Two months later, in Philadelphia, the only substantial gavel-to-gavel media coverage of Physicians for Social Responsibility was TASS and East German broadcasting. Curious as to their motives, I chatted up the TASSman. He was on a nitpick. Talked about George Will’s “political pornography.” Was delighted, clearly, that the American media were doing a piss-poor job of covering the conference in which U.S. physicians were lobbying against nuclear warfare. Reinforced his stereotype about mass communication in the United States being only about sensationalizing distractions.
Our side doesn’t do much better. The U.S. media keep ragging away at the Soviets for mistreatment of dissidents. They positively exulted in the reflex secrecy of the Soviets immediately after the Chernobyl disaster. (And they provided the Soviets with plenty of ammunition about how competitive, deadline-manic American media can make a misleading mountain of falsehoods out of a molehill of data dribbling through the Soviet self-censorship.)
Then, most recently, when Ted Turner delivered on his promise to broadcast the Goodwill Games, you’ve never heard such an outpouring—from the American media—of sour grapes about the Mouth from the South’s initiative. Competitive American media chortled over how many millions Turner was bound to lose at that piddling electronic turnout. They dismissed as naïve Turner’s promise to do a series of documentaries that showed “what was good” about the Soviet Union. Talk about xenophobic ethnocentricity. “Evil Empire” models of the USSR have reduced our sophisticated journalists to peddling hackish party lines about “reality” in the Soviet Union.
I think of my only trip to Russia in the summer of 1981—to see the first exhibition of Russian avant-garde art since 1930, a joint Russian-French production. I put up with two weeks of sandstorms in Central Asia to get five days in Moscow so I could take a close look at the show in the Pushkin Museum.
Minutes after we settled into our Moscow hotel, I was at Intourist’s desk in the lobby, wheedling for tickets. “Impossible, sir. That show is sold out until it closes.”
Next morning, I tried a different agent. “Of course, sir. No problem. Come back at noon.”
At noon, the lady handed me two of the priceless tickets—but my heart sank when I saw they were dated ten days after our tour left Moscow for the sand dunes. I explained this to the lady, who replied: “Oh, that’s perfectly alright—as long as you get there before the expiration date.” Nuts. The tickets gave me two hours on a specific day.
So I fell by the Pushkin the next morning. Two sentries, who had majored in Nasty at the military academy, pointed out the date on the tickets, laughed hysterically, and waved me away with their AK-47’s. Yuck. I love Liubov Popova’s painting too much to allow such Nerds to muck up my plans. I went back into the line and found someone who spoke English and had her explain my sorry plight to the soldiers. They smirked superciliously and told me to come back the next day.
Another guard, with a different kind of uniform and entirely different mentality, was on duty. He waved me through without even looking at my ticket. The exhibition was superb. I was very slow going through, however, because I can’t deal with the Cyrillic alphabet easily. I had the French language catalogue. But not for long. Russians sidled up to me and asked if they could take a peek; the Soviets weren’t selling the catalogue because they didn’t want their countrymen to know the sordid details about how Stalin had clamped down on this brilliantly innovative style when someone had assassinated the secretary of the party in Leningrad. (Later, my Intourist guide in Leningrad told me she stayed up all night to read the book when I lent it to her.)
The show was just too much to handle at one run-through. So, the next day, I stationed myself near the entrance and pssted the attention of a curator. In French, I explained how important it was that I got a longer look. He said he was sorry but he had to go to a meeting. I hung out, furtively seeking another open-sesame. In 15 minutes, his conscience unquenchable, he returned and waved me secretively through.
The third day, I tried the back door, when I told the guard in German I wanted to interview the director for a feature story for the Philadelphia Bulletin. He picked up the phone, hesitated, put it down. Then he picked it up with what looked like renewed courage, faltered, and put it down again. He waved me through. He’d rather risk that then bringing the director something she didn’t want to deal with.
Why have I recounted the story of how I had to wangle my way into a show that should have been at the heart of any three-week arts tour of Russia? Because it made me realize how victimized everybody over there is. Those soldiers, that at first made me so angry, were doing what I would probably do under similar circumstances: Power there is arbitrary; they never know when its arbitrariness will pinch them; they compensate by being arbitrary whenever it suits their mood.
The German-speaking guard already had too much on his plate; so he let me slip through to avoid any possible contretemps. The French-speaking curator finally let his love for art triumph over his fear of cutting bureaucratic corners. These people deserve our sympathy, not our contempt.
The PBS series “Comrades” this summer has given me even more illuminating windows on what Winston Churchill called a mystery wrapped in an enigma. An Estonian fashion designer is putting more and more waggle into a consumer system that even Wendy’s hamburgers took cheap shots at in its commercials. And even in what the great émigré novelist called the Cancer Ward, an eye surgeon is leading the world with fresh alternatives to blindness. But it is significant that this is a British series distributed by a consortium of American PBS stations (Can’t you just see them calculating how there’d be strength in numbers in case there was a lot of flack about a positive series on the U.S.S.R.?).
Come on, fellas. Let’s call off the reciprocal nit-picking that goes for media relations between the two countries. I’m not saying we shouldn’t holler bloody murder when they tit-for-tat U.S. News and World Report correspondent Nick Daniloff—the son of émigrés, fluent in Russian, one could argue the most superbly equipped member of our press corps in Moscow. KGB stupidity is no more tolerable than CIA muddleheadedness.
We’ve just got to assume that the Cold War has served its purpose, and that we have to constantly look for new ways of making a world community viable.
And I don’t mean getting laxer on tracking down spies and American informants. I just mean let’s just realize, as I saw in Moscow that summer, that the Russians are people who react differently under an oppressive system, which just may be loosening up. The candid way the Russians have covered the Black Sea cruise ship disaster shows they’ve even learned since Chernobyl.
And remember, there’s got to be a more civilized way to cover airplane crashes like the one in Cerritos, California. They cover up; we over-cover. The golden mean, gentlemen. The Greeks knew what they were talking about.
The superpowers need to get off each other’s cases, and get down to resolving their own mounting agendas, agendas that must include more and more comprehensive and fair coverage of The Enemy. We could use an old-fashioned dose of the Bible in mitigating the media cold war—that old parable about seeing the mote in your neighbor’s eye while missing the beam in one’s own. I’m not asking for Pollyanna foolishness. I’m asking for a sane alternative to the superpowerlessness of calling our enemy’s faults instead of mending our own. And the same goes for the Russkies!
From Welcomat: After Dark.