The enormous press coverage generated by the recent coup attempt in the Soviet Union soon resolved itself into several recurring themes: the lionization of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin that obscured his troubling political history; a misrepresentation of the history of the Baltic states coupled with a shallow explanation of resurgent nationalism in the Baltic nations and the Soviet republics; an uncritical overreliance on conservatives as experts on the Soviet Union; and a wholehearted embrace of U.S.-style capitalism and George Bush.
THE LIONIZATION OF BORIS YELTSIN
The press’ uncritical promotion of Yeltsin led it to dismiss troubling aspects of his political views. Although Yeltsin used to be described regularly as a Russian nationalist, few reporters used that designation during coverage of the coup. Fewer still made reference to Yeltsin’s connections to Pamyat, an anti-Semitic, Russian nationalist organization. One article that did, made its position clear: “No One’s Laughing Now: Forget the Gaffes, Yeltsin Is Nobody’s Fool” (Newsweek, 9/2/91). “He has met on occasion with representatives of the extremist and anti-Semitic Russian nationalist group Pamyat,” Newsweek reported, “but only to satisfy his curiosity about the group’s intentions, his supporters insist.”
Yeltsin himself was more forthcoming when asked about Pamyat’s anti-Semitism in a highly publicized joint appearance with Gorbachev at a televised “Town Meeting” (ABC, 9/6/91; New York Times, 9/7/91): “Yeah, I’ve had dealings with Pamyat for quite a long time, more than one year, at least. I think in its work it’s becoming different. It’s not such-so extreme as it was when it was started in 1987.”
In fact, Yeltsin has had good feelings about Pamyat for a number of years. In July 1987, at an apparently impromptu meeting at his office, Yeltsin told Pamyat officials (New York Times, 7/26/87): “[Your] questions are justified. It’s clear that a sense of patriotism motivates you, patriotism about our motherland, our capital, Moscow.” This endorsement was given at a time when Pamyat members were circulating copies of the classic anti-Semitic work, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and warning that Jews were infiltrating the Orthodox Church in order to desecrate Christianity.
Yeltsin’s vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, was described in the mainstream press as “a rising star” (U.S. News, 9/2/91) and as “flamboyant and fearless” (Time, 9/9/91). He is also the deputy chair of Otechestvo (Fatherland), an anti-Semitic, Russian nationalist organization, a connection that went unmentioned in coverage of the coup (Searchlight, 1/90). Otechestvo also has strong ties to Pamyat.
Although the press has in the past alluded to pressure on Bush from the right wing of the Republican party to support Yeltsin (New York Times, 7/17/90), Yeltsin’s close working relationship with key figures in the U.S. right wing has been ignored by the mainstream media. Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, for example, has trained Yeltsin staff members, including his campaign manager, and has acted as an intermediary for grants from the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy to Yeltsin’s Inter-Regional Deputies Group (Covert Action Information Bulletin, Fall/90). While the New York Times (9/9/89) noted that Yeltsin’s 1989 U.S. visit was sponsored by the new age Esalen Institute, the Financial Times (9/13/91) reported that it was also partially paid for by Jorge Mas Canosa, millionaire spokesperson for the right-wing Cuban American Foundation.
Despite the media’s focus on democracy, Boris Yeltsin’s authoritarian actions in the wake of the coup raised only sporadic criticism. Immediately after the coup, Yeltsin shut down newspapers alleged to be sympathetic to the coup, claimed authority to appoint the replacements of all local council members dismissed for supporting the coup, banned the Communist Party and seized its property, closed the Russian Writers Union and warned other republics he would “review” their borders if they seceded. The press repeatedly referred to the “blizzard of decrees” (Time, 9/9/91) Yeltsin issued, but rarely described the actions he had taken. One report in Time (9/9/91) did allude to the Republics’ fear that Yeltsin’s decrees “meant that they had got rid of Communist totalitarianism only to be swept up into a new Russian empire.”
Another aspect of the media embrace of Yeltsin was its insistence that Gorbachev subordinate himself to Yeltsin. Many national media insisted that Gorbachev — seen as insufficiently anti-Communist — was no longer the legitimate leader of the Soviet Union. Despite the media’s focus on constitutional process, Gorbachev was called on to hand over power: Gorbachev may have been “the duly constituted authority,” but Yeltsin was nevertheless “the better bet” to lead the Soviet Union (Washington Post editorial, 8/23/91). A U.S. News & World Report commentary was blunt (9/2/91):
NATIONALISM AND DEMOCRACY
Major media also seemed disinclined to hold the nationalist and secessionist republics to the same democratic norms they would require of the Soviet Union. Latvia’s debate on whether its citizenship should be based on ethnicity or place of birth (only 52 percent of Latvians by birth are ethnically Latvian) is a good example. The debate took place within a context of reciprocal ethnic bigotry: While Latvians were subjected to mandatory “Russification” under Soviet rule since 1944, Russians and other ethnic minorities faced mandatory “Latvianization” and repressive legislation under authoritarian regimes in the 1918-1940 period.
Although a theory of citizenship that would disenfranchise nearly half a population on the basis of ethnicity is not compatible with democratic ideals, media coverage of Latvia substantially supported the Latvian nationalist position. For example, in one 21-paragraph article on the issue (New York Times, 9/7/91), only the final five paragraphs even presented the non-nationalist viewpoint. Furthermore, by consistently referring to “Latvians” (meaning ethnic Latvians) and to “Russians and other non-Latvians” (meaning ethnic Russians and others), the media implicitly accepted the nationalist position that citizenship should be based on ethnicity.
The Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) provide a striking example of the need for a deeper historical grounding for journalism. The mainstream media conveyed little history of the Baltic states beyond a repetition of the accurate but not sufficient statement that the Baltic states were forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union in 1940, following a 1939 secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin. Time magazine went so far as to claim (9/9/91) that the Baltic states “had been independent countries until 1940, when they were incorporated into the Soviet Union by force.”
In fact, while all three nations were independent for most of the 12th and 13th centuries, they were subsequently conquered by Germans, Danes, Poles and Swedes, as well as Russians, and had all been incorporated into the Russian empire by the close of the l700s. None had been independent since then, except for the 20-year interregnum between the two world wars, during which all three countries succumbed to right-wing coups that imposed authoritarian regimes.
While it was fair for the media to refer repeatedly to the forcible incorporation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union in 1940, the media’s refusal to mention the 1941 invasion of the Baltics by Nazi Germany, which occupied the area with the help of wide-spread collaboration until driven out by the Soviet Union in 1944, was misleading.
Similarly, while the Ukraine was a major power from the 10th to the 12th centuries and has had periods of independence since then, Russia has entirely controlled the Ukraine since the 17th century, except for a brief period of independence between the two world wars and another, briefer period during WW II when the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists-Bandera (OUN-B) set up an anti-Semitic, nationalist state that mimicked the German Nazi state. Despite the fact that part of the contemporary Ukrainian nationalist independence movement models itself on the OUN-B (sharing flags, slogans and holidays with its predecessor), the mainstream press consistently refers to “the independence movement in the Ukraine,” without any explanation of the movement’s roots or of the factions found within the movement.
One report (U.S. News, 9/16/91) on the Ukraine’s recent declaration of independence not only failed to mention its historical predecessor — the 1939 declaration of an independent Ukraine proclaimed, “Glory to the Heroic German Army and its Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler” — but went on to state that the Ukraine had been independent in this century only in 1918, thus entirely erasing the 1939 Nazi collaborationist government. U.S. News claimed that the Ukraine had only a weak sense of national consciousness, and had been able to build an independence movement that was not limited to ethnic Ukrainians. While not all in the Ukrainian independence movement adhere to the anti-Semitism or ethnic chauvinism of the OUN-B, the mainstream media, by failing to differentiate between the extremist and the more moderate Ukrainian nationalists, does not provide the historical background necessary to evaluate the movement.
Media coverage of other nationalist movements and of the danger their anti-democratic tendencies may pose was also inadequate. In part because the mainstream media hardly acknowledge the fascist regimes in Eastern Europe during World War II, press coverage of those regimes’ contemporary legacies in resurgent nationalism tends to be sketchy and incomplete. For example, one 19-paragraph article entitled “Moscow Rights Conference Sees Danger in Nationalism” (New York Times, 9/11/91) barely mentioned its stated topic of nationalism in the Soviet Union. Only five paragraphs of the story even discussed nationalism, and most of those dealt with the current ethnic battling in Yugoslavia.
LITHUANIA PARDONS WAR CRIMINALS
Similarly, when Lithuania celebrated its independence by beginning to pardon citizens who had been convicted by Soviet courts for Nazi collaboration and other crimes, under a law which specifically excluded persons guilty of war crimes or genocide, most media responded lethargically to the scandal. While Jewish groups presented lists of war criminals who had been rehabilitated, including members of the 12th Army batallion, units of which are known to have committed genocide, no newspapers printed or investigated the lists.
Although there is no debate among respectable historians that some Lithuanians were fascists who joined armed collaborationist units and willingly helped the Nazis and others murder 90 percent of Baltic Jews, much of the media coverage was tentative. Even the New York Times, which first published the story (9/5/91), seemed to apologize for Lithuanian collaboration with Nazis:
In one of the few clear statements regarding the existence of a fascist movement in Lithuania during World War II, “Absolution for Killers” (New York Times, 9/10/91), A.M. Rosenthal wrote of the angry responses from readers to his call for independence for the Baltics: “The letters told the retching truth about these Lithuanian Fascists. Serving in special terror battalions with the German Army, they murdered scores of thousands of Jews in Lithuania…. The letters predicted that under independence open anti-Semitism would rise again in Lithuania.” Amid the extensive coverage of Baltic nationalism and independence, the media rarely found space to discuss the newly independent states’ need to resolve long-standing issues of ethnic bigotry and violent nationalism.
MEDIA CHAUVINISM & CONSERVATIVE “EXPERTS”
The media also promoted a sense of national chauvinism in which the U.S. was used as the measure of value. The people and institutions of the U.S. were idealized. Time magazine stated (9/9/91), “If communism as we have known and hated it is out of the way, perhaps George Bush can now talk unabashedly to Soviet officials about such good old-fashioned values as God, truth and the sanctity of human life.”
The media spoke repeatedly of the U.S. as the world’s only remaining superpower and explored the requirements of such a role. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was repeatedly described as the world’s “last empire,” as when Dan Rather condemned the coup (CBS Evening News, 8/19/91) as “an attempt…to retain the only remaining empire of the 20th century — the Russian empire.”
The media had uniformly high praise for President George Bush’s role in the coup and its aftermath. “This is what Bush does best,” Newsweek reported (9/2/91), “Leader of the Free World is the role Americans admire him for, and in which he feels most at home.” U.S. News & World Report joined in (9/2/91): “During this crisis, the president went back to the direct-dial diplomacy that had served him so well during the Persian Gulf crisis. Bush’s deft crisis management has again left the Democrats gasping for air — and air time.”
The CIA was also widely praised. U.S. News reported (9/2/91) that the staff of “the nation’s premier intelligence agency were upset at their failure to predict the coup, but were able to relax since there had been “no telltale movement of troops toward Moscow.” Newsweek, on the other hand, reported that the CIA had predicted the coup, but was ignored because of White House disdain for Yeltsin (“The CIA Called It — But Nobody Listened,” Newsweek, 9/2/91).
The promotion of “good old-fashioned values” and U.S. institutions was exacerbated by the media’s overreliance on commentators from the U.S. right wing. Frequently, the experts’ political orientation was not acknowledged. The Washington Post (8/21/91) relied on two sources, an analyst from the Hoover Institution (whose organizational and personal political orientation were left unstated) and a professor described as conservative, for a news article on the Soviet Union’s tendency toward mendacity; the article claimed that “the bald-faced lie is one of the great traditions of the Soviet Union.” A single Time article (2/9/91) used representatives of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies as experts; only Heritage was described as “conservative.” (One prominent non-conservative in the media was CBS analyst Stephen Cohen, who formerly wrote on Soviet affairs for the Nation.)
CAPITALISM AND COMMUNISM
United in believing that the Soviet Union should move immediately to a minimally regulated capitalist system modeled on the U.S., the media on occasion seemed cavalier about the costs of such a transition. “Great sacrifice is inevitable,” reported U.S. News (9/16/91), “given the changes coming.” Newsweek advised (9/2/91), “The costs of transition to capitalism are high, but for the Soviet Union there is no other way.” Civil liberties were sometimes treated as less important than the West’s investment needs. A New York Times editorial (9/4/91) argued, for example, that the free flow of goods, tight currency controls and protection of private contracts were “essential,” while freedom to travel within the Soviet Union was “desirable.”
Warning of “really hard sacrifices,” Newsweek (9/2/91) listed the steps the Soviet Union must take:
This prescription for an IMF-approved austerity program is presented as though it were the only option for a non-communist Soviet economy.
While polls indicate that many Soviet citizens favor a Scandinavian-style socialism or a heavily regulated, safety-net capitalism for their country, articles talk about the inevitability of “towering inflation” and “high unemployment” (Newsweek, 9/2/91), as though freefall laissez-faire capitalism were the one true path to economic health.
Yeltsin: Russia’s Teflon President
In addition to downplaying Boris Yeltsin’s political views, the media’s coup coverage tended to gloss over the Russian president’s embarrassing personal history. A Washington Post story (8/22/91), for example, mentions without elaboration that Yeltsin’s career had seemed at times to be over, “destroyed by his own flaws: an overweening self-confidence, a fondness for liquor, and a habit of getting into embarrassing scrapes.” Similarly, the New York Times (8/23/91) noted that Yeltsin was “refreshingly candid and bold in public but at the same time capable of the most brazen fibs,” without further explanation.
One of those brazen fibs, never discussed in national press coverage of the coup, was Yeltsin’s claim in September 1989 that he had been the victim of a bizarre attempted assassination. Dripping wet and clutching a bouquet of flowers in a Soviet police station, Yeltsin stated that unknown assailants had dragged him from his car, pulled a sack over his head, and dropped him 50 feet into the Moscow River. When Yeltsin’s story later fell apart, he conceded (New York Times,10/17/89) that no one had attempted to kill him and said, “It’s my private life, so to speak.”
Scarcely a month later, Yeltsin claimed (New York Times, 10/20/89) that KGB agents had threatened to “kill him at any moment using a remote electronic device that would stop his heart.” Yeltsin also blamed the KGB for doctoring a 1989 U.S. television tape of an appearance at Johns Hopkins to make him appear drunk; his supporters claimed that his slurred speech and playful demeanor were the result of fatigue.
Despite pressure from right wing Republicans to support the anti-communist Yeltsin over Gorbachev, President Bush remained aloof towards Yeltsin, whose manners were reported to have “irked” Bush’s WASP sensibilities. Perhaps Bush’s disdain stemmed from reports that Yeltsin had urinated on the airport runway just after his U.S. arrival and used his hands to serve caviar at a state dinner (Newsweek, 9/2/91).