Bernard Lown, MD
Imagine a new head of state rising to absolute power in a country threatening our extinction. Imagine further that an American doctor enters that leader’s inner sanctum and that the two hold a lengthy conversation. Would the American media not widely report the meeting and besiege the physician?
Such an event actually took place. The country was the Soviet Union, then targeting the United States with a vast nuclear arsenal. The new leader was Mikhail Gorbachev, and I was the American doctor. We met in the Kremlin on December 18, 1985, and conversed for three hours.
Outside Russia little was known about Gorbachev. He had unexpectedly been anointed general secretary of the Communist Party, the highest office in the USSR. Before that he was the minister of agriculture, a dead-end position that in the past had led to political oblivion. Gorbachev, who unlike any of his predecessors was born after the October Revolution, had not been part of the Moscow Communist Party bureaucracy. In further contrast to the ossified gerontocracy that had dominated the Politburo for decades, Gorbachev was in his early 50s, highly intelligent, well educated, brilliantly articulate, and bursting with charisma.
When I first met Gorbachev, he had been in office nine months. Americans knew nothing about him. People all over were anxious about the Moscow power shift and its implications for the nuclear arms race and for world peace. One would have expected anyone emerging from a long, private meeting to be lionized by journalists. And I was, but there was a rub: The American media remained mum.
How did the meeting with Gorbachev come about? And why did “the home of the free, and the land of the brave” behave like its oppressive Communist arch-rival? I told the story of my visit in a recently published memoir, “Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness.” But I did not relate the manner in which the American media shut out any report of the visit.
These events occurred in 1985 following the unexpected award of a Nobel Peace Prize to an organization off the radar of public recognition. The two recipients of the Nobel were the organization’s founders, Dr. Evgeni Chazov and I. Hailing from the USSR and the U.S., respectively, we represented enemy nations about to annihilate each other. The organization had a name hard to remember and easy to forget, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). In less than four years after its founding in 1981, we recruited more than 150,000 physicians from over 60 countries.
After the Nobel award ceremonies, Chazov and I sent telegrams to President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. We explained the urgency of our cause and requested an early meeting. We never received a response from Reagan. By contrast, Gorbachev replied immediately, indicating that resolving the nuclear arms race was a leading challenge for humankind and that he would be ready to receive us anytime I was in Moscow.
On December 18, 1985, Chazov and I had a historic visit with Gorbachev. The conversation, not limited merely to the nuclear threat, was far ranging and covered a wide front of global and human rights issues. I raised a number of subjects that were of concern in the West, such as the house arrest of Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, the human rights activist and father of the Russian H-bomb. He was isolated in Gorky, a city closed to Western journalists. I also focused on the plight of Jewish physician dissidents, the lack of freedom of information, the deteriorating standard of living for ordinary people caused by the costly arms race, the dangers of accidental nuclear war, the absence of forthright and constructive dialogue between the superpowers, the widening gulf in wealth between the industrialized North and the impoverished South, as well a host of other topics.
While I described some of the discussion in my memoir, left unmentioned was Gorbachev’s concern that world public opinion was being turned against him by the American media juggernaut controlling the global flow of information. This was occurring before he had been a year in office. He complained that while the American media incessantly highlighted the plight of Sakharov and Jewish dissidents, the public was kept uninformed about his initiatives, especially the unilateral cessation of nuclear testing. “Does anyone in the West know that Gorbachev stopped underground nuclear testing?” he asked peevishly. I stuttered that the New York Times had published an article at the time he made the announcement. He laughed dismissively, asking, “But does anyone know about the test ban?” He recalled that the New York Times labeled his initiatives Communist propaganda trickery. Indeed, Gorbachev followed American media closely.
At the end of our conversation, I raised the issue of on-site inspections. That the Soviets were likely to cheat by testing clandestinely was an article of faith in our media and a sticking point in reaching an agreement on a nuclear test ban. Gorbachev was emphatic that the USSR would be flexible on this issue as on many others in order to jump-start disarmament negotiations. To me this seemed like an important disclosure deserving a front-page headline.
My meeting with Gorbachev received prominent coverage in Soviet newsprint, radio, and television, and I called a press conference the next day. Journalists from East and West turned up in droves. At the end of the hour-long conference, the clamoring American correspondents demanded [KS2] to know my travel plans so that I could be interviewed on arrival at home. Expecting to be mobbed by news media at Kennedy Airport, I donned a blue shirt and tie and urged my wife, Louise, to dress appropriately for the photo opportunities.
On arrival in New York I was paged. I tensed up, as was my wont confronting the almost invariably hostile American journalists when a story concerned the Soviet Union. The adrenaline surge was unwarranted. Paging me was a TASS reporter delivering an English transcript of the meeting with Gorbachev, which I had requested before departing Moscow. No one was waiting for us at Logan Airport in Boston either. The U.S. media ignored the meeting with Gorbachev.
Two days after returning home, on a Friday morning, I was at my clinic seeing Jean Mayer, the president of Tufts University and a patient of more than 25 years. He commented that I looked frazzled and weary. I ascribed my weariness to jetlag after a taxing trip to the USSR. He inquired the reason for the Soviet visit. I responded that I had met with Mikhail Gorbachev.
“And I just met with the pope,” Mayer said.
“Why don’t you believe me?”
He said that if I had met Gorbachev, it would have certainly been covered by the American media, which was now fixating on every crumb of news about him that came their way. Mayer could not conceive that the New York Times, the newspaper of record, would ignore such an important story, especially since its Moscow bureau chief had attended my press conference.
Mayer was soon persuaded of the veracity of my story. Being a man of action, he telephoned a number of friends in the media, including Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times; the editor of the Boston Globe; and the director of CBS News. Their response was impressively prompt.
Within an hour I received a call from Fox Butterfield, the distinguished NYT correspondent, who had previously covered China and the Philippines, and who was currently the newspaper’s bureau chief in New England. His comment was blunt and terse, “The big boss ordered me to meet with you,” and he asked for an exclusive, to which I agreed. Due to another assignment of his, we agreed to meet two days later, regrettably missing the far more widely circulated Sunday paper.
Shortly thereafter, Richard Higgins from the Globe called, requesting an immediate exclusive interview so that he could make the Sunday edition. I agreed to meet with him only after Butterfield. Higgins appealed to my civic loyalty, to no avail. I was not about to go back on my word.
That Sunday afternoon I had a long session with Butterfield at my home in Newton. He was impressed with the newsworthiness of my meeting and the rich portrait provided of Gorbachev. I was certain that an accurate and comprehensive report would appear within a day or two.
Later that Sunday I met with Higgins. He chided me for my low titer of local pride in my hometown newspaper and regretted having missed the Sunday edition of the Globe, which is read throughout New England. The next day he published a comprehensive story headlined, “Lown Describes Soviet Leader ‘as Man We Can Do Business With.'” The article portrayed Gorbachev as having a sense of humor, evincing a humanitarian concern on a host of global issues, and it emphasized his eagerness to engage with us in serious bilateral negotiations to end the nuclear arms race. Especially telling was the last paragraph of Higgins’ report: “The day after their meeting, the Soviets offered to accept some inspections of Soviet nuclear sites if Americans would join the test ban. The United States immediately rejected the offer.” It needs to be recalled that the American media consistently hammered away at the idea that the failure to reach an agreement to stop nuclear testing was due to the Soviets’ refusal to permit on-site inspections, because the USSR intended to cheat.
Over the next several days I looked in vain for the story in the New York Times. After two weeks of frustration and mounting disappointment, I telephoned Butterfield. He sounded embarrassed, saying that the story “had been killed,” for unstated reasons. He would not acknowledge that he knew who was responsible for the decision or why it was made. Butterfield informed me that in 16 years of reporting for the Times, only three stories of his had been censored. As though exculpating himself from responsibility, he informed me, “This is not the first time that you have encountered censorship by the New York Times.” Butterfield explained that Jo Thomas, the NYT correspondent who covered the Nobel ceremonies in Oslo, complained that her story about me had been “truncated.” She appealed this action to the foreign editor, among others, without effect. Butterfield only recently learned of this matter when the national editor in Washington sent him the tape of the interview Jo Thomas had conducted in Oslo so that he could incorporate elements of it in his own article.
My problems with the U.S. media were not limited to the New York Times. Because of Jean Mayer’s intervention, I was invited to appear on the CBS early morning news show. It was a bitterly cold morning in late December, still pitch black, when I was picked up at 5:30 a.m. to appear on the news program. I presumed that this would be a thoughtful exploration about the new Soviet leader. I was therefore puzzled to be preceded by an outspoken cold warrior, Kenneth Adelman, at the time serving as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Reagan administration.
Adelman immediately launched into a diatribe against Gorbachev, a person then largely unknown in the United States. He indicated that Gorbachev was a far more dangerous apparatchik than his predecessors in the Kremlin. This Adelman attributed to Gorbachev’s consummate skills as a clever propagandist. For proof he offered Gorbachev’s announcement of a cessation of nuclear testing as a ploy to cloak himself with the image of a peacenik to a gullible Western public.
Adelman’s excoriation of Gorbachev was an astonishing outpouring of vitriol and seemed to go on endlessly. On television, five minutes of uninterrupted talk seems like an eternity. He concluded with the remark, “We are sick and tired of Russian propaganda. What we want are deeds, not more propaganda.”
The anchorman then turned to me with the question, “Dr. Lown, what do you think of Soviet cheating?” I responded that I was a physician, not an arms control expert. He persisted. I indicated that a few days earlier I had had an informative three-hour discussion with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.
With unconcealed irritation the anchorman asked, “Haven’t you heard what Mr. Adelman said about Soviet cheating?”
“I also heard Mr. Adelman say, ‘What we want are deeds, not propaganda,'” was my comment. “Why does Mr. Adelman not advise President Reagan to engage in deeds to match Gorbachev’s cessation of nuclear testing, which began six months ago?”
“Thank you, Dr. Lown.” Without further ado I was dismissed. My segment lasted 54 seconds.
Dismaying as this was, a few days later I was more intensely buffeted. While the month of December began with triumph and accolades, it ended with exasperation and despair. Once again the culprit was the august New York Times, a newspaper I had read and admired nearly my entire life.
On December 31, 1985, the Times published an Op-Ed by an unknown Russian emigrate named Sergei Batrovin. The article was dripping with vitriol in discrediting Russia’s leading cardiologist, Evgeni Chazov, and the IPPNW, the doctors’ movement we had founded. Batrovin wrote that Chazov was considered “throughout the West as a stooge of the Kremlin with little concern for either peace or human rights,” and that the Soviet IPPNW affiliate headed by Chazov was nothing but “a government-run propaganda arm that justifies competition, not coexistence, with the West.”
Batrovin buttressed this with “facts” that the New York Times knew to be blatant fabrications. For example, he commented that at the 1982 TV spectacular that IPPNW had organized to discuss nuclear war “was superficial” and was “aired in such a way as to guarantee a minimum number of viewers: It was broadcast only once, without advance notice, in the middle of a working day.” This represents some kind of a record for prevarication: three lies compressed in a single sentence.
My wife and I had been in Moscow and had witnessed the telecast. The broadcast was announced several times on the radio. It was shown Saturday evening at 6 o’clock, prime television time in the USSR, and was rebroadcast a week later. The complete transcript of the program was widely circulated by the official Soviet Novosti Press Agency in a pamphlet titled, “To Avert Nuclear War: Soviet and US Physicians in a Round Table Discussion.” I have seen English, Russian, French, and Spanish editions of the pamphlet. Our TV program was shown over 11 time zones in the Soviet Union, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. Soviet television officials claimed a viewership of 150 million people. Western correspondents, including members of our embassy in Moscow, maintained that more than 100 million people viewed the broadcast.
The day after the broadcast (Sunday, June 27, 1982), American media prominently featured this event. The AP reported, “The physicians appearance represents the first occasion in many years in which Americans were able to present their views on a sensitive topic to Soviet viewers without editing by a Soviet censor.” On July 12, 1982, Time magazine headlined the broadcast as an “Eye Opener: U.S. Views Get on Prime Time.” It reported that “for many Soviet viewers, the program provided the first real glimpse of the horrors of nuclear war.” Time magazine continued, “Officials in Washington declined to dismiss the program as a Soviet propaganda ploy.” What was galling about the Batrovin piece was the Times’ failure even to fact-check its own files. Three years earlier its Moscow bureau chief, John Burns, had extensively covered the TV broadcast in a Sunday article headlined, “U.S. Doctors Debate A-War on Soviet TV.” Burns wrote, “The Soviet Union took the unusual step today of allowing three American doctors to join high-ranking Soviet physicians in a television panel discussion on nuclear war … millions of Soviet viewers heard the three Americans talk about the horrors of nuclear war. … The hourlong program was a departure from Soviet policy of generally keeping Western views from the Soviet public.”
The Batrovin diatribe was intended to divert and to discredit rather than foster honest dialogue on the most threatening issue confronting the survival of humankind. It stoked the embers of a religious war against heathen Communism. All means fair or foul seemed justified in the crusade against what President Reagan had designated as the “evil empire.” The advent of Gorbachev, and his attempt to open civil society with enlightened polices of glasnost and perestroika, disrupted the simplistic gobbledygook being fed the American people. The media initially shut Gorbachev out from an honest examination.
IPPNW demanded an opportunity to respond with the facts. Clearly, a rebuttal rarely contains the damage of a disseminated lie. As Churchill phrased it, “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” The Times would not accept an Op-Ed article.
I requested a meeting with the editors to probe the basis of the campaign against IPPNW. This was especially important since we learned that the idea of the Batrovin article did not come from the author but was solicited by the New York Times. In further sleuthing, we discovered that Batrovin had probably anonymously authored a similar article that appeared earlier in the Wall Street Journal.
After much negotiating the NYT agreed that we could meet with some of its editors. Sometime in February 1986, Conn Nugent, IPPNW’s executive director, and I met with a single junior editor, Nicholas Wade. It was a depressing experience. He acknowledged no responsibility for the Batrovin piece. He claimed that the Times received 60 contributions daily for the Op-Ed page, and lacked the resources to check the accuracy of those submissions. That is why, he said, the letter column afforded us a suitable remedy. He was affable and sympathetic, and in the last analysis, seemingly cared little about rectifying an egregious piece of misinformation that his newspaper had solicited and published.