Commentary Magazine

The Bureaucracy of Truth, by Paul Lendvai

Thought Control

The Bureaucracy of Truth: How Communist Governments Manage the News.
by Paul Lendvai.
Westview Press. 285 pp. $24.75.

Paul Lendvai’s study of the mass communications policies in the Soviet bloc is important not only for its much needed perspective on a widely misunderstood subject, but also because it represents the kind of intelligent anti-Communist journalism which is invaluable for a serious evaluation of the totalitarian phenomenon. Lendvai, a Hungarian émigré who works as a reporter for the Financial Times of London, sees the workings of totalitarianism not only in the Soviet Union but also in the East European satellites, including those which have developed the most tolerant internal policies.

As in Stalin’s era, Soviet press policies are instructed by an absolute commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology, the maintenance of complete control over the means of production and distribution of information, durability in the face of a hostile populace, and a dedication to the export of this communications “model” wherever and whenever opportunities arise. If the Communists are less successful at keeping their citizens ignorant of world events, it is not for lack of trying, but is rather a consequence of policies adopted by the democratic world that were designed to meet the special problems posed by totalitarian news control.

Despite the changes Soviet society has undergone in the post-Stalin era—a marked rise in educational levels, increased standards of living, a relaxation of the most draconian workplace controls—there has been little improvement in the average Soviet citizen’s access to accurate information about his own society, much less world events. The goal of Soviet censorship remains what Richard Lowenthal has called the control of “the formation of opinion at the source by the planned selection of all the elements of information.” There is nothing random about the Kremlin’s news-management techniques. A formidable—and, for a society experiencing widespread economic difficulties, quite expensive—bureaucracy has been established to decide what will and will not be published or broadcast. Ultimately, the deadening stuff that is selected to fill the pages of Pravda—the texts of Central Committee manifestoes, accounts of workers who overfulfill the norm, telegrams of congratulation on the leader’s birthday, reports of “record” harvests—is of less significance than the fact that there exist massive areas of domestic life about which most citizens know absolutely nothing. Concerning these subjects, a policy of near-total censorship has been imposed. When not ignored altogether, they are given a cursory and elliptical coverage designed to generate more confusion than understanding.

Figuring out which issues have been declared off-limits for public consumption is not difficult. All that is required is to draw up a list of those social problems which have provoked controversy and protest in the non-Communist world; as far as the Soviet media are concerned, such problems exist only in the decadent West. To this day, those Soviet citizens whose sources of news are limited to the domestic media have no idea of the true extent of their country’s military involvement in Afghanistan. They know nothing of the extent of casualties, the degree of Afghan resistance, or the disintegration of the Afghan army. All that has been reported is that a “limited military contingent” was sent to Afghanistan at the request of the government in order to help put down disorders stirred up by “outside intervention.”

Another area of special sensitivity is the environment, including such sticky questions as nuclear power and industrial safety. Where in the West the construction of a highway can set off bitter and prolonged dispute, and the establishment of a nuclear-energy program can decide the fate of governments, in the Soviet Union such questions pose no such headaches for the regime, which can impose its will without having to worry about the sensitivities of public opinion. Overt repression of protest movements is seldom necessary, since the potential protesters are kept ignorant of government decisions until they are implemented.

A good illustration of the extraordinary lengths to which the Soviets will go to muffle public curiosity about controversial issues is the treatment of the nuclear question. In a country where accounts of major air disasters are rarely published, it comes as no surprise that no mention has ever been made of the 1957 nuclear disaster which, according to Zhores Medvedev and other émigrés, produced hundreds of deaths and injuries. More instructive is the reticence in discussing the Three Mile Island incident. Where Western leftists saw this event as a unique opportunity to launch a noisy indictment of capitalism, the Soviets responded with the utmost caution, burying brief accounts in the back pages of their newspapers out of apparent fear that questions might be raised about their own ambitious nuclear program.

In addition to maintaining a firm grip on their own media, the Communists are also engaged in a vigorous effort to export their communications “model” to the Third World. Training centers for Third World journalists have been established in East Germany and Hungary with special emphasis given to indoctrinating journalists from countries vulnerable to takeovers by forces sympathetic to Communism, as well as writers from various “liberation” movements in the underdeveloped world.

The Soviets are also vocal advocates of the New World Information Order, and provide various forms of “technical assistance” to those Third World countries which are leading the campaign within UNESCO for the adoption of a global censorship system. The obvious humbug that informs the demands for international control of Western “transnational” media is reinforced by the Soviet Union’s prominent role in the debate, especially since it is the Soviets, and not the United States, who operate the world’s most extensive press empire. This includes a foreign-broadcast network that maintains over 2,000 hours of air time each week in 84 languages. The Soviets also operate a mammoth publication, public-relations, and news-distribution system which disseminates propaganda material throughout the world. The cost of this is over $2 billion annually; when the domestic Soviet media and censorship apparatus, and similar operations in the satellites, are added in, the result is a huge expenditure of money, creative thinking, and planning devoted to controlling what the citizens of Communist countries think and to persuading the outside world of the merits of Soviet-style Marxism.



Although Lendvai draws a thoroughly grim picture of the state of press freedom in the Communist world, his ultimate message is far from pessimistic. For while Communist regimes have succeeded in keeping a monopoly grip on their domestic media, they have not been able to prevent the penetration of their societies by broadcast services emanating from the West. Well over half of all East Europeans outside the Soviet Union listen regularly to Western broadcasts, with 45 percent alone listening to Radio Free Europe (RFE), considered by Lendvai to be the service most effective at providing an alternative information source to the Soviet bloc.

Although RFE was criticized, deservedly according to Lendvai, for its overheated rhetoric during the 1956 Hungarian revolution, its subsequent policies have been characterized by prudence, intelligence, and restraint. Today it enjoys a high degree of credibility throughout the satellites, which the author attributes to its factual, thorough, and objective coverage of events in the Communist world. Thus, Radio Free Europe played a crucial role during the Polish upheavals which led to the establishment of the Solidarity trade-union movement, and it did so, as one union leader commented, “not by inciting workers but simply by letting them know the facts about what was happening.”

Radio Free Europe, then, stands as one of the great anti-Communist success stories of American foreign policy. Yet it was not so long ago that its existence and that of its sister service, Radio Liberty, which transmits into the Soviet Union, were threatened by those who saw the radio services as “relics of the cold war” (Senator J. William Fulbright’s phrase) inappropriate in a time of détente.

Here is yet further evidence of the foolishness and irresponsibility which underlay the philosophy of détente. Had George McGovern been elected President, or had Richard Nixon moved more forth-rightly to bring our policies into conformity with the “code of détente”—as he was vigorously urged to do by a number of East bloc leaders—there would have been no Radio Free Europe to keep the Polish workers informed about the historic events they were participating in, or to provide the people of Rumania, Czechoslovakia, and other countries with alternatives to the shabby commentary accorded Poland by the controlled media. Fortunately, Radio Free Europe survived, and is now operated under quasi-government sponsorship. Now, at a time when an increasing number of people are seriously pondering what strategies the West might adopt to encourage the destabilization of the Soviet empire, the Radio Free Europe experience should take on added meaning.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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