Beyond the Cold War: Soviet and American Media Images

Everette Dennis

George Gerbner

Y. Zassoursky

These must be hard times for sovietologists. Just consider the problems faced by Soviet media scholars. Traditionally, their job has been to study a few hidebound, seemingly monolithic Soviet media organizations--say, Pravda, Izvestia, TASS, and a few others. Topicality has never been a top priority since the subject matter always seemed to stay the same.

All that has changed of course. In these rapid-fire ages of "stagnation," "perestroika," "reactionary coups," "democratic counterreactions," and who knows what next, the idea of writing even a semi-topical book about the Soviet media, or indeed any other major social institution in the USSR, seems almost nonsensical. With the Soviet empire crumbling as fast as it is, books, articles (and, yes, even book reviews) on Soviet society, and particularly its media and communication systems, are, almost inevitably, hopelessly dated by the time they go to press.

That is certainly a problem with Split Signals and Beyond the Cold War. Both books examine major Soviet media institutions, and their role in East-West propaganda wars, based on research conducted in the mid to late 1980s--the early to mid-glasnost period. Both strive in their way to stay on top of current Soviet events. And, almost inevitably, both strive in vain. These books are not merely dated. Their subject matter--the old Soviet media structures and the society they purported to represent--has simply ceased to exist.

Of the two studies I think Beyond the Cold War is the more successful. The book is actually a series of chapters by Soviet and American scholars with two short articles by Chinese academics. Most of the research is concerned with Cold War propaganda in the Soviet and American media. Most suggest that confrontational images still existed in the late 1980s but were on the decline. And most suggest that those images were, at that time, starting to be displaced by new types of "mutual understanding." Content studies of Soviet and American television (of the Soviet nightly news program Vremya and ABC's World News Tonight, for instance) and newspapers (such as the Christian Science Monitor and Novoe Vremya, Izvestia and Newsweek, and Pravda and the New York Times) mostly confirm that in the late 1980s the world's two major superpowers were becoming more generous in their reporting about each other.

No surprises so far. But, to my mind, the most interesting sections of Beyond the Cold War are the "additional comments" by reporters of each country concerning the need for a "new journalism" which might reflect (and hopefully sustain) the new period of relaxed East-West relations. This, to me, is the most enduring question raised by the book: will the end of the Cold War lead to a new way of reporting international affairs and understanding other countries? Or will the media continue to dredge up old stereotypes of new enemies, compulsively recreating new "others."

In Beyond the Cold War, the lines in this debate are clear and somewhat predictable. Liberals like Hodding Carter (a former White House spokesperson and lately something of a "conscience" for America's mainstream media) think journalism can and should help its public understand the world. Carter suggests that journalists on both sides of the old East-West divide must focus more on Europe and the Third World, develop new areas of expertise (in ecology and economics, for instance) and create a new vocabulary to understand international relations in non- binary, non-confrontational terms. Self-styled media conservatives disagree. Peter Braestrup, for instance (formerly of the Washington Post and Newsweek), claims that Western journalism at least has served its public well for the last 40 years and is adequate to "new global challenges." For better or for worse, Braestrup thinks traditional (Western) journalistic practices will prevail in the new world order.

While I am rooting for the liberals and their idealistic forecast, I suspect Braestrup is right. As David Shipler of the New York Times argues in this book, neither the Soviet nor American media have been particularly good at leading conceptually beyond the limitations of mainstream thinking in their countries. In fact, if a history of Cold War journalism teaches us anything it is that journalists, as a group, are almost congenitally reactionary when it comes to reporting on other countries. After all, Soviet and American mainstream journalists did not let go of the old Cold War propaganda images until very late in the Great Game; they were clearly among the last of their countries' elites to give up on the Cold War.

Moreover, such practices may not be a thing of the past. The new self-styled "global media," for instance, have not always been immune to old-styled chauvinism. I may be too pessimistic but I think I saw every bit as much flag-waving, solganeering, and straight-out lazy reporting and analysis in CNN's coverage of the Gulf crisis as I did on the old regular networks. This is not to say that journalists cannot change, that they cannot overhaul the sorts of media images which have helped fuel East-West tensions for all these years. But it is at least to say that old practices may die hard. New news organizations in a new world order may well fall back on old, hackneyed--and often belligerent--discourses in years to come to make sense of what are, after all, foreign countries.

Changing the media is also a central theme of Split Signals, Ellen Mickiewicz's 1988 analysis of television and society in the Soviet Union. Mickiewicz suggests that it is media reforms which, above all, determine the chances for social change and domestic peace in the USSR. She cites some interesting statistics to make that case. By the mid-1980s, for instance, television was apparently reaching 93% of the Soviet population (as opposed to about 16% in 1960), bypassing in part traditional socialist "gatekeepers"--the party agitators whose job it had been to monitor and interpret information going out to Soviet citizens (in a sort of Socialist two-step communications flow). The USSR thus underwent what Mickiewicz calls a "television revolution" in the 1980s. One might wonder what impact these developments have had on recent political events in the USSR.

I do not think Split Signals helps us answer that question. Mickiewicz's main thesis is that Soviet society is approaching something of a communications crisis; in this view, the new USSR, whatever its form, will have to conform to the dictates of a "new information age." But just what is the mass communications society which the USSR is inexorably approaching? I am still unclear as to what it is and what sort of social choices it does (or does not) entail. Television may well have undermined the party's monopoly of information and the sort of organized person-to-person persuasion Lenin and his successors managed to institute on the shop floor. But has it, at the same time, simply replaced "unoffical communication"--the unorganized sort of grassroots activity which seems to have been on the rise in the USSR since Mickiewicz conducted the research for this book in 1985 and 1986? If popular unrest is the current trend in Soviet public life, the sort of communication it involves may well have a mediating effect on what Mickiewicz sees as "mass communication" proper.

What is more, I think there is at least some reason to doubt the author's forecast that "traditional interpersonal communication"--such as letters to the editor and organized political discussions--will only survive as "revered institutions" in the new society, leaving the public sphere--even a degenerate socialist one--to wither away in a new "age of television." At least one can hope she is wrong.