If [journalists] have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? It hardly ever happens because it would damage sales.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn, a long standing critic of he Soviet Union and communism, knew much about the use and abuse of public opinion. After serving in the Soviet Army during World War II, he was sent to a labour camp for eight years after criticising Stalin’s policies in a private letter.
Having survived the camp system, Solzhenitsyn published a series of important books, which brought a degree of protection through fame, but also the ire of the Soviet leadership. Too well known to kill, he was booked on a long distance flight by Aeroflot as the next best thing. Settling in the United States, he delivered one of the most important commencement speeches at Harvard.
Prior to his speech, Solzhenitsyn had become very popular in key circles and many anticipated his speech to be positive, perhaps even fawning, of America and its widely touted freedoms. But from his opening words, it was clear unadulterated praise was not to be forthcoming.
Harvard’s motto is ‘Veritas‘ … truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter. There is some bitterness in my speech today, too. But I want to stress that it comes not from an adversary but from a friend.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The bitterness was in part a reaction to what he considered a lack of civil courage in the West, particularly in ‘the ruling groups and the intellectual elite’ which causes the impression of a lack of courage in the whole of society. But his most pronounced bitterness was a reaction to the Western press.
As a political dissident in Soviet Russia, Solzhenitsyn understood in a visceral way what it was like to live in a nation without freedom of the press. But in the West, an environment which was scarcely better had arisen, one in which there is scare any accountability for what is produced:
What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper?
Worse yet, Solzhenitsyn argued, is that while the press enjoys freedom, there is little for the readership:
Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspapers mostly give enough stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
Fast forward forty years, and some progress has been made, thanks in no small part to the advent of the internet which has disrupted the media cycle once dominated by a few major organisations who could determine the public narrative. This has given rise to increased editorial independence, but after the initial proliferation of views, activists have steadily pushed back on unorthodox views, giving rise to ‘wrongspeak:’ ‘the things we believe to be true but cannot say.’
Even if you disagree with this writers thinking, Solzhenitsyn speech is worth reading in full as his views of the American society to which he bore witness, are prescient in their prefiguring of the social movements which were to follow:
We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.
Good night and good luck.