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Better Off Red?

Twenty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Recalling the Liberal Media's Blindness to the Evils of Communism

Conclusion: Nostalgic for Totalitarian Communism

Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reporters marked the anniversary by focusing on how much worse life had become for those freed from communism. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour actually scolded Mikhail Gorbechev in a November 8, 1999 interview. “Ten years later, many are saying the unbridled capitalism that followed communism has unleashed misery on citizens who had all their social needs taken care of, especially in the former Soviet Union,” Amanpour asserted.

 

She lectured Gorbachev: “Mr. President, you are regarded by many people in this world as a hero for causing the end of tyranny and the collapse of communism. But you are also criticized heavily by those who say you opened a Pandora’s Box. And they say, ‘Look at the strife now, look at the economic chaos, look at the Mafia structure, look at the corruption.’ They say that you opened and started a plan that you did not know how to finish.”

The next night on ABC’s World News Tonight, anchor Peter Jennings struck the same note: “It is probably hard for most Americans to imagine anyone feeling nostalgic about living behind the Wall. It may also be hard to imagine that anyone in the Western part of Germany would miss the Wall either. But miss it, some people do.”

Five years later, Moscow was one of the stops for NBC’s Matt Lauer during his annual “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” Today show feature. Lauer suggested that, for many Russians, the decades spent under communism were the good old days: “We’re gonna be talking about the New Russia, how a few people are doing very well and the fear that others are being left very far behind,” he teased on the February 12, 2004 morning news program. He later declared: “Russia’s rush to capitalism left the vast majority scrambling to survive. For many, life is worse than it was in Soviet times.”

In the October 12, 2009, Newsweek wondered: “Was Russia Better Off Red?” The magazine answered its own question with a full-page graphic showing that Russia today has fewer hospitals and movie theaters, but more crime and divorce. “Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has seen an increase in oligarchs and Louis Vuitton outlets. But by many other measures, Russians are worse off.”

When the Soviet Union existed, the embarrassing puff pieces sat alongside reports of military crackdowns, belligerent speeches from the Kremlin wall, and occasional reports on dissidents and other abuses. But with the Soviet Union gone, the gauzy nostalgia took on an increasing share of what the media continued to say about communism.

The pop culture also contributed to the softening of communism’s image. As the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby noted in a 2006 column, “The glamorization of communism is widespread. On West 4th Street in Manhattan, the popular KGB Bar is known for its literary readings and Soviet propaganda posters. In Los Angeles, the La La Ling boutique sells baby clothing emblazoned with the face of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro’s notorious henchman. At the House of Mao, a popular eatery in Singapore, waiters in Chinese army uniforms serve Long March Chicken, and a giant picture of Mao Zedong dominates one wall."

2006-04-14-NBCAHVincentCommunist chic hit the national media, too. In April 2006, an entertainment reporter on the NBC-produced Access Hollywood wore a hammer and sickle shirt on camera two weekdays in a row. New York correspondent Tim Vincent (shown at right), a veteran of the BBC, wore a jacket over the red shirt with the communist symbol clearly visible inside a gold-outlined red star which (sans the hammer and sickle) would match the Soviet’s Red Army emblem.

As Jacoby wondered, “How can people who wouldn’t dream of drinking in a pub called Gestapo cheerfully hang out at the KGB Bar? If the swastika is an undisputed symbol of unspeakable evil, can the hammer-and-sickle and other emblems of communism be anything less?”

One answer may be that the news media have painted communism as far more benign than it really was — an “uplifting idea,” as CBS’s Andy Rooney described it in 1989, but it “got in with a bad crowd when it was young and never got the chance.” Many reporters seem sympathetic to the idea that state control is preferable to a free economy. In the mid-1990s, researchers Stanley Rothman and Amy Black surveyed journalists and found strong support for government intervention, including making sure that everyone has a job and working to “reduce the income gap between the rich and the poor.” Writing in the Spring 2001 Public Interest, Rothman and Black concluded: “Despite the discrediting of centrally planned economies produced by the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes, attitudes about government control of the economy have not changed much since the 1980s.”

The too-fond reminiscences of Soviet communism are at odds with the realities of history. As an economic model, communism was an utter failure. Over the decades the two existed side by side, citizens in the capitalist world enjoyed increasing standards of living, technological innovation, and growing wealth, while the communist world stagnated or worse. But as a political system, totalitarian communism was a true horror, with casualties numbering in the tens of millions. There is nothing in the true record of communism that merits romantic reflection.

Before the revolutions of 1989, journalists informed us that communism was truly popular among the people of Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. After that fallacy was demolished, the media insisted that capitalism was the real catastrophe, with workers victimized by the lack of the “safety net” provided by the ex-dictators. Most perverse, some reporters even cast the Soviet Union’s absence — not its 70-year presence — as the real threat to human rights.

As the anniversary of the toppling of the Berlin Wall approaches, it’s worth celebrating the end of European communism. But it’s also worth recalling at this time how the liberal media failed to accurately portray the evils of communism, with coverage that too often tipped in favor of the oppressors, not the oppressed. 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.  The gauzy, romantic coverage of the communist regime in Cuba needs to end — unless the media once again wish to be on the wrong side of history when that dictatorship, too, is finally swept away.