(CNSNews.com) – Twenty years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell, opening a door to freedom for millions of East Germans who had lived under communism for nearly 50 years. But as a new report documents, much of the major U.S. media coverage of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent downfall of Soviet communism, failed to accurately report the brutal nature of communism and often tipped in favor of the oppressors.
“Communism was a blight on humanity for much of the 20th century. Even Hitler's Holocaust pales next to the 100 million people killed by communist dictators in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Yet our report shows many in the liberal media had a blind spot to this evil ideology,” said Rich Noyes, lead author of the report, “Better Off Red? Twenty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Recalling the Liberal Media’s Blindness to the Evil of Communism.”
“Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, some journalists suggested communism was truly popular among the people it enslaved,” said Noyes. “After the liberation of Eastern Europe, many journalists argued that the move to capitalism just made things worse, and even with the obvious failure of communism in Europe and Asia, journalists have even recently saluted the virtues of life in Castro's Cuba.”
The report, published by the Media Research Center (MRC), the parent company of CNSNews.com, is based upon a compilation and analysis of 22 years of news media reports recorded and archived by the MRC.
Soviet communists occupied East Germany (and East Berlin) at the end of World War II. As the Cold War escalated in the 1950s, movement from East Berlin to West Berlin was restricted more and more by the Soviets. It is estimated that nearly 3 million people fled from East Germany to West Germany between 1949 and 1961.
To halt the massive emigration, the Soviets in 1961 erected a concrete and barbed-wire wall – the Berlin Wall, separating East and West Berlin – that was 12 feet high, 103 miles long and studded with machine-gun-manned guard towers.
While estimates vary, it is documented that at least 238 people were killed trying to cross over the Berlin Wall into West Berlin over the years and that thousands of other would-be defectors were caught and imprisoned by East German communist police. The last known person to have been killed while trying to cross over the wall was Chris Guffroy, shot on Feb. 5, 1989, while trying to escape to West Berlin.
Before the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, life in communist East Berlin and the Soviet Union was often depicted in positive terms, according to the Better Off Red? report.
For example, then-“CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather reported on June 17, 1987, “Despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western-style democracy.”
New York Times journalist Ferdinand Protzman reported on May 15, 1989: “East Germany is the Communist world’s vaunted economic success story, hailed as proof that hard work, discipline and thrift can translate Karl Marx’s theories into reality.”
Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” wrote in the New York Times on June 26, 1989 that “Communism got to be a terrible word here in the United States, but our attitude toward it may have been unfair. Communism got in with a bad crowd when it was young and never had a fair chance.”
Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, wrote on Feb. 9, 1990 that “most Soviets don’t want to dump it [communism], just improve upon it.”
After the Berlin Wall fell, it knocked another wall of political dominoes from East Germany through Eastern Europe and then throughout the Soviet Union, leading to that totalitarian state’s collapse in 1991. The country officially became the Russian Federation in 1993, with a president, prime minister and a federal assembly.
During that time, much of the dominant media in the United States lamented the downfall of communism and criticized the rise of free markets and democracy, according to the MRC report.
Noyes and his co-author Scott Whitlock wrote: “As communism retreated from Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, American reporters seized on the idea that life had suddenly become worse, not better, for those freed from four decades of subjugation.
“Journalists frequently attacked capitalism as somehow more ‘exploitative’ than the totalitarian communism that had officially controlled all economic life. Viewers were told that communism had provided a ‘security blanket’ for people, who were now ‘miserable’ without the ‘safety net’ and ‘guarantees’ provided by their former masters,” they added.
Some of the news media quotes from that period, as published in the report, include the following:
“Instead of reveling in the collapse of communism, we could head off economic and social havoc by admitting that for most of us, capitalism doesn’t work, either....Homeless, jobless, illiterate people, besieged by guns and drugs, are as bereft of a democratic lifestyle as anybody behind the old Berlin Wall.” – USA Today “Inquiry” Editor Barbara Reynolds, Dec. 8, 1989
“Communism is being swept away, but so too is the social safety net it provided....Factories, previously kept alive only by edicts from Warsaw, are closing their doors, while institutions new to the East — soup kitchens and unemployment centers — are opening theirs.” – Reporter Bert Quint, CBS “This Morning,” May 9, 1990
“East Germany is staggering toward unification, and may get there close to dead on arrival, the victim of an overdose of capitalism.” – ABC reporter Jerry King on the Oct. 1, 1990 “World News Tonight”
“Poles had hoped that the long wait had ended, but it has not. After four decades of standing in communism’s food lines, capitalism has created a new place to wait: at the unemployment office.” – NBC reporter Mike Boettcher, Nov. 16, 1990 “Nightly News”
“Soviet people have become accustomed to security if nothing else. Life isn’t good here, but people don’t go hungry, homeless; a job has always been guaranteed. Now all socialist bets are off. A market economy looms, and the social contract that has held Soviet society together for 72 years no longer applies. The people seem baffled, disappointed, let down. Many don’t like the prospect of their nation becoming just another capitalist machine.” – CNN Moscow reporter Steve Hurst on “PrimeNews,” May 24, 1990
“In the old Soviet Union, you never saw faces like these: the poor, the homeless, and the desperation of the Russian winter. Their numbers are growing. Tonight — is this what democracy does?” – ABC’s Barbara Walters opening “Nightline,” Jan. 14, 1992
“Many here long for the days of Brezhnev. At least then, they say, they had their dignity.” – CBS reporter Tom Fenton, Sept. 24, 1993 “Evening News”
According to The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press), one of the most definitive books on communist atrocities, the political regime in the Soviet Union was responsible for killing at least 20 million people.
Millions of Russians were also recycled through the state’s prison-work camps, the gulag. In addition, some 65 million people were killed in Communist China, 2.5 million in Cambodia, nearly 2 million in Vietnam and an estimated 70,000 in Cuba.
While much of this information was known and accepted by serious scholars in the United States and Europe, many members of the U.S. media either downplayed those facts or focused on other issues when covering either the post-Soviet Union or life today in China and Cuba, according to the report.
“In spite of communism’s appalling human rights record, journalists perversely suggested that the repressive totalitarian system was somehow superior — better for women’s ‘rights,’ for example, or better than the ‘conservative’ Catholic Church,” states Better Off Red?
The report cites examples of this type of journalism, including the following:
“Yes, somehow, Soviet citizens are freer these days — freer to kill one another, freer to hate Jews. … Doing away with totalitarianism and adding a dash of democracy seems an unlikely cure for all that ails the Soviet system.” – Co-host Harry Smith on “CBS This Morning,” Feb. 9, 1990
“The economic and political turmoil that has swept the former Communist East Bloc has hit women the hardest. There’s been a strong backlash against the idea of women’s equality. … Under the Communists, women in the workplace were glorified. And if they needed time off to give birth and raise families, they got it at full pay.” – ABC reporter Jerry King, April 6, 1992 “World News Tonight”
CNN founder Ted Turner compared the KGB with the FBI on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” on Nov. 30, 2008. The FBI, “it’s an honorable place to work,” said Turner. “And the KGB, I think was an honorable place to work. It gave people in the former Soviet Union, a communist country, an opportunity to do something important and worthwhile.”
For a story about Soviet political prisoners being released after communism’s collapse, The New York Times ran a headline on Feb. 12, 1992 that read: “A Gulag Breeds Rage, Yes, But Also Serenity.”
Concerning China, “NBC Nightly News’” John Chancellor reported on June 20, 1989: “Thousands may have been gunned down in Beijing, but what about the millions of American kids whose lives are being ruined by an enormous failure of the country’s educational system. … We can and we should agonize about the dead students in Beijing, but we’ve got a much bigger problem here at home."
CBS reporter Eric Engberg, on the June 7, 1989 edition of “Nightwatch,” said: “Will the military leaders there be embarrassed by this [the Tiananmen Square massacre]? Will this be something like Kent State was for our military?”
On Fidel Castro and communist Cuba, the MRC report states that “even as communism was failing in Europe, journalists continued to lavish positive press on Cuba’s communist regime. Dictator Fidel Castro was painted as a romantic revolutionary, as he had been for more than half a century.”
Authors Noyes and Whitlock also document that “liberal journalists ritualistically repeated Havana’s talking points about their nation having the best health and education systems,” and “during the 2000 custody battle over five-year-old refugee Elian Gonzalez, U.S. reporters weirdly suggested Cuba was ‘a more peaceable society that treasures its children.’”
Some examples of the skewed reporting, according to the report, include the following:
“There is, in Cuba, government intrusion into everyone’s life, from the moment he is born until the day he dies. The reasoning is that the government wants to better the lives of its citizens and keep them from exploiting or hurting one another.” – NBC reporter Ed Rabel on Cuban life, “Sunday Today,” Feb. 28, 1988
“Frankly, to be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than being a poor child in Miami, and I’m not going to condemn their lifestyle so gratuitously.” – Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift on “The McLaughlin Group,” April 8, 2000
“For Castro, freedom starts with education. And if literacy alone were the yardstick, Cuba would rank as one of the freest nations on Earth. The literacy rate is 96 percent.” -- Barbara Walters on ABC’s “20/20,” Oct. 11, 2002
Overall, much of the major U.S. media’s reporting on the Berlin Wall and the fall of Soviet communism, as well as communism in general, “failed to accurately portray the evils of communism, with coverage that often tipped in favor of the oppressors, not the oppressed,” the report stated.
“At the very least, journalists should take this opportunity to investigate the human rights abuses and oppression that still exists in the world’s last totally communist states, Cuba and North Korea,” it added.
Asked whether many reporters in the U.S. media were sympathetic to the Soviet Union and its political agenda, Noyes told CNSNews.com that the data indicate that “some journalists seemed to believe there was merit in the communist ideology,” noting Andy Rooney’s op-ed in the New York Times that called communism an “uplifting idea.”
However, in general, said Noyes, “today's liberals are believers in using the power of government to re-shape society to meet their own goals, and liberal journalists are no exception.”
“But if reporters really see their role as speaking truth to power, they should have the deepest suspicion of the concentrated power of the totalitarian state,” he said. “Instead, the coverage too often tips in favor of the oppressors, not the oppressed.”