Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
THIS is a new kind of war, and every day that fact is being driven home. It is a new kind of war not merely for those who wage it, but for the neutrals who watch it. Science and invention have seen to it that no nation, and no stratum of society, is preserved, either from its horrors or from its threats and alarms. Those who experienced the first World War remember how, for Americans, it was still possible to "get away from it all" by staying at home and not reading the papers. Today, thanks to the radio, we cannot do even that. We boast over twenty-five million "radio homes" and millions of radio-equipped cars. The mass of the people is conditioned to radio -- relies on it for useful information, entertainment and the "solace of sweet sounds." And even those strong-minded individualists who seek isolation within themselves are roused from their reveries by the radio next door, in the taxi, or in the adjoining car awaiting the green light. We are living, as H. G. Wells predicted, "with the voice of the stranger always in our ear."
In 1914 we were adjured by President Wilson to be neutral in thought as well as in acts. Today our President, at the very outset, admitted that he could not ask that every American remain neutral in thought. Thoughts are the mainsprings of our acts; and thoughts, expressed in words, are beating in upon us -- no longer in cold print alone, but in the passionate vibrations of the human voice. We can no longer isolate ourselves either from news or propaganda. We are exposed to the flood of words, against our wills and regardless of our capacities to discriminate. In the face of that condition, how can we safeguard our neutrality, without infringing on our liberties, without retreating from our democratic way of life?
Once again the dictatorships have the advantage over democracy. They, who have sharpened the new tool of propaganda, have also devised means of defense against it. In Germany listening to foreign broadcasts is a prison offense; passing on information heard over the radio is punishable by death. In Germany, according to press reports, the sale of radio sets is virtually restricted to the kind which pick up local broadcasts and no other. In this country, even minor restriction on radio -- either on the transmitting or the receiving end -- would be resented by every self-respecting citizen. And every hint of government interference with the workings of the radio industry is interpreted as an infringement of the inalienable right of free speech. And yet, some voices are raised against our democratic generosity in protecting the "stranger's voice" in its invasion of our ears, and in claiming freedom of speech even for those who would advocate the throttling of that very freedom of speech.
Every day, and almost every hour of the day, our citizens have access to the doctrines which have killed the fundamental human liberties in a large part of the world. Every week for years, we have been able to listen to opinions in our own country which, if carried into practice, would mean the end of racial and religious tolerance, and the substitution of mob rule for the rule of law. If we have tolerated these things it is not merely for the sake of a sacred principle, but because of our confidence in the power of reason and common sense to prevail over prejudice and passion. "The American people," as Dèan Ackerman picturesquely puts it, "are not boobs." Father Coughlin, no less than the spokesmen of Hitler and Stalin, may safely have his say -- despite the war and the difficulty of staying neutral in thought while bombs are being dropped on women and children and helpless refugees throng the roads. Our passions may be roused not merely by facts but by distortions of fact, since we are open to propaganda from all sides. And propaganda may be so subtle that its distortions may deceive many who are by no means "boobs." The safeguarding of our neutrality has obviously been rendered more difficult than ever by our exposure to the radio wave.
The American radio industry has always been especially sensitive on the question of free speech, for the United States is almost the only country in the world where radio is independent of the Government. In Europe, the question of free speech does not arise in the same way as here. There is, of course, freedom of speech in such countries as Great Britain, France, Sweden or Denmark in time of peace -- even on the radio. But since in all these countries, except Holland and France and some British dominions, broadcasting is a monopoly either exercised by the state, or delegated by the state, there is no remedy against the denial of facilities or against official censorship. Even editorial discretion, practiced by broadcasting authorities everywhere, becomes "censorship" when it is officially controlled. And against state censorship there is no appeal, except public opinion, in so far as it can make itself felt.
In America, however, not only is there no censorship of radio, but the Communications Act of 1934 expressly forbids the exercise of any kind of censorship by the authority which regulates the radio industry, namely the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.). The Commission has from time to time criticized radio programs after they have been broadcast, chiefly on the grounds of morals or good taste, and this has been interpreted by the industry as an unwarranted censorship. Also, in the recent case of Station WMCA, the broadcasting company has been called on the carpet for an alleged infringement of the radio law, and asked to show cause why its license should not be revoked. But it turned out that the alleged offense (intercepting secret code messages of belligerent powers and rebroadcasting a deciphered version) was not committed; a published news story about the alleged stunt had merely been used by the broadcasters as an idle boast to show their "cleverness" in covering the war.
These post facto criticisms have been made under the clause of the law which says that the broadcasting franchise must be exercised "in the public interest, convenience and necessity." The theory is that the air lanes, or "frequencies," belong to the people, and a frequency is assigned to a broadcaster for a limited period (six months at a time). If they are not operated in the public interest, convenience and necessity, the F.C.C. can refuse to renew. Although such refusals thus far have been rare, and only for the obvious elimination of a public nuisance, the broadcasters contend that the necessity to renew hangs over them like a sword of Damocles, and that therefore the Government, via the F.C.C., exercises a "censorship of fear."
We need not go into the merits of this long-standing argument. But it must be admitted that it has been a constant irritant in the relations between the radio industry and the Government. And back of that has been a smouldering suspicion that the Government itself would like to have a finger in the broadcasting pie; in other words, that it would like to emulate the European governments in annexing radio as a powerful means of propaganda for itself. That, it has been agreed, would be the beginning of the end of free speech.
This suspicion was reënforced in 1938 by such moves as the introduction of two bills for the erection of short-wave stations to be operated by the Government, for the purpose of what might be called counterpropaganda against the totalitarian states. In order to help along our "Good Neighbor policy" with the Latin American republics, the Government was going to spray South America with news and "cultural" broadcasts, to counter the propaganda geysers operating from Germany, Italy and Japan. The British Government was already doing its share (in an effort to retrieve some of its lost South American trade), and the temptation to imitate John Bull lay close at hand.
But American private enterprise had already closed in on the problem. Inter alia the National Broadcasting Company was developing a sixteen-hour service with a set of powerful short-wave transmitters situated at Bound Brook, New Jersey; Columbia near New York; and the World-Wide Broadcasting Corporation in Boston were supplementing this with the lighter artillery of their short-wave transmitters. These services were having some good results, and N.B.C. in particular could show thousands of foreign fan-letters per month, not only from South America but Germany, France, Italy and all over the world.
Why, then, need the Federal government try to compete with private enterprise in this field? The obvious inference was that the Administration was cutting in on the radio industry, and that short-wave broadcasting was merely the thin end of the wedge. Short-wave stations operated with the "beam" system are almost exclusively used for long-distance reception; but the fact is that these transmissions can also be excellently heard at close range. It is conceivable, therefore, that the American broadcasting industry might find itself up against unfair competition, against irresistible government pressure exerted on network stations to take departmental programs supplied by short wave. The government projects were eventually shelved.
Early in 1939, however, came another attempt from the F.C.C. to regulate the short-wave transmissions of the radio chains and other short-wave broadcasters. Short-wave licenses, the Commission declared, would be issued on the understanding that the stations would render "an international broadcast service which will reflect the culture of this country, and . . . promote international good will, understanding and coöperation." The National Association of Broadcasters (N.A.B.) and the Civil Liberties Union protested vigorously. The regulation was denounced as an attempt at both censorship and propaganda. Here was a violation, it was alleged, of the Communications Act of 1934 which forbids the Commission's interference with the right of free speech. General Hugh Johnson, with colorful invective, called it a "Hitler Manifesto," and "one of the most cynical, impudent and dangerous attempts to seize unconstitutional and unlawful power we have yet seen." The regulation, after public hearings, was withdrawn. Less than three months later the Commission's chairman, Frank R. McNinch, resigned.
It is only fair to state, however, that before Mr. McNinch's resignation (which may not have had anything to do with the matter in hand) the Commission was attacked both for exercising too much informal censorship and for not exercising enough. This time the discussion concerned domestic broadcasting, not international propaganda. Mr. Stanley High, in a Saturday Evening Post article entitled "The Not-So-Free Air," intimated that the silencing of Boake Carter, popular news commentator, was the result of Administration pressure. But Dorothy Thompson, the brilliant columnist of the New York Herald Tribune, addressed an open letter to Chairman McNinch, asking pointedly whether the broadcasts of Father Coughlin, supported by spurious "facts" adduced from Nazi propaganda sources, are in the "public interest, convenience and necessity."
Actually Mr. High seems to have been barking up the wrong tree, for the appearance of commentators with definite opinions on controversial subjects, such as labor and the Roosevelt Administration, had been an embarrassment to the broadcasters, and especially to the networks, for some time. But true to their policy of free speech for everybody (even Earl Browder) they were powerless to act. These commentators (the classic example being William J. Cameron, Sunday night symphonic spokesman for Mr. Henry Ford) were not hired by the broadcasting companies but by the commercial sponsors on whose programs they appeared, and whose political faith they reflected -- on paid time. Father Coughlin himself, long denied commercial network facilities, was appearing on an ad hoc hookup of "independent" stations hired by himself, presumably with the dollars and dimes of his enthralled audience.
These two types of speakers -- the biased news commentator sponsored by a commercial advertiser, and the propagandist operating on a hired ether-wave platform -- really represented two different activities, two variants of what has been called "abuse of the freedom of the air." But they had one thing in common, they appeared on paid time; and therefore could be attacked on that point. The National Association of Broadcasters met the problem very simply. In its new Code, adopted as a means of self-regulation by the industry last July, it ruled that "time for the presentation of controversial issues shall not be sold, except for political broadcasts." The effect of this Code, if it applied to the whole industry, would be that neither Mr. Cameron, nor Father Coughlin, nor General Johnson, nor any other "controversial" speaker would be tolerated on the air, unless he ceased being controversial, or unless he was invited to speak on "sustaining" (free) time by the broadcasting companies themselves. As things have worked out thus far, Mr. Cameron has switched to innocuous subjects such as music and the march of civilization, while the Detroit radio priest seems to be continuing to defy the Code. As a result, he is said to be losing one after the other of his formerly forty-seven stations, which cost him an estimated $8,000 per program. Ten of them had fallen away by the end of November, while others (notably the important Colonial Network, centering in Boston) are refusing his money or donating it to charity, pending further developments.
The snag in Code enforcement is the fact that not all the stations are members of the N.A.B., and some of these stations need the money so badly that they can't refuse a good customer like Father Coughlin, who buys one solid hour a week. Moreover, some of the "independent" concerns within the N.A.B. are not as enthusiastic as the big chains about this noble self-denial, embodied in the Code. One of them, the Texas network of ten stations headed by Elliott Roosevelt, the President's son, has seceded from the Association after violating the Code. Young Mr. Roosevelt believes that "Father Coughlin has as good a right to be heard as anyone" -- at any rate anyone with the cash. According to this point of view, the big broadcasters, so wary of censorship from above, have now imposed a censorship themselves.
It was in this atmosphere of argument and recrimination -- first between government and industry, then among the industry itself, with various disgruntled intelligentsia and rooters for still freer speech shouting from the sidelines, that the problems of our neutrality exploded when war began in Europe in September last. First of all came the President's aforementioned neutrality speech and his Proclamation of National Emergency -- a limited emergency "to the extent necessary for the proper observance, safeguarding and enforcing of the neutrality of the United States . . . "
The broadcasters were concerned, first of all, with the war, for they had a job to do -- the job of informing the American public what was happening and why. And they had to beat the newspapers at their own game. They did a magnificent job. Late in August all the networks went on a twenty-four-hour schedule of operation. They sacrificed hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue to keep listeners teetering with excitement from hour to hour. Within the fortnight beginning on August 22, 1939, the three major networks devoted over 200 hours of broadcasting time to the European situation. They virtually kept all short-wave transatlantic channels in constant use -- at terrific expense. Both N.B.C. and Columbia used a new technique of four-way transatlantic interviews by which commentators were brought in alternately to give eyewitness accounts from the war-frenzied capitals.
N.B.C. scooped the press and its competitors with news of the actual outbreak of war, and later with the sinking of the Athenia. Columbia caught the first news of the bombing of Polish towns; and Mutual, by a fluke possible only in radio, picked up, in the night of August 31-September 1, the German Army Order warning planes and ships from the area which in a few hours would be the theatre of war. Never before in history had a war crisis been brought so close to the American public; in fact, American radio supplied censored Europe with information about itself. Thus German listeners learned, from the N.B.C. short-wave news bulletins, about the Soviet-German pact four hours before the German Government gave out news of it.
But this high-tension coverage of the war crisis immediately brought to the fore the other problem, that of preserving our neutrality. War news by radio had become not merely a public service, but a competitive activity that was costing the broadcasters their wisdom teeth. In other words, in the effort to cater to the public's appetite for catastrophe the commentators were being tempted to throw discretion to the winds. Although there was a fair attempt at sane interpretation at the American end, comment on the war -- except for German operations in Poland -- soon changed from factual reporting to "interpretation" and prophecy. There was also a surfeit of impressionism; and for the American public to be told for the nth time from Paris that the French were resolute, and from London that the British were keeping their chins up, was apt to sound like propaganda, whether intentional or not.
Real war news, confined to Poland and the Maginot Line, was of course severely censored. News such as the sinking of the Athenia, on the other hand, might encourage hysteria. It was realized that war, even thousands of miles away, could be hard on people's nerves -- thanks to the radio. It was realized, too, that there was no time for dispassionate "weighing," especially when there was passion in the speaker's voice. "The human voice," as Dorothy Thompson said, "is a more potent conveyor of emotion than is the printed page; it is less likely to appeal to reason; it is more capable of being misunderstood; from time immemorial it has been used to sway and control masses, and this possibility has been incalculably augmented by the radio and the power of reaching millions." A mere inflection of the voice may turn news into propaganda.
These and other considerations caused a raising of official eyebrows in Washington, and the red light was flashed to the radio industry in the form of hints that the Administration was keeping close tab on the war programs. There was also a statement by Stephen T. Early, the President's secretary, that while press censorship might be unnecessary, even in war, radio was a "rookie" and had yet to prove its capacity for self-discipline "without government control over its dissemination of news." This ominous distinction, scanned in the light of the Act of 1934, which gives the President power to take control in time of national emergency, caused the National Association of Broadcasters to suggest that its own three-months old Code was not sufficient, and that the method and manner, as well as the content of news broadcasts, had to be carefully scrutinized. In other words, the industry was establishing an emergency supervision, not only of sponsored programs, but of all programs that have to do with news.
This new self-regulation of the industry was implemented by an agreement between the three major networks -- National, Columbia and Mutual. Salient features of the agreement are an undertaking to avoid "horror, suspense and undue excitement;" to rule out biased comment, or a biased selection of news (no "editorializing" by commentators); and to maintain fairness "to all belligerents" in handling speeches, proclamations and official statements, meaning particularly those which originate abroad. News and news analyses originating in Europe (such as the now familiar "round-ups" of European capitals) are to be handled by Americans, and "analysis" in this connection is defined as "explaining and evaluating" facts, rumor or propaganda. Each of these categories is, of course, to be labeled, and the sources are to be given.
But listeners are not to be wholly insulated against propaganda. Says the self-regulating agreement: "If broadcasters put on [i.e. re-broadcast] propaganda disseminated by radio stations or the press of European countries . . . each will be guided by his own news judgment and endeavor to label precisely the source of the material, and to do this sufficiently often so that no reasonably careful listener is likely to be misled, and he will also be governed by the same rules of fairness in presenting all sides . . . "
What precisely does this mean? It means that not only the speeches of Hitler and Churchill and Daladier will be heard, as heretofore (and all such speeches in wartime contain propaganda), but any blast from Goebbels' propaganda machine (to name only one) may be broadcast here, so long as the source is revealed. Also, any biased version of events, or interpretation of events, from either side, may be repeated (duly labeled) so long as it is balanced by a statement or counterpropaganda from the other side. Indeed, one enterprising network (Mutual) for a while produced a nightly "round-up" of European capitals simply by tapping the short-wave news broadcasts (sometimes amusingly contradictory) of the warring countries.
Now this ruling is certainly a great compliment to the intelligence, quick perception and sound judgment of the average American citizen, or at least the "reasonably careful" citizen. Far be it from the writer to question these qualities. But it might be interesting to make some audience tests as to the average listener's understanding of a given broadcast, and his reactions to it. For it is one thing to read a propaganda article or an "inspired" story in a newspaper, to digest it at one's own speed and reflect upon it; but it is quite another thing to hear a statement over the radio, tuning in perhaps in the middle of it, and then to go on to whatever diverting program may follow. Is one's mind always capable of careful evaluation in such circumstances? Or are we still in the dark about the effect of the power of the radio to "suggest," to influence us by way of half-conscious or subconscious perception? Has the radio not introduced an entirely new factor in thought communication, the potentialities of which thus far only the dictatorships have learned to appreciate?
Certainly we do not want to follow their method of combatting the influence of the "inflammatory" word from across the borders. But, some people ask, need we go to the other extreme of helping it along? Not only is the spoken word more inflammatory, but it is more fleeting and less easily analyzed. Radio propaganda is a "hit-and-run" assault, in which the perpetrator is not always identifiable by the victims. Nor are the victims always the same as those who are exposed to the printed word. They include the less intelligent, the less critical, the less educated -- even the half-literate and the illiterate -- as well as the mature man of judgment. Is it wise to expose them to subtle propaganda which even trained minds cannot always identify as such?
Again one hesitates to suggest anything like a curtailment of free speech -- even for the voice of the foreigner. If the voice of that foreigner penetrates our homes, to attack our institutions and, in accordance with the approved Nazi technique, to create antagonisms between groups of citizens, to engender race prejudice, to quote -- or misquote -- our own officials and publicists in support of his country's case, shall we just let it go?
Of course, that sort of thing can be picked up out of the European ether direct, without depending on the rebroadcasting activities of American stations, with the help of a well-functioning short-wave set. But short-wave listeners are an unimportant part of the public. It is a compliment to our own radio programs that so few of our people ever bother to become adept at short-wave tuning. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the short-wave audience consists predominantly of mechanically-minded fans who are more interested in station identification signals than in political eloquence, and of the nostalgic foreign-born (who might conceivably become a problem if we ourselves were in the war). So the danger, if it exists at all, lies in the rebroadcasting of foreign propaganda by our own stations.
There is still another aspect of the problem -- namely propaganda at home. I have hinted at it earlier, in connection with the controversial matter which is barred by the N.A.B. Code from "sponsored" programs. The action of some broadcasters (e.g. Elliott Roosevelt) has shown that the Code is not going to be obeyed by all the independent (non-network) stations, of which there are some 330 in the United States (some of them are not members of the N.A.B.). It is clear, moreover, that propagandists and crusaders like Father Coughlin will be able to scrape up a hookup of local stations for as long as they can get public support (unless the N.A.B. rule becomes the law of the land).
Father Coughlin has been the center of controversy for several years. He has acquired an enormous following among certain sections of the public, and has aroused the antipathy of other sections through his appeal to racial and religious prejudice and his rather disingenuous attack on one category of "isms" while inferentially approving others. He has shocked many fair-minded citizens by his carefully worded but transparent attacks on various individuals, and by various methods reminiscent of those employed by Fascists in other countries on their path to power. And he has done all this in the name of the democracy which his foreign sympathizers have helped to destroy, and by the grace of which he is given not only free speech but a freedom of amplified speech which permits him to reach the millions.
The story of Father Coughlin's movement is too well known to require further comment. What does interest us is his claim that a denial of radio facilities constitutes a breach of constitutional right. His followers have picketed broadcasting concerns which were accused of having refused him that right, and public disturbance has been the result. The accusation, of course, is unjust. Father Coughlin was not denied access to any radio. He was even invited by broadcasting networks to speak under democratic conditions, namely with opportunity given to his opponents to make adequate reply. He refused these conditions and he has persisted in maintaining a one-sided argument, under conditions which only the advent of radio made possible.
The view that this is a threat to democracy is certainly open to doubt. But the adoption of the N.A.B. Code has pointed up the argument in a new way. It creates a cleavage between the part of the radio industry (led by the networks) which conforms to the rules, and that which, largely for economic reasons, does not conform. The latter is setting up a standard of free speech of its own -- free speech which is both "free" and expensive at the same time. It is not a democratic conception, for it gives a distinct advantage to those who are able to "buy time." Sooner or later such an interpretation of "free speech" will lead to serious trouble, and it is clearly in the interest of the radio industry to persuade its lesser members to conform.
This is not by any means to advocate the throttling of free and even revolutionary opinion. The silencing of demagogues is no remedy in itself. We must not forget that Hitler never had access to the radio in Germany before he came to power. The denial of radio facilities to him (exploited by the Nazis as a form of persecution) was one of the factors that helped him win in the end. The American radio industry, in adopting rules of self-discipline, guided by a democratic theory of fairness and taking into account the limitations as well as the potentialities of radio, has proved its common sense and its desire to serve the community in a typical American way.
Perhaps the wisest thing that has been said in this controversy was said by Mr. David Sarnoff, when he spoke of American radio as an "automatic alarm," charged with the perpetual responsibility of keeping citizens alert toward any dangers to constitutional liberties and national freedom. "Democracies, too," he said, "need automatic alarms. When the life of their free institutions is threatened, the average citizen is not in a position to sense the danger promptly. In other countries, human liberties have been lost, not through lack of desire for freedom but through failure until too late to recognize the damage of destructive forces. A free press and a free radio are the pillars of American democracy."
By drawing a distinction between "controversial" subjects (not to be discussed on paid programs) and ordinary talks and news commentaries, the N.A.B. has, of course, raised the question as to what is controversial and what is not. Obviously opinions are likely to differ. Controversy lurks in every statement of opinion or fact. Then, again, a subject may be controversial at one time and purely academic at another.
Arbitrary decisions, based on common sense, have to be made. One such decision was the recent ruling which bars discussion of neutrality legislation from paid programs. "The methods of achieving and maintaining neutrality," said the ruling, are matters "automatically falling within the sphere of public controversial issues." This naturally enough aroused some protest. Father Coughlin, who was called the leader of the fight against repeal of the arms embargo, and whose radio talks caused many thousands of letters protesting against repeal to be sent to senators and congressmen, simply ignored the rule.
Eminent legislators upheld his "right" to do so, even if they disagreed with his opinions. The New York Herald Tribune supported this view editorially, quoting President Conant of Harvard, who said that "a clear-headed, realistic discussion of all possible eventualities would seem best suited to guide the decisions of this country."
Without expressing an opinion as to whether Father Coughlin's discussions are clear-headed and realistic, I feel that the argument is rather beside the point. No one will deny that neutrality was and still is a controversial subject. The decision that such subjects should be discussed fairly, with equal facilities for all sides, is reasonable and eminently democratic. If such facilities are made dependent on the ability to purchase time on the air, the principle of equality is compromised. Father Coughlin, like anyone else, can discuss this subject on "free" time, subject only to the editorial discretion of the broadcasting companies themselves. No broadcasting company would deny a reasonable request from anyone who commands a public following or widespread public attention today. But of course it would immediately invite an advocate of the opposite view to state his case.
This is the spirit of democracy. The American radio must be concerned to safeguard it if the industry is to remain free and untrammeled. This, indeed, is the difference between the American system and the systems of most European countries. The very fact that the present controversy has arisen shows how deeply ingrained is our feeling for independence and freedom of thought. We mean to preserve this freedom all along the line, and to make new media of expression subservient to it. We do not want radio, now that it has become such a powerful medium of publicity, to be controlled or bureaucratically censored from "above." On the other hand, we do not wish to see it exploited by unseen forces beyond our control.