Donald Trump’s war on the media—a frantic drive to seize exclusive control of the news and declare the death of conventional journalism—is quickly gaining momentum. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the evidence.
Every day he discredits and insults respected reporters; he has called them “scum” and “the most dishonest people on earth.” Every day he promotes the news outlets that flatter him, usually Fox News at the top of the list. These are tactics of dictators. His strategist Steve Bannon went so far yesterday as to say that “the media . . . should keep its mouth shut and just listen.”
Trump’s effort to obliterate facts that are unfavorable to him is unbounded. Yesterday, according to The Washington Post, he personally pressured the head of the National Park Service to provide photographs showing that his inauguration crowd was bigger than President Obama’s, though by all measures it was not.
One of Trump’s sycophants in Congress, Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, advised the public this week: “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
By no standard is this normal. It is the beginning of tyranny.
I know what that’s like. I’ve been there. Moscow, 1967.
On April 2 of that year I arrived as the Chicago Tribune correspondent and saw that what I had expected was true—no original reporting was possible. One was allowed to rewrite the official press, attend staged press conferences at which nothing newsworthy occurred, and write feature stories about the Moscow Circus.
There was no formal censorship. But there was also no access, direct or by telephone, to government officials or staff, except for the Foreign Ministry press department whose director limited himself to complaints about western “anti-Sovietism.” When big stories broke — the fiery death of Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in 1967 or Russian tanks in dissident Prague in 1968 — there was only one Moscow news source, the official one.
The official explanation for Soviet tanks in Prague on that morning of August 21, 1968, was that the tanks had been invited: Czechoslovak leaders had asked Moscow for assistance in putting down an insurrection by paid provocateurs. (Sound familiar?) The truth, which we learned only later, was that those Czechoslovak leaders were sitting handcuffed on the floor of a military plane headed to Moscow.
The Soviet version might have been laughable if people had not been dying. The rest of the world knew that Czechoslovak leaders had been trying since January to reduce Soviet-imposed restrictions. It became a movement called the Prague Spring. Now it was being crushed by Warsaw Pact forces under Russian command, and there was no original reporting from Moscow, only the state’s account.
The largest part of a reporter’s work is gathering reliable information that is not already known and that can be confirmed by two or more unrelated sources. That’s what distinguishes news from propaganda. Collecting new information in Moscow was an activity that looked to the regime like spying.
All foreigners were routinely watched and wiretapped. As foreign correspondents we were followed and wiretapped more intensely, sometimes as if to remind us of who and where we were. Our apartments were bugged and our telephone or Telex lines would fail at critical moments. Our office employees, locals hired from a single source, reported weekly to the KGB. A correspondent who wrote a story that the government did not like would be summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a warning or a threat of expulsion from the Soviet Union. Arrest for spying was also possible but rare.
I’d learned Russian but rarely had occasion to use it. In general there were only three categories of people a correspondent could talk with—designated government spokesmen, Russian citizens on the street who were nearly always afraid to be seen talking with a foreigner, and the diplomats of foreign embassies who were either sworn to secrecy or as much in the dark as we reporters were.
In January 1968 I learned that four political dissidents including two writers were being tried for anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation, an event that if true would be big news beyond the reach of official government sources.
Since Stalin’s death in 1953 no writers or intellectuals of note had been arrested. But a year before my arrival Andrei Sinyavsky, a literary critic, and Yuli Daniel, a poet, had been convicted in a closed trial on charges of publishing anti-Soviet satire abroad. They were sentenced to seven and five years respectively in strict-regime labor camps—the gulag.
A few intellectuals were brave enough to say publicly that this portended a return to Stalinism. The cultural and political relaxation that Nikita Khrushchev had begun in 1956—known as the Khrushchev Thaw—was showing signs of relentless reversal by his successor Leonid Brezhnev. Survivors of Stalin’s terror couldn’t miss the signs; they still bore the psychic wounds of his tyranny.
Alexander Ginzburg, a history student and librarian, assembled a detailed critical account of the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial and sent it to several deputies of the Supreme Soviet (parliament) and to the KGB. He, two of his friends, Yuri Galanskov and Alexei Dobrovolsky, and their typist Vera Lashkova also had circulated typewritten literary journals among fellow intellectuals. Now—in January 1968—they were on trial for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. They would receive labor-camp sentences ranging from seven years to one year.
Their trial was officially public but no one was allowed in without a ticket issued by the Communist Party. In bitter cold I waited outside the courthouse daily with a crowd of perhaps a hundred Soviet citizens and a handful of foreign correspondents for bits of news from the courtroom.
Before the five-day trial ended Pavel Litvinov, grandson of the Stalin-era foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, circulated a typed letter he had written with Daniel’s wife Larissa Bogoraz addressed “To World Public Opinion” describing the illegality surrounding the trial and calling for public condemnation of it, punishment of those responsible, release of the accused, and a retrial meeting legal norms and conducted in the presence of international observers.
The letter was typed, six or eight copies at a time in carbon copies on onion skin paper, each copy to be entrusted to a friend who typed six or eight more copies and gave those to friends who continued the process. The Russians called it samizdat, an acronym formed from sam (self) and izdat (publishing).
It was an audacious act. The letter by Litvinov and Bogoraz was handed to foreign correspondents who reported it to their newspapers, from which Voice of America and other foreign radio stations picked up the story and broadcast it back to the Soviet Union in Russian. That started an avalanche of samizdat letters signed by hundreds of Soviet citizens and re-broadcast in a constant stream of uncensored criticism of the leadership.
Each trial led to new protests in the form of samizdat documents and public demonstrations, which led to more arrests and trials, which led to more protests and more arrests in an endless chain that continued up to the Gorbachev era.
Those first two trials gave birth to a dissident movement that arguably contributed to the fall of the Communist state. They also fueled the self-publishing system that allowed participants to circulate information outside of officially approved and controlled channels.
On April 30 there appeared a typewritten journal called Chronicle of Current Events devoted mainly to the Ginzburg-Galanskov trial. Compiled and typed clandestinely by Natalya Gorbanevskaya, the chronicle began to appear regularly with factual and objective reporting of the arrests, trials, protests, and samizdat letters from not only Moscow, but across the country, the Urals, Ukraine, Central Asia, Siberia, the Baltic states, even from inside the camps.
While she was compiling issue Number 11 on Christmas eve of 1969, Gorbanevskaya was arrested, released, then re-arrested, diagnosed as schizophrenic and sent to a psychiatric prison where she remained for two years. The Chronicle continued to appear on schedule, each issue quoting on its cover page Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“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.”
According to Wikipedia, “during the 15 years of its existence the Chronicle covered 424 political trials, in which 753 people were convicted. Not one of the accused was acquitted. In addition, 164 people were declared insane and sent for indefinite periods of compulsory treatment in psychiatric hospitals.”
My copy of the Chronicle was most often handed to me surreptitiously on a dark street by Peter Yakir, the son of General of the Army Iona Yakir, an early victim of Stalin’s purge of his generals. Upon his father’s arrest and execution in 1937, Peter and his mother had been sent to the gulag where they remained for nearly 20 years.
Peter Yakir (left) and Victor Krasin (right) visit Pavel Litvinov in exile.
After his release Peter trained as a historian and, during the Khrushchev years, lectured on Stalinism. Easygoing and courageous, he became a mainstay of the dissident movement, signing a number of protest letters himself. Inevitably, and after I had returned to the United States, he and fellow dissident Victor Krasin were arrested and sent back to the gulag where they were tortured, eventually broken, and forced to repudiate their activities and fellow dissidents.
Not long before I was due to leave the Soviet Union Peter invited me, my wife and my visiting mother to his apartment for a Sunday afternoon meal. As we left the building in December’s early darkness we were blinded by multiple flashbulbs. Returning home we found our apartment ransacked, papers and books strewn across the living room floor, and in the middle of our coffee table—a wad of freshly used toilet paper. There was no sign of forced entry.
This was the world in which Vladimir Putin grew up and served his apprenticeship as a young KGB officer, a world without criticism from the public, without a pesky press telling inconvenient truths, a world in which truth tellers were arrested and sent to the gulag or psychiatric prison hospitals. In Putin’s Russia offending reporters have been simply murdered.
Putin’s concept of strong leadership—which includes control of the media—seems now to be the model for Donald Trump; in fact, Trump himself has told us more than once that he thinks Putin is a strong leader. Trump also has surrounded himself by White House staff who encourage this behavior, and the cowardly Republicans in Congress enable him to emulate that model.
By redefining truth and aggressively discrediting the media who work to uphold the commonly held standard of truth, Trump is trying to create a post-journalism America in which he is the sole source of information, an America in which no one can challenge his power and self-love.
That is dictatorship.