Real Fake News

Orest Kiprensky. Readers of newspapers in Naples (1831)

By Stella

When I was young in the 1970-80s, the Soviet media was a laughing stock because of the glaring gap between our everyday life and what we were reading or seeing in the news. But since we were not allowed to travel abroad, we knew nothing about life outside of the Soviet borders. The media coverage of the Western world, while not exactly trusted, was our only glance at the life outside of the iron curtain. The lies were not that obvious, since we could not see it for ourselves. One story about the US had a very strong impression on me. It turns out it was a very important story which had an enormous impact on many lives in Soviet Union and in the West.

For the younger readers and not Soviet immigrant, a little bit of context. The Literaturnaya [Literary] Gazeta targeted the most educated part of the Soviet population. It was also an outlet for the most sophisticated propaganda. The Gazeta was a weekly and was thicker than regular daily newspaper. Think about Sunday New York Times. It covered foreign news and had analytical articles about world events and culture and it was the most respected news outlet for Soviet educated elite.

In the Soviet Literaturnaya Gazeta on  October 30 1985, I read, for the first, time a story about AIDS. It was a full-page article covering the origin and current state of epidemic and potential impact on Soviet life. The roots of the epidemic were traced to a secret U.S. military biological weapon program that was supposed to reduce population of prostitutes, drug addicts, blacks and homosexuals. I think it was the first article in Soviet press that acknowledged the existence of gay people, at least in the “rotten capitalist” West. It described the disease in all its gruesome detail and explained that it was transmitted mostly by needles used for drug injections.

The second part of the article tried to calm down scared readers, by explaining that a disease like this is completely impossible to find in the USSR. Because of our perfect social conditions, women are not reduced to become prostitutes, we have no racial problems, no drug addicts, and, of course, no gays.  

Many other Soviet publications followed suit and described the situation the same way. Meanwhile, the deadly disease was killing Russians all over the country. The statistic of the AIDs  epidemic in the USSR are not available, because there was no data collection, since there was no recognition of the problem. After perestroika was on the way, it turns out that AIDS had a very significant epidemic in Russia (there were estimates of  10,000 cases reported in 1996). Nobody really knows the real number of victims.

In the US, media coverage of AIDS epidemics did not start out very well.  The coverage was scattered and controversial based on ideological and political biases. While there was clear admission of the problem, ideological biases had a strong impact. The science community understood that epidemic came from Africa and how it was transmitted in the population. But, among religious conservatives, the prevailing view was that the epidemic is a plague and God’s punishment for the sins of sodomy. Therefore, no government intervention (tax dollars) was needed. The religious conservatives were a major constituency for Ronald Reagan and he had no political incentives to put money into research or cures.

But eventually the pressure from citizens, especially the well-organized gay community and their support in Hollywood turned the media coverage around. The film “Philadelphia” with Tom Hanks, and Tony Kushner’s amazing play “Angels in America” lead to reporting of devastating personal stories in major newspapers. As a result, it created  public pressure to invest in research to help and cure the disease. The ridiculous and cruel story about God’s punishment died of natural causes.  

This strange tale of the two countries’ coverage of one deadly epidemic has many important lessons for our time. We Soviet immigrants should never underestimate the importance of independent media. Presidential tweets, White House press conferences, or the media outlets directly supportive of government are not the news. They are official propaganda.

Propaganda is basically any information which comes from the people in power. Any White House press conference including presidents we love and respect is supposed to promote/defend the current occupant of the White House. The Soviets were not good in feeding population or creating a real economy, but they knew propaganda. They knew it from the time of the October revolution when Lenin immediately understood necessity of taking over the means of communication and controlling the media.

Just like Pravda or Literaturnaya Gazeta. Only fact checkers, investigations and analysis of serious media will keep the powerful in line with reality. Yes, the mainstream media makes mistakes, it has biases and bends under pressure of the powerful. But eventually, under scrutiny of critical and active citizens, the media does its job and truth comes out. While Fourth Estate checks the power, the citizens check the Fourth Estate. If fake news takes over the media, it is because we didn’t do our job, and it will be us who will bear the consequences of living in the alternative reality created by propaganda and fake news.

Our President is truly inspirational. Turbulent times inspire artists, writers, journalists and simple bloggers. This little essay was inspired by the President’s blustery relationship with mainstream media (MSM). The President’s hostility to the MSM has created an atmosphere of strong distrust for the Fourth Estate.  His crude tweets and rants about fake media have had a stunning effect. The President, who himself has no relationship with truth, has managed to discredit the MSM to such degree that public trusts the MSM only slightly more than the President. The goal of these attacks is very clear and part of the typical approach to build an authoritarian rule.  A dictator to be destroys the independent press to become the authoritative news source. That WILL convert news to propaganda, just like it was in the Soviet Union.

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