On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines flight 007 trespassed into Soviet airspace and was blasted out of the sky. Two hundred and sixty-nine people died. On September 2, the western press, reflecting international outrage, condemned the Soviets as murderers and barbarians. The Toronto press was no exception.
In the weeks following the incident, cold war rhetoric dominated the headlines, news columns and editorials of the three Toronto dailies. The coverage was generally biased and emotional. It also served as a blatant example of how the press has effectively worsened an already dangerous chill in east-west relations. The coverage of the KAL incident helped launch an anti-Soviet hysteria that has not been around since the 1950s.
For four weeks running, The Toronto Star,The Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Sun ran a plethora of stories about the tragedy. Unfortunately, the majority of the accounts, particularly in the first week of coverage, fell victim to what is known in journalistic circles as the “U.S. propaganda machine.” The biggest news of the day was the White House reaction. The speeches, proposals and statements by President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Schultz dominated the front pages and generally made up the bulk of the coverage. There were stories datelined Moscow, Japan, Seoul, the United Nations and the Pentagon, but all came from American wire services.
There was also an abundance of “stories” from unnamed U.S. intelligence sources and Washington officials. Except for a few articles from foreign correspondents, analysis pieces, and some reports of the Canadian reaction, the coverage during the first days after the incident had an overwhelming American slant. Granted, the press had a major obstacle to contend with: initially the Soviets were not talking, or were at best evading and stonewalling. Yet by relying mainly on American sources for information, the Toronto press parroted Washington’s version before all the facts were in.
Joe Hall, foreign editor at the Star, is aware the coverage was one-sided. “I know the U.S. public relations machine very well. They are masters at exploiting the media.” Although he doesn’t believe the Star was manipulated by Washington, he argues that the U.S. version was all the paper had to go on. “The press was hungry for any detail. I don’t think there was any manipulation by the American government, but without a doubt, they took full advantage of the situation.”
Gwen Smith, foreign editor at the Globe, echoes Hall’s view. “We don’t want to be a Pentagon news service, but so much of the reporting depends on what you get. What are you supposed to do?”
Not only did the three papers rely too heavily on information from Washington, all three went out of their way to emphasize the American perspective. Some stories were more obviously biased and emotional than others. One that appeared on the front page of the Star on September 2 reported that Reagan was cutting his vacation short in order to discuss what sanctions the United States could take against the Soviet Union for its “horrifying act of violence.” There was no attribution for the quote “horrifying act of violence.”
The reader could not tell if the words were those of Reagan or the Star. In either case, the point was clearly made. Another story in the same edition, headlined “Americans condemn barbarism,” called the incident a “murderous act.” Again, there was no attribution. During the first week of coverage, the Toronto press extensively used as the basis for news stories comments from those who would unquestionably back the American version. An article in the September 3 edition of the Globe said, “Most major western governments said bluntly they had no doubt the Soviets were guilty of what West German government spokesman Juergen Sudhoff called an ‘inconceivable act of unsurpassed brutality.’ ” A story on September 5 said, “When the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner with 269 people on board last week, the Soviet government brought home more than ever to Westerners its insensitive, barbaric nature, a U.S. Air Force official says.” Other sources included U.S. intelligence officials, military personnel, members of the rightwing John Birch Society, the Moral Majority, and the Conservative Caucus.
The use of headlines, pictures, and the general layout of the papers further accentuated the already biased news coverage. Typical front page headlines read: SOVIET SAVAGERY; SOVIET ACT “TERRORIST”; SOVIET STORY “FICTION”; MURDER IN THE SKY; SOVIETS LIARS AND TERRORISTS. U.S. PRESIDENT CHARGES; SOVIET SPYING CHARGE CALLED BRAZEN COVER.UP. The latest development in Washington was prominently displayed, while stories that questioned the Washington version were displayed lower on the page, with smaller headlines, or were buried inside the paper.
The Americans insisted that the KAL pilot was probably unaware that the plane was off course and that there was no evidence to indicate that the Soviets gave any warning before they fired. Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on September 6 that the radio transmission tapes between pilots and ground control proved that no warning was given. Hence the White House assumed the incident was a cold-blooded attack by the Soviets upon an innocent commercial airliner. The press patterned its stories on that assumption.
Then came the contradictions. The White House released a “revised” interpretation of the radio tapes on September 11. The new transcripts indicated that warning shots were fired by the Soviets six minutes before the attack.
Not only that, reports had come out on September 7 stating that Korean Air Lines had, in the past, used its airliners for spying. After a series of overflight incidents and warnings, KAL pilots had been given strict orders to stay away from Soviet terrority. Aviation experts doubted the 007 pilot and copilot didn’t know they were more than 1,000 kilometres off course. Other reports revealed that KAL had a reputation for trying to save money by making short-cut flights across Soviet territory. White House spokesman Larry Speakes admitted that an American RC-I35 reconnaissance plane was in the area hours before the KAL plane was shot down. He said the spy plane might have been confused with the KAL 747 by Soviet radar operators because the two planes were similar in appearance. The Soviets justified the attack by saying they thought the KAL flight was on a spy mission.
On October 7, U.S. intelligence experts admitted that the Soviets could not have known the KAL plane was a commercial airliner because the Soviet jet was behind and below the airliner when it fired, not parallel as was originally believed. They also concluded that Soviets assumed they were tracking the RC-I35 spy plane. At last, Washington was admitting there was another side to the story. So, finally, was the press.
During the height of the emotionally charged aftermath, all three Toronto dailies had run numerous pictures of Koreans burning Soviet flags, carrying placards denouncing the Soviets as barbaric murderers and liars, and storming the Soviet embassy. A large portion of the coverge consisted of the Korean reaction, which was, understandably, grief-stricken and hostile. Yet in the words of Robert Hackett, a media critic for the Edmonton Working Committee and professor of political science at the University of Alberta, “The focus on the victims suited the West’s ideological purposes. Every fresh report of pathetic wreckage or mutilated bodies washed ashore in Japan reminded us of the atrocity of the passengers’ deaths.”
While there is no question that 269 people died a cruel and senseless death, the fact remains that the press was initially all too willing to jump the gun and report on inflamed speculation instead of intensely probing the situation. The three Toronto editors responsible for the KAL newspaper coverage agree that it was, to a certain degree, biased.
Bob Burt of the Sun says, “Politically we are pro-Reagan on most things. Our philosophical and political bias comes from the right. In this instance, we thought Reagan had seen the light, We were remiss about not getting more background information. We should have had more stories about the Soviet side, but I don’t ever want to see this paper becoming apologists for the Soviet Union,”
Joe Hall at the Star says it was “clear as daylight” to him that there were some slipups, but he asserts, “We are a newspaper coming out with five to six editions a day. It’s easy for someone to piece through and analyze and balance the situation later, but at the time we had to deal with the information we were getting.”
Conceding that some of the news stories were “slightly biased,” Gwen Smith at the Globe says, “Copy editors and reporters are humans, and the initial reaction was a human one,”
In the weeks following the incident, the outrage subsided as new evider.1ce was uncovered, and the coverage became more balanced, The Star had the most stories !openly contradicting the Washington view, raising doubts about the events, and questioning Reagan’s political motives, Among them were analysis pieces, wire stories and stringers’ copy, including “Special to the Star” features. The headlines now read: SUSPICIONS MOUNTS-WAS KOREAN JET SPYING? AIRLINER UNRECOGNIZABLE. EXPERTS SAY; WHY? THERE ARE MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS IN THE RIDDLE OER JET’S FINAL FLIGHT.
The Globe followed suit with head. lines stating SOVIETS DIDN’T KNOW JET WAS 747. U.S. EXPERTS SAYS; AIRLINE PASSANGERS REGULARLY PUT AT RISK DEFENCE EDITOR SAYS.. On September 30, the Globe also published a full-page chart outlining how the story had changed during the four weeks of coverage. More important, the chart raised vital questions about the entire incident,
The Toronto Sun however, had virtually no stories that countered its initial view, while there was a genuine, if belated, attempt by two of the three dailies to present alternative view points, the body of the coverage remained focussed on the Americanized version. According to the University of Alberta’s Hackett, this was because “one factor making an event newsworthy is its consonance with preexisting expectations. The KAL flight 007 fitted spectacularly well the media’s stereotype of the U.S.S.R. as a brutal, totalitarian threat to world peace.”
For example, an editorial in the Globe said: “It may be too soon to expect answers to all the questions raised by the shooting down of an off-course South Korean passenger jet in Soviet airspace last Thursday. But it is not too soon to recognize the cold-blooded Russian decision to open fire on a defenseless passenger aircraft as another chapter in the long and dismal record of heavy handed Soviet inhumanity
As long as Russia behaves as brutally as it did toward the strayed KAL aircraft it can expect to have its aims and methods viewed by the rest of the world with deep and justified mistrust.”
It reads like a typical editorial published during the KAL flight 007 coverage. But it wasn’t. The editorial appeared in the Globe in April, 1978, after a KAL passenger plane trespassed into Soviet airspace near the Murmansk military zone, was fired upon, and forced to land on a frozen lake. Two people died, not 269, yet the response was the same.
Hackett believes the press covered the ’83 KAL story from three opposing political perspectives. One was the “evil empire” theme: “The destruction of KAL was a terrorist act to sacrifice the lives of innocent human beings, which exemplifies the U.S.S.R,’s willingness to use every available means to assert its power, spread its influence., export its despotism, subjugate people, and threaten the world.”
Another was the “Soviet justification” theme: “KAL was on a spy mission for the U.S. to justify an American hard line in arms talks, so the Soviet termination of the flight was a legitimate act of national self-defence.”
Last was the “reasoned response” theme: “Without seeking to excuse the Soviet action, its intention was to reduce the hysteria and self-righteousness of the west’s reaction.”
The Ryerson Review of journalism analyzed the Toronto papers” coverage from September 1 to October 1, and found the Star had 31 stories fitting the “~vil empire” theme, 9 fitting the “Soviet justification” theme, and 25 fitting the “reasoned response.” The Globe had 30 stories in the first category, 19 in the second, and 21 in the third. The Sun‘s breakdown was 18-4-3. Hackett says the dominance of the “evil empire” theme in the coverage of the KAL incident had helped “unleash cold war hysteria, poisoning North America’s political climate at all levels.” The Star‘s Joe Hall agrees. “Unfortunately, we lost that conflict because a lot of people who were beginning to view the Soviet Union in a better light reverted to a cold war mentality.”
Even though new evidence surfaced to discredit the “evil empire” theme, many members of the public still cling to their first response to the incident. This deeply troubles media critic Barrie Zwicker. As a writer, editor, and dis. armament activist, Zwicker has much to say about the way the press handles the cold war. “First impressions are tremendously important. It takes a long time to overcome them. If we keep in mind that most people get their information from the media, you see the damage is done when a story is played wrong from the start. It is a cliche, but there is a lot of truth to it: the refinements never have the same impact as the first story.”
The impact of the KAL tragedy, combined with the nuclear arms race, increasing international tensions, and the press’ willingness to accept the line of the “authorities” without question, has created a dangerous synergy in which the world’s future is now standing on a very shaky foundation. Gary Lautens, executive managing editor of the Star during the KAL coverage, says the cold war and the nuclear arms race are the “number one moral issues of the day.” Of the press’ response to the KAL tragedy, he says, “I don’t think people in Russia have a bloodthirsty attitude. By reacting this way it seems we are programming ourselves to some cataclysmic end. No doubt tensions are high and to start inflaming them is creating an emotional atmosphere we could do without.”
The press, Lautens says, has to be “very wise and patient. We have to criticize both sides. The Russians are not murderers, and the Americans aren’t angels. We have to be reasonable and understanding, and not pop off without any information.” His views on cold war tensions were summed up in an interview in Sources. “There’s no way that I as a journalist, as a human being, as a father, and as a husband can stand back and be passive andjust record this insanity. I’ve got to try to stop this insanity. And I do it the best way I can. I try to do it with facts, but there’s a gut passion and feeling about it, that this is madness and somebody’s got to stand up and say stop.”
To avoid a recurrence of the questionable journalistic practices so obvious after the KAL incident, Barrie Zwicker thinks the press must adopt some new values. “One is we need to adopt a global perspective. Journalism practised within the blinders of the state is tunnel vision journalism, written from the point of view of ‘our side.’ We also need to be aware of serving the leadership or status quo, under the guise of telling the truth. To unduly report only the statements of leaders is not telling the truth. Skepticism is a basic requirement of a journalist. And I think we need to adopt a more historical sensibility. We have to extend our perspective back in time.”
The impact of the KAL incident upon both east and west has been devastating. But it may have taught the members of the media an invaluable lesson. As long as skepticism, criticism and evaluation remain sacred journalistic tools, we can go along way toward making the press part of the solution rather than part of the problem.~
Press failed to ask questions: Zwicker
As a democratic/socialist, calling himself a “western dissident,” media critic Barrie Zwicker, editor of Sources and former editor of Content magazine, strongly criticized the way the Toronto press covered the KAL tragedy. The following are excerpts from a recent interview with the Ryerson Review of Journalism.
REVIEW: You recently said in Now magazine that the Toronto coverage of the KAL incident was a “megaphone for Washington.” How so?
ZWICKER; To far too great an extent, the members of the press are carriers of the line of the authorities. They failed to ask questions at anywhere near the rate they should have. And they are still failing to ask questions. Even the media themselves said there are so many unanswered questions, where are the answers? Why don’t we still know? What I see is the media doing nothing but providing the standard statements from the top, even when these statements are ludicrous. We just get the standard, stale perspective, the administration’s perspective, constantly in what are called the news columns, and it is really getting boring.
REVIEW: A number of stories did question the Washington version. Why do you think the coverage remained biased, even as the story changed?
ZWICKER: We all impose form on content. Once the media get the notion of how the story is, they get locked into it to a certain degree. They have a vested interest in it, and perceive a certain shape to it. Early on they perceived this story as the brutal Russians shooting down innocent people, after that everything would be played accordingly. The first story is the one the media go with. They don’t ask enough questions. The media should suspend judgment far more often than they do. They rush into a story and impose a shape to it, and after that it’s almost impossible to get them to adjust that shape. For that matter, it’s too late for the public anyway.
REVIEW: Do you not agree that there were some very good pieces in the Star and Globe that did raise some important questions about the incident?
ZWICKER: Obviously there are what I call interstices in the coverage. These consist of opinion columns, news features, and letters to the editor. There are what I call fugitive paragraphs in a story where once in a while you’ll see something that contains a serious question that you would otherwise see very seldom in the media. Or you might get a specific news story that is just a little off the wall by comparison to the standard, repetitious line.
REVIEW: You said that the KAL incident is a good example of cold war journalism. Why?
ZWICKER: The western media are so terribly one-sided and hypocritical insofar as the cold war is concerned. Wrongdoing on our side is downplayed, ~ while stories of Afghanistan and 9; Poland are big news. It’s not just the g KAL thing, it’s a whole series of things. ~ There is a massive distortion, so massive that most people in the media don’t E know they’re a part of it, or perpetuating it.