Better Off Red?

Monday was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which signaled the death knell for communism in Europe. While all but the most committed Marxists will certainly celebrate the moment when millions were liberated from totalitarianism, it is not the case that everyone recognized the evil of communism when it really counted. The record compiled by the Media Research Center shows many liberal journalists painted communism as somehow superior to free market capitalism, and cast its former subjects as worse off without the “safety net” provided by their old masters.

Before the Soviet Union’s collapse, some reporters claimed communism was truly popular among the people it subjugated. “If suddenly a true, two-party or multi-party system were to be formed in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party would still win in a real free election,” CNN’s Stuart Loory wrote in the Wall Street Journal back in 1986. “Despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western-style democracy,” Dan Rather echoed a year later on the CBS Evening News.

In 1989, the New York Times informed readers that “East Germany is the Communist world’s vaunted economic success story, hailed as proof that hard work, discipline and thrift can translate Karl Marx’s theories into reality.” Six months later, the wall fell — ending that particular communist “success story.”

After the revolutions of 1989 brought freedom to Eastern Europe, some journalists suggested the advent of capitalism just made things worse. In Poland, “the transition from communism to capitalism is making more people miserable every day,” CBS’s Bert Quint mourned in 1990. “Bulgarians look back fondly on communism’s ‘good old days,’ when the hand of the state crushed personal freedom but ensured that people were housed, employed, and had enough to eat,” Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams argued in a 1994 “news analysis.”

“Few tears will be shed over the demise of the East German army, but what about East Germany’s 80 symphony orchestras, bound to lose some subsidies?” CBS’s Bob Simon fretted in 1990, four months after the wall came down. “Some people are beginning to express, if ever so slightly, nostalgia for that Berlin Wall.”

As the U.S.S.R. itself unraveled, Time magazine’s Strobe Talbott (later a high-ranking official in Bill Clinton’s State Department) saw the regime’s death gasps as proof that communism “never was” a real danger: “Gorbachev is helping the West by showing that the Soviet threat isn’t what it used to be, and what’s more, that it never was.”

In 1990, CBS’s Harry Smith — then, as now, the co-anchor of that network’s morning news show — perversely argued that the end of communism was a setback for human rights: “Soviet citizens are freer these days — freer to kill one another, freer to hate Jews….Doing away with totalitarianism and adding a dash of democracy seems an unlikely cure for all that ails the Soviet system.”

And the former NBC anchor John Chancellor goofily suggested the economic misery caused by communism had nothing to do with communism itself. As the Soviet coup collapsed in August 1991, Chancellor’s Nightly News commentary lectured how “the problem isn’t communism; nobody talked about communism this week. The problem is shortages.”

Within a few years of communism’s demise, some journalists seemed to yearn for the old order. “For more than 70 years, Russia dreamed the Soviet dream: the dream of a classless society, the dream of a workers’ paradise,” ABC’s Morton Dean recalled in 1994. “The classless society is now a state with a growing population of haves and an exploding population of have-nots. For many, the workers’ paradise has become a homeless hell.”

In 1999, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour confronted ex-Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev with the theory that the end of communism did more harm than good: “[Critics] say you opened a Pandora’s Box….They say that you opened and started a plan that you did not know how to finish.” Five years later, NBC’s Matt Lauer declared: “Russia’s rush to capitalism left the vast majority struggling to survive. For many, life is worse than it was in Soviet times.”

“Life is worse than it was in Soviet times”? According to The Black Book of Communism, the combined toll of the world’s communist dictators is roughly 100 million dead, making it the deadliest catastrophe in human history. Communism as it existed in the 20th century (and still exists in die-hard states like Cuba and North Korea) was based on the state having complete control of the individual and society, both economically and politically. Slaves might get fed on a regular basis, but that doesn’t make it better than freedom.

Journalists fancy themselves as standing as a check on those in power. That’s why this anniversary is a good time to recall their track record on communism, when the media too often tipped in favor of the oppressors, not the oppressed.