So who stole my country? Most of the people I grew up with during World War II believed that all Americans shared a common destiny and by working together through our government we could make life better for all of us. Sure there were still big problems such as our treatment of African-Americans, enduring poverty, lack of universal health care, but we would deal with them. By the end of the Reagan era, it was clear that people with a very different agenda governed us .
If there’s any use to what remains of this blog it’s to tell you about a few adventures in the pre-Internet era of broadcasting, some of which may explain why so many Americans are so misinformed.
Inside Story was a PBS series that examined the performance of American journalism at home and abroad. It wasn’t afraid to use the same technics journalists used to get a story, including ambush interviews and leaving a camera running when the interview was formally over. Inside Story was the brainchild of Executive Producer Ned Schnurman who hired Hodding Carter to host the series. It was a shrewd choice. Carter had been spokesman for the State Department during much of the Iranian hostage crisis and anyone who watched the news knew his face.
Ned hired me in the Fall of 1982. General Electric was about to provide sole funding, a $4 million grant that was enough to both produce and promote a decent series. The third season began in March of 1983. Pre-broadcast reviews were good. “Although some observers have felt that in the past the program did not quite live up to the very high expectations for it, this season, operating for the first time on adequate funding (from GE), ”Inside Story” seems to be functioning exceptionally well as a kind of ombudsman between the people and the press.”
Hodding emphasized that there was a public demand for accountability by the media. ”The public wants to know that there is a watchdog watching the press. There seems to be a running hostility out there about what is perceived as a lack of accountability, a lack of responsiveness in the press.”
We kicked off the third season with a show that Hodding and I did on American Press Coverage of the Soviet Union. Predictably, most television correspondents didn’t speak Russian, knew little about Soviet or Russian history and stayed inside an expat bubble. The Soviets made it difficult to interact with its citizens, but it was not impossible. Hodding and I interviewed dissidents, some probably with Moscow’s knowledge, but I also met with ordinary Russians. More on that in a moment.
The most important insight I carried away with me from our visit did not make it into the show we produced. It struck me, in multiple ways, that the threat posed by the Soviet Union was highly exaggerated. The governing system was on a losing spiral. You saw it everywhere you turned.
Our Soviet handler was a Hollywood caricature of the Communist tough guy, with a leather jacket and cap, heavy boots and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his sneering mouth. He would only permit us to film pre-arranged and authorized interviews. When I told him I was going to interview the American ambassador, he absolutely forbade it. We had a screaming fight about it. How would he know, I asked. We’ll know, he said and I’ll confiscate your film and throw you out of the country. We filmed him in the embassy anyway.
Between interviews, we would drive through Moscow looking for establishing shots. I wanted to show viewers what life looked like in the Soviet capital. Every shot I wanted to take was impossible, because it required a permission that I had not obtained and would take weeks to get.
After a second day of complete frustration, I went down to the bar for a nightcap. A very attractive young lady asked if she could join me for a drink. I declined, but looking around the bar I saw several of these gorgeous creatures approaching other single men. The next morning I asked my Soviet handler about the women in the bar. He replied, “You mean the hookers? They are no problem. They don’t exist.” Here was an essential fact about the Soviet Union. Perception was more important than reality.
As we toured the city that day, I didn’t ask my handler if I could take a shot. When I saw something I liked I suggested we get out of the van and have a cigarette. It was a cue to my cameraman to get the shot while the handler and I looked the other way. I never asked for permission and if questioned my handler could say that the underhanded Americans tricked him! Serge and I began to enjoy each others company. He knew some terrific places to eat
Most telling was the unavailability of photo copying machines. They were few and far between, and when you found one you needed three keys to unlock them, one at least held by a loyal party member. This was absurd in the emerging information age. If the United States had used the money it cost to build one atomic bomb to parachute hundreds of thousands of Xerox machine into the Soviet Union in 1983, the regime would have collapsed five years earlier than it did.
I also learned something about deep problems perhaps inherent in the collective ownership of the means of production. Just as it’s mistaken to put essential services such as health care, education, prisons and defense in the hands of private enterprise, it’s also dangerous to put every production decision in the hands of government.
On one of our last nights in Moscow, our Russian translators and fixers invited us to a party. Hodding had a late dinner meeting and I went alone. We took a taxi to a housing complex. It was a cold, February evening with a scattering of snow on the ground and icy patches on the sidewalks. We entered the nearest building and walked from one end to other, then back outside where we cut to the left and entered another apartment building. We repeated the maneuver three times and finally stopped just inside a glass door and looked back. We waited quietly for about five minutes, when nothing stirred behind us we took an elevator up to one of the top floors.
The small apartment was full of young people. Rock and roll played in the background. Everyone had a glass of vodka. The scent of marijuana was heavy in the air. When offered a joint I declined, fearful there could be a government agent at the party. An America reporter caught smoking dope at an illegal party in the Soviet Union would have been a great news story, but not the one Hodding wanted us to come back with.
By two in the morning the dancing had stopped, the party quieted down, Lady Day drifted out of audio speakers in the next room. The young people talked about life in the Soviet Union. The simplest things, it seemed, were always unavailable. When we came back, they pleaded, bring us cartons of Pampers. We have only cloth diapers.
I said, but what’s the problem. Find a source of cheap absorbent paper, some plastic sheeting, you’ve all got sewing machines, make them yourselves and you can probably sell them. The idea was completely absurd to them. It wasn’t simply the practical problem of obtaining the absorbent paper and plastic that deterred them, nor the fact that it would be illegal to engage in such an enterprise. It was the whole concept of individual initiative that seemed utterly foreign to them. They literally could not conceive of the idea.
Whatever threats the Soviet Union might have posed in the past, by 1983 it was a vast Potemkin village. (Grigory Potemkin, a Russian military leader is said to have constructed elaborate fake villages for Catherine the Great’s tours of Ukraine and Crimea). Moscow’s centralized authority stifled initiative. Its survival depended on fear, soul crushing hypocrisy and massive corruption for everyday existence. How much of our national treasure had we squandered on defending against a paper tiger?
Of course this was all unsubstantiated speculation that would taken serious reporting to verify. And our leaders would say that the arms race helped bankrupt them, and so much the better!
Inside the USSR won the 1983 Edward R. Murrow Award and a 1983 National Emmy for Outstanding Coverage of A Continuing News Story.