MediaWatch: October 1990

Vol. Four No. 10

Janet Cooke Award: Time: Rewriting History

With the worldwide collapse of communism, we had hoped that rewriting history would soon become a thing of the past. But leave it to Time magazine -- once again a Janet Cooke Award recipient -- to quash that hope. It was clear when Time made Mikhail Gorbachev "Man of the Decade" that the magazine's sympathies for communist leaders were quite profound, but few envisioned an October 1 tribute to Polish communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski titled "The Man Who Did His Duty."

Central Europe correspondent John Borrell crafted a picture of a Polish nationalist savior, not a totalitarian. He asked: "Was he a Moscow stooge back in 1981 or a Polish patriot making an unpopular move to prevent the bloodbath of a Soviet invasion? Was he as pivotal a political player during the 1980s as trade-union leader Lech Walesa, or was his just a walk-on part that will quickly fade in memory?"

Borrell's answer: "It seems likely that historians will judge him more kindly than many of his contemporaries do. He may even find his way into Poland's pantheon of 20th century heroes, joining Walesa and Josef Pilsudski as men who marched briskly to the tattoo of their times." Borrell justified Jaruzelski's crackdown: "Much of the judgment will rest on what actually happened in late 1981, when spreading unrest had made Poland almost ungovernable. Brezhnev was in power in Moscow, and the doctrine he had formulated allowed the Soviet Union to intervene militarily... "

Borrell claimed Jaruzelski fled to Lithuania when the Nazis attacked Poland, and that he was deported to Siberia for three years of forced labor before being recruited into Stalin's "Polish" army. Borrell concluded: "Having lived through a nightmare, he went to some lengths to spare others....His 1981 crackdown did not lead to witch hunts or secret trials, as the 1956 invasion did in Hungary. There was none of the petty vindictiveness of Czechoslovakia's Soviet-backed communist clique."

But Slawomir Gorecki of Tygodnik Solidarnosc (Solidarity Weekly) told MediaWatch that Jaruzelski did not suffer the hardships Borrell wrote about. Jaruzelski never served in a Siberian labor camp. In fact, he spent many years as a political officer in the Soviet army. As a member of the Polish communist party politburo he oversaw the brutal suppression of the 1956 and 1970 uprisings which caused numerous deaths.

Gorecki characterized Jaruzelski's reign as brutal. Hundreds died in the first weeks of martial law. Thousands of Solidarity activists were detained in the first months. Thousands more were forced underground for a decade. Gorecki estimates 700,000 passed through Polish prisons from 1981-1989, including Adam Michnik and Zbigniew Bujak. The 1984 murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko is further testament to the bloody side of the regime. He was beaten to death and dumped in a river by the secret police.

Borrell portrayed Jaruzelski as a popular figure and player in recent reform: "Vilified then as the man who imposed martial law in 1981 and outlawed the Solidarity trade-union movement, Jaruzelski gazed calmly from the sidelines last year as the revolt against communism gathered steam. He acknowledged Solidarity's election victory in June, and then won, with just a single ballot to spare, a parliamentary vote for a six-year presidential term." Actually, the General only begrudgingly agreed to elections. Even then he guaranteed the communists and their collaborators two-thirds of the Sejm, the lower house, so he could be appointed President.

Further misleading readers, Borrell asserted: "Jaruzelski seems to view himself as someone shaped by history, a proud vision borne out by one of his last acts in office. Instead of simply stepping down, he asked Parliament last week to introduce a constitutional amendment shortening his six-year term of office. This way he can leave not as the leader who resigned under pressure but as the President whose term was reduced by an act of Parliament." Jaruzelski didn't plan to step down until populists, led by Lech Walesa, demanded removal of all communists still in government.

Reached in Vienna, Borrell denied the crackdown should be associated with witch hunts and secret trials: "I certainly don't think you can say, compared to Hungary in '56 and Czechoslovakia in '68, that this was brutal repression....On a Richter scale of East European repression in the communist era, it wasn't as bad as others."

He admitted "large numbers of Poles are not terribly well- disposed to Jaruzelski." So why let the opposite theme go unchallenged? "History will judge Jaruzelski probably a little more kindly than he's judged today," he concluded, "and that was the purpose of it. It's not to say that he's a wonderful guy. It's not to say that he couldn't have done something differently during the 1980s. But it is simply to say that he may not be as bad as many people, particularly Poles, have thought....I don't suspect that I've pleased a lot of Polish people. But I don't really see it as my job to necessarily accept a consensus to be correct."