For the 92nd episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Dina Fainberg explores the experiences of U.S. and Soviet foreign correspondents during the Cold War and the competing notions of truth they pursued in their reporting.
Dina Fainberg: What journalists write, how they engage with their sources, how their work is processed and framed, their relationships with editors and officials and readers, all of it is shaped by these different truth systems.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History, and transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
It’s fair, I think, to call the Cold War –
the defining international conflict of the second half of the 20th century. As World War II ended, both the Soviet Union and the United States settled into decades of economic, scientific, and certainly ideological competition. But while it was only a figurative iron curtain that separated the Soviets from the Americans, officials and the public alike found themselves unable to see what was going on over there behind the curtain. Tasked with peering behind that curtain were foreign correspondents, representatives of the U.S. and Soviet presses sent to uncover what their adversaries were up to for readers back home.
But it wasn’t easy work, and correspondents weren’t objective witnesses, as Dina Fainberg, a senior lecturer in history in the Department of International Politics at the City University of London, explains in her book Cold War Correspondents: Soviet and American Reporters on the Ideological Front Lines. In our conversation, Dina explains how the reporting of correspondents from both the U.S. –
and Soviet Union were influenced by professional practices back home, censorship and restrictions out on assignment, and ideology all around.
Dina, welcome to the show. So your book returns often to the idea of perception, and in your introduction, you write that the Americans and the Soviets who lived through the Cold War fundamentally understood themselves by creating images of each other. So how did foreign correspondents contribute to this understanding of self and other?
Dina Fainberg: So foreign correspondents were very keen observers who really wanted to understand the other side and explain it to their audiences. At the same time, the way they approached the other side and the way they engaged with it and looked at it was informed by their own cultural values, their own sensibilities, their own ideological, political, and cultural backgrounds.
And the way that they told these stores about the other side of the iron curtain was refracted through these values. At the same time journalists highlighted to their audiences, their readers what makes their country unique, what makes it special and superior to their rival superpower. They constantly invited their readers to compare and contrast their own lives to the lives on the other side of the iron curtain, and in so doing, they invited the readers to reflect on the superiority of their own systems and how fortunate they were to live in Soviet socialism or American liberal democracy and capitalism.
Ken Ward: So it might be a good idea for us to pause and ask who were these correspondents, right? Uh, where – what – what sorts of backgrounds did these people have who were then going to the Soviet Union or to the United States to report on behalf of their respective country’s presses?
Dina Fainberg: So most foreign correspondents were pretty seasoned journalists, and most of the ones who reported from the Soviet Union and the United States were men. Prior to traveling to, you know, the other side of the iron curtain, they usually would have had some journalistic careers reporting domestically, and then some international posts. So like posts that were considered less difficult or less important, so these would be posts for example, in the Middle East. Many American journalists served in Vietnam before going to the Soviet Union, and then they would travel to the Soviet Union or the United States whilst being already pretty established, and this was considered the very privileged and important and challenging post to go to the other side of the iron curtain.
Ken Ward: And they weren’t – the – the systems that these folks came up through, that these journalists came through on being, you know, either from the United States or the Soviet Union, they – they weren’t the same, especially early on. Your book is so interesting because it covers so – such a long period, right, this whole entire second half of – of the 20th century. Um, and beginning there in the post-war period right after World War II especially the Soviet Union system looked very different or – or sort of the infrastructure for those correspondents looked very different than that of – of the Americans.
How did that change in those early years post-war sort of both where these correspondents came from and their knowledge, their journalistic background, but also the sorts of things that they would then have covered about the countries that they were then going into and – and reporting home about?
Dina Fainberg: Right. So the Soviets didn’t have a very robust system of international reporting when they finished the war, so they had very celebrated and decorated war correspondents. And these guys became –
foreign correspondents by virtue of moving with the Red Army to, you know, through Europe and eventually to Berlin. But they did not have a system of preparing foreign correspondents and there are some examples in the book where really strange people are filling these posts. For example one of the correspondents for the Soviet Union’s largest news agency was actually a rowing instructor who just wandered into his offices during the war and remained in place.
Um, and the Soviets – what the Soviets are realizing after the war that they need to up their international propaganda game. They are looking at the United States as an example where there is a very developed sharp and impressive cohort of international reporters all around the world and where there is an education system that trains these journalists for foreign posts.
So they start kinda developing a similar system for themselves. So they open institutions, and they start kind of institutions that are already charged with training cadres for foreign work are now also training people who would become international correspondents.
Of course, this is also the time where Soviet Union is really kind of looking inward and there is a great – coinciding with the Cold War, there is an ideological purge within the country and this, like, big anti-American campaign, and a lot of worry and a lot of anti-West prejudice. So the training of these journalists and the kinds of things they could write during the first years of the Cold War were very different and Soviets were actually pretty concerned with what kind of information they’re putting out there, and that caution –
drew them in, and so they would kind of restrain their journalists to writing very basic things, to dealing with trying to deal with basic information and not letting them develop these beautiful condemnations of capitalism that the people on the ground wanted to write.
So there were also other constraints in a sense that journalists themselves were at times cautious and kind of uncertain what it is that could be written at this particular time. Um, they often didn’t know – didn’t know English very well and so it was hard for them to interact and actually kind of embed themselves in American society. They couldn’t travel much because of traveling restrictions which were reciprocal on Soviet-American journalists. And so already kind of that really circumvented the kinds of stories that they could write, and so they write these when they do write –
stories, they write these pretty impersonal stories where, you know, they talk about masses of people, kind of vague American cities as backdrops for these developments, a lot of condemnations of American capitalism, very few actual Americans in these accounts. And that, of course, changes after Stalin’s death.
Ken Ward: So you – you mentioned those – those condemnations of – of American capitalist – uh capitalism as a big theme in those foreign correspondents’ reporting. What sorts of things were the Americans writing about once they’re active in the Soviet Union? One of the – the really interesting things in your book is how those goals – themes and goals that they’re reporting on change over time. In these early years, what sorts of things were the Americans focused on?
Dina Fainberg: So Americans are in the same predicament in a sense that it’s very unpleasant to live in Moscow in 1948, and the Americans are also –
very concerned with anti-American propaganda campaign, and they fear that they will become entrapped by the KGB somehow, so they also withdraw into these insular ex-pat communities. Um, they’re also heavily censored in what they write, so they have to carry all those dispatches to the central telegram building, and the censor actually goes through and takes things out of – of their reports.
So Americans are trying to write something more insightful about the Soviet Union, but what happens instead is that they often write about the experiences of Americans in Moscow about the atmosphere of fear and repression, and also eventually about the superiority of the United States, about the economic superiority, the political superiority of American democracy, all these things come out in the work. They also write about the importance of saying how –
things are in the Soviet Union and kind of talking to all the fellow travelers around the world who don’t understand that the Soviet Union is an oppressive dictatorship and telling them how it is or how they think it is.
Ken Ward: And I was struck in your book about how you noted that every successive wave or generation of American correspondents in the Soviet Union had that – a similar idea in mind. They thought that they were the generation of correspondents that was showing up and was going to sort of, you know, peel aside or pull aside the iron curtain and show what was actually going on in the Soviet Union. Why was that such a recurrent theme? Why did they return to that over and over, and why did they think that they were the generation that was – that was going to be the one to do that?
Dina Fainberg: So the – the first answer has to do with how Americans perceived Russia and the whole Churchillian argument that it’s a riddle wrapped inside an –
enigma. Uh, people took it really seriously, so Russia was this perpetual enigma to be unraveled. And the image of a closed society fitted very well with America’s perception of itself as an open society, as a democratic society. So that image of Russia as closed and unknowable was really strong and really central in U.S. kind of engagement with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War history.
Each successive generation actually does witness big important changes, so the people who are there in ’53 or like say mid-’50s, the Soviet Union really does change and does open up, and the Soviet Union of after Stalin dies is a far cry from, you know, the post-war years. And so, yes, they – they kind of rightly so get the sense of uncovering something that wasn’t available before. Very simply, people would not talk to –
them on the street or would not engage with them anywhere. Officials would not engage with them in any way, and this of course all changes after Stalin’s death. The Soviet Union starts to reach out to the United States partially via appealing and engaging American correspondents.
Then later on in the ’60s, you have this new development with the Soviet dissident movement that is a big revelation that American correspondents did not expect, and knowledge and ideas that come out of this movement and kind of the – the amount of information that these people publish and discuss in public is really interesting and striking and unprecedented. And so again you have this feeling of American journalists that they are uncovering something new. And then, of course, after the Helsinki accords, which were just recently celebrated an important anniversary, again, they could have moved more, and they could have traveled in a way that was freer.
Um, and that also kind of again adds to this idea that, oh, here are new horizons opening again.
Of course, ’85, the Soviet Union again changes a great deal, and so again we have this kind of growing access and opening of access in country that is completely transforming. And so there is a certain justice in in the way that they see themselves as uncovering new ground, but also again it ultimately ties back to this image of Russia as a closed society and a riddle to decipher.
Ken Ward: Uh, you – you mentioned just a minute ago the 1960s, and I thought that you presented some really interesting ideas, especially about the way Soviet foreign correspondents were thinking or what they thought they were seeing in the late-1960s, early-1970s from their posts in the United States. Um, sort of seeing – and you mentioned that the Americans who were in the Soviet Union thought they were seeing the same thing –
that they were looking at a – a – an enemy sort of in the midst of a deep ideological crisis. In the case of Soviets in the United States, looking at things like the civil rights movement, the wave of assassinations, riots, things like that as – as sort of proof that the populous had become disillusioned with American capitalism and sort of wondering what might be over the next horizon. And Americans seeing similar things in the Soviet Union. How did those influence the sorts of things that they wrote about in their correspondence? Um, and especially in those sort of longer-form books that that you – you note became really popular among correspondents once they went home and – and felt they could tell the true sort of unfiltered story about their experience in a foreign country?
Dina Fainberg: So the Soviets were really engaged with American anti-war and civil rights movement, and they were really surprised to see the American system challenged –
so profoundly by, you know, its best and its brightest. And also, on the one hand, but also as a certain validation of socialist ideas in a sense, right? So the downtrodden of the American system, the long oppressed are suddenly rising against the system and being supported by, you know, allies from all around. So they wrote extensively and profoundly about the civil rights and the anti-war movement. They followed the movement – they followed kind of the major protests, they followed its main members, they profiled key people like Dr. Martin Luther King, like Dr. Spock, Angela Davis, etc., the Black Panthers. And, and really wrote about them in a very sympathetic way and also in a way that it was hopeful for America saying that America is finding its consciousness. America is becoming better.
Um, kind of observing this change as positive and – and actually hopeful, but also seeing this as essential validation of social – essentially socialist principles and socialist arguments, noticing that socialist ideas are becoming popular among American bourgeoisie. It’s also very distinguishing because they distinguish, like, the proper – in their eyes, the proper thoughtful ideological movements like the civil rights and the anti-war and what they think as, I don’t know, bourgeois folly, middle class folly-like behaviors. Um, and – and again, they make these distinctions in their reports.
American journalists in the Soviet Union were also very moved by the Soviet dissident movement. Many of them found very close friendships and kind of important intimate human relationships with dissidents. Uh, there was – they –
helped the dissidents with all sorts of things, whether you know, passing information and bringing sometimes they needed things from overseas. Um, but also in publicizing their cause. And in many – for many of the members of Soviet dissident movement to be covered in American press, to become a name in the United States could save someone’s life, literally.
And for them, it was also this this very surprising moment how come these – you know, these are the sons and daughters of Soviet elites who participate in this movement and challenge the Soviet system from within, and they were really surprised by – by that because nobody expected that, you know, this is a position through the system. This challenge would arrive from within. American journalists also spent a lot of time writing about the distance in all sorts of ways. There are entire accounts dedicated to the distance. Every correspondent who worked in the Soviet Union during that time wrote about the distance in some way or another.
I guess they were less hopeful about the prospects of – of the movement than Soviet views of the civil rights and the anti-war. Americans did not see how this could, you know, topple down the Soviet regime or change something from within, but they were simply stand and impressed to see this happen, perhaps even more impressed knowing that this was a – like, you know a hopeless errand in a sense.
Ken Ward: Well, and – and mentioning sort of the – the reader’s perspective, I think, is – is interesting, especially in this era because you noted that in particular, Soviet readers of their correspondents might have had a difficult time in some situations understanding exactly how to interpret what they were reading about what their correspondents were seeing in the United States because –
there were these layers, right, these layers of meaning that they thought might be embedded in the Soviet correspondents’ reporting. Um, they – they often had to try and read between the lines and understand, okay, so where’s the ideology here, what is happening in the United States. Can you speak a little bit about that and how – what – what – similarly, what American readers might have – have faced? Did they just take the news at face value? Did they need to do that type of interpretation that Soviet readers might have?
Dina Fainberg: Thank you for asking this question. It was really important for me to – to make sense of that in the book and also to kind of convey this onward. So Soviet Union has this tradition of different kinds of readings, and one of the – one of those traditions is what they call is Aesopian reading. That is reading between the lines. So you look at a text and it says one thing, but you’re trying to kind of surmise –
what other message might be within. And texts about foreign countries again traditionally were seen as having a very strong potential for that kind of reading because Russian and Soviet writers often chose to write about foreign countries as ways to criticize what happens within. That said, the choice to read subversively or the choice to search for hidden meaning is – resides with the reader, right? The author cannot control how that text will be read, and so a great deal of these texts could have a subversive potential. So I’ll give an example to see what I’m talking about.
There is one Soviet journalist whose name was – is Genrikh Borovik and he wrote very extensively –
about the anti-war movement. And so he in his – in one of his books, he has this very lengthy description of an anti-war demonstration that takes place in Central Park. And he describes, you know, the slogans that he’s seeing, how angry the people are with the government policies, and it’s a very lengthy and kind of rich description of Americans protesting Vietnam War, right?
Dina Fainberg: So on the face of it, you are reading his descriptions of Americans criticizing their own government, right? He does not criticize the war, but he lets American voices to do the drill.
Dina Fainberg: But if you read it knowing what, you know, Soviet laws on public protests are, then you know full well that nothing like this can ever take place in the Soviet Union. But what you are reading is hundreds of thousands strong demonstration –
of American citizens demonstrating against major U.S. government policy in a public space in one of its biggest cities. And there’s nothing of the kind could ever take place in the USSR. And so on the one hand, you could read this text, says oh look, Americans are condemning the war in Vietnam as something absolutely terrible that happens, and the war is awful, and even American citizens are against it. On the one hand, you can read it and say, hmm, there are all these Americans protesting major government policy and nobody touches them. They just go out in the streets and doing that. And again, the choice how you read this information or even combining both of these readings or inferring both of these understandings from the paragraph resides with the Soviet reader who could actually do both.
There was also a third type of reading which completely ignored, like, the –
ideological interpretation that the journalists gave to what they’ve seen in the United States. And these readers just were hungry for information about the U.S. So they just wanted to know so what do buildings look like, what do cities look like, what the people are like, and you could not have that information readily available in the Soviet Union. So they are scouting these stacks and kind of brushing off the ideology and trying to pick out that knowledge about what America is like from these records. I thought it was very interesting given the sort of context.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Absolutely. Especially quickly, thinking about that American – or an American reader of an American correspondent who I have to assume, right, I’m a little too young to have – to have been reading those – those reports myself, read it in a fairly straightforward way, right sort of taking their – their correspondent’s writing at face value, trying to understand sort of –
between the lines I suppose to some extent what’s going on in the – in the Soviet Union, but not needing to do nearly that type of deep reading on what their correspondents are – are – are writing.
Dina Fainberg: Absolutely. America – as far as I can tell from letters that readers sent to journalists, that was – the reading was pretty straightforward. Um, and also, interestingly, actually American audiences have readily embraced this invitation to read comparatively and do deduce from the reports of American correspondents how fortunate they are to be Americans and to live in the Soviet Union. What a great thing it is to live in, you know, liberal democracy and capitalism and like how pity and like how sad it is for these Soviets.
Ken Ward: So we’re – we’re running short on time, but I – I’ve gotta ask this question. I think it touches on what – what you were just discussing, and I think it’s at the core of – of your book. You know, correspondents on both sides frequently focused on –
truth, right, this idea of truth in their reporting and how they – they were in pursuit of the truth, trying to counter the lies of the other side, right, the – their adversaries, the state apparatus, the press. But the fact of the matter is, as you present in your book, they saw truth in fundamentally different ways, right. So how did they define, how did the Soviet correspondents define truth against how the American correspondents defined truth, and how did that change what their readers understood about the – the other side?
Dina Fainberg: So I wanna say that I’m – in my thinking about this, I’m indebted to the work of fellow scholars of American and Soviet journalism and the work that have been done by others and Natalia Roudakova and Simon Huxtable and of course Michael Schudson and Phyllis Frus. So in Soviet understanding, truth was singular and absolute and tangible. This was truth of socialism and its superiority over capitalism.
And the journalist’s duty was to identify how the truth of socialism manifested itself in particular stories or life episodes and to highlight this to the readers. So Soviet journalists researched their stories, they sought to establish the facts, they interviewed their subjects, and made an effort to engage the readers. But unlike their Western counterparts, Soviet journalists relied on literary devices and often blurred the lines between facts and interpretation. So for example, they would describe the thoughts of their protagonists and make judgements or assumptions about their personalities and write in an overall literal way. As a whole, Soviet journalists thought of themselves as writers and as educators, and in the Soviet Union, both professions were associated with the term “engineers of human souls,” meaning that people who are shaping their readers’ consciousness and helping them transform into better socialists.
Now, Western liberal understanding of journalism allowed for coexistence of multiple truths, right? Accommodating different interpretations, different approaches and perspectives on the same issue. So for American journalists, through Stalin, concentrated on and covered the facts. Accurately reporting facts and multiple perspectives and carefully separating reporting from analysis and journalism from fiction. Um, but if you look at them kinda side-by-side, you see that the American journalists also adhered to a certain absolute truth that is liberal democracy and capitalism in their eyes were superior to all other forms of social arrangements and best suited for liberating the human potential. Soviet correspondents often incorporated certain degree of relativist truth and acknowledged that different cultures and people had different values and could have different versions of truth –
and that these truths could be irreconcilable.
Now, in the book, I talk about the difference between two sets of truth systems, and when I say truth systems, I mean the overall context in which international reporting was created and came to be considered truthful. So this includes their respective ideologies, political cultures, professional practices, institutions, even the understanding of what it is the press does in society were different. And so what journalists write, how they engage with their sources, how their work is processed and framed, their relationships with editors and officials and readers, all of it is shaped by these different truth systems. And so the truth that foreign correspondents told were different as a result.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, I wish we could continue this conversation, but we’re – we’re very short on time now, and I wanna make sure that we have time to –
address the one question that we like to ask every guest on this show, and that is, in your opinion, why does journalism history matter?
Dina Fainberg: That’s a great question. In my mind, history of journalism is the history of knowledge production. Knowledge that is popular and widely disseminated. Knowledge that informs the ways that people relate to their communities, their nations, and the world. Journalists reflect the world back to their readers and are responsible for much of our knowledge about the world. And that’s why it’s important. That’s why history of journalism should be critical and interrogate journalists’ own assumptions and biases and world views and kind of to understand how we think and how we think about ourselves and about the way that we engage with, you know, our surroundings.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, thank you for that, and – and, Dina I wanna thank you one more time for being on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation today.
Dina Fainberg: Thank you so much. It has been my pleasure.
Ken Ward: And that’s it for this episode. Again, the book is Cold War Correspondents: Soviet and American Reporters on the Ideological Front Lines, and it’s a terrific read. Thanks again for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck.