Last week’s heavy-handed NYPD raid of the Occupy Wall Street encampment prompted an uproar about official conduct. Police rounded up reporters and kept them away from the action, going so far as to arrest several. Many news outlets were left to piece together the events via fragmentary reporting, such as video taken by protesters and official accounts, rather than firsthand observances.
Howard Kurtz yesterday called it “nothing less than censorship.”
No argument on that front, but let’s stipulate that it qualifies as censorship only under modern U.S. standards. By the standards of the Soviet Union in the mid- to late 1950s, the NYPD action stands as an international beacon of transparency and fair play.
Which brings us, again, to the memoir of Max Frankel, “The Times of My Life and My Life at the Times.” Frankel, who would eventually become executive editor of the Times, was stationed in Moscow during the reign of Nikita Khrushchev, a time when getting your copy past state censors and onto overseas cables demanded an eye for the ironic.
Frankel relates how stories “destined for cable transmission would be surgically but not always logically stripped of unflattering comments about Soviet life or whole paragraphs about Kremlin discord.” Here’s one of the fascinating components of the game, as Frankel relates it: At one point, Frankel and others got permission from the Soviets to read their stories to the home office via telephone, in addition to cable transmission. The phone line, he writes, “was instantly cut if we were caught straying from the approved manuscript.” That meant that when it came time to dictate on the phone, you had to outfox the eavesdropper. Here’s how Frankel puts it:
Write: There appeared to be no dissent from the premier’s policy; none was reported by the Soviet press.
But Dictate: There appeared to bemuchdissent from the premier’s policy, yet none was reported by the Soviet press.
Frankel expresses pride in getting one classic bit of truth-telling past his Soviet censors. He had taken a long trip through Siberia. The travels included a stop in Birobidzhan, a place to which Stalin had “exiled a great many Russian Jews . . . in the 1930s in cyncial reprisal for their Zionist desire to emigrate to Palestine.” When the possibility presented itself, those exiles abandoned this territory, “which was never much more than a penal colony dressed up with Yiddish street signs.” Frankel:
After observing these faint ethnic traces, I wrote that the Jewish Autonomous Region was ”about as Jewish as it was autonomous.” To my continuing satisfaction, the censor swiftly approved.