The Communist Party journalists I knew while serving as press attaché with the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw in the late ’70s would be very comfortable working in the partisan world of American cable television today. They’d be particularly at home at Fox News, where the object is to further the party line, just as it was in Poland when, President Gerald Ford notwithstanding, the Communist Party dominated political life.
The line being promoted at Fox is the polar opposite, of course, but the principle remains the same: Get the party’s version of events, then find information and talking points that support it and undermine any counter narrative. Fox News feeds us what Poles were given by party or state media: cherry-picked factoids or outright distortions that support the party line. When you tune in, you know you’ll be receiving only news and comment that conform to the Republican Party’s agenda.
Everyone knew the game
In Communist-era Poland, everyone knew that was the game, and ordinary Poles regarded their media accordingly. They tuned in to news programs on state radio and television – and they had to, since the government maintained a monopoly on broadcasting – to learn what the party wanted them to think about events.
Then, for a reality check, they turned elsewhere. They looked at the empty shelves in their stores, the cracked concrete apartment buildings where they and their extended families crowded together, the shabby clothes they could afford with what they were paid at state factories. They did not see the workers’ paradise the party propagandists described.
The resulting credibility gap was so wide that one of those huge Russian T-54 tanks could make U turns in it. Gallows humor was the default method of coping with the absurdities of daily life. In a typical example,a worker commits some minor indiscretion at the factory. The manager docks him a week’s pay, saying: You’re lucky. In the old days you would have been shot. When he gets home, the worker tells his wife: It’s worse than I thought. They’re rationing bullets now.”
When the news bulletin came out one evening in October 1978, announcing that Karol Wojtyla would become the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the anchorman on Polish TV gave it 15 seconds or so, then moved on to the latest tractor production statistics. Lacking instructions from the party, he didn’t know what to make of this bombshell. (Ordinary citizens did; many partied all night in the streets of Krakow, Cardinal Wojtyla’s see.)
Viewers seeking reinforcement of their views
There is no media monopoly here in America, of course, and we can always flip channels. Many don’t, however. And it’s not only the right that tunes in mainly to the network that reinforces their ideological leanings. MSNBC reliably provides political porn for liberals, though last week when President Obama fell on his face in the first debate, the network’s reporters and commentators said so loudly and clearly. It would be hard to imagine anything comparable on Fox, which tends to hire rather than berate its heroes who come up short.
In Communist Eastern Europe, media functionaries were called journalists but were considered hacks (or, in extreme cases, court jesters) by underground media or foreign correspondents based in the region. They were in effect party operatives. Their motivations varied; a few may have believed in Marxist theory and acted out of conviction. But most served the regime for personal privilege and advancement; that was how their bread was buttered. Come the revolutuion, most went into different lines of work.
Here at home, we used to believe in journalistic objectivity. The job of reporters was to discover the truth and print it, “without fear or favor,” as the New York Times put it. Opinion and reporting were to be kept clearly separated. Commentators were expected to have an ideological perspective but to back up their views with solid reporting and facts.
Confirming beliefs, rather than challenging them
We still have some journalists who try to follow such ideals – and media organizations that support them. Unfortunately, too many of us turn only to Fox, MSNBC or other partisan media outlets that confirm rather than challenge our beliefs.
When we rely on such one-sided reporting, it’s no wonder we’re at loggerheads, unable to find common ground or reach a consensus on the way forward for our nation. We are squandering the freedom that Poles and others in Eastern Europe and, more recently the Middle East and North Africa, took to the streets to secure.
Dick Virden retired from the Senior Foreign Service in 2004. He now lives in Plymouth and serves as diplomat in residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
Write your reaction to this piece in Comments below. Or consider submitting your own Community Voices commentary; for information, email Susan Albright.