Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Hedrick Smith's 1976 book The Russians relates an incident in the early Seventies in which people in Moscow couldn't go outside without their eyes burning, and the skies over Moscow were filled with black smoke for days--but almost no one knew why. It happened that there was a massive forest fire in the Moscow environs, but the Soviet news media--forbidden to report bad news of any kind--would not report it. Eventually, the newspapers came to tell the story in incredibly oblique ways--new regulations about woodland campfires suddenly appeared on the front pages--but the regime never quite came out and admitted the truth.

A much more serious analog to this story was the Soviet press's failure some years later to report the activities of the cannibal Andrei Chikatilo. The public of southern Russia never knew that a serial killer was hunting children there because the press wouldn't mention it; parents, unaware of any danger, never took precautions with their children. In Citizen X, the very good film HBO made about the Chikatilo case, the Communist Party bureaucrat (Joss Ackland) insists: "There are no serial killers in the Soviet state. It is a decadent, Western phenomenon." In this instance, there was public fury when the Gorbachev-era press finally admitted the truth.

Of course, these are relatively minor failures in totalitarian states compared to the large-scale violence and economic dysfunction that are their hallmark. But still, I think the Soviet collapse had to have been influenced (as Solzhenitsyn predicted)by the collapse of the lies that supported it. When a regime has a Who Are You Going To Believe, Me Or Your Lying Eyes? moment, it doesn't have much longer to live.

I started to think about this during the CBS forged documents story. The network, in lieu of anything resembling an attempt to divine the truth, clung to its obviously phony story as if it were a crack pipe. The documents story was the WAYGTBMOYLE? moment of the American mainstream media, and I think that it will be regarded as a watershed. The usual media articles of faith still solemnly appear, but there are always antidotes:

"Embroyonic stem cells have shown great promise." Well, actually, no.

"100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the American invasion." Not really.

"Colin Powell lied to the UN about WMDs in Iraq." Not quite.

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