As a long-time observer of American radio, TV and newspapers, I am appalled by claims some people are placing on Facebook that we no longer have a free press. These claims, freely transmitted over the internet, would seem to contradict themselves.
One wonders if these people have any understanding of what life was like in a country that really did not have a free press: the Soviet Union prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (free speech).
The Soviet censorship agency, Glavlit, employed 80,000 people. Nothing could be published — even a message on a book of matches — without its permission. The government devoted tons of money, and a lot of electricity, to broadcast jamming signals so Soviet citizens could not listen to shortwave radio stations like the Voice of America and the BBC.
A license from the police was required to own a typewriter, which was considered a dangerous weapon. Copy machines were tightly controlled.
Boris Pasternak defied these controls in 1956 by smuggling the manuscript for his novel, Dr. Zhivago, out of the country after Soviet authorities refused to allow publication. Pasternak was under tremendous pressure not to do this.
After it was published abroad his situation became so intolerable that he briefly considered killing himself.
At the Writers Union, dozens of his friends and colleagues were forced to denounce him in the most vicious terms. He was expelled from the Writers Union by a vote which the leader of the meeting deemed unanimous even though one dissenter shouted “Not true! Not unanimously! I voted against!"
(Ironically, the dissenter was the sister-in-law of the late dictator, Josef Stalin!)
Earlier, Pasternak had gotten in trouble for refusing to sign petitions demanding execution of “enemies of the state.”
“Don’t yell at me,” he told some fellow writers at a public meeting. “But if you must yell, at least don’t do it in unison.”
Then the controlled press got into the act. Letters denouncing Pasternak were published, along with articles reviewing Dr. Zhivago in the most negative possible way.
Naturally no rebuttals were allowed. Some reviewers admitted that they had not read the book. Probably none of them had read it, since it hadn’t come out in Russian yet and copies in other languages could not be brought into the country.
Of course the Soviet editors who allowed these “reviews” to be published were under the thumb of the authorities and knew they would be fired (or worse) if they defied their orders. But their predicament reminds me of one of my students at Adrian College, Tiffany B., one of the editors of the College World newspaper.
A very controversial book had recently been published. One of our students asked Tiffany if he could write a criticism of it for the College World. She replied, as any good editor would have,“Sure, but you have to read it first."
I thought this was a good idea.
The two leading newspapers in the Soviet Union were Pravda ("truth") and Izvestia ("news.") They both trumpeted the party line.
There was a cynical joke that "in Pravda there is no news and in Izvestia there is no truth." (It sounded better when told in Russian.)
Thank goodness that Americans are not limited to hearing only about facts and ideas that are approved by some central authority. We should appreciate the fact that we still have a press which is free to express a variety of perspectives on the issues of our day.
And we should all take advantage of this variety by not relying on only one source for our news.
We see the world in three dimensions because the separation between our two eyes gives us different perspectives. By analogy, evaluating conflicting reports and interpretations of the news can give us a more accurate idea of what is going on.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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