mercoledì 18 novembre 2009


Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
It is in this sense that journalism is vital to the system of checks and balances underpinning democracy. Journalists are expected to keep the establishment accountable. However, this has not always been the case during the Cold War, and especially in its early stages. A climate of fear undermined those principles and, whereas several journalists deserve praise for their courage and passionate advocacy of investigative and interpretive reporting, others failed to live up to their professional standards.
UNITED STATES (1946-1954)
According to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the chief goal of the Cold War was “to get the world, by peaceful means, to believe the truth,” because it was a “struggle for the minds and wills of men.” News reporting in capitalist countries was mostly done under the assumption of Eisenhower’s statement. Arguably, no one did more to strengthen the public’s confidence in the righteousness of this moral crusade than Henry R. Luce, the advocacy publisher of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, which sold millions of copies per week, and a Christian activist, who was persuaded that the world needed moral leadership and that his life mission would be to free America and the world from communism by turning Time Inc. into “an arm of U.S. foreign policy” (Herzstein 2005).
At least in the early decades of the East-West confrontation, the underlying motives of certain strategic decisions were thus not always sufficiently challenged by in-depth reporting: dissent would be easily mistaken for anti-patriotism, if not collusion with the enemy, that is, for a threat to national security. Many Western journalists, acting from a sense of duty and respect towards their government and military sources, and from genuine fear of the “communist menace,” shored up both the consensus view espoused by the Eisenhower administration and by Luce, and the national myths upon which it was founded. This involved a relative lack of meaningful discussion of the values and commitments that should inform Western democracies.
The highly supportive news coverage was perceived as neutral by most of the audience. Millions of Americans did not therefore ask themselves whether, for instance, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s claim that dozens of public servants were members of the Communist Party, and therefore potentially subversive, were plausible, even though three Congressional committees had already examined the same documents and had found no incriminating evidence. A possible explanation for this selective suspension of critical judgment is that the violation of fundamental civil rights for hundreds of U.S. citizens, who were deemed guilty until proven innocent, became somehow “normalized” also as a result of media complacency vis-à-vis McCarthy’s demagogic appeals.
Part of the media acted as though the burden of proof lay with the accused and not with the accuser and as though being a socialist or a communist was a punishable offence. There were of course columnists like Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Marquis Childs, Drew Pearson, I. F. Stone, Richard L. Strout, James Wechsler and many others, who urged the public to keep dissent and disloyalty separated, but they did so in the knowledge that they would likely be confronted with subpoena, if not with a charge of conspiracy and treason. And indeed, some of their papers did become the target of boycotts and libel suits, and New York Post Editor James A. Wechsler was brought up before McCarthy’s Senate investigating subcommittee in 1953, accused of peddling subversive ideas, and asked to produce sufficient evidence of his anti-Communism. Then, starting in 1954, McCarthy was put in his place by the broadcasting on live television of the viciousness of his inquisitorial use of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
It was in that same period that media experts became increasingly conscious of the difficulty of reconciling democratic ideals with the demands of the business of journalism and some, like the prominent American intellectuals who issued the 1947 final report of the Commission on Freedom of the Press, urged journalists to practice self-examination and “engage in vigorous mutual criticism.” However, it seems likely that a deeply polarized ideological climate, such as the one which typified the Cold War, can hardly produce an accurate representation of reality. It is not only that, as it was contended by Edward R. Murrow, a journalist cannot always find two equivalent sides to every story. The problem really is that reporting two irreconcilable sides of an issue as objectively as possible means leaving out alternative points of view. Italy best illustrates this point.
ITALY (1977-1982)
Lying on the fault line between the two blocks, Italy was torn between two antithetical ideologies, Catholicism and Communism, which found common ground only in their shared contempt for liberalism. The upholders of these two systems of beliefs were culturally ill-equipped to fully appreciate the importance of civil liberties such as freedom of thought, speech and press and, more generally, of the expression of differences, dissension and protest which goes with them. The clash between the largest Communist party and one of the largest Christian Democratic parties in the West led to the marginalization of dissent and did nothing to strengthen the commitment of journalists to their role of independent and neutral observers. Enzo Bettiza, a novelist and a journalist, recalls that, in those days, many young reporters were narrow-minded and opinionated and would hold in contempt everything that they found difficult to understand: “ideology would save them the trouble of learning and gathering evidence.”
In the 1970s, the bitter divisions between Right and Left were further exacerbated by the assault on the Italian democratic institutions by both the Communist Red Brigades and the neo-fascist terrorists of Avanguardia Nazionale and Ordine Nuovo. According to several parliamentary, judicial and media inquiries, the murderous tactics of neo-fascist terrorism was part of the so-called “Strategy of Tension”, which was meant to destabilize the State and prepare the ground for a more authoritarian regime in Italy, which would avert the danger of the Communist Party entering into a government led by the Christian-Democrats.
One of the steps that would ensure the success of this operation was seizing control of the media through concentration of ownership into the hands of a few trustworthy members of the illegal Masonic lodge Propaganda 2 (P-2), headed by Licio Gelli, a former liaison officer in the SS Hermann Goering Division. In 1977, the Rizzoli media empire, with 11,000 employees, was rescued from bankruptcy by Roberto Calvi, the chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, one of Italy’s largest private banks, a P-2 affiliate, and a financial consultant to the Vatican – he was known as “God’s Banker,” together with Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, president of the Vatican Bank and a personal friend of Calvi. The Rizzoli publishing company, now controlled by Calvi, owned various influential news magazines and, most importantly, the largest and most reputable Italian daily newspaper, the Milan-based Corriere della Sera. The prospect of a gradual change in the editorial policy of the newspaper caused numerous highly respected and long-time reporters, board members and contributors who opposed the deal, such as Umberto Eco and Natalia Ginzburg, to leave, while Oriana Fallaci decided to stay and she became one of the most internationally celebrated political interviewers.
The Italian media did not take notice of this event until 1980, when the plot was foiled, following a shocking interview with Licio Gelli by Corriere della Sera columnist Maurizio Costanzo, another P-2 member, in which the Venerable Master of Propaganda Due outlined his vision, that he called “plan for the democratic renaissance of Italy”. The Italian Republic was to be transformed into a police state, to save it from the “Red Menace.” This coup de theatre did not quite work out as intended: Milan public prosecutors ordered a preliminary enquiry and a list of P-2 members was made public soon afterwards, which included Argentine Admiral Emilio Massera and General Carlos Suarez, two leaders of the right-wing military dictatorship that ruled Argentina until 1983, as well as Stefano Delle Chiaie, an international neofascist terrorist involved in Operation Condor (see entry for Chile and Allende Salvador). In June 1982, Calvi’s corpse was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge, in London. But the most striking revelation was that Angelo Rizzoli, heir to the largest Italian publisher, together with 28 journalists and public broadcasters, seven editors, and the entire Rizzoli’s board of directors were among the 962 names on the list, together with many representatives of a very influential section of the Italian establishment, including the would-be tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, the Minister of Justice, and the Chief of Staff of the Italian Army.
As the Italian case clearly shows, Western European press and media were not immune from attempts to curtail their freedom and independence during the Cold War. While, in the United Kingdom, only the Guardian and the Observer took a clear stance against Britain in the 1956 Suez crisis, Charles De Gaulle once famously declared that the press was against him, but that news broadcasters would bow to his will.
Yet the threat to pluralism in news reporting did not only come from the political establishment. While newspapers undeniably contribute to form public opinion, the public itself and the dominant political climate exert a considerable influence on what journalists deem newsworthy and on the criteria informing editorial staffs’ decisions. In short, there is a clear connection between news coverage and the mood of civil society.
A case in point was a significant shift in editorial policy at Le Monde, the newspaper that had dramatically raised the tone of the French press and had gained considerable circulation throughout Europe. Following the May 1968 students’ and workers’ protests, Le Monde gradually drifted towards the extreme left. With a significant measure of superficiality and myopia, its editorials and news coverage defended the means whereby China pursued the “Great Leap Forward.” Similarly, even though Communist and socialist party organs in France and Italy had begun a slow transition from unrestrained support of the Soviet Union and its imperialist policies to moderate criticism, a tendency survived among Western leftwing journalists to systematically reproduce the blind spots that caused so many to fail to grasp the reality of life in Eastern Europe.
Needless to say, self-censorship was a matter of course for Eastern European journalists. The state owned the main newspapers, such as Pravda (“Truth”) and “Neues Deutschland,” and everything, from format size to target readership, was regulated by the party. News reporters were taught that their social function was to reproduce and disseminate the communist party’s propaganda. The “Dictionary of Socialist Journalism,” published by the Karl Marx University of Leipzig, proclaimed that “the socialist journalist is a workers’ party functionary. […]. He partakes of the management of the ideological processes…and helps consolidate people’s trust in the Party and the State.”
The values of autonomy, pluralism, and neutrality, which lay at the core of Western journalism, were judged to be detrimental to the promotion of the communist cause, which coincided with the party leaders’ opinion, who purportedly knew what was best for the people. The Western “bourgeois” press was disparaged as a hegemonic tool of the upper classes which used it to subjugate the proletarian masses. Beyond the iron curtain, falsification, deception, and tired clichés were the order of the day, and were justified in the name of the pedagogic intent of the communist regimes and of the need to counteract Western propaganda which, they argued, systematically downplayed the contradictions, double standards and imperialism of the capitalist system. Thus, for instance, the ill-fated strikes in East Berlin, the Hungarian revolt of 1956, and the 1968 Prague Spring, were described by the Communist press as the result of “fascist incendiaries,” Western spies, pillagers, and a few collaborationists who threatened the very existence of the German People’s Republic by fomenting a bourgeois counter-revolution.
“Cold War” is an expression coined by British writer and journalist George Orwell who, in his “Politics and the English Language” (1953, pp. 169-70) wrote that “the worst thing one can do with words, is to surrender to them.” He also added that if language is to be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought,” one must “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about.” Sadly, many journalists surrendered to the words “Cold War” and their underlying logic of coding and framing, and ended up perceiving, defining, partitioning and representing the world according to categories invested with strong emotional associations which at times prevented some of them from exercising their critical judgment. The consequence of a practice of news reporting to some extent removed from the ideal of a vigilant press informing critically engaged, discerning citizens, was that media contribution to the public debate on matters of general concern, such as proposals to temporarily restrict civil rights in democratic countries, was not always up to the demands of the role.
Nevertheless, an even greater number of news-reporters did not withdraw from serious reporting and remained committed to the ideal of a genuine, rigorous, probing investigative journalism and intelligent questioning. Edward R. Murrow and his crew, Elmer Davis, who insisted that objectivity was of little use without interpretation, David Halberstam, George Seldes, Ward Just, Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, Gloria Emerson, together with Fox Butterfield, Daniel Ellsberg and Neil Sheehan, of Pentagon Papers memory and the two Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonists Herb Block (who coined the term “McCarthyism”) and Bill Mauldin, are among those professionals who strove to provide an alternative viewpoint on the Cold War in the United States and contributed to McCarthy’s downfall and to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. In Italy, the Red Brigades, set on taking down “bourgeois” democracy, took aim at those journalists who had accurately and presciently predicted the demise of the terrorist threat and who, in their eyes, had disgraced their profession by serving the “regime.” Some were injured, others were murdered. Like Walter Tobagi, easily the most promising young correspondent of his time, who was killed by the March 28 Brigade, whose leaders were the sons of a prominent journalist, of a film critic and of the editorial director of Sansoni, part of the Rizzoli publishing company, which employed Tobagi. Still, despite numerous death threats and harassment, most Italian journalists did not forsake their duty to be socially responsible, accountable and informative.
Print sources
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