In 1987, David Hoffman walked down the dark, sterile halls of the Kremlin with a letter in his breast pocket that, arguably, helped end the Cold War.
Outside, the temperature was 30 below and the wind chill hovered around minus 60. Inside, the lights were dim. But as he took a seat in an immense antechamber lined by a wall-sized map, a red Soviet Union burning at its nucleus, he saw that the man who turned to greet him was wearing sunglasses. Hoffman restrained a laugh, pulled his own pair of shades from his suit jacket, and put them on. They stared at each other in silence for a moment, and then both men erupted in laughter.
Hoffman is the founder and president emeritus of Internews, a nonprofit that’s worked to advance journalism and open access to information in more than 90 countries since it began in 1982. Nearly 27 years ago, Internews was relatively young, and it was trying to do something great: pull off a series of television broadcasts that would hopefully help stop the Cold War, which was at its apex. This is the story Hoffman tells in the first few pages of his compelling book, Citizens Rising: Independent Journalism and the Spread of Democracy.
Because of his position in the international and journalistic landscape—he was also a founder of the Global Forum for Media Development, where he still serves as chairman emeritus—Hoffman’s had first-hand experience with many of the major media events of the last three decades. His personal history lends credibility to his argument, which is that while the media has always held societal influence, that influence is growing parallel to advances in technology.
In the 1980s, those advances lay in broadcast, and Hoffman had approached then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill with a plan. Internews wanted to televise a live debate between leaders from both sides, the US Congress and the Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative body in the Soviet Union. The goal of the program was to create a dialogue. No negotiations would take place, it wouldn’t be official, but it would make each side somehow more human. And perhaps it would serve as a step toward reconciliation. O’Neill liked the idea and asked how he could help. Hoffman suggested he write a letter to his Soviet counterpart. O’Neill suggested Hoffman draft it for him.
That letter crinkled in Hoffman’s pocket as he laughed, sitting across from the chief of staff to Lev Tolkunov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet. It was a strangely symbolic moment, a microcosm, perhaps, of what Hoffman hoped to achieve: An American and a Russian, representatives of two of the world’s superpowers, staring at each other in an ominous room—but a small, human gesture dissolves the tension, and then there are just two men laughing.
The chief of staff led Hoffman into the chairman’s office, where Hoffman reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter, handing it to Tulkunov. The chairman read the letter, smiled, and agreed to the broadcast, asking Hoffman to “please draft a response,” which he did.
A total of seven broadcasts aired under the series name Capital to Capital, picking up 150 million viewers. Peter Jennings moderated from Capitol Hill in Washington, while Russian newscaster Leonid Zolotarevsky hosted from the Kremlin. The series won several Emmy Awards. And while the programs didn’t singlehandedly stop the Cold War, they played their role. Through the lens of the media, American and Soviet citizens saw leaders from each side talk to one another with candor and respect. There was dialogue. And at last, due to Capital to Capital and perhaps a dozen other series like it, by 1989 treaties had been signed.
Therein lies the crux of Hoffman’s book, in which he convincingly argues that an ever-evolving media has the power to change history.
The entire book is a series of stories, united by a cause. Citizens Rising is a collection of Hoffman’s personal experiences mixed with well-researched narratives of the experiences of others. Sometimes these tales are uplifting; many are horrific. But the result creates a deft, indelible portrait of modern-day journalism, one that places the power to spread information in the hands of anyone with a cellphone or internet connection.
Citizens Rising is a book that is part love letter, part memoir, part treatise on the future not just of journalism itself but of politics and societies at large. “Arguably, war has been the organizing principle of the last hundred years,” Hoffman writes. “Information will be seen as the organizing principle of the twenty-first century.”