andrews, who obviously understood the question as referring to Soviet abuses, replied: “No, just boilerplate rhetoric--no give on human rights.”

Perhaps Rather and his colleagues have discovered a way of working in New York and Washington without stepping over the bodies of homeless people on the sidewalks. In any event, they have evidently judged that the plight of the homeless is no human rights issue. By contrast, articles 22 to 27 of the UN’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” enumerate fundamental economic rights, including food, shelter and medical care.

Trapped behind an “irony curtain,” the US media are too often inclined to paper over abuses by their own government while readily criticizing its adversaries. Many a compass of American punditry is stuck on East for evil and West for virtue. For some journalists, it seems, there is a thin line between insisting that the Soviet Union cannot really change and tacitly preferring that it not disorient them by doing so.

SIDEBAR:
Network Anchors Outflank Reagan on the Right

On the eve of the summit, President Reagan was interviewed by four TV news anchormen. Aside from his remark that opponents of the INF treaty “have accepted that war is inevitable," Reagan’s answers were generally predictable. But the anchormen’s questions were indicative of how far rightward media discussion has shitted in recent years.

Query after query implied that Reagan, who built his political career on hardline anti-Communism, may have gone soft on the Russkies. Not one summit-related question even hinted at a critique of the president’s arms buildup or his insistence on promoting Star Wars. With the exception of a few neutral questions by ABC’s Peter Jennings, each anchorman assumed old-line Reaganite premises—-that the Soviets are perpetually bent on deception and have superior conventional forces, or that depriving Soviet citizens of the right to emigrate is a human rights issue but the homelessness of over 2 million Americans is not.

Tom Brokaw, NBC: Next week, Mikhail Gorbachev will be in Washington. The two of you are expected to sign an agreement for the elimination of all medium-range nuclear missiles in the world, even though this week you are accusing the Soviets of violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and even though a lot of people say that will leave the Soviets in a superior position in Europe because they have more men, more tanks, more helicopters. Now, if this were another president making this deal, wouldn’t the old Ronald Reagan be the first to speak out against it?

Dan Rather, CBS: Winston Churchill once said that trying to maintain a good relationship with the Communists was not unlike trying to woo a crocodile and, when it opened its mouth, you never could be quite certain whether it was trying to smile or eat you up. Now, Americans respect you, love you and are pulling for you but...the question is, what assurances can you give, how can you convince Americans that you have the command of the kind of complex information that’s necessary here not to have this young, energetic, intelligent Marxist-Leninist eat you and us up?

Rather: Did I understand you correctly to say that you have not changed your mind from the time you described the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”?

Brokaw: We learned again this week that Mikhail Gorbachev has a very hard-line view about human rights in his country and a very distorted view about the human rights equation in this country. He seems not to understand firsthand the depth of feeling in America, and even in his own country, about the need for people to have freedom to come and go as they please, to live in dignity. Could you not bring that feeling to him by inviting some refuseniks to the state dinner next week, so that when he is your guest he can meet them firsthand?

Bernard Shaw, CNN:
Do you suspect that Gorbachev thinks he can do a snow-job on the American people?

Shaw: Because arms control is such a crucial part of your legacy...if you do not go to Moscow next summer, given your legacy, will it break your heart?

Rather: You believe that [Gorbachev] believes that he has 115,000 troops in Afghanistan committing genocide almost daily simply because they were invited in there?