Location: United States

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Binghamton studying education and history.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The 4th Branch of the Government: A Case Study of the Media as a Government Megaphone

In times of war, the media, be it in a corporate dominated state such as the United States, or a tightly controlled one-party system, such as the former Soviet Union, by and large acts as a megaphone for governmental policy. These case studies of media coverage on the crises in Poland in the early 1980s, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, utilizing primary sources, will demonstate the way in which biased media accounts can polarize public opinion in hostile nations, illustrating the importance of independent media in a time of war.

Part 1: The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Comparing the viewpoints of the world’s two most powerful nation-states; nations that had been at war politically, economically and ideologically for decades, will no doubt turn up fundamental differences in opinion. However, in comparing several articles on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (from the U.S. based New York Times, and the Soviet Union based Current Digest of the Soviet Press) one will find a common position between both sides, hoping that a new chapter to the cold war will not unfold.

The fundamental difference, however, lies in the fact that while the US blames the war in Afghanistan and Carter’s reaction, for increasing tensions; the Soviet Union feels that the return to cold war policies has nothing to do with Afghanistan, but rather, is the product of US imperialistic foreign policy.

The New York Times articles acknowledge that the Soviet action is a “brutal violation of both moral and international law”[1]; and label the arrival of troops as an attempt to protect a Marxist regime - such as moves into Hungary and Czechoslovakia[2]; as well as proposing that the Soviet’s were acting to protect oil interests in the region[3].
While the move is criticized throughout the Times articles, President Jimmy Carter’s reckless and “dangerously explosive – policy of cold war rhetoric in the Afghan crises”[4], is met with far greater alarm.

The Current Digest of the Soviet Press does not share the New York Times condemnation of their actions claiming that the Soviet Union acted on an appeal from the legitimate government of Afghanistan, based the provisions of the “Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation concluded between Afghanistan and the USSR in December 1978”[5] and that they would leave as soon as “aggression from the outside”[6] – the U.S. training and providing aid to insurgency groups within Afghanistan – came to an end. The Press appealed for understanding of the Soviet position, claiming “to act otherwise (than the present course) would have been to look on passively while a hotbed of serious danger to the security of the Soviet state was created on our southern border”.[7]

The Press claims that their actions in no way threaten the United States and that Carter, caught in an “election struggle”[8] is attempting an abrupt policy swing, citing a growing “Soviet military threat”[9], in order to instill fear in the populace and justify increased military spending.

Analysis of articles from both the New York Times and the Soviet Press illustrate that neither the American nor the Soviet media were in favor of a return to Cold War policies, but rather, were in opposition to a new wave of Cold War between the Super Powers. In his article for the Times: “Carter’s Cold War Tactic”, John B. Oakes acknowledges that the occupation of a neighboring Marxist country, by the Soviet Union, is not unprecedented; that the move has not placed America “in a state of crises”; and that Carter’s proclamation that the decision is “the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War” is true – “if we choose to make it so”.[10]

The sentiment expressed by Oakes is mirrored by the article “Arabatov Hits US Return to Cold War” that “the greatest threat to world peace, at least in the past 10 years, is posed by the US policy swing toward cold war”.[11] There is however, one fundamental difference – the statements on the “threat to world peace”. The difference in understanding the situation at hand underscores the key issue in the divergent viewpoints. In criticizing the departure from détente and improved relations, the Times articles (excluding the Shabad article) blame the Carter administration’s reaction to the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, as the threat to peace; however only the Oakes article addresses the fact that Carter is drastically overreacting to the circumstances. The Press articles claim that Carter’s move to cold war rhetoric has nothing to do with events in Afghanistan. In the article entitled “Is the US Bringing Back the Cold War” it is argued that “the national interests or security of the United States of America or of other states are not in the least affected by the events in Afghanistan” and that “all attempts to pretend otherwise are absurd…[and] are being made maliciously, for the purpose of facilitating the achievement of these states imperial designs”.[12]

The fundamental problem separating these two sides, who share relatively similar goals, is where the blame is placed. While the Times articles go as far as to blame Carter for overreacting; the Press articles go beyond criticism of Carter, blaming the system of US foreign policy as a whole, rather than any single aspect. In summing up the conflict over Afghanistan the Press noted that “If there were no Afghanistan, certain circles in the US and NATO would surely have found another pretext to exacerbate the world situation”.[13]

The Press writers substantiate their assertion by claiming that the new policy (presented as a response to the events in Afghanistan) – “a course aimed at an accelerated buildup of the military power of the US and it’s allies” was adopted “before, not after, these events”.[14] The article cites the NATO decision to increase military budgets every year over a fifteen year period; a “five year plan” of new military programs and arms appropriations; and the deployment of medium range missiles in Western Europe - no doubt a direct threat to the Soviet Union.[15] The article continues to note the pre-Afghanistan breakdowns in peace, including the US freezing of arms limitation talks, a policy of delaying the SALT-II treaty – toward arms reductions – and a policy of promoting anti-Soviet hysteria during meetings in Peking.[16] The claims that the US was the driving force toward a nuclear disaster, was further substantiated by the fact that the US aided Pakistan – under a brutal dictatorship – as it sought to develop weapons of mass destruction.[17]

While the Oakes article in the Times calls Carter’s reaction a “frantic junking of some pretty firm principles that in a calmer moment the American people might well have wished to retain”.[18] Oakes also notes the mockery of US policy by offering aid to Pakistan, “as ugly a military dictatorship as exists today and almost certainly a developer of nuclear weapons”.[19] He continues his criticism noting:

Military spending is suddenly up; arms control is down if not out; critical problems of the economy are being shoved under the rug of the military emergency. Salt is being shelved (which Carter stated) is “in the national security interest of the United States and the entire world”.[20]

Bernard Gwertzman in his Times article “Afghanistan’s Impact: A New U.S.-Soviet Freeze” notes, “the events in Afghanistan, however, did not occur in a vacuum”, noting that ties between Moscow and Washington had been strained in recent months[21] despite the Brezhnev treaty, which he noted, “now seems to be the first and most obvious victim of deterioration in relations”.[22] Gwertzman, however, views the US response as similar to previous tensions over Czechoslovakia and Hungary; and claims that the Kremlin decided that relations with Washington were so poor, that the reaction could not stand in the way of a Soviet intervention.

Clearly an ideological gap exists between the columnists for the Soviet Union and the United States. While both sides acknowledge the existence of a crises and Carter’s hard-line reaction; the Soviet leaders felt a revival of cold war politics was inevitable and was dictated by a US foreign policy pattern; while the United States attributed the crises to Afghanistan and Carter’s reaction. The fact that the US felt the crises was rooted in the Afghanistan conflict; while the Soviet’s felt the crises had nothing to do with Afghanistan, led to a complete ideological divergence. The Shabad article[23] on Moscow receiving Afghan gas, and other such articles, served only to provide a possible Soviet motivation, diverting attention from the underlying issues.

If the Soviet Union and the United States were to work toward their common goal, to ease tensions and move away from cold war politics; it was necessary to acknowledge the underlying issues between the powers. Clearly this would not to be accomplished, as the two nations failed to agree on what the real issues were. The ideological differences then, served to further complicate the goal of easing nuclear tensions, common, not only to both sides, but to the rest of the worlds inhabitants as well.

[1] John B. Oakes. “Carter’s Cold War Tactic,” New York Times, 22 January 1980, p. A21.
[2] Bernard Gwertzman. “Afghanistan's Impact: A New U.S.-Soviet Freeze," The New York Times, 1 Jan. 1980, pp: 2.
[3] Theodore Shabad. “Moscow to Receive Extra Afghan Gas: Opening of Large New Field Could Mean Double Share for Soviet,” New York Times, 4 February 1980, pp: A1
[4] Oakes, A21
[5] “Bringing Back the Cold War,” Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol XXXII, no. 2, 13 February 1980, pp: 2
[8] “Arbatov Hits US Return to Cold War,” Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol. XXXII, no. 9, 2 April 1980, pp. 1
[10] Oakes, A21
[11] “Arbatov Hits” pp. 2
[12] “Bringing Back” pp. 2
[14] “Arbatov Hits” pp. 1
[18] Oakes, A21
[21] The Soviet’s would argue this was due to intentional planning by the US.
[22] Gwertzman, 2
[23] Shabad, Theodore. “Moscow to Receive Extra Afghan Gas: Opening of Large New Field Could Mean Double Share for Soviet,” New York Times, 4 February 1980, P. A1-A2.

Part II: The Crises in Poland

The crises in Poland of the early 1980’s, which began with strikes in July and August of 1980, and culminated in a declaration of Martial Law by the Polish government on December 13, 1981, was heavily covered in both the American and Soviet press. Extensive media coverage, which would ideally provide a truthful, accurate understanding of the crises, instead served to polarize U.S. and Soviet opinion on the crises through a massive, ideologically driven propaganda war. The United States argued that the Solidarity movement represented an “overwhelming majority”[1] of the Polish people acting against “brutal repression”[2] by the government; while the Soviet’s labeled the movement as “counterrevolutionary”[3] and argued that Martial Law had been declared to “safeguard public order”[4].

These exceptionally polar viewpoints certainly leave one lacking a truthful and accurate understanding of the crises in Poland. These divergent viewpoints offer a textbook example of the “war of words” that existed throughout the Cold War period. The declining Soviet Union desperately sought to preserve the power-structure in Poland, lest the Solidarity movement infect the rest of the Soviet bloc. The United States, focused on weakening the Soviet bloc, supported Solidarity in Poland. Victory for Solidarity would prove a crushing blow to the Soviet bloc, while a Soviet military invasion would play into the United States anti-Soviet rhetoric. Thus, the Soviet Union had no choice but to protection a mediocre, repressive and illegitimate regime at all costs.

The United States sensed the weakened Soviet position and took common cause with the Solidarity movement by launching a campaign of blistering anti-Soviet rhetoric. It is clear that the United States was not overly concerned with freedom or abolishing brutally repressive regimes, as is evident by U.S. policy of limiting freedom and supporting brutal dictatorships in the Middle East, South America, East Asia and the rest of the world throughout the Cold War era.

Nevertheless, the rigid Cold War framework resulted in a traditional, polarized rhetorical debate, each side attacking the others position, both sides indifferent toward establishing stability, which the people so desperately needed. Examining the United States and Soviet Union’s conflicting viewpoints on the government under the Polish Communist Party; the Solidarity movement; and the will of the Polish people, clearly illustrates that the media - the New York Times and the Current Digest of the Soviet Press - could not be relied upon for anything but a biased rhetorical attack against the interests of their respective Cold War rival.

Following the declaration of martial law by the Polish government, United States President Ronald Reagan boldly proclaimed that “freemen will not stand by in the face of brutal oppression.”[5] Martial law – “a state of war” had been declared following over a year of social upheaval, sparked by the government’s failure to abide by the Gdansk agreement it had signed. The “state of war” was declared against the “self organization” or Solidarity movement under Lech Walesa. The Soviet Press praised the declaration of martial law which they argued was instituted in the face of “anarchy” - to “safeguard public order” and “cleanse Polish life of evil”.[6]

An act of “Brutal repression”, ordered to “safeguard public order”? Clearly these descriptions, both on the declaration of martial law, were written with radically divergent agendas. The leadership of the communist party in Poland was described as both a Russian “instrument”[7] of oppression and a force defending the “constitutional foundations”[8] of People’s Poland in the face of encroachment by “class enemies”[9]. The implications are obvious. The Soviet Union had no choice but to defend the regime, as its only chance to preserve a foothold in the Eastern European bloc, short of military invasion. By defending the governing apparatus, they had no choice but to attack the Solidarity movement, which stood in opposition.

The Soviet media launched a tirade of propaganda against the movement, labeling them as “counterrevolutionaries”[10]. They are “terrorizing workers”, threatening physical violence against those who stop striking, the Soviet Press contended.[11] The accusations also included “promoting starvation”, by stopping agricultural production in order to create instability[12]; and according to “documents and materials” Solidarity leaders planned to “take repressive measures against or physically annihilate” about 80,000 members of the Polish United Workers Party.[13] One Soviet editorial even concluded that “Solidarity’s leaders were guided above all by the experience of the Nazi party and it’s storm troopers.”[14]

Naturally the United States was quick to condemn the government’s actions and take the side of the Solidarity. In an address to the nation on December 22, nine days after the declaration of martial law, President Reagan announced that the Polish people “have been betrayed by their own government”, “the men who rule them and their totalitarian allies” he continued, “fear the very freedom the Polish people cherish.”[15] Reagan argued that ten-million out of the population of thirty-six million people were members of Solidarity and taken with their families comprised an overwhelming majority of the Polish nation.[16] Thus, he concluded that “in attacking Solidarity, it’s enemies attack an entire people”.[17]

This assessment, published in the New York Times was far from that of the Soviet Press, which argued that the Polish people reacted to the “foiling of the (Solidarity) plot” with “complete satisfaction” and a “sigh of relief” from “strike terror”.[18] Public opinion, the Press noted, found that 91% of Polish citizens supported the military operations.[19] It is not necessary to further comment on these absurdly polar assessments of what the people wanted, suffice to say, an accurate description was not readily available in either the US or Soviet Press.

Perhaps the best available assessment of what the people in Poland wanted was made by Pope John Paul II who, although critical of martial law in Poland, urged renewed dialogue between the two sides.[20] The US and Soviet media, however, seemed more determined to expand the breach that had developed between Solidarity and the government, than to reconcile the two. In the process, US and Soviet relations began to deteriorate once again.

The New York Times intensified the conflict by accusing the Soviet Union of acting behind the scenes. In an article titled “Russian Attitude Toward Poland Has Changed Little Since Days of the Czars”, the Times argued that Russia used “Polish military and political leaders as it’s instruments” in order to “extinguish the flame of Polish nationalism” once and for all.[21] Reagan also attacked Soviet leadership in it’s alleged involvement, claiming martial law plans had been printed in the Soviet Union months before it’s declaration; that Soviet Marshal Kulikov – chief of the Warsaw Pact, and other senior Red Army officials were in Poland while the “outrages” were being initiated; and that the situation had been precipitated by public and secret pressure directly from the Soviet Union.[22]

The accusations in the US media were met with flat out denial by the Soviet Press, who argued that the Soviet Union was a “dependable ally and true friend” to Poland, and that the US and it’s allies were attempting to undermine the “fraternal friendship” between Poland and the Soviets, which was formed in the “joint struggle against Fascism”.[23] The Soviet’s also countered the US position by alleging US involvement in the “counterrevolutionary” activities.

The Solidarity movement was condemned as having “flowed from overseas” with “plans hatched in Washington” acting in the interest of US imperial circles”.[24] Furthermore, the Press blamed Washington for promoting destabilization in order to create further tensions to justify continuation of the arms race.[25] Following Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s declaration in Brussels that he was “concerned about the decision of martial law”, the Soviet Press responded alleging that Haig was “starting to threaten the Polish people”.[26]

The “renewed dialogue”[27] that Pope John Paul II prayed for clearly was not on the agenda for either US or Soviet planners. Rather than continuing to work toward diplomacy and improved relations or to help restore order for the people who suffered in Poland, the US and Soviet media used the crises in Poland to attack one another’s position and manipulate public opinion. The relentless media attacks illustrate how an ideological war – as the Cold War was, can be fought with words rather than weapons.

The interests of each side were made clearly evident by the media coverage of the crises in Poland. The arguments were biased and in many cases, completely contradicted that of the rival media. Thus, studying the crises in Poland in the early 1980’s, through the accounts in the US and Soviet media will perhaps illustrate the rigid doctrinal framework of the Cold War era, but will leave one with anything but a truthful and accurate account of the actual events in Poland.

[1] Drew Middleton, “Russian Attitude Toward Poland Has Changed Little Since Days of the Czars,” New York Times, 17 January 1982, p. 12.
[2] “Reagan’s Remarks on Marshal Law in Poland,” Special to The New York Times 24 December 1981, p. A10.
[3] “Poland Begins the Second Week of Martial Law,” Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol. XXXIII, no. 51, 20 January 1982, pg. 9
[4] “Poland Declares Martial Law,” Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press, Vol. XXXIII, no. 50, 13 January 1982, p. 4
[5] “Reagan’s Remarks on Marshal Law in Poland”
[6] “Poland Declares Martial Law”, p. 4 and 5
[7] Middleton, 12
[8] “Poland Declares Martial Law”, pg. 7
[9] Ibid. pg. 4
[10] Poland Begins the Second Week of Martial Law”, pg. 9
[11] Ibid.
[12] “Poland Declares Martial Law”, pg. 2
[13] Poland Begins the Second Week of Martial Law”, pg. 6
[14] Ibid.
[15] “Reagan’s Remarks on Marshal Law in Poland”, A10
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Poland Begins the Second Week of Martial Law”, pg. 7
[19] Ibid. pg. 10
[20] “Pope Denounces Polish Crackdown”, A9.
[21] Middleton, 12
[22] “Reagan’s Remarks on Marshal Law in Poland”, A10
[23] Poland Begins the Second Week of Martial Law”, pg. 6, 9
[24] Ibid. pg. 8
[25] Poland Begins the Second Week of Martial Law”, pg. 10
[26] Ibid. pg. 8
[27] “Pope Denounces Polish Crackdown”, A9.


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