Aug 19, 1996
Michael H. Jordan
Chairman, Westinghouse Electric Corporation
11 Stanwix Street
Dear Mr. Jordan: As we have already seen, it was I. M. Levitas (Head of the Jewish Council of Ukraine and Head of the Nationalities Associations of Ukraine) who first suggested that the tactics employed by 60 Minutes in "The Ugly Face of Freedom" were totalitarian: "You have done as the Bolsheviks used to do — you presented information that is one-sided, suppressed information that does not fit your stereotype, biased the selection of materials, strengthened and reinforced negativism. It would be as if the Los Angeles riots were shown to us here as representative American events."
Of course the suggestion that 60 Minutes is capable of assuming a totalitarian orientation toward broadcast journalism must initially strike anyone as hyperbolic — and yet reflection reinforces the parallel again and again. For example, here is a passage from Arthur Koestler. Koestler was giving a talk in Spain in 1938, and calculatedly included three statements which he knew to normal people appeared laudable, whereas to Communists, they amounted to declarations of war:
The first was: "No movement, party or person can claim the privilege of
infallibility." The second was: "Appeasing the enemy is as foolish as
persecuting the friend who pursues your own aim by a different road." The third
was a quotation from Thomas Mann: "A harmful truth is better than a useful lie."
(In "The God That Failed," edited by Richard Crossman, Bantam, 1949, p. 64)
In reading Koestler's passage, each of his statements struck me as being applicable to 60 Minutes, and struck me as well as being statements that 60 Minutes too might view as something akin to "declarations of war": (1) That having committed a host of errors in its broadcast "The Ugly Face of Freedom," and afterward refusing to issue a correction or retraction for a single one of them, 60 Minutes is thereby implicitly assuming a stance of infallibility. (2) That whereas 60 Minutes has never made the least response to any of my submissions, it cannot be said to be persecuting me; still, in failing to respond, it is treating me contemptuously, as if I were an enemy, when in fact I am a friend, interested in the same goal as 60 Minutes itself — which is to restore its high prestige. I only differ as to the road by which I think this goal can be reached. 60 Minutes believes that covering up error is better; I think that acknowledging error is better. And Koestler's "appeasing the enemy" finds application as well — it is Morley Safer and Simon Wiesenthal who have injured 60 Minutes and who are presently being appeased. (3) 60 Minutes "useful lie" is that "The Ugly Face of Freedom" was error-free. The "harmful truth" is that "The Ugly Face of Freedom" may well hold the record for being the most concentrated segment of disinformation ever to be broadcast by the mainstream media. And in reality, it is the "harmful truth" which is better — had the "harmful truth" been acknowledged immediately, the wound inflicted by "The Ugly Face of Freedom" would have healed long ago; if the "harmful truth" were acknowledged today, the healing process would begin today; however, following the path of the "useful lie" just leaves the wound festering.
And then, in the same volume as the Koestler statement, I came across Ignazio Silone's recounting of an incident which still further reinforced the parallel between 60 Minutes and totalitarianism. Silone was at the time of the incident a member of the Italian Communist delegation to the Communist International. During a meeting in Moscow, the English delegate was describing a problem that the British Communist Party was encountering with the British trade unions. His statement was interrupted by the Russian delegate, Piatnisky, who offered the obvious solution — that the British Communists should simply tell the trade unions one thing, but then do exactly the opposite. Silone continues:
The English Communist interrupted, "But that would be a lie." Loud laughter
greeted this ingenuous objection, frank, cordial, interminable laughter, the like
of which the gloomy offices of the Communist International had perhaps never
heard before. The joke quickly spread all over Moscow, for the Englishman's
entertaining and incredible reply was telephoned at once to Stalin and to the
most important offices of State, provoking new waves of mirth everywhere. (In
"The God That Failed," edited by Richard Crossman, Bantam, 1949, p. 92)
And this, it now strikes me, may be close to 60 Minutes' reaction to the charges that it lied — the reaction being, specifically, that the truth value of the broadcast is irrelevant, that any discussion of truth misses the point, and that anyone protesting a lack of truth is comically naive.
cc: Ed Bradley, Steve Kroft, Morley Safer, Lesley Stahl, Mike Wallace