Free News and Russia

by RALPH McGILL

IT THE Teheran airport a C-47 was waiting for us. We took off quickly, hardly warming the JLJL motors, and began the precipitous climb up to a 13,000-foot pass through the hurdle of the Elburz Mountains. On the take-off we all leaned forward from our carpeted bucket seats and held the freight and baggage piled in the aisle. This is much simpler than the American custom of lashing them carefully in place so that they will not slide back into the tail on a take-off, or forward on landing. The passengers have nothing to do, and this simple bit of coöperation, in which they are eager to engage, knowing full well what a sudden shift in load means in a take-off, saves time and equipment.

We were a mixed crowd of Russians and Americans, all very amiable. We kept climbing. There were still gas fumes in the cabin from the take-off. A tall, friendly Russian, who had helped us with translations, moved forward to sit on one of the extra gas tanks, installed forward, and lit a cigarette as he began a conversation with a friend.

I tugged nervously at the sleeve of a small sergeant in a fur cap, who seemed to be a sort of flight officer. He followed my eyes. His face wreathed itself in smiles. He threw up one thumb: “Boom!” he said, happily. And still smiling, he reversed his hand and swept it downward in a swift gesture. “Boom! Boom!” he said, and, still smiling happily, he leaned back and resumed his nap.

The tall Russian left his seat on the gas tank and came back to say we soon would see the Caspian Sea. We flew across one long corner of the sea, out of sight of land. Not until then did I notice that the usual load of rafts and radio equipment found in American planes crossing large stretches of water was missing. I understood it was superfluous. Nevertheless I mentioned it casually to the tall Russian. He translated, smiling, to the blond, cheerful pilot, who was back in the cabin speaking briefly with friends, the co-pilot having taken over.

The pilot spoke rapidly, smiling, and the tall Russian grinned and relayed it on: “He says tell you he never lost a foreigner yet.”

So, with stops for refueling, we came to the great airport at Moscow; then to the National Hotel and old newspaper friends, — Eddie Gilmore and Daniel De Luce, of the Associated Press, — vodka and cheese and warmth.

1

WE WERE calling on S. A. Lasovsky, Vice-Commissar of Foreign Affairs. Ambassador Averell Harriman had presented us and taken his leave for another engagement. We knew of S. A. Lasovsky that he was “an old Bolshevik.” He had been one of those who helped to make the Revolution. He was short and he wore a beard in the manner of Lenin. He could smile and he could be dead serious. We began with the usual pleasantries. Then Vice-Commissar Lasovsky began to ask questions.

He wanted to know if the American Society of Newspaper Editors included all shades of opinion — liberal, reactionary, conservative. He wanted to know how much editors had to do with making the policy of their papers. He asked what support American papers had given the declarations made at Yalta. Were the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst Press represented on our Committee?

We said they were not.

“Explain them,” he requested.

God knows, many critical studies have been made of those papers and the men who publish them. I myself have seen some profiles and books on the subject. But explaining, in that small office in Moscow, that in America you may disagree with and even hate what another man says, but will defend his right to say it, was not easy. We tried. Hard. I remember that I was sweating from my effort to be both lucid and honest.

Then he wanted to know what we meant by a free flow of news.

We said we believed that news should be allowed to come in and go out of a country without censorship in times of peace, since the wartime need for security is no longer involved; that foreign correspondents should be allowed to send messages out of Russia in the same way that Russian correspondents are allowed to send messages from other countries; that freedom of the news involved newspapers, agencies, and radio.

He thought for a moment. Then he reminded us that until some eight months before the war came, Russia had allowed dispatches to be sent out, even telephoned out, without censorship. He said, “Our own concept is that our press here in Russia is free. Ours is the freest there is, since it serves only the people, interpreting their wishes. Nevertheless if we could get together on a common ground to fight Germany and find a common ground on which to build a new system of international security, we surely could get together on some agreement for an international flow of information — which, after all, is a smaller problem than the other two.”

He waited a moment, meditating that, and apparently decided it would stand. He went back to questioning. What was the political make-up of our Committee?

I don’t think he believed us when we said that, quite by accident, it was made up of a Republican, a Democrat, and an independent.

There came an inevitable question: “You say American newspapers, too, reflect public opinion. How can you say that when, in every one of Mr. Roosevelt’s elections, most of your press was against him and yet he won? It would not seem you reflected opinion or had any influence.”

We tried patiently to explain that even those newspapers which opposed Mr. Roosevelt gave him generous space, that often they carried daily columns by men and women who daily supported Mr. Roosevelt, and that the people could get enough information on which to make up their own minds.

2

OUR Committee talked about the desirability of an exchange of more books and magazines, and of professional journals, with Vladimir Kemenov of Voks, who is in charge of cultural relations. We called at Tass, the news service which supplies 10,000 newspapers, daily and weekly, in the Soviet Union and which brings in some 15,000 words daily on the United States, The file, I am sorry to say, does not give a balanced picture of the United States.

We talked of the future of Tass, of whether it might become an association in the world field, such as Reuters or United or Associated Press. I think perhaps P. G. Palgunov and Joseph Chernov, director and assistant respectively, were a bit suspicious of us. One or two columnists in England had suggested that we might be doing a survey job for the American Press associations, and now and then we got a hint of that untruth following us around.

On Sunday we had our first big round table. Ambassador Averell Harriman opened the discussion. Many Americans, he said, believed that the Russians tried to export Communism, and that belief caused them to be suspicious of Russia. Also, he said, many Americans thought that every day Marshal Stalin — or perhaps, even, Mr. Lasovsky — wrote every word in the Soviet newspapers. Both countries had been concerned primarily, until war came, with domestic growth, and had been more or less isolationist peoples. Such a policy, he said, made both peoples resent foreign criticism and perhaps attach too much importance to statements by persons who did not really have any voice in the foreign policy of either.

The surest way, he said, to make an American politician popular with some Americans was for a foreign nation — England, France, Russia, and so on — to criticize him. He went on to say there was a tremendous interest in America in all things Russian, in its press and its people. The war, he continued, had enabled them to know more than had been known before about the qualities of the Soviet soldier and the people behind the Russian Army. Their feeling was one of friendship and admiration.

It was well, he concluded, not to take too seriously the relatively few critical articles in the American press. He was of the opinion that the Russians saw only such articles, and did not see the great mass of tribute paid to their nation. He was afraid, too, that some American reporters seemed to think that the most important news to send out of Russia was criticism of the United States.

It was an able, informal introduction.

Vice-Commissar Lasovsky replied.

He was glad to know, he said, that Americans read the Soviet newspapers. The Soviets read the American papers and they could not understand how an ally could permit such scurrilous lies as were told about Russia by some sections of the American press.

As for Communism, any intelligent adult should know that it is not possible to export a political system. He went on to say that the future peace of the world depended on close alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union. After praising the work done by Ambassador Harriman he proposed a toast of friendship between the two countries.

That night at the American Embassy I felt two things for sure. One was that between us there was a very real desire to have a meeting of minds. The other was that in the minds of some of the Soviet editors was a suspicion we were setting the American system of newspapering up as a perfect one, talking down to other peoples. God knows this was not true. We tried to say early that we were not interested in what sort of system they had for themselves; all we wanted was to try to create a sentiment for a free flow of information in and out of all countries, uncensored at the source or receiving end.

All the while there was with us the fact that both nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, had been isolationist nations, the latter more so perhaps than any other major power. We knew little about each other’s culture or background, and suspicion was native to us both.

Nor could they understand why, when Russia came into the war, there still were newspapers — and they named always the Hearst-McCormick press — which kept on attacking them and their conduct of the war. Used only to party papers, as is all Europe except England and Scandinavia, they could not understand that American newspapers, with all their admitted faults, do give some measure of expression to those they oppose. So, while we said we did not defend, and often deplored, the policy of these critics of an ally, we did defend their right to say what they pleased.

A. Danilov, of War and the Working Class, said he recently had returned from London, where he had attended the International Labor Conference. There, he said, he had seen the possibility of unity and the great need for it to continue in peace as in war.

Up stood P. N. Posvelov, of Pravda, to say that the discussion so far had revealed to him that American editors did not always represent public opinion, as they often had majority opposition to their policy. (Here again was the old clash between the concept of a party newspaper as opposed to a newspaper. But in it, too, was revealed one of the weaknesses of the American system: the failure to interpret news properly and to make clear the position of a paper.) The Moscow papers, he continued, learned what the people wanted and followed that line. Too often the American newspapers seemed to represent many interests other than the people’s.

It interested and puzzled him, he said, that American newspapers were allowed to print complete untruths about the Soviet Union. He referred, he said, only to charges made which later had been revealed as untrue but which had received no correction or apology from the American papers telling the untruths. He was, he said, all for friendship, but the Soviet press could not fail to take seriously these attacks by any American papers.

L. F. Ilyichev, of Izvestia, took the same course. He was bound to reach the conclusion, he said, that many American editors were not well-informed and did not even take the trouble to try to learn the facts. This ignorance, he said, caused them to take many positions with regard to the Soviet Union which subsequent developments revealed as ludicrous. He mentioned specifically the position taken by many American newspapers, that the Soviet Army paused before Budapest, and did not go any farther, for political reasons. Actually, he said, any informed person could have seen that the pause was for the purpose of bringing up supplies and reinforcements, as the Red Army had announced. When the Army went on to take Budapest, no paper making that ludicrous charge had corrected it or admitted being wrong. They went blithely on, he said, as if they had been entirely right about the matter.

General N. A. Talensky, editor of Red Star, who later was to discuss with me Stonewall Jackson’s Valley campaign, praised the American Army and American aid. He declared that Red Army and American soldiers had a real respect for one another.

He believed, he said, that the two nations were friends and would be friends, but that, as an old hunter, he knew that the worst enemy a hunter had was mosquitoes, and that when a hunter encountered a place where there were many mosquitoes he tried to avoid that place thereafter. The Soviets wanted friendship, but the mosquitoes of the hostile American press with their stings of untruth made it difficult.

These men illustrate the Soviet position. In addition to them there were present, from the Soviet Union, B. S. Burkov, editor of Komsomalskaya Pravda (Young Communist Truth); the almost legendary Michael M. Borodin, who edits the weekly Moscow News; K. K. Omelchenko, editor of Trud; P. G. Palgunov, of Tass; K. E. Zinchenko, acting Chief of Press of the Foreign Office; and U. S. Okov, member of the Soviet Information Bureau. Each of them spoke, but more briefly than the others.

The Embassy staff also was present. The dinner and round table lasted until one o’clock in the morning.

3

THE older Soviet newspapermen worked in exile or underground during the Revolution; the younger men are the product of the Revolution and its policy. That has been their entire newspaper experience. Their newspapers are strictly party papers. In fact, in almost all Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, papers are party papers. Even though they know, more or less generally, what the American system is, they cannot conceive of the American press as having no measure of restriction as to what it may publish — excluding, of course, obscene and pornographic material.

This was why they were astounded that an ally could be, and was, criticized by some American papers. The fact that no apology was made, when some of this criticism was revealed, as they assert, to be ridiculous and false, puzzled and angered them. And they rarely saw the great mass of favorable comment on Russia in American papers.

While they are well-informed as to international affairs, economics, and history, the Russians are lamentably uninformed about the domestic United States and its culture — just as the average American knows little about the Soviet Union.

The Soviet editors realize that the Soviet standard of living, which was just beginning to climb when the war came, is painfully low. They know the people’s awareness of this shortcoming in the Russian economy. They resented such criticism as is contained in Bill White’s book, which was something of an oversimplification and dealt in a good many generalities.

It is true that we have not always sent impartial correspondents to Russia. A few have gone in with chips on their shoulders. A few others have gone in seeking some sensational story which would make them a temporary bit of fame. These attitudes are not conducive to factual reporting.

At the offices of Izvestia and Pravda we spent some three or more hours on successive evenings in discussions with the editor and his immediate staff of assistants.

The circulation of Izvestia, restricted by war and newsprint scarcity, is about 1,300,000. It is published in four cities, — Moscow, Leningrad, Baku, Kuibishev, — with plans for other cities when peacetime newsprint production permits. Mats are flown by plane when possible. On other days the news is sent by radio, identically to each. (Pravda’s figures and facts follow closely those of Izvestia.)

Newsprint was scarce because the Germans occupied the largest newsprint-producing area. It will continue to be scarce for a time because the plants were destroyed. The wartime standard was four pages (standard size), instead of six or eight as before the war. Russian papers have no carrier delivery. The papers go by mail or are sold in kiosks. There are also special windows where the papers are displayed, page by page, to the public. There are individual and group subscribers.

The papers hold staff meetings, as in America. They also delight in a scoop and call attention to it with a page 1 box. They have promotion men, and their readers and agents are encouraged to send in complaints and suggestions. They publish a “letters to the editor” column. We all had a good laugh when Editor Ilyichev asked, rather plaintively, if in America eccentric characters called on newspapers.

The newspaper buildings are state-owned and all equipment also belongs to the state. But each paper must make a profit and pay for amortization, rent, and so on. There is little advertising — only a few brief advertisements from theaters and operas, largely an announcement of what is playing. Profit comes from circulation.

Izvestia is the paper of the Soviets, and the editor is elected by the Supreme Council. Pravda is the paper of the Communist Party, and the editor is named by the council of that party. The trade unions appoint the editor of Trud, and so on. Editor Ilyichev was a professor of psychology at Moscow University who was active in politics.

At both offices we were questioned as to the control of the American press by advertisers. On questioning, we learned that the two books they had read on this subject were George Seldes’s Lords of the Press and Upton Sinclair’s Brass Check; they had also read a few pamphlets.

Our reply was that there probably were one or two such papers — at least, two of the Committee members thought they could name them — but that, in the great bulk of the American press, the advertiser asked only that his advertisement bring results; he was not interested in the paper’s politics. The test of a paper’s success is the man with the nickel or the three cents. Readers have confidence in the advertisement because they have confidence in the paper.

We tried to explain, with undetermined success, that many persons read newspapers without bothering about the political opinion of the editorial page. This attitude they could not understand at all. They see few American newspapers and they persist in thinking of them as party papers because the papers often are identified as Republican or Democratic in politics.

When peace really appears, the Soviet papers plan to have more correspondents in America.

There was a farewell dinner with the editors and with Ilya Ehrenburg, gadfly extraordinary, and Mr. Marshak, poet and translator, who was enchanted when I told him I had twice met Robert Frost.

There was a night for the opera. There was time for us to walk about the city, to get a rare tour through the Kremlin, to visit the art galleries, to visit cold, snow-drifted, onion-domed St. Basil’s. There was time to visit the shops, the peasants’ stores, the government special shops with their high prices, the Bolshoi Theater.

There was time to talk with the newspapermen, with Anna Louise Strong, who is something of a legend; to tramp the streets; to go to the library to see old books on the ballet; to see movies of the capture of Budapest.

Finally, we arose before dawn one morning and went out to the airport. It was cold. There was no carpet on the bucket seats. Cold from the metal seemed to move slowly both ways, up the spine and down the legs.

The pilot flew at 500 feet all the way out of the snow to Astrakhan. We climbed out of the plane into a buffeting wind and walked across the flat, packedclay surface to a small wooden building. We had with us bread and butter and a huge roll of sausage, which we shared with two Soviet passengers, a young Navy CPO who was going home after eighteen months of duty in Moscow, and the two crewmen. One of the Russians believed this food called for vodka and he bought a round. Courtesy called for us to respond. Then the other passenger and the CPO followed suit. Russian glasses are small.

Soon we were back on the plane and flying over the delta of the Volga and over the Caspian Sea. Farmers had burned their fields, and the excited CPO, pressing his nose to the small windows of the C-47 transport, shouted, “My God, they really mean it when they say they scorch the earth! Look at that, will you!”

At Baku we unloaded and jolted along to the Intourist Hotel in a Soviet-made bus. The oil fields were about us and the smell came in through the windows. The night came on as we drove, and when we pulled up to the hotel the moon was silver on the Caspian.