News in 20th Century America; Behind the Iron Curtain
The following program was produced and recorded by the University of Michigan broadcasting service under a grant from the Educational Television Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters news in 20th century America. A series of radio documents on the gathering writing and dissemination of news compiled from interviews with the men and women who make news their business from 35 to 40 won. I was working as an agency man. I worked for the first for the London Exchange Telegraph. And then for the Associated Press. In 41 I became the chief of the NBC Moscow bureau. And I stayed there until April 1948 as an NBC man. And in April 1948. The Russians expelled me. From the country on trumped up charges of being an American spy. The voice is that of Robert Magee it off. The story of his years as a foreign
correspondent in Moscow all along with the story of American newsman in the communist satellite countries as recounted by Leland Stoll. These form the substance of behind the Iron Curtain. Today's edition of news in 20th century America. Now here is your host Ed Burroughs. When the average American sees the dateline Budapest Warsaw or Moscow in his newspaper when he turns on his radio or TV and hears a first hand report from behind the Iron Curtain Does he ever stop to wonder what hours of labor may have gone into that report. But frustrations danger heartbreak may be involved. On a previous program in this series Howard K. Smith said that foreign correspondence has lost its trenchcoat glamour. It's doubtful if American news men working in Russia or the satellite countries were ever aware of any romantic aura attached to their jobs. Yet the job gets done. How do they do it. Why do they do it.
What does their work mean to us the American public. Will and stow your long career as a foreign correspondent has taken you to most of the capitals of Europe including those behind the Iron Curtain. What generally speaking are the working conditions for a newsman in the satellite countries. Well the first problem is the problem of getting in getting visas in regard to Poland that's fairly easy nowadays. Czechoslovakia is not so bad but hungry Romania and Bulgaria are really tough to get visas to get into I remember once it took me over three months to get a visa to get into Rumania. Then after you get there it's almost impossible to see the top government officials you have to be content with seeing junior officials and they're pretty scary as a rule they're simply afraid to. They may say too much and they may give too much information. Then ordinary citizens are often and some of the
satellites of different periods afraid to talk to foreign journalists and then there are some who talk too freely and that's a tipoff you better watch your step. All foreign correspondents going into the satellite countries are obliged to live in the same hotel. Of course you can guess the reason Mr. Burrows it's simply that the employees all work for the police and it's a convenient way of keeping track of foreign correspondents. As in Russia. Western embassy officials are in very important sources and of course you can get. Sources in other ways. We've heard a great deal Mr. Magee off about the difficulty of obtaining news in Moscow. Are the conditions exaggerated. Was it hard for you while you were there to acquire information. Oh extremely difficult as a matter of fact. Everything has to go through government channels there at least in my time. Theoretically one could not approach I knew Russian foreign news except through the
president Parkman to the Foreign Office. I understand the conditions are somewhat better now. But all through the wall. And I'd like to add that I was the only foreign correspondent to cover the entire wall. So all through the war and through the Cold War period. And one was not allowed. To approach I knew Russian for news except through the press department. Being an American I frequently took it upon myself to approach certain Russians and I was rebuffed. Repeatedly. As a matter of fact there was no exception. After the bowl once the cold war started there was no exception to the Russian's rebuffing me they would just simply not talk to me unless they had a call from the press department during the war. It was not that strange and. Especially if the new story I was after was a human interest story rather than a military story.
What did you have any personal freedom of any sort to where you were aware at all types that your activities were being watched. No there is no question one is aware in Moscow. 24 hours a day. Even if one can prove that during a certain period he was not watched but they put potential watch is there. Because the when you work in Moscow the shortages are so great even. That you are dependent on the help of the Soviet people are hard to. Help you. To work for you such as a secretary or a translator if you don't happen to know the language. And the messenger girl. The chauffeur. The cook and maid. If so that and you cannot hire these people on your own. You cannot just throw some Russian friends find somebody whom you could trust. You have to go to an organization run by the Foreign Office and
that organization is called bureau of being. Which has the ironical name of the bureau for up helping foreigners. And every person you hire has to be okayed by them. By and by them in this case means by the secret police. And I know this as a fact that each one of them. Is under a compulsion to report on you. They have regular times when they report. And sooner or later you are aware of the times and I know that I always used to make it easier for the people who work for me and I would see to it that I do not occupy them during the during that time. I never did go as far as Iran. One military attache of a country I shall not name who fell in love with his secretary. And she with him. And
so on a certain day of the week. She'd sit in his lap I would imagine that he would dictate to her the kind of report she should make about his activities that made it easier both for him and her. We take it for granted that the rooms are wired. Wired whatever term you use. And if I ever had a visitor. With whom I wanted to discuss problems that were no one else's business we would usually go into the bathroom and let the water run. With great power. And conduct our discussions to the accompaniment of the running water. In a previous program we discussed at length the problem of language for the foreign correspondent but the situation for American news man behind the Iron Curtain is somewhat unique wouldn't you say Mr. Stowe. Well Mr. Burrows the first point is that there are very few American correspondents stationed permanently in these countries. New York Times has a
permanent correspondent in Poland. Sometimes the A.P. and the UPI have one there. And sometimes in book in Budapest. It's impossible for Rovers to know all these languages yet very often it is roving American correspondents or other westerners who are traveling in according to events from one country to another. Obviously you can't master all these difficult five or six languages of Eastern Europe. So they have to depend on local translators that times and of course as in the Soviet Union they are stooges for the police. But our U.S. Information Service in our foreign embassies is a tremendous help because they have provided translations of all the daily press and you can get special translation service in our embassies. And that is a big lift. Now or you don't need to speak Polish Hungary and that's a tough one.
Are Romanian or something else to talk with government officials they all speak English. Or if not they speak German or French and of course no correspondent ought to row Eastern Europe unless he knows two of those three languages. Surprising. I remember often talking with people in small towns in Hungary or Rumania for instance or out and still finding people who would speak English or German or French. And. Often if nobody's around very happy to talk with you. Where these two Western languages as well as English. Why there's no serious problem in getting around and getting your information. Mr. McGee doff if I'm not mistaken you credit your most important scoops in Russia to your knowledge of the language. I wonder if you could give us an example. If you remember Russia attacked Finland in 1939 and made self-righteous gestures saying that Finland was
about you to attack poor little Russia. And the Red Army thought that they will just walk through Finland like a hot knife through butter. But they were in for a very bitter disappointment and the entire world saw the spectacle of Russians being routed by the small brave country of Finland. However one day I was riding in a Moscow subway. And I overheard two women talking and one of them saying to the other that I received a letter from my boy at the front. That was the only front runner ahead of the time. And he's coming home soon because the Siberians are there to replace. And. That was a brief period when there was no censorship. For foreign correspondents a very brief period and I sent myself a story. As forecasting that the fortunes of war will soon be changed to Russia because I could not but realize that
Siberian troops who are used to the same kind of winter conditions which had favor the Finns. And they used in masses could not help but. That turned the tide toward a Russian victory. And that was at the time when everyone in the corps saw the Russians being being defeated and already were thinking in terms of Russians suing for peace and there were stories about the Russians asking Hitler. To intercede on their behalf and somehow bring peace between Russia and Finland. But my story forecasting this turn of events on the Finnish front. Did go through and very soon after that they said burials that show up. And of course Finland had to sue for peace. Mr. McGee to off as mentioned a brief period during which there was no censorship in Russia. Censorship can take a multitude of forms obviously. In what ways is it
imposed Mr. Stow in the satellite countries Hungary for instance. Well as a sort of a contradiction about this Mr. Burrows. It's a very real danger sometimes for censorship for news man in the satellite countries. In May 19 50 Dana Adam Smith of The New York Times had to flee the country in a big hurry after he learned that he was being accused of espionage and that sort of thing can happen. But before we go into that side of it I think I should say that it's surprising but there's no official or direct censorship in the satellite countries of late such as there is in Soviet Russia. Even the teletypes and telephones are open but there is always the fact that any rec center ship can get you into trouble at any moment. That's not really censorship but it's a check up of what
you said later. For instance the Associated Press is Kyle Hartmann. Serve the good while in Budapest and here's one of the things that he reported afterward. He said Your personal responsibility always hovers over your head because you wrote something or tried to see someone went somewhere or took a picture some official made a rule you are no longer welcome and out you go. Even taking a picture of one of the bridges over the Danube but Budapest has got people into trouble so there's. This is a very indirect pressure but it's very heavy and it makes the newsman almost self censors of themselves because they have to be awfully careful that they don't cross the invisible limit and write something that will cause offense and so they're always under the sword of Damocles to be thrown out. Here's a good example that happened to the same
Col.. HARTMANN down in Bulgaria. He wrote a piece about Sofia today was describing the streets and whatnot and incidentally reported that very few men wear neckties. Well the communists took that as an insult and the local press broke out in bitter tirades against him merely because he reported a very simple fact like that. What form does censorship take in Russia Mr. McGee to office at pretty much the same type of control today as it was when you were there. Well the outer form of censorship as far as I understand has not changed in the sense that it is a blind censorship. It was in our time in my time and it still is blind in the sense that you handle your story. With a carbon copy for yourself. And then you never see the censor. The censor does whatever he chooses to do with your story and then returns you a carbon copy. Would they did lesions.
As indicated. And then theoretically at least you are supposed to let him know whether or not. If the story is Scott. Whether or not you wanted to go to be filed anyway. When I said theoretically I had in mind that. Sometimes when I get paid them the censors would forget in quotes. To return the copy to you before he filed your story. And then your story would go. Even if you fell the cuts destroyed the story the way you wanted it to come to go to the United States. I'll give you one example during the period. Mind if you remember I mentioned that we were not allowed to broadcast but we were allowed to file stories to the state DOT was at the end of forty six early forty seven. Of the Cold
War was just beginning and the government paper came out with the first terrific blast against the United States government. Now when they blast the U.S. government it's no news and no one bothers to send the story but that was the first big blast and it was a front page story and I sent a cable. To NBC. Quoting the newspaper. The official government paper and it was such a hot story I didn't even write a lead. I just said quote unquote quote unquote etc. to make sure the story would pass the censorship. And then I was waiting for my copy. And then my copy came back. It was information that by mistake. The copy had already been filed the story at the ready been filed and then I discovered that this censor cut out several words. And these words war quote unquote quote
unquote the net result of which was an American newspaper man sending a story blasting his own government. And calling it all sorts of names. Now in this case of course the office in New York was much too smart for the Russians and they realized that I wouldn't send such a story and so they they reshaped it and they oh yes of course the words Vesty out the official newspaper was also cut out and they just put it. They did put it out as Soviet sources have said so and so. But you can see pot they didn't decent of this sort can do. Or the deletion of a little word like no. Or not. Can do to a story. And I understand that right now they. I haven't heard of recent such cases but here is an illustration of something that actually happened to me. There is a big difference in censorship in my time dumbass.
After the war when the Cold War was at its height and now is that the censors seem to be more lenient. I sometimes read or dispatch in The Times The Herald Tribune or I hear over the radio certain stories were the newspaper men are allowed to say things which I know for sure I would not have been allowed to say in Stalin's times so there has been an improvement. Well when you were making a live broadcast from Moscow Mr. Magee Duff did you ever try to thwart the censor by ad libbing material that hadn't been approved and knowing how determined they were and they they would stop me I never tried that. And it was very simple. It wasn't only that I was playing ball in the sense that here were the conditions which they allowed me to operate there and I observe the conditions but I also knew that the persons in charge the the announcer.
Who announced me to the two NBC until NBC took over and put me on the on the hook up. And he was also the censor who whose duty it was to look over my shoulders. And to see that I read exactly what is written and he would have paid with his head. Had he not stopped me in time and I would have cited I wanted to say and I thought it was unfair and also I knew I had no chance whatever. And sometimes I'd like to carry across a certain idea. And I would put it down on paper in a rather innocuous way was a censor could. Pass and sometimes did pass and then just by inflecting the voice or making a pause or just giving. Giving the voice a certain expression. I thought that I managed to carry across at least some hint as to
what was on my mind. If your broadcast copy was cut at the last moment I presume you had some pre censored material ready for insert. What sort of a story would you use in that case. During the war. When the Russians began to their big great big offensives and beginning with Stalin grad moved westward quite rapidly. And I want to start in grad 1 just as the fighting was being finished and we were flown by we I mean foreign correspondents were flown to Stalingrad. I think it was in February 1943. And we we stopped at a certain place and then were riding in a bus. It was dark and it was snowing. It was deep winter. And there were soldiers along the road and they had big big bonfires and it was rather eerie to see those huge bonfires and soldiers and tanks and suddenly I had to close my
eyes because I couldn't believe my side I saw a camel dragging a cannon. And then another camel. And. This was this is one of those trains apparitions that haunt me to this day. And so when I came back to Moscow ended my broadcast about Stalingrad I included mention of this little meeting with a camel dragging a cow and then. In the middle of a blizzard. And two or three weeks later I saw a notice in the paper in the bottom of the Russian war correspondents talking about a camel moving westward. And I put that camel and two. And after a while there was still another mention of a camel and so I did a little two minute spot on the camel I gave him a name I called him Pavol the camel I was talking about his victorious march march toward Berlin. And then after the fourth time I got a cable from New York asking
me to do a 15 minute spot on part of the camel. And I did a some research I discovered the Russia has about a half a million camels and I learned something of their of their habits and I did a story on part of the camel moving from Stalingrad to Berlin and I think I got more letters out of that story than any other stories where I actually risked my life now together to get them. And yet you did take risks and the fact was to make it off that you were expelled from Russia as an example of how the correspondent may be trapped on wishing away. Is there real danger in the satellite countries as well Mr. Stowe. Actually the satellites have been more dangerous to newspaper men than reporting from Russia by far. Not only did Dana Adam Smith have to flee a 900 fifty to avoid being tried in charged with s to me and I was. The following April.
William Otis of the Associated Press was arrested and charged with espionage. He was held for 69 days incommunicado no one could see him while the secret police were putting their pressures on him. And he was completely cut off. Then in July of 1951. The Soviets announced a trial with a great publicist Ian fan flare of what they called the oldest espionage group with three checks included who had been working as stringers or helping Otis in his work. Otis was put on trial and when he came was brought out to testify he was proved to be completely brainwashed by these 69 days of terrific pressure aides simply confessed that he had been a spy and even named a lot of American and allied foreign embassy people. And yet in all the evidence what he so told was simply the kind of
information and questioning that any newspaper man would ask anyone. So it was a complete frameup. But it was done to discredit the Western powers and it was a deliberate trick on the part of the Prague communist regime. Unfortunately poor old US after the trial was sentenced to 10 years. His check associates were sentenced to 15 to 20 years. Otis finally was released under great great efforts by Washington and by the Associated Press. And after serving only a couple years or so I forget exactly how long of that sentence. But he came out of broken in a very confused man and he had to have six or eight months of medical treatment before he was able to return to work in New York for the AP. That's a tragic example. Of what could happen any day to correspondent in any of these communist countries in Eastern
Europe. If the government wants to have a sensational case against the West. Well considering all of these difficulties restrictions dangers is it worthwhile for American news men to take the risks. Well Mr. Burrows I would say emphatically yes. A great deal is learned from the country's press or even from communist officials because you can judge by their attitudes whether they're swinging now to another Moscow dictated tougher line against the West or whether they're playing the smiling friends game. All of this is important to know. They convey our correspondents behind the Iron Curtain the feel of these countries and a great deal about the people's conditions often about their moods and. What is I think most important. Some of the news that comes out from time to time correspondents really call the turn on major new.
Policies of the Kremlin toward ourselves and the Western world in general. And this is extremely important. I think we can best sum it up this way that if you compare what we know you were listening about what's happening in the Soviet Union today with how little you know from your newspapers about what's happening in Red China where American newsmen are still barred. You cannot realize immediately that there are great benefits to having correspondents working in the in communist regime countries. Despite all of the difficulties and despite really the sacrifices in some ways that have to be made I would say that so long as we have a divided world reporting from communist countries will be of inestimable importance to all of us here in America even important to our long term prospects for freedom.
Mr. McGee doff do you think correspondents knowing the dangers that exist are willing and eager to work behind the Iron Curtain. I have known many newspaper men in my life and I have yet to meet one who wouldn't go there at the drop of a hat. Would you yourself return if given the opportunity. If there is a big story breaking or about to break yes and no matter what the risks involved. But for a permanent assignment no. I'm not a young man and you longer and should like to spend the rest of my days here where I can breathe the air of freedom. Thank you. Robert McKee Adolf and Leland Stowe for discussing with me today the problems of the foreign correspondent behind the Iron Curtain. You have been listening to behind the Iron Curtain. One of a series of programs on news in 20th century America. In this series we explore all facets of the gathering writing and dissemination of news in this country today by means of recorded interviews with leading news men and
- News in 20th Century America
- Behind the Iron Curtain
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- News in 20th Century America is a radio series on the gathering, writing, and dissemination of news. Each episode addresses a specific topic in the news industry, and features interviews with men and women who make news their business. This program is produced by the University of Michigan Broadcasting Service in cooperation with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
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Identifier: 59-48-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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