Shevchenko Lecture focuses on Ukrainians and the media
by Marco Levytsky
EDMONTON - Two noted North American journalists of Ukrainian origin provided informed insight on the subject of "Ukrainians in the Western Media: A Maligned Minority?" at the annual Shevchenko Lecture in Edmonton on March 6.
Chrystia Freeland, now the deputy editor of The Globe and Mail, spoke about her experiences as a free-lance journalist, writing for The Financial Times, The Economist and The Washington Post from Ukraine during the early 1990s.
Roma Hadzewycz, editor-in-chief of The Ukrainian Weekly, spoke about "The Ugly Face of Freedom" segment of the CBS program "60 Minutes" and the Ukrainian community's reaction to it in the United States.
The event was co-sponsored by the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Association of Edmonton, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and Grant MacEwan Community College. Dr. David Marples, acting director of the CIUS, introduced the speakers, while Maria Popiwchak of the Ps and Bs association delivered closing remarks.
Ms. Freeland noted that during 1991-1992 Ukraine was a very compelling story because the conventional wisdom in Western political circles was that the Soviet Union was not going to fall apart. This was best exemplified by then-U.S. President George Bush's "Chicken Kiev" speech in the summer of 1991.
However, she believed the opposite was true and kept telling that to her editors. "They liked the fact that my take on Ukraine was different from the conventional wisdom," she noted.
During the early days of independence Ukraine was treated in a positive light in the Western media, but recently the articles have become more critical, she noted.
Ms. Freeland cited a number of reasons that Ukraine receives bad press these days, the first being that the government is "terrible" when it comes to public relations. "Everyone acts as it was a huge and terrific favor they were granting me by giving me the privilege of talking to them. I spent hours, and hours, and hours in waiting rooms," she said.
The relationship between businessmen, politicians and media is a much more personal one than in the West, and government leaders will talk to a reporter they like rather than one they don't, she added.
An additional problem is that people don't understand that if you say something when a tape recorder is running or when a notebook is open that it is likely to appear in the newspaper the next day. In many cases people would call her the next day, outraged that a quote appeared, and explaining, "I was stupid, I shouldn't have said that." In other cases they would flatly deny having said it, destroying their own credibility, she observed.
Ms. Freeland also noted that there is a defeatist strain within Ukraine. She recalled an incident when nationalist deputy Stepan Khmara asked her if it is true she is only half Ukrainian, which she admitted. "That explains it," he replied. "You are far too brave and far too steadfast to be a pure Ukrainian."
Another problem with Ukraine's coverage in the West is that most journalists writing about Ukraine come from Russia or are Russia specialists in the West. "All of us know that coming at Ukraine from that perspective - no matter how objective a journalist is trying to be - will lead to a certain kind of coverage," she said.
The third reason for Ukraine's negative press is that a lot of things are going very badly, said Ms. Freeland.
In her case study of "The Ugly Face of Freedom" aired by CBS on October 23, 1994, Ms. Hadzewycz said the report "was not merely defamatory - it was inflammatory."
"Through careful manipulation, correspondent Morley Safer and producer Jeffrey Fager painted a picture of a poor, uneducated nuclear-armed nation on the brink of a major outbreak of anti-Semitism. It was a good example of agitprop," she commented.
"It was also a recipe for journalistic disaster," she added. "'The Ugly Face of Freedom' was filled with innuendoes, stereotypes, half-truths and outright lies. It manifested a blatant disregard for facts, mistranslated crucial terms, gave no meaningful context for the few bits of actual information provided and used dramatic images unrelated to the matter at hand for pure visual effect - or worse yet, to frighten the audience about just where this 'big, bad Ukraine' was heading."
The Ukrainian community reacted swiftly and confidently to this biased report by phoning, faxing and writing CBS officials. The Embassy of Ukraine issued a powerful and well-thought-out statement, she continued
"The message from all quarters was loud and clear: We're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it any more! We demand a retraction and an apology; we demand that appropriate action be taken against the persons responsible for putting 'The Ugly Face of Freedom' on the air," Ms. Hadzewycz related.
A series of demonstrations were held, as were meetings with CBS officials. However, Ukrainian community representatives received no assurances from CBS that it was going to rectify the situation.
Then in November 1994, the Ukrainian Heritage Defense Committee - a committee under the aegis of the Ukrainian National Association that had been involved in previous anti-defamation activities and had an established tax-exempt fund - was activated. This committee had two principal goals: to reverse the negative perception created by "The Ugly Face" and to get CBS to retract its story.
But CBS would not budge, so the committee took its case to the public, Ms. Hadzewycz explained.
Ads appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post that described CBS's slander of the Ukrainian nation and quoted Times and Post stories about the Jewish renaissance in Ukraine, as well as statements by Jewish leaders and President Leonid Kuchma. Advertisers who sponsored the "60 Minutes" program of October 23, 1994, also were contacted.
By early 1995, more than 125 media kits detailing CBS's actions had been sent out by the UHDC to media outlets throughout North America. Unfortunately, there was scant media interest, possibly because, as one media watchdog group said: " '60 Minutes' does a hatchet job on everybody," Ms. Hadzewycz recalled.
The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission as did two individuals, Alexander Serafyn and Oleg Nikolyszyn. The FCC rejected these complaints.
The Ukrainian petitioners then took their case to the United States Appeals Court for the Circuit of the District of Columbia, which on August 11, 1998, ruled that there were serious questions about whether CBS intentionally distorted information and ordered the FCC to revisit the case.
Finally, CBS brass and representatives of major Ukrainian American community organizations faced off at a settlement meeting at the CBS corporate headquarters on March 1, 1999. As part of the settlement, CBS agreed to "reimburse the legitimate and prudent expenses incurred" by the petitioners - a sum of $328,000 - and to provide the petitioners with a settlement letter. The petitioners agreed to cease all lawsuits pertaining to "The Ugly Face of Freedom."
"The Ugly Face of Freedom" was neither the first nor last time that the Ukrainian community was defamed, but it "was so ugly, so pernicious that our community rallied around a common cause and was determined to see it through to the end," said Ms. Hadzewycz.
"This case showed that we can be strong when united, but it also showed that we lack political clout, as we were unable to influence the FCC, a political creature, to take on CBS," she commented. "The case demonstrated that we must take on those who attack us, and that we can be successful. But it also showed that our community must be vigilant and ready to respond to such attacks at any given moment."
"Perhaps what was most important was that our response to 'The Ugly Face' demonstrated that no longer could Ukrainians be considered easy targets - that, as so many players in our campaign said, David can beat Goliath," Ms. Hadzewycz concluded.
Marco Levytsky is editor of the Edmonton-based Ukrainian News.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 23, 2000, No. 17, Vol. LXVIII
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