MediaWatch: April 1988
Table of Contents:
Janet Cooke Award: TBS: "Portrait of the Soviet Union
"When first contact was made with the Soviets to discuss Ted Turner's idea to produce a documentary series, it was never imagined that he would be awakening a sleeping giant. It was never imagined that he would be initiating the most revealing and comprehensive look ever inside the Soviet Union." With this self-indulgent, glowing review of its own work, Atlanta cable superstation WTBS opened the late March seven hour-long series, "Portrait of the Soviet Union." But, Washington Post media critic Tom Shales realized exactly how shallow the series was. His March 19 review summed up the show: "It's more like a post card from Binky and Biff at Camp Whitewash."
Little more could be expected from liberal television guru Turner, whose affinity for Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union is well-known. Among other things, Turner created the Better World Society and started his "famed" Goodwill Games which have done much to improve Mikhail Gorbachev's image around the world. To Turner, "Portrait" was yet another vehicle to convince Americans that they have nothing to fear from the Soviet Union. In a Washington Post TV Week article on the show, he proudly boasted: "It's exactly what I hoped it would be. We're friends with them. I've been hunting and fishing with their leaders and had dinner with them in Moscow. They are very nice people. You know, if I go looking for a friend, that's what I find. You smile and they smile back. You find what you go looking for."
Sadly, the American public never got a truly insightful look into Soviet society. They got a glossy pro-communist travelogue instead. In a promotional clip Turner summed up the series before it even aired, making this witty, but outlandish claim: "Beach resorts, cowboys, rock concerts, independent business -- life in the U.S.? Nope! Life in the Soviet Union!" After 3.5 million dollars and two and one half years, "Portrait" found no political dissent, or persecution, or oppression. After 50,000 miles of travel and 45 miles of film, "Portrait" found only happy and content Soviet citizens "bound together by a dream...of a socialist nation marching toward the first communist state." TBS bragged of unprecedented access and of no Soviet interference. But there was no need to interfere since the Kremlin couldn't have done a better job itself.
Indeed, "Portrait" legitimized some of the greatest myths of the communist system. Narrator Roy Scheider declared: "Once the Kremlin was the home of czars. Now, it belongs to the people." While Siberia evokes thoughts of barbaric gulags and prisoners of conscience, "Portrait" saw the tundra region as a land of opportunity for loyal youth brigades: "It used to be a one-way ticket to exile, it's now a chance for young Soviets to do something for their country."
The series was divided into seven parts, but all had a common theme -- uninhibited national groups, liberated from backwardness, living together in a socialist utopia. In the ethnic Russian republic, Scheider spoke of a Russian people that voluntarily "submerged their ethnic identity in the interest of forging the new Soviet state." While ethnic unrest and opposition to communist attempts to obliterate Moslem religion has reached explosive levels in the republics of Central Asia, "Portrait" claimed that "there seems to be little racial tension....(and) the republics of Central Asia have generally welcomed the progress." Ethnic unrest in the Caucas republics was never mentioned either. Despite months of rioting between Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis over territory, Scheider again painted the rosiest of pictures: "Armenians have at last found stability under the Soviet wing." In the Baltic republics, "Portrait" pushed the same theme. Scheider noted "as independent countries, they cease to exist. As peoples, they are as strong as ever." But why do the Baltic nations cease to exist and why do many in the Baltic region abhor Soviet control? Because of the 1942 Soviet invasion of the independent Baltic states, another fact that Turner's broadcast failed to mention.
This year marks the millennium of Christianity in Russia and many journalists have noted that religious persecution and barriers to worship are still common. "Portrait," as usual, had something different in mind, claiming "the Church, for so long a misfit in an atheist state, seems to be gaining a new recognition." Scheider gleefully added: "Atheist though the state may be, freedom to worship as you please is enshrined in the Soviet constitution."
"Portrait's" true political message was clear during the concluding hour, titled "Country of the Revolution." Scheider began by praising the 1917 Marxist-Leninist coup: "Freedom from the oppression of all czars was now, finally, a reality ...The great experiment in social engineering was about to begin. To make it work, the party needed to mold a new kind of citizen, one who would embody all the virtues of the socialist ethic....the citizen who would submerge his individuality into that of the team effort." How does "Portrait" describe the Soviet Union's ultimate goal of communism? Unable to divorce romantic theory from 70 years of evil reality, Turner's team of writers labeled it "a highly developed people giving freely all they can to a society and in return taking back all they need."
While the show admitted that this wonderful goal has not yet been reached, it managed to offer a stunning appraisal of the revolution's success thus far: "The revolution has given [the] young the chance to succeed in a wider world -- the kind of opportunities their grandparents fought for them to have." To TBS the future is even brighter, due to "new and enlightened leader" Gorbachev who is "not afraid to reinterpret the words of Marx and Lenin in light of a changing world."
Gorbachev's radical reforms also mean that the outside world can now "understand and cease to fear." Why? Because, "the early aim to spread the socialist revolution worldwide" is over. Scheider assured viewers "the Soviets say these are things of the past. Times have changed." To imply this, as "Portrait" did, stands in the face of official Soviet policy. During the 70th anniversary of the Marxist revolution last year, Gorbachev reaffirmed his country's expansionist desires: "In October of 1917, we parted with the Old World, rejecting it once and for all. We are moving toward a New World, the World of Communism. We shall never turn off that road."
While Turner's political predisposition made "Portrait" an imbalanced presentation, ignorance and gullibility may have played an equally critical role. Even after 28 trips and 11 months in the Soviet Union, Executive Producer Ira Miskin was still ignorant of many basic historical and social facts. When discussing the show with MediaWatch, Miskin demonstrated only a sketchy understanding of the Soviet people. His knowledge of the persecution of the Lithuanian Church and the ethnic and religious turmoil in Central Asia was all but non-existent.
How did Miskin and producers gather their facts and impressions? As Miskin said, "we went by what we saw." But what about the dissidents and disgruntled citizens that were never featured? Miskin, unable to garner specifics, could only say: "It was not part of the mandate of what we wanted to do and film there. We did not go in to report what is already known in the news." Turner Broadcasting's educational arm, Turner Educational Services, in cooperation with Encyclopedia Britannica, have announced ambitious plans to market the series to secondary schools throughout the nation. "Portrait of the Soviet Union" might just be one of the most dangerously misleading programs to ever reach the American public.