Vladimir Pozner

The Pozner Paradox, Part I

VTR Date: December 2, 1987

Guest: Pozner, Vladimir


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Vladimir Pozner
Title: “The Pozner Paradox”, Part I
VTR: 12/2/87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You know, I began to wonder the other evening just why people appear on this program. I know why I do, why I have for over 30 years now: I’m genuinely curious to learn of and from the ideas and information, and points of view of particularly interesting and accomplished persons from various other disciplines and persuasion. But why are they here? Surely not to hear what I have to say. Most of them don’t know me from Adam, and really couldn’t care less what I have to say about anything at all. Nor should they. Besides, except on rare occasions, I don’t say what I have to say…which is probably the key to my long life on the air. So that they – my guests – must indeed want to press upon or to share with the rest of us their ideas and points of view, want to enough to take their valuable time and to make real efforts to come here to our roundtable. Lord knows they’re not otherwise rewarded, except as the coin of this realm is access to your eyes and ears. So today, perhaps more than ever before, I really would like to know just what brings my guest here, metaphorically speaking…not from across town or around the corner, but from the USSR. For today on THE OPEN MIND my guest is Vladimir Pozner, commentator for the North America Service of Radio Moscow who escaped from Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940, lived right here in New York for nine formative years, then moved to East Berlin with his Russian-born father, and on to Moscow as a biology student at Moscow State University, then as a writer, editor and translator. Now I’ve reminded Mr. Pozner that we actually met in Moscow a couple of decades ago. I was there to study Soviet television, of all things. Educated early on here in the United States – indeed, Mr. Pozner’s high school, Stuyvesant, was the archrival to mine, DeWitt Clinton – he was a joy to know in Moscow. A friendly face, a familiar accent, and a lot in common…these were a wonderful presence for a wandering American, a very welcome sight for sore eyes. But whether or not then in Moscow he had anything in mind other than offering genuine helpfulness, as he joins me on THE OPEN MIND today, I hope it’s not ungracious for me to ask Mr. Pozner what his agenda here is, why he appears so frequently on American television. Surely not just because Mr. Gorbachev visits us, because Mr. Pozner has for almost a decade now been such a constant Soviet presence on our home screens. Indeed, Mr. Pozner, John Corry of The New York Times seems to find puzzling, even troublesome, the access American television has offered you to its viewers, something no American has in the USSR. To what, then, does at least THE OPEN MIND owe the pleasure of your company?

Pozner: It owes it first of all to the fact that you’ve invited me to come and I was in Washington, DC and I came to be on this program because it is, after all, as far as I know, the oldest talk show on American television, but one that I’ve never been on. And seriously speaking because I take every opportunity there is to address an American audience.

Heffner: Why?

Pozner: Because I feel it’s very important to do so. Because I feel that I, because of my background and because of my education and most of all perhaps because of my desire, am someone who can communicate with an American audience, talk about my country, about its views and policies in a way that Americans can understand, break out of clichés, break out of mindsets and stereotypes. And therefore help Americans see us for what we are, not necessarily always attractive, not necessarily always to be emulated, far from it. But realistically to see us, not as some kind of monster or people with horns and tails, but as human beings living in a society that we have built, that we support, that has a lot of shortcomings, but nevertheless is something that the Soviet people is very, very proud of…or rather are proud of.

Heffner: Well, if we are realistically, as you suggest, to see each other, do we see you as a representative of the Soviet government, do we see you as an official Soviet person? Or do we see you as we might a New York Times reporter who will sit here and say things that might make the hackles on Ronald Reagan’s neck stand up?

Pozner: I think that there’s a touch of all of that in how you should see me. Recently I had the pleasure of being on a tour of some American universities in this country for public speaking purposes. And I learned that the USIA, the United States Information Agency had sent out a little pamphlet to all of these universities warning them not to believe Vladimir Pozner, “Don’t trust the fact that he speaks so good English. In reality he is an official propagandist”. And that line is pretty much the line of the right wing. And I tend to see there a fear on the part of the ultra-conservative element in this country that I can con the American people into something, I don’t know what it is, but into something. And therefore the American people must be alerted to this danger. When I come here, clearly I come…people are interested in me, I believe not just as Vladimir Pozner, and not just to hear my views, they want me to explain the authority to speak for the government. I feel that I can explain that position and therefore, to a certain extent, Americans can see me as being, in that sense a spokesman for the Soviet Union. On the other hand, I have said things for which I have been severely criticized at home, which have, indeed, made some government officials bristle with indignation, stating my own views that were quite different and are quite different form the official government position.

Heffner: Was this before “glasnost” or since?

Pozner: I have to tell you that my first visit to the United States was in March 1986, thirty-eight years after I had left. I’d never been back after that. So…

Heffner: Not ’86?

Pozner: ’86. I had not been to the United States since the end of 1948, beginning of 1949. Yes, I‘d been in Canada, I’d been in Great Britain, but I’d never been back to the United States. It took me thirty-eight years to get back here. And in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev was the General Secretary and the policy of “glasnost” had indeed started, so I would have to say, as far as saying things on American turf, that happened after “glasnost”, had begun.

Heffner: But not on American television?

Pozner: But not on American television because I first appeared on American television at the very end of 1979. In fact I was the first Soviet, I think, to appear on American television in that capacity, at least. And I have been on many times since then. And there, too, I had said certain things that were not at all reflective of the official policy. So I think you have to see me for what I am, a journalist who has a viewpoint, but who understands very well that when he goes on television in the United States, people are not interested all that much in what he, as an individual, has to say, but would prefer him to explain the Soviet position.

Heffner: Well, now, John Corry’s concerns, as I’ve stated them…

Pozner: Yes.

Heffner: …probably are informed to a considerable extent and you would appreciate this, as probably the most Americanized Russian we know, you would appreciate that the concept of fairness and balance…

Pozner: Yes.

Heffner: …informs what American journalists think and what they say. Can you sympathize therefore, to any extent, with his concerns about you on our air, you on our home screens?

Pozner: I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for John Corry, but that’s on a personal thing. I’ve read much of what he writes and I feel that probably we have very little in common in viewpoints. But when Americans…up until approximately a year in a half, two years ago…to put it in colloquial terms “beefed” about the lack of reciprocity, I think that it was legitimate. It is true that up until about 19…the beginning of 1986 there were almost no Americans appearing on Soviet television. And there were many Soviets appearing on American television, myself, Academician Arbatov, and I could give many more names. But Americans don’t seem to know and what Mr. Corry should know, as a television critic, is that over the past year and a half to two years, many Americans have appeared on Soviet television. I personally had Sam Donaldson on prime time, six minutes, prime time news in the evening. I had the New York Times bureau chief on Serge Schmemann. Mr. Schultz was on for forty-five minutes at prime time in an interview. Let me see, Jim Wright was on for forty-give minutes. And what we should note is that there’s a very important difference in the structure, as you certainly know, of Soviet and American television. And that is when an American, for instance, gets on prime time channel 1 television in the Soviet Union. He is addressing the entire nation. It is as if I were on CBS, NBC, ABC and channel television simultaneously. So whereas today I would agree still that there are more Soviets appearing on American television, the number of Soviet people hearing Americans is probably greater than the number of Americans hearing Soviets. You see what I’m driving at.

Heffner: Sure I do. But you know I remember when I was in Moscow that first time and met the program director of the all-nation channel…

Pozner: Yes.

Heffner: …in Moscow…

Pozner: Channel 1 is what you’re talking about.

Heffner: And I asked him whether there was any relationship between what he and his colleagues knew about Soviet tastes and Soviet interests…

Pozner: Yes.

Heffner: …and what they put on the air. And he drew himself up and he said, “Professor Heffner, when you went to your classroom, do you ask your students what you teach them, what you should teach them?” And I wonder whether…

Pozner: What year was this?

Heffner: This is back in the sixties, and you’re saying “That’s different”.

Pozner: I’m not only saying “That’s different”. I think…I don’t know who the man was, but I think he said…he was either being very stupid, if he believed what he said, or simply not being honest. First of all, Soviet television program directors know what people like and what they dislike, because probably the Soviet television audience is the most letter-writing audience in the world. We receive, according to the latest figures, eighty thousand letters a year, from audiences. And they give us hell if they don’t like shows and they applaud if they like them. We know very well. But I would have to say that back in the sixties, the management, the leadership of Soviet television really didn’t want to know. I mean it’s easy to organize a poll. There a sociological study, you can find out what people like. Even if you don’t have Nielsen ratings you can find out what people like. In my opinion in those days, the leadership did not want to find out and we did not have sociological studies and polls were not conducted. Today that’s changed. Today, on the contrary, it is said officially that sociological studies are tremendously important. That knowledge of public opinion is a key issue and polls are being conducted in many areas, including television. So there has been a change, and that man could not work for Soviet television today.

Heffner: Are you suggesting that what you program reflects now popular interest?

Pozner: What I am suggesting is that first of all, we know what the public likes and dislikes. We know what the public would like to see, what it is asking for. But that man that we’ve been talking about did have one point. And the point is, I think, a difference in philosophy between American and Soviet television. And the difference is that indeed we feel that the media, in general and television is part of it, is there not only to inform, although certainly information is a basic function of the media, but also to educate in the very broad sense of the word. To, shall we say, bring people up rather than to speak down to them. Let me give you an example, a very extreme example. If we tomorrow were to open up a stadium seating two hundred thousand people and offer a spectacle of Christians bare-handed fighting lions and tigers, like in ancient Rome, I’m sure you could fill that stadium every day. I’m sure you could get two hundred thousand people for years and years and years. And you could say, “Well that’s what they want to see”. Which is true, they want to see it. Now the question is, “Should they?” Someone is going to make a decision and say, “This type of spectacle simply should not exist” for whatever reasons. And I think basically, although there are dangers involved there because someone is making the decision and someone may take advantage of that situation and make decisions that have nothing to do with all the noble ideas and ideals of education. But still I feel that responsibility in what you show, in trying to make people more educated, know more about the world, perhaps be more profound, is more part of what Soviet television tries to do, theoretically and in practice, than American television, especially commercial television which goes for what will sell and “who cares about the level” and “who cares about how it morally may or may not harm people’ as long as it sells and you can very democratically say, “That’s what they want to see”. There we do have a difference.

Heffner: You then, don’t believe in what people have called “cultural democracy” – we vote with our fingers, we vote for the Christians being thrown to the lions. Now if you don’t, and I know that you don’t, the question that comes to my mind is, isn’t this a major differential point between the two of us?

Pozner: Oh, yes.

Heffner: And how does “glasnost”, which I gather had to do with choice, had to do with greater freedom, how does that fit into that dichotomy between you and us?

Pozner: “Glasnost” has to do first and foremost with bringing things out in to the open. I was watching a program, this is very typical of American television, I ws watching a program the other night, this was ABC, “World Evening News” with Peter Jennings and they announce a continuous series in view of the Summit about the Soviet Union. And their chief European corresponding…their chief foreign correspondent, Pierre Salinger, comes on and does this typical commercial network spiel and at one point he says “Glasnost”, which actually means “transparency”…and I fall off my chair. Because it doesn’t mean transparency. Where did he get it? And yet he’s telling Americans that’s what “glasnost” is. If you translate the word, “glas” in Russian, in Old Russian, means voice. And the suffix “nost” is like the suffix “ness” in English – happiness. So a literal translation is “voiceness”, not transparency, “voiceness”. Now there is no such word in English. But it reflects what “glasnost” means. It means speaking out loudly on all things that concern you, on all things that you think are important, worthy of discussion. And it’s both a right, and if you wish, a duty, a civil duty of the citizen, to talk about, to write about, to demand action. So, it’s not necessarily choice in the sense of “If I want to see Christians being killed by tigers, I have the right to see them”,. That’s not quite the same thing as “glasnost”. Neither is freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the right to express.

Heffner: What about choice, though?

Pozner: What about choice?

Heffner: Let’s get back to that business. To what underground do you direct choice? Is this not a concern for you Soviets?

Pozner: It’s a concern. But I don’t think that total choice exists anywhere in the world. You’re not going to tell me that in America everyone…you theoretically say, “Everyone has a choice”. In practice in this country, choice depends on so many things, money, status, I mean, you know, I can choose between a mink coat and no coat, but if I don’t have the money, where’s my choice? This is, you could talk hours about it. People, of course, should have a choice. But to have a choice they have to be educated and to have a choice they have to be knowledgeable. How can people choose if they don’t know? The other day the Committee on the Present Danger, a venerable American organization, informed us of a poll they conducted and they said the choice of Americans was to have SDI. Now I read the questions they ask, and they say, for instance, “Would you like SDI to protect your cities, to protect American missiles or to do both?” What the poll does not say is that no serious scientist in the world says that SDI can do both. In fact all of them say it can’t. So what they’re saying is, “Would you like pie in the sky?” And the American who doesn’t know the facts said, “Yes”. What I’m saying is, for a choice, people have to really be informed, otherwise the choice is uneducated.

Heffner: You feel then, that the Soviet citizen is better informed and has access to more points of view than the American citizen?

Pozner: I would say talking about television in the Soviet Union, and that’s what we began by talking about, it tries more to give an in-depth picture than does American television.

Heffner: Yours or mine? Seriously.

Pozner: What do you mean “yours or mine”?

Heffner: When you say, “It tries to give an in-depth picture”…

Pozner: Yes.

Heffner: …the question is, “Whose in-depth picture?”

Pozner: Oh.

Heffner: Is there only one picture, Mr. Pozner?

Pozner: No. There is no one picture and I’m glad you asked that. There is no one truth and there is no one view. And clearly, objective as I may try to be, I’m subjective because I’m a human being. And the picture I give will be, indeed, my picture. Although I will try to say, “It’s not just my picture. And there is my picture and your picture” and there’s no way that we will ever escape that fact. I’m glad you brought that up because I think most Americans tend to believe that there is one truth, the American truth. And that there is one way of doing things, the American way. And if people in other countries don’t do it that way, somehow they’re inferior or wrong. And that’s a very American view of the world.

Heffner: Wouldn’t you, wouldn’t you be willing to say that by and large that view had to do with there being many views, and Americans’ assumption is that the one view that should prevail is that we shall let many views exist and many voices be heard and many points of view, and that that approach is one that we want to endorse.

Pozner: That is absolutely true in what Americans say when you talk about it. But in fact I think that Americans are very intolerant, in fact. Not in theory. In theory most Americans, in fact all Americans that I’ve ever met will say, “Yes, there should be a wide diversion of views”. But, try to have a very different view on certain things in the United States and I’m not talking about perhaps the more sophisticated areas, I’m talking about middle America. Try to say, for instance, that you’re for Communism in middle America. You are going to be hounded, you are going to be shunned, you are going to be…I don’t know if you’re going to be persecuted, but you’re going to find life very tough, your kids are going to find it tough. When I was going to school, Stuyvesant High School here in 1948, relations with the Soviet Union were getting bad. I was protecting the Soviet Union. I got beat up every day I got out of school.

Heffner: You know there was a wonderful piece, you might not consider it wonderful, it was beautifully written, I thought, cleverly written in Newsweek about you. And about your wonderful capacity…

Pozner: I didn’t read it.

Heffner: In fact…

Pozner: Was this recently?

Heffner: It wasn’t all that recently, but it was entitled, it was ’86, it was titled “And Quiet Flows the Snake Oil”.

Pozner: Oh yes, I read that one. Yes, very nasty, actually, but well done.

Heffner: Said Voltaire wrote that “if God did not exist, he would have to be invented. So it is with Vladimir Pozner, the Radio Moscow commentator who’s now the toast of the talk show and lecture circuit in America. If Pozner did not exist, he would have to be invented by the Kremlin’s keenest minds. If you were a savvy Moscow Americanist designing such a man, a man that Mr. Gorbachev might need”, it said, first you would give him an ingratiating Brooklyn accent. Pozner acquired just such an accent when he lived in New York and so forth and so on. “Next you would give him a charming familiarity with US pop culture. Lo, Pozner is a fan of the Yankees, Bruce Springsteen and peanut butter. Then you would add wit and polish, etc.” and also it points out you would get a man who said,”There are many things wrong with us. Yes, I make the concession that this happens in the Soviet Union and that does”. And that is what you’re doing. I would like to do the same and say, “Yes, I’m certain that you’re correct about there being a considerable amount of intolerance in parts of our country”. And I’m certain that if I were to wave a red flag and proclaim myself to be a Communist, life would be difficult for me in many places. The question it would seem would be, “Where is it that free speech, if you would call it that, best can survive? Where is it that it finds greater nourishment? And there are so many of us who feel that essentially this is in the United States because the one thing we do insist upon, at least we raise it to a Constitutional principle, is that freedom that we have found lacking in the Soviet union. Is that unfair?

Pozner: Let me just make a slight correction there. I’m not a commentator with Radio Moscow. I was once upon a time…Yes. But I’m not what is called a “political observer” with Soviet television and I’m mainly on television although I do some things for Radio Moscow, just for the facts. I think again that what you have there is an American almost…Americans have persuaded themselves that they have the greatest freedom in the world.

Heffner: Do you think not?

Pozner: I think not. I think that in certain Scandinavian countries there is a much greater level of freedom.

Heffner: Yes.

Pozner: I really do. In Denmark and Sweden. And therefore I think that Americans are again, in that sense, quite arrogant. Americans have a lot to pride themselves on, I would be the first to say that. The Declaration of Independence is probably one of the greatest documents to be adopted ever. When we consider that it was adopted in the eighteenth century when Europe was run by Kings and Queens and Czars and Emperors and yet here are people saying that men were born with inalienable rights, and that is an outstanding statement to make for that time. But the world had developed. And America is certainly not a model for the rest of the world even in the sense of freedom. One example that comes to my mind because of what recently happened. James Baldwin. A great American writer, a Black writer, but a great American writer, who lived the last twenty years of his life in France and died in France because he couldn’t bear to live in racist America where he could not be a free man. It’s a sad comment, but it’s a truthful one.

Heffner: I’m not so sure that it’s truthful. Jimmy Baldwin and I went to your rival, DeWitt Clinton High School…

Pozner: Yes, I know.

Heffner: And I’m not so certain that at the end of his life he wasn’t saying that wasn’t the reason that he was living in France. Yes, indeed, in those early creative days made very difficult. We have changed.

Pozner: Oh yes.

Heffner: And his whole perspective on America has changed. And it is this matter of change, of course, that is so interesting. I’m very much impressed with what you say about he standard we raised in the Declaration of Independence and you feel that the rest of the world has moved and we may not have…might not have moved quite so quickly in keeping up with them in maintaining that standard. But what has moved quickly, too, is the clock. I’ve just gotten the sign that we have thirty seconds left and I wondered whether you would sit here at this table so when our viewers watch next week, they’ll see the second part of Pozner?

Pozner: I’d be delighted to do it. Thank you.

Heffner: At this is the point at which I think you for this program and sign off. Thanks very much for joining me today.

Pozner: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s topic, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.