Printer Friendly

The journalist as a foreign expert: American television correspondents reporting on the November parades (1960s-1980s).


The spectacle of the October commemorations became a 'global iconic event' in the era of television. (1) From the 1950s on, the new media not only amplified the symbolic dimension and the visual culture of Red October to a unified Soviet audience, but more importantly, participated in its re-mediation, re-appropriation and negotiation in other domestic spaces, such as capitalist Western democracies. Drawing on the audiovisual archives of the three main US national television broadcasters (ABC, NBC, CBS), this paper shows how the representations of the November parade on US television makes a paradigmatic case of the international echoes of this historical event. It considers both the political significance of Soviet commemoration events in the Cold War context and the role of propaganda for both the USSR and the USA, both nations trying to control their own image and the image of the other side for their public opinion.

The return of Yuri Gagarin in April 1961 and his triumphal appearance in the May Day parade during the same year were the first Soviet broadcasted event outside the Iron Curtain, first in Western Europe, then on US television a few days later, leaving time for the videotaped parade to travel by airplane. (2) NBC was the only television channel to broadcast it, which prompted a debate in the US Congress as to whether this would promote Soviet propaganda in the United States. (3) In the USSR, the official parades in general, and the October commemorations in particular, had a central place in the Soviet festive and commemorative system and were thus programmed as holiday broad-castings on Soviet Central Television. Combining musical variety shows to annual political rituals gave 'an opportunity to explicitly dramatize and reimagine the relationship between state and citizens, cultural authorities and audiences, in a heightened, festive setting'. (4) Whereas the November parade was staged since its very early years as a movie set, the Soviet regime took advantage of the media revolution along the twentieth century. The use of television led political agitation to unprecedented levels, as it allowed to reach new potential publics, inside and outside the USSR. First manufactured in 1940, 4.8 million television sets were available in the USSR in 1960, and 7 million were produced annually by 1976. The medium even outperformed radio, which was not as popular and cheap as in the United States. (5) The May Day and October parades in 1956 were the first television broadcasts from the Red Square in the Soviet Union.

In the following decades, technological improvement through satellites allowed international broadcasting. With transboundary television, the US audience experienced something more than the commemorative parade intended by the Soviet regime, although American citizens were not watching the October commemorations for the first time, since they appeared on newsreels at the time of the revolution. The television networks however emphasised the role of American journalists in the USSR and relied mainly on their Moscow correspondents since the 1960s. Through editorial editing and filtering, the journalists offered a gaze that was part of, although partly different from, the Soviet culture of celebrations, from the first televised parade in 1961 to the last official one in 1990. This paper first draws on the journalistic work and constraints of American correspondents in Moscow, before discussing the representations of this ceremonial event in the United States. Understood as a meaning-making process through a system of signs and symbols, representations have to be analysed using both their visual and discursive components. (6) The October commemorations on US television therefore became the pretext for representations that either focused on the aggressive and military attitude of the Soviet regime, assessed its social and economic achievements or explained the geopolitical outcomes in the Soviet Union.

US television correspondents in Soviet Union

After foreign correspondents were allowed back to the USSR in 1921, the major news agencies (AP, UPI, Reuters, AFP) and US press titles (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time) sent their correspondents to Moscow. The three main television networks, created in the 1940s first as radio broadcasters, did not broadcast international news before the 1950s. Although they opened a bureau in Moscow in 1955 for CBS and NBC, and in 1961 for ABC, the coverage of the November parade on US television remained practically nonexistent until the 1960s for several reasons. (7) There was initially a direct competition with newsreels, which were a powerful media force for Western audiences in the 1960s before slowly disappearing in the 1970s. In the case of the October commemorations, the Soviets were producing their own newsreels on the parade and sending the footage to the West, benefiting from the trading system with other newsreel companies, such as Pathe or Paramount. The coverage of topics related to the Soviet Union also remained difficult in the 1950s as McCarthyism was jeopardising the media environment; (8) finally, technical constraints limited the work of journalists, who could film the parade with their 16mm cameras but then had difficulties to send their footage to the West. The only option was to find someone to carry the undeveloped film out of the country, most often a traveler. (9)

This situation changed in the early 1960s, due to technological improvements. The connection between the Intervision network in Estonia (the Eastern European television broadcasting system) and the Eurovision network in Finland (the Western European one) reduced time and shipping constraints. (10) With the launch of the first US Telstar live transatlantic television satellite in 1962, satellite transmissions slowly brought the West and East blocs into the era of global TV. Although specific camera locations along the parade route were already planned by the Soviets since the 1920s, new arrangements were made for larger media devices and sets in the 1950s, as television cameras became more sophisticated. American correspondents therefore needed a technical assistance team. Foreign televisions could work with Novosti, the Soviet press agency in charge of providing technical crews to foreign correspondents, among other things, which caused conflicting views on what to film and how to film. (11) But American television networks managed to bring their own crews along in the 1960s.

Legal and professional working conditions for journalists also improved during the Khrushchev era with direct censorship ending in 1961. Whereas in the past, foreign correspondents had to engage in a daily routine of having their copy checked by the Press Department (Glavlit) before filing the story, they were now free to use the teletypes at TASS (the Russian news agency), the telephone lines in their hotels and desks, and the satellite transmitter at the Central Telegraph. Despite the end of direct censorship, restrictions remained. Foreign journalists were prohibited from accessing military and economic information and speculating on the Soviet leaders' health and private life. Access to officials was restricted and correspondents confronted constant mistrust from citizens, besides the harassment of the KGB and the authorities, risking expulsion if they gave a negative image of the Soviet Union. In the end, authorities still had the possibility to prevent American journalists from broadcasting stories that upset them by pretexting the satellite was not working, or by interrupting the phone or the teletype. (12)

Television coverage from foreign networks nevertheless introduced variations from the newsreels, in terms of production, content, narrative and expertise. For the first time, foreign correspondents had the technical capacity to produce a more personal report about life in the USSR, introducing a journalistic stance and analysis. From 1961 onwards, the November parade was broadcast almost on an annual schedule in the evening news programmes produced by the three US television channels, with footage ranging from a few seconds to several minutes, especially for the jubilees (1967, 1977 and 1987). (13) It was not a large amount of airtime on television and it was certainly 'hardly enough time to explain the roots of Soviet militarism [or] the ordinary Russian's perceptions of the outside world' that the November parade would reveal. (14) Images either originated from the film made by the American correspondent or crew, from the Soviet television, or a mix of both. (15) There was no extensive live coverage of the November parade; everything was mediated and filtered by each domestic network.

The representations of the parade on US television thus played out in typical Cold War propaganda, as American journalists pretended on one side to look for 'accurate information' in the US tradition of journalism, while considering Soviet mass media as a mean for 'ideological education' on the other side. (16) American journalists did not take anything from the ritualistic spectacle intended by the Soviets, 'a spectacle designed to impress anyone watching on TV'. (17) Every year, the 'usual' or 'traditional parade' was the symbolic sentence that introduced the US footage of the celebrations. But the November parade was not considered as event from the journalistic perspective: it was repetitive, offered very few surprises, did not allow them to work as they were used to. They often liked to complain about being limited to simple spectators and commentators. Until the end of the 1980s and the Glasnost, they had difficulties to add their personal 'touch' or build an original storyline. Journalists therefore tended to focus on the unexpected, original setbacks during the parade, whether in the audience, in the military spectacle, or in the official tribune. They were consequently even more dependent on their information sources and network, and on their knowledge and expertise of the Soviet society to a larger extent, to understand and interpret what they saw and heard during the parade.

Journalists as experts

The journalists acted as intermediaries and analysts who had to decode the meaning of the parade and make its references and symbols understandable and accessible to the American public, as demonstrated by Frank Reynolds who compared the 'celebrations going on inside the Soviet Union (...) to a combination of our Day of Independence and Memorial Day'. (18) What is questioned behind this interpretation is the expertise of the journalist himself, which arises typical issues of news correspondents working in foreign countries. The different factors of influence on journalists and media content (personal, professional, organisational, institutional or social), (19) although not unique to reporting from the USSR, played a considerable role in Moscow correspondents' some times stereotypical view of the Soviets. Among institutional influences, there were of course difficulties related to working in an authoritarian regime, with all the problems of access, censorship, and mistrust. Very often, journalists had to extrapolate as they could not always check information, for example, to investigate why a member of the Politburo was absent during the November parade. These constraints were reinforced by social and nationalistic influences on US journalists over ideological differences with a communist society. A consequence was the characteristic bias of confusing the representation (the image) with the reality (the real experience): 'Russia is a very difficult country to portray on television. (...) The film does not convey the smell, the decay; the film does not take you behind the facade'. (20) Interestingly, further research on Soviet and American home fronts suggests that US television networks participated in creating an illusion, 'selling the Cold War consensus' to the audience by partnering with US government information officers, especially in the early Cold War. (21) On the other side, the Soviet audience became more immune to propaganda and was able to 'read between the lines'. (22)

At the personal, professional and organisational levels, there were also issues regarding the preparedness of journalists and their cultural backgrounds. Perspectives and careers greatly diverged among Moscow correspondents, as the position was 'variously a sought-after and an undesirable assignment in journalism', although 'considered a detour on the way up the ladder' and 'a subject of dramatization' for television journalists. (23) US television correspondents were generally among those with a lack of training, as television networks had 'a hard time recruiting qualified reporters [and] fail[ed] to see the value in unleashing those who d[id] step forward for several months of uninterrupted preparation'. (24) One major weakness, commonly faced by foreign correspondents, was the skill of the Russian language, which only a few managed to master: 'Probably half the American correspondents in the last twenty-five years did not have enough training in the language, culture, and history of the Russian people: I am an example of it'. (25) For those who did not speak Russian, they had the option to learn questions by heart, to write them, to rely on foreign diplomats or other correspondents, or to employ an interpreter, with a loss of spontaneity and quality. (26) American correspondents were also looking for sources among the Soviet press and elite, especially artists, scientists, writers or ministry officials, though they would rely most often on the military attaches during the November parade.

Among their practice routines, Moscow correspondents faced a conflict of interest with another important source of information, namely the 'Soviet experts', a group of American scholars who collaborated with the US government and academic communities since the mid-1950s, even leading to a scholar-exchange programme. (27) Although not limited to the media coverage of the USSR, this conflict between journalists and academics rose to constant and mutual accusations in the 1980s, as to which side was responsible for providing wrong predictions and overinterpretation of the Soviet regime and society. Soviet experts complained that there was a general 'lack [of ] a professional corps of Sovietological journalists in the United States'. (28) American correspondents and US news media in general were accused of failing to fully inform the public, to which journalists argued that Soviet experts had no field experience:
There's nothing to report here. We analyze. (...) That's why I'm amused
by all the American Sovietologists who presume to know what Russia's all
about when some of them have never even set foot here. (...) You can't
understand the nature of this place, the evolution of the society, the
political nature from which the leaders come, without being here. Could
you understand America without ever visiting it? The idea is
ridiculous'. (29)

Despite this conflictual stance, Soviet experts were sometimes invited on television during the November parade to offer a political analysis about economic stagnation, reforms or transitions in the regime.

A common criticism of journalists working abroad is their lack of knowledge or awareness about foreign social, cultural, or scientific issues, especially television correspondents who work as generalists, changing assignments every two to three years. (30) Therefore, Soviet culture, history and politics were often put forward as elements of expertise. Marvin Kalb, CBS correspondent in Moscow between 1959 and 1963 and one of the only journalists fluent in Russian, even advised future correspondents in 1985 to 'get trained, not at the Russian Institute at Columbia, but at the Russian Research Center at Harvard', home to many Soviet experts and academics. (31) Even though, many television correspondents never shared their experience of the Soviet society like the press journalists, who led a trend by publishing their memoirs. (32) Only a few achieved academic knowledge and observation of the Soviet society and politics, like Jonathan Sanders, a CBS correspondent (1988-1997), historian and Fulbright scholar in the Soviet Union and director of the 'Working Group on Soviet Television' at Columbia University. For those who mastered the Russian language and provided some of the best coverage of USSR--such as Kalb or Ann Garrels, ABC correspondent from 1979 to 1982, they became political analysts of the USA-USSR relations back in Washington DC. Overall, it reinforced the congruence and mutual reliance of news media, political leaders, Soviet experts and 'government-connected research institutions' towards 'the general thrust of dominant interpretations' and bias about an evil USSR. (33)

US television narratives about the October commemorations

Eager to provide footage about the Soviet Union, American correspondents turned most often an interested eye on the November parade as one of these highly typical, folkloric events beyond the Iron Curtain. Described as 'the closest thing in this communist society to a holy rite', (34) the October commemorations fall within the category of 'ceremonial television', as defined by Dayan and Katz: they were a pre-planned, ritualistic media event interrupting the everyday banal routine, operating on a monopolistic character through all media channels, broadcasted live and filmed outside. (35) Celebrated as 'coronations' (the cult of the marxist revolution) inside the USSR, the October commemorations were discussed on American television from the perspective of 'conquests' (the radical transformation of the Soviet society) and 'contests' (the military competition between the USA and the USSR).

Thus, the representations of the October celebrations made by American journalists were part of the iconic significance wanted by the Soviets, emphasising the founding moment of the Bolshevik revolution and its mythologised components condensed in the 'recognizable visual scene' of the parade. (36) Until the appearance of dissents and protests in 1989, the visual choreography kept a similar weave on US televisions: long shots on the marching troops and the weaponry, medium shots on the Defense minister speaking and the leaders at the tribune, and again long shots at the large civil crowd sheering and wearing slogans and banners. However, American correspondents also exploited and diverted the original meaning of the parade, through the remediation of the October commemorations in the hostile American political context, and a counter-narration distancing itself from the national unity originally enshrined by the Soviet regime. From the 1960s to the 1990s, the journalists contributed to building a series of framings on the parade, 'select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient'. (37) The October commemorations therefore became 'an occasion for the West to catch a glimpse on who's who in the Soviet government and what's what in the Soviet military'. (38) From the visual perspective, the spectacle of the parade on US televisions also initiated a series of 'iconic inaugurations' (39) to the American public, or visual turns in the way it represented the citizens, the officials, and the correspondents.

Contests: the military parade

The journalistic focus on the martial aspects of the parade took a large portion of the footage, as it was usually the most spectacular part of the celebrations. One of the only moments during which the curtain would unveil the Soviet military, the November parade was thus framed to assess the dangerousness of the Red enemy and is weaponry. There was a fascination by American journalists to understand what they considered to be the 'roots of militarism in Soviet society'. (40) The Soviet prohibitions for foreign correspondents to take images of military installations, ships or members of the armed forces made the parade even more attractive to US journalists. (41) Moreover, the correspondents also played a role in the feelings among the American public opinion over the nuclear threat, as the comments from Washington Post's Dusko Doder illustrate:
Let's face it, Americans really aren't interested in Russia. They think
of Russia as a military power and not much else. The average guy just
wants to hear how bad it is; that makes him feel good. It's the negative
stories that get the frontpage play. (42)

While this comment is representative of the way journalists often work in accordance to what they think is the audience perception, social studies about US attitudes regarding the Soviet Union show that the public was uninformed. Although it cannot be attributed solely to the media, as political leaders and anti-communist ideology played an important role, foreign correspondent faced a dilemma to represent the USSR with negative, exaggerated and self-reinforcing images. (43)

Every year, one of the most famous and ritualistic sentence pronounced by American correspondents was that 'there were no surprises in the display of military equipment'. (44) The aeronautic achievement of the Sputnik in the late 1950s led to military exploitations, such as the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), largely displayed in the November parade after the Cuban missile crisis. It thus led the crowd of foreign journalists in Moscow to a mix of sensationalist expectations and feelings of heightened military confrontation until the first years of the Brezhnev era, seen as iron-power. The military might of ICBMs was symbolically highlighted by the journalists who timed and compared each year the duration of the missiles' passage during the parade. The detente in the 1970s concurred to a decrease of the military show, which American correspondents, looking for unexpected shifts on which to build their stories, particularly underlined in 1975:
the military parade was half its usual size, the smallest in decades.
(...) They were no tanks or tract vehicles and none of the heavy ICBMs
that traditionally roll (...) through Red Square. Some Soviet military
men told their Western counterparts here it was a concession to city
officials who complained on the annual damage the heavy weapons do to
Moscow streets. (...) The mystery is likely to remain; Kremlin leaders
aren't commenting'. (45) The episode exemplifies the problem of
journalistic sources and the lasting collaboration between
correspondents and military attaches, 'because intelligence has to be
gathered on such occasion, especially in a country that is so
secretive. (46)

Interactions of American journalists with military attaches and US embassy personnel to comment on the latest innovations of military hardware and the Cold War geopolitics increased in the 1970s, as correspondents preferred to work with on-the-spot people.

The strong military hardware however came back for the jubilee in 1977. In light of the undergoing negotiations for the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (which was signed in 1979), American televisions emphasized the enormity of the adversarial superpower, 'the biggest military demonstration in years'. (47) The competition in diplomacy was connotated in the arms race, journalists evaluating who was winning by counting the numbers of tanks and missiles on each side. The war-that-never-was hence played on television; reporting from Aberdeen, home to one of the largest US military bases in Maryland, the journalist Bill Wordham compared American and Soviet abilities:
Generally the Russians are behind us technically but they are catching
up. Analysts see advanced weapons going into production today and they
predict they will be deployed on mass by 1982. At that time experts say
the US could be in trouble, unless we continue to pursue and expand our
own military programmes. (48)

The perceived threat of the Soviets--and the incentive for the United States' own arms race--was thus stereotypical of two societies mirroring each other's aggressiveness. Although American footage of the November parade did not usually contain an historical analysis of the October celebrations, a retrospective was included for every jubilee, which insisted on the military aspects of the Russian revolution and the contemporaneous schoolchildren in military uniforms. (49) Parts of the framing effects are linked to the way journalists define a particular problem, interpret the causes that led to it, evaluate its moral outcomes and propose recommendations to overcome it. (50) The broadcast of the October commemorations, especially its military aspects, therefore reinforced the construction of a belligerent rhetoric against the figure of an intimidating Soviet adversary on the bad side of history. Decoding the meaning of the Bolshevik revolution, political analyst Howard K. Smith ventured into the risky path of rewriting history:
We should never know, but had we relieved Kerensky of the need to fight
a war, the century might have been vastly different. (...) The world
might have been a saner and a happier place to live in. Today (...) also
marks one of history's greatest mistake, which the Western world played
a large part in making. (51)

Another symbol of the perceived Soviet aggressiveness was the typical and repetitive focus of American correspondents on the Defense Ministers' speeches. Every declaration from Andrei Grechko to Dmitri Yazov was unpacked on American televisions to assess their bellicose claims, as in 1980: 'there were no surprises in the traditional military address by Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov. He made the customary attacks against American imperialism and the aggressive NATO block'. (52) The Reagan presidency in 1980 thus introduced a surge in the military threat, and particular attention was given by American correspondents to Ustinov's speeches in the aftermath of the 26th party congress in 1981 and its reaffirmation of the peace programme for the 1980s. (53) Without any real confrontation happening apart from verbal attacks, journalists then turned their attention to the presence of banners and posters 'protesting against the aggressive policies of the Reagan administration' (54) in the following years. The focus on the military hardware faded away in the end of the 1980s and the Glasnost era: 'What used to be a show of military vanity was today a parade (...) short on blusters'. (55) Aside the signature of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987, American correspondents emphasised the 'constructive dialogue and mutually beneficial agreements' (56) driven by Gorbachev: 'Western observers said the parade's slogans carried much less strident ideology'. (57)

Conquests: the civil parade

Framing the Soviet Union as the oppressor, American correspondents were also paying particular attention to signs of crackdown in the communist system, just as Soviet journalists in America were looking for stories on the failure of capitalism. (58) US news media portrayed the Soviet society through a series of frames about coercion, corruption, alcoholism, mortality rates, social adherence to the marxist-leninist ideology but also admiration for Soviet economic reforms on health, safety, welfare and education. Regularly using the 'narrow' adjectives 'Russian' and 'Russia' as synonymous with Soviet, American journalists manifested an oversimplification also seen among US government officials. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn complained in 1980 about American correspondents' 'persistent emotional bias' in making these shortcuts, warning also that 'any judgments based on Moscow experiences must be significantly corrected before they may be applied to Soviet experience in general'. (59) These geo-centric perspectives were also reinforced by the journalists' permanent location in Moscow and Leningrad, short of traveling more than forty kilometers outside the cities without special authorisation from the foreign ministry. (60) Similarly, American correspondents were referring to the 'average Soviet citizen' in their reports, ignoring the vast diversity of population and nationalities across the Soviet Union: 'The average Soviet never had it so good. He is apparently content. The purpose of today: to remind him of that fact'. (61) Often using sarcasm, it was illustrative of the journalists' frustrations of not being able to talk directly to the people, together with their own ideological predisposition against an authoritarian regime.

The presence of civilians in the October commemorations, both as spectators and participants, therefore offered a unique and regular 'window' for American correspondents to assess the communist living standards, comparing the Soviet social and economic achievements to the West, as in aftermath of the 1965 Kosygin economic reform:
MikhaAaAaAeA l Suslov said the Russians have harvested more grain this ye
than ever before in history. There is the prospect of a television set
for every Russian household. The factory workers are earning an average
of 122 roubles a month; at the Soviet rate of exchange, that works out
at 135 dollars a month. (62)

The American correspondents were preoccupied with what they thought to be US citizens' interest in 'real life' beyond the Iron Curtain: 'the desire to understand the cultural particularities of Soviets [as well as] an orientalised American perception of Soviets as exotic [or] the simple preference for the human-interest story over complex political analysis'. (63) US correspondents particularly focused on the 1967, 1977 and 1987 jubilees as special moments for reviewing the radical transformation of the Soviet society living under marxist progress, with two main concerns: Were Soviet citizens happy? How long would they tolerate living in this society? The journalists were interested in the generational gap, fantasising about the memories of 60-year old Soviet citizens who had known famine and the younger generations who had known the benefits of the welfare system:
He is not hungry, he has a place to live and a place to work, his
children will be educated and cared for. He cannot change his government
by marking his ballot. (...) He is better now than his grand-father in
1917 and is probably happier. He may have little information to change
the way he is governed. In any event, he can't. Not unless he wants to
repeat what happened here, sixty years ago. (64)

Beyond the questioning of political freedom, there was of course a constant parallel made by American journalists between capitalism and socialism, with heightening skepticism over the Era of Stagnation during the 1970s. The observation by CBS political analyst Eric Sevareid in 1977 hence admitted the conquests made by the Soviet, without keeping from underlining the signs of defeat by the time of the Russian revolution's sixtieth anniversary:
[The Soviet Union] became a superpower industrially, militarily, but
with frightful costs in human lives. Only relatively few of its people
deny the basis of its system but then heavy frontiers, guns and fences
keep the people in. Economically it works, and why not. Any system can
be made to work up to a point if all those who would do it differently
are silenced. To go beyond that point requires an open system. The
international brotherhood of the proletariat never came about; the
communist international as an instrument is in disarray. (65)

The economic and social frame changed again to the unstable, failure and crisis-ridden reading in the mid-1980s, as Gorbachev unpopular economic reforms were discussed on the three televisions. Economic evaluation even shadowed the military focus in American footage of the seventieth anniversary, hence bringing more television airtime for Soviet experts, so as to predict the viability of Soviet economy. Looking for more concrete signs of economic meltdown, CBS offered for example extra footage of street scenes, showing Moscow residents trying to buy food on empty markets, unconcerned by the parade broadcasted on a giant screen in a public place. (66)

Concerns for Soviet living standards were also accompanied by a visual shift in the coverage of the parade. The correspondent's presence was only acknowledged as a voice off commenting the October commemorations until the 1970s; but the creation of light-weight cameras in 1977 represented a rupture by introducing the presence of the correspondent microphone in his hand, in the foreground of the parade. (67) Not only did it give more authenticity to the report by showing the witnessing presence of the journalist in live broadcasts from the Red Square; it also allowed an immersion in the middle of the crowd. Using the shot/reverse shot technique, Frank Reynold showed himself among a group of serious, interrogative Soviet citizens watching the military parade:
But among the spectators, there is a curious silence. Maybe they don't
really care to see all this military stuff. It is, after all, a reminder
of all the special horrors so vividly remembered by all middle-aged
Russians. (68)

In a typical game of mirrors between the observer and the observed, Reynold was still extrapolating on the point of view of Soviet citizens, not being able to interview them. The situation remained like this until the end of the Chernenko administration in 1985, during which 'two unprecedented laws' were passed that 'increase[d] isolation of Western journalists' by preventing the population to talk freely to the Western press, as 'any contact between a Western reporter and a citizen c[ould] be treated as a criminal offense'. (69)

Trying to divert the coverage from the staged, official and propaganda show decided by the Soviets, American correspondents tried to focus more on human stories, a choice that remained difficult until the mid-1980s. They had diverse positions on using street interviews, being aware of the limits of objectivity when it came to interview Soviet citizens who might have been skeptical or frightened to speak to a foreigner, as Serge Schmemann from the New York Times recalled in 1985:
Sometimes I'll go to a beer bar and stand around sipping a beer. Of
course, you've got to be careful. An American correspondent is a
combination of everything that is evil. The Soviet press denounces us as
spies, as betrayers of the motherland. Drop the fact too soon that
you're a correspondent and you'll send them running. (70)

It was even harder when using a camera and a microphone, as it would immediately attract attention; but some journalists acknowledged the informative and illuminating nature of street interviews to show American citizens that the Soviets looked almost like them. The situation dramatically changed in 1989, with the organisation of separate protest marches in Lithuania, Moldavia, Armenia, Georgia and Russia. Enjoying more freedom for the media, American journalists greatly emphasised the men-in-the-street figure through the protesters. They reached their microphones to many Moscow citizens, sometimes finding some who could speak English, and became a sound box for the reasons of discontent. The translation given by American correspondents of the political banners carried by protesters--'Down with the KGB', '72 years on a road to nowhere'--amplified the warning signs given by commentators back in the New York studios about 'communism under attack' and the 'Soviet nation's instability'. (71)

From commemorations to geopolitics

In the end, the October commemorations on US television can also be considered as an evaluation grid and observation of the geopolitics of the Cold War, especially for the US audience. Many national and international political tensions were part of the television agenda, especially when they clashed with the November parade. The Prague Spring in 1968, the detention of two US generals after they mistakenly landed in the USSR in 1970, or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1988 therefore provoked unusual setbacks in the official celebrations, as American, Western or NATO ambassadors boycotted the parade. The presence or absence of these officials elicited numerous comments among American correspondents, who used it as a barometer of East-West relations over years, evaluating the state of the relationships through visual parallels with impressive tanks and missiles displayed on the Red Square and the rank of foreign officials present in the crowd: 'The US are fueling the pressure (...) by sending only a few low-ranking officials'. (72) The same assessment was made over the presence or absence of socialist leaders on top of the Lenin Mausoleum, used as a visual marker to indicate the friendships inside the socialist bloc, especially towards China after Nixon's visit in 1972. The Sino-Soviet split even became another routine and sarcastic game: 'One growing tradition was maintained: (...) the Chinese ambassador got insulted and walked out', after an aggressive speech against China by Defense Minister Grechko. (73)

Probably the biggest conflictual matter between American correspondents and Soviet experts were the discussions over the state of the regime and the health of Soviet leaders--whose private life was an object of secrecy. The spectacle of the official tribune during the November parade became a regular occasion for journalists to catch a glimpse on the Soviet hierarchy and favorites. This television framing started with the absence of Premier Alexei Kosygin during the 1979 parade, and reached its peak between 1982 and 1984, during the fast-changing leadership between Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. The journalistic analysis of the health of the leaders even dominated the military parade, including at times the presence of Soviet experts, such as Helmut Sonnenfeldt, (74) to discuss the potential transition. Drawing from the conflicting and scarce information and rumors they could gather on the health of the General Secretary, American correspondents commented extensively on the 'aging Soviet leadership' (75) compared to a 'gerontocracy'. (76) Their analysis sometimes resembled a health check-up--a public disclosure exercise to which every American president is used to--but the purpose in the end was to speculate how long the leadership could go on: 'Brezhnev has a pacemaker, arteriosclerosis, a slurring speech, and a faltering gait. So the traditional question under diplomatic terms here today is not "who will succeed" but "when"?' (77) The absence of Yuri Andropov during the 1983 parade--the first time a General Secretary was absent during the October commemorations--was highly debated among American televisions, especially as journalists and political analysts complained about the lack of 'reliable, independent sources' and turned to Western officials who were 'skeptical that he has a common cold', or observed the Politburo to see if there were 'tensions as when a leader is seriously ill'. (78)

While journalists were urging the need for change among the Soviet political stronghold, they used the glimpse on the official tribune to proceed to another iconic inauguration by introducing the names and faces of the top candidate successors to American citizens. CBS, in particular, added three white circles on the heads of Ustinov, Chernenko and Tikhonov on top of the Lenin Mausoleum in 1983, just as spotlights would light the faces of actors or speakers on stage. These changes in the Soviet regime undoubtedly had reverberations around the world, but Soviet experts criticized the expertise of American journalists in this 'media leaderology'. Stephen Cohen, professor of Soviet Politics and History at Princeton University, had been extensively condemning this 'very bad--uninformed, wildly speculative, and unself-critically contradictive' type of coverage. (79) American journalists were especially disapproved of by Soviet experts for failing to see the rise of Chernenko and for their poor political reading of the Soviet political apparatus, using sometimes oversimplification, such as naming the Soviet leader the 'President of the Soviet Union'. Looking at the television coverage that was made during the Andropov era, the observation shows a more moderate analysis; all three American televisions mentioned Chernenko as a potential successor and included political analysis from the US State Department. The episode is rather more significant of competitive American expertise over a dull Soviet state in times of political instability.

Conclusion: the disappearing parade

With over thirty years of footage available in the archive, the October commemorations on American television have to be considered in their symbolic dimension: 'The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images'. (80) They did not represent the same meaning in the Soviet territory or the American one and therefore have to be interpreted in light of the context where they were perceived. American correspondents re-interpreted the symbolic significance of this event in journalistic narratives that emphasised the divisive nature of the East-West blocs in the light of Cold War geopolitical tensions. Working in a secretive state, American journalists were also perceived as the eyewitness presence behind the Iron Curtain. Hence, the television coverage of the October commemorations was not different from the coverage of the Soviet Union in general, although other pundits, such as Soviet experts, painted a harsh picture on the role of the media: '[Journalists see the USSR as] a crisis-ridden, decaying system composed of a stagnant inefficient economy; corrupt bureaucratic elite; a sick, cynical and restive society; and an aging inept political leadership that cannot change or make policy, only manipulate it'. (81) Although the expertise of American correspondents in Moscow can be shaded as they most often relied on US government officers, military and diplomatic attaches for information, the spectacle of the November parade was used as one of those moments when the curtain was lifted to explore many components of the Soviet society.

Ironically, the November parade was not really an event in journalistic terms because of its repetitive and controlled nature, not until its very last years from 1989 to 1991. The Glasnost period led to a series of changes which offered an opportunity for American correspondents to build a journalistic story over unexpected, unusual happenings. In the end, the 'traditional' military and civil parade disappeared in the shadow of these new framings, underlined by the 'Forced celebration' strip added by NBC on its footage of the parade in 1990. First, there was a rupture in the attitude and location of leaders; in 1989, Gorbachev allowed the journalists to join him on top of the Lenin Mausoleum for interviews, showing for the first time an openness from the Politburo during this exceptional event. Then, in 1990, the whole group of leaders stepped out of the official tribune to march in front of the parade, and Boris Yeltsin organised a rally protest, offering unprecedented scenes of a less static ceremony and contest to the official rite. Second, the growing dissent in socialist Republics and the focus on protests by American televisions opened the path to a counter-narration that shook the very essence of the October foundational event. Showing a setting that would have looked incongruous a few years ago, NBC anticipated the 1990 celebrations by displaying a group of students, openly discussing with their teacher the meaning of the Russian revolution and its legitimacy. Eight decades later, it was finally the closure story for American news media to a political and ideological conflict that had started in 1917.


1. Julia Sonnevend, Stories Without Borders: The Berlin Wall and the Making of a Global Iconic Event, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, p20.

2. James Schwoch, Global TV: New Media and the Cold War, 1946-1969, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009, p118.

3. Congressional Record, 'The National Broadcasting Co. defends its presentation of filming and television May Day parade in Moscow', in Proceedings and Debates of the Congress, vol. 107, Part 23, 1961, pA5113.

4. Christine E Evans, Between Truth and Time: A History of Soviet Central Television, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016, p82.

5. Ellen P Mickiewicz, Split signals: Television and Politics in the Soviet Union, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988, p3.

6. Stuart Hall, Representation. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: Sage, 1997.

7. Whitman Bassow, The Moscow Correspondents. Reporting on Russia from the Revolution to Glasnost, New York: Paragon House, 1988, p154.

8. Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

9. Bassow, op. cit., p156.

10. Rauno Enden and Eino Lyytinen, Yleisradio 1926-1996: A History of Broadcasting in Finland, Helsinki: WSOY Painolaitokset, 1996, p255.

11. Marvin Kalb, 'Focus on Moscow' in Nieman Reports, Spring 1985, pp10-1. The CBS journalist recalls several issues he had when working with Novosti camera crews, some of them refusing to film negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union.

12. Joseph Finder, 'Reporting from Russia' in Washington Journalism Review, 1985, reprinted in Robert English and Jonathan Halperin, The Other Side: How Soviets and Americans Perceive Each Other, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, p72 and p74.

13. The programme is difficult to assess for years previous to 1968, as there is no public access to US television archives. All ABC, NBC and CBS archives are private and accessible on a commercial basis; the only service provided for researchers is made available by the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, that recorded all US national television newscasts since August 1968.*

14. Robert Gillette, 'American coverage of the Soviet Union' in Nieman Reports, Spring 1985, p32.

15. It is impossible to delineate the origins of the images in many cases, because no mention is given in the television archives, whether on ABC, CBS, NBC or Vanderbildt. Only CBS mentioned the 'Moscow Television' origin in the 1960s.

16. English and Halperin, op. cit., p57. See also Ellen P Mickiewicz, Media and the Russian Public, New York: Praeger, 1981.

17. Garrick Utley, NBC correspondent, 7 November 1977.

18. Frank Reynolds, ABC correspondent, 8 November 1968. The extra day might suggest the delay was used to get the videotaped film from Moscow to New York.

19. Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese, Mediating the Message. Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content, New York: Longman, 1996.

20. Kalb, op. cit., p13.

21. Nancy Bernhard, US Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947- 1960, Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p2.

22. Jonathan Sanders, 'Seeing between the images', Harriman Institute, Columbia University, quoted in English and Halperin, op. cite, p61.

23. Finder, op. cit., p71.

24. Gillette, op. cit., p32.

25. John Chancellor, NBC correspondent in 1961-1962, quoted by Bassow, op. cite, p149.

26. Samuel Rachlin, 'Cameras and microphones in Moscow' in Nieman Reports, Spring 1985, p11.

27. David Engerman, Know your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America's Soviet Experts, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

28. Stephen Cohen, 'Soviet state and society as reflected in the American media' in Nieman Reports, Winter 1984, p27.

29. Finder, op. cit., pp73-4.

30. Stephen Hess, International News and Foreign Correspondents, Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1996, pp47-59.

31. Kalb, op. cit., p14.

32. Some of these best-sellers include Harrison Salisbury, the first New York Times correspondent in Moscow after WWII, who wrote American in Russia, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955; Hedrick Smith (New York Times' bureau chief in Moscow in 1971-4), The Russians, New York: New York Times Book Company, 1975; Robert G Kaiser (Washington Post's Moscow correspondent in 1971-4), Russia: The People and the Power, New York: Atheneum, 1976.

33. Alexander Dallin, 'Bias and blunders in American Studies on the USSR' in Slavic Review, 32(3), 1973, p565.

34. Garrick Utley, NBC correspondent, 7 November 1977.

35. Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz, Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992, pp9-14. They divide these media events into three main categories: coronations, conquests and contests.

36. Foundation, mythologization and condensation are three of the main criteria given by Julia Sonnevend to define global iconic events, to which she adds counter-narration and remediation. See Sonnevend, op. cit. p25.

37. Robert Entman, 'Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm' in Journal of Communication, 43(4), 1993, p52.

38. Don McNeill, CBS correspondent, 7 November 1982.

39. Benedikt Feldges, American Icons: The Genesis of a National Visual Language, New York: Routledge, 2008, p60.

40. Misha Tsypkin, 'News coverage of the Soviet Union from the perspective of a former Soviet citizen' in Nieman Reports, Winter 1984, p32.

41. Whitman Bassow mentions that up to 40% of the Soviet territory was closed to journalists for security reasons. See Bassow, op. cit., p267.

42. Quoted by Finder, op. cit., p72.

43. Brett Silverstein, 'Enemy images. The psychology of US attitudes and cognitions regarding the Soviet Union', in American Psychologist, 44(6), 1989, pp903-13.

44. Frank Reynolds, ABC, 7 November 1968.

45. Richard Roth, CBS correspondent, 7 November 1975.

46. Peter Jennings from the New York studio, ABC, 7 November 1988.

47. Lynn Jones, ABC correspondent, 7 November 1977.

48. ABC, 7 November 1977.

49. See for example CBS, 5 November 1987; NBC, 7 November 1987.

50. Entman, op. cit., p52.

51. Idem.

52. Gordon Joseloff, CBS correspondent, 7 November 1980.

53. Raymond Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War, Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1994, pp74-84.

54. Don McNeill, CBS, 7 November 1981.

55. Wyatt Andrews, CBS correspondent, 7 November 1987.

56. Tom Brokaw, NBC correspondent, 7 November 1985.

57. Bob Abernethy, NBC correspondent, 7 November 1989.

58. Watson Sims, 'USSR and USA: a journalistic exchange' in Nieman Reports, Winter 1984, p40.

59. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 'Misconceptions about Russia are a threat to America' in Foreign Affairs, 58(4), 1980, p798 and p812.

60. Bassow, op. cit., p186.

61. William Cole, CBS correspondent, 7 November 1968.

62. Roger Mudd from the New York studio, NBC, 7 November 1970.

63. Barbara Walker, 'The Moscow correspondents, Soviet Human Rights activists, and the problem of the Western gift' in Choi Chatterjee and Beth Holmgren (eds.), Americans Experience Russia. Encountering the Enigma, 1917 to the Present, New York: Routledge, 2013, p141.

64. Frank Reynolds reporting from the middle of a street in Leningrad, ABC, 7 November 1977.

65. CBS, 7 November 1977.

66. Tom Fenton, CBS correspondent, 7 November 1987.

67. Although there is no indication of the origins of the images in the archives, this moment probably coincides with the time American televisions were using a majority of their own crews' images.

68. ABC, 8 November 1977.

69. Tsypkin, op. cit., p31.

70. Quoted by Finder, op. cit., p75.

71. CBS and ABC, 7 November 1990.

72. Marvin Kalb, ABC, 6 November 1970.

73. Harry Reasoner from the New York studio, ABC, 7 November 1975.

74. NBC, 7 November 1982.

75. Bob Zelnick, ABC correspondent, 7 November 1982.

76. Carey Cavanaugh, 'Soviet gerontocracy: Stability and change' in The Review of Politics, 42(2), 1981, p316.

77. Don McNeill, CBS, 7 November 1981.

78. Barrie Dunsmore, from the studio in Washington DC, ABC, 7 November 1983; Don McNeill, CBS, 7 November 1983.

79. Cohen, op. cit., p25.

80. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone Books, 1994, chapter 4.

81. Cohen, op. cit., p25.

* Access to the material used for this paper was purchased via a loan of the Vanderbilt archives, with the generous support of the Swiss National Foundation (SNF). This paper is part of the SNF research project about 'The spectacle of the Revolution. History of the 1917 October revolution's commemorations based at the University of Lausanne.
COPYRIGHT 2017 Lawrence & Wishart Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Gorin, Valerie
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Previous Article:Anniversaries of the October Revolution in the political-cultural magazine of the Italian Communist Party: Rinascita, 1957-1987.
Next Article:Asmund Egge and Svend Rybner (eds), Red Star in the North. Communism in the Nordic Countries.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters