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HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Soviet Voice On The Line

Second of two columns on the public-relations phenomenon of Soviet spokesman Vladimir Posner, an increasingly frequent presence on American TV.

May 26, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

BOSTON — "Woody Guthrie once remarked that to a 5-year-old kid who won't go to bed, a lullaby is propaganda," said Vladimir Posner.

Posner, the New York-reared Soviet propagandist extraordinaire, is not singing "Rockabye Baby," although many feel his tunes lull Americans to sleep.

"In this country, propaganda has come to be something negative," he said here last week during preparations for "Citizens Summit II." The event will be a June 22 sequel to last December's syndicated space bridge TV special in which Americans in Seattle and Soviets in Leningrad communicated via satellite.

"I am putting my best foot forward," Posner added. "I think that people here are very confused. If that makes me a propagandist, so be it."

So be it.

"Posner is an enormously charming man, and professional," said Ted Koppel, host of ABC's "Nightline," on which Posner has appeared many times as a Kremlin spokesman. "The Russians wouldn't be putting him on if they found it wasn't in their best interest and if he weren't extremely effective as a propagandist--because that is exactly what he is."

Doesn't that make him analogous to presidential press secretary Larry Speakes? "At least Speakes is labeled a spokesman for the President," Koppel said. "Posner is labeled a commentator (that is his job on state-controlled Soviet radio and TV). But he's much more than that. He repeats the party line."

Now, the 52-year-old Posner is back in the United States for the first time in 37 years, urging greater understanding by both the Soviets and Americans. But it's the Americans, he insists in perfect Brooklynized English, who need enlightenment the most.

"Americans don't know the score. They have deep prejudice, great fear, virtually no knowledge of the Soviet Union. When you mention Communist, there is a great avalanche of fear. I find that scary."

There are those who find Posner scary, a baseball-loving, hot dog-lusting man whose seeming Americanization and comfort with U.S. style and customs give him enormous TV credibility even when he puts a spin on the facts.

"I never saw anyone distort the world as much as he does," charged Marshall Goldman, associate director of Harvard's Russian Research Center. "He is doing what he's told to do in a very effective way."

Posner insists that it's the U.S. media that do the distorting. He respected Edward R. Murrow and Walter Lippman. He respects Tom Wicker. He respects Phil Donahue (his co-moderator for "Citizens Summit II") and Koppel: "He's always been scrupulously fair." The list ends there. And the charges begin.

On a 10-point scale, he would give U.S. coverage of the Soviet Union a 3, the nattily dressed Posner said, while picking at his shrimp cocktail in a Boston restaurant. "It's totally negative, totally unfriendly. It cultivates fears and built-in prejudices and is totally out of proportion. If you took the three networks and wrote down everything they said, you'd find that they say basically the same thing."

Posner would give Soviet media only a 5 in their coverage of things American, moreover. "At least they don't try to create hatred."

How would he improve Soviet coverage of the U.S.? "I would have us cover a broader range of subjects. We tend to present a rather negative picture. I think that negative part exists, but it's not everything."

And why the negativism on both sides? "It's partly a push-pull kind of thing. I find it quite childish. I think we're gonna change and we're gonna change faster than you are."

It should escape no one's notice, of course, that Posner is a frequent voice on hateful American TV while Americans are given no voice on hateless Soviet TV.

Meanwhile, it's not only his Americanized looks and manner but also his habit of making at least some concessions about the down side of Soviet life that make Posner such a disarming and effective TV spokesman.

Yet his criticisms of Soviet life are more superficial than his blasts against America. He faults the Soviet bureaucracy, for example, but charges Americans with ignoring their poor. He admits that the Soviets took a bad PR fall by delaying information on the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but doesn't question the delay.

He says that if it were his decision, Jews and others wanting to leave the Soviet Union could go if they weren't "security risks." But, he adds with a helpless shrug of his shoulders, it is not up to him.

Aren't these mild self-criticisms calculated to increase his credibility in the United States? Isn't Posner really on a string from Moscow?

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