October 26, 2010
Vivian Schiller and the Party Line at NPRBy Paul Kengor
The Juan Williams/NPR flap isn't going away -- and shouldn't. Basically, Williams was fired for not toeing the party line at NPR. A number of observers, including Williams himself, are protesting the hypocrisy of NPR not dismissing the likes of Nina Totenberg for wishing AIDS upon the family of the late Jesse Helms. Of course, that's no surprise. Totenberg's hate speech doesn't qualify as hate speech in the liberal lexicon. Totenberg toes the party line at NPR. She's a good apparatchik, safe among the party hierarchy.
Speaking of that hierarchy, the leader is Vivian Schiller, the NPR official responsible for exiling the dissident Williams to Fox News for the crime of bucking party orthodoxy. And amid all the hoopla about Schiller and this episode, there was something reported last week which, expectedly, has eluded media attention: namely, that Schiller once worked as a tour guide in the Soviet Union.
Hmmm. What to make of that?
If I may, I'd like to relate my personal experience on this. I was in Washington last week when this story blew up. I had literally driven by the NPR building at perhaps the exact time Schiller was silencing Williams. I got to my hotel and turned on the radio to an NPR-affiliated classical-music station, which just happened to be conducting a pledge drive -- bad time for that. On Friday morning, I got an e-mail from an old friend, Marc Zimmerman, with the subject head, "Paul, Did you see this?"
It was a Jeffrey Lord piece at American Spectator. Lord reported that Schiller, in the 1980s, had worked as a tour guide in the Evil Empire.
Why would Marc Zimmerman forward this piece to me? A couple of years ago, I had profiled Zimmerman. Zimmerman, back in 1983, had a fascinating run-in with a Soviet operative named Aleksandr Mikheyev, who had come into contact with Zimmerman via Mikheyev's past work as a Soviet tour guide tasked with the management and manipulation of gullible liberal visitors to the worker's paradise. Mikheyev, via a mutual contact who had been one of his duped victims, contacted Zimmerman in Washington. They met at a bar on Capitol Hill. Zimmerman soon found himself in a real-life spy saga that quickly became an international incident.
So naturally, Zimmerman has a suspicion of and aversion to Soviet tour guides. The Jeffrey Lord piece piqued his interest.
As Zimmerman noted in his e-mail to me, the Lord article is unclear as to whom Schiller worked for as a tour guide, "but it almost does not matter. The end result is similar."
That's a point worth exploring. As readers here know, I've written a book, Dupes, which, among other disturbing items, quotes at length tour guides from the USSR who specialized in suckering Western progressives/liberals. One of my favorite examples is Yuri Bezmenov, a Soviet defector who had worked for Novosti, the Soviet press agency. Among Bezmenov's chief duties was to handle Western visitors through misinformation, which entailed some unique corollary skills. "One of my functions," explained Bezmenov, "was to keep foreign guests permanently intoxicated from the moment they landed at Moscow airport." He managed "groups of so-called 'progressive intellectuals' -- writers, journalists, publishers, teachers, professors of colleges. ... For us, they were just a bunch of political prostitutes to be taken advantage of."
Bezmenov had a photo of no less than Senator Ted Kennedy dancing at what Bezmenov said was a staged wedding created to dupe Kennedy.
Surely Schiller wasn't involved in anything like this? I seriously doubt it.
I've since looked into Schiller to try to find more information. Whom exactly did she work for? I assume she worked for the U.S. government, or for some American agency. I'd be shocked if she actually worked for the Soviet government. Can you imagine? A former Soviet tour guide, employed by the Soviet government, now running NPR? Imagine what conservative bloggers would do with that!
Another article on the subject, from American Journalism Review (February/March 2009), discusses Schiller's work as a tour guide, quoting her. Unfortunately, this article, too, is not clear as to precisely who employed Schiller. That's a rather basic fact that, again, is left unanswered.
Importantly, however, that article notes how Schiller's job as a tour guide in the USSR led to a job working for Ted Turner at Turner Broadcasting.
Alas, that gets to another interesting component of this story, as was reported by Jeffrey Lord. Lord noted Schiller's assistance in the making of an overly flattering 1988 documentary on the USSR, titled "Portrait of the Soviet Union," which was so pro-Soviet that even the New York Times panned it. The Berlin Wall and Soviet Bloc were just one year from implosion, but this film saw nothing but blue skies from Moscow to Leningrad to Siberia -- a Siberia with no gulag archipelago worthy of mention in the film. "The Soviet spirit just works wonders," wrote the Times reviewer, disgusted. "From Moscow to Azerbaijan to deep in frozen Siberia, no one even frowns."
No one even frowns.
All of this opens yet more questions in the Juan Williams/NPR flap. We all figured that Vivian Schiller was a big-time liberal. NPR wouldn't place her in that position if she were not. But precisely how far to the left is Schiller? Much like our current president, there are unclear things in her background -- including odd Soviet connections -- that might shed light on where she stands today.
These tour guides in the USSR tended to be pro-Soviet. And this wasn't terribly long ago.
As usual, the mainstream press will not touch this and will not even ask any questions. To the contrary, liberals will attack the anti-communists, and people like Lord, Zimmerman, and myself, as Red-baiting reprobates, beyond contempt for our blatant "McCarthyism." How dare we consider such thoughts?
Of course, they'd never react this way to someone who had served as a tour guide for some fascist state. Imagine, say, some executive at Fox News firing someone like Mara Liasson, and then we learn that the executive had been a tour guide for some fascist state, even assisting in a flattering documentary about that state. Would the liberal media hesitate to ask questions?
No, it wouldn't. And NPR would lead the liberal choir.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.