The cunning of one letter

And the power of media to change the course of history

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.”

In his opening chapter, Hoffman writes of the effects of Capital to Capital: “Satellite television literally breached the two countries’ ideological and geographic borders, allowing viewers to eavesdrop on conversations between their political leaders.” Since that time, much has changed culturally and technologically, but while “communication technologies have evolved dramatically in the following three decades,” he writes, “media continues to be the most powerful force for social change the world has ever known.”

Hoffman spends the rest of Citizens Rising proving that point, in three well-organized parts. He begins by exploring the utility of media, using the Cold War broadcasts as one example of how a technological medium was used to act as a forum that could breach physical and ideological distance. From there, he makes the point that technology does not, by itself, equate to the freedom of information. In the wrong hands, as was the case in the Rwandan genocide of 1993-94, technological mediums can be used as weapons not just of oppression but of mass murder. In that instance, Radio Télévision Libres des Mille Collines, along with other outlets, fueled the genocide, spewing racist ideology and violent messages, ultimately provoking and cheering on Hutus to murder Tutsis. “Concentrated in the hands of demagogues,” writes Hoffman, “media can foment hatred, atrocities, and war.” Finally, Hoffman closes the book with a series of stories that show how digital media and mobile phones are proving to be powerful tools against authoritarian regimes.

In Afghanistan’s recent history, Hoffman shows readers how a lack of media—after being squashed by a governing authority-can silence dissent and fog public understanding. He also lays out how a resurgence of media, through technology, can restore the voice of a people.

After the Taliban had been all but ousted from the country in 2001, following five weeks of direct, targeted bombing, images of Afghan citizens dancing in the streets, shooting guns into the air, some shaving their beards in retaliation against a Taliban law made their way into TV sets around the world. That is, everywhere except Afghanistan. Hoffman writes:

Other than what unfolded in front of their eyes—fragments of reality, often scary, usually without explanation or context—the people most affected had little clue as to what was going on. There was no Afghan newspaper sporting the headline ‘Taliban Gone!’ for the simple reason that local newspapers didn’t exist. . . . It is a fair bet that . . . you knew more about what was going on in 2001 than those in Afghanistan who were shaving their beards or flying their kites or wondering if they would survive the night.

Some news seeped in from international broadcasters, but many areas outside of Kabul existed in “media darkness,” writes Hoffman. And so Internews, with funding from the Office of Transition Initiatives (part of the United States Agency for International Development), set about building FM stations in those districts.

The journey since has been steady but slow. Most of the media growth in Afghanistan has come from mobile phones. In 2012, when Hoffman was writing Citizens Rising, only 4 percent of Afghans had internet service, due primarily to the outrageous fees to set it up (in 2012 Kabul it cost about $1,000, while the gross national income that year was only $680 per capita). Yet at the same time, there were 20.4 million cellphone users out of a population of 29 million. Mobile tech was responsible for 15 percent of government revenue, and it’s helped transform a cash economy into one that banks primarily with cellphones.

The change has marked a crucial cultural shift in the country, Hoffman writes. Access to information makes the citizenry safer, since communication between security forces and villagers makes it harder for terrorists to exist undetected. But perhaps more important is “the need for recognition,” he writes. “The need to be seen for who one is and what one thinks, is the core of human dignity. When people in a country like Afghanistan can hear their voices and express their opinions without fear, it transforms the culture.”

We now exist in an era in which nearly everyone has an opportunity to become a part of the media. With information and access in the hands of many, it’s harder for the powerful few to exercise media manipulation. There is perhaps no better example of this global culture shift than the Arab Spring, in which a groundswell of Facebook users ultimately toppled a dictatorship, forcing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down from office. The message to be learned from the events that now fall under that name is that the revolution wasn’t caused by Facebook, Hoffman writes, but by people. Facebook was merely the medium. “Technology by itself does not cause revolutions,” he writes, “people do.”

Hoffman is successful on several fronts. It’s hard to deny after reading this work that the media had an influential, if not defining, impact on the events he outlines, many of which have helped shape the global political landscape. Much of that argument is not new, but what Hoffman brings to the discussion is a sense of how 24-hour news cycles, 140-character bleats and tweets, and citizen journalists—often blamed for the dissolution of the public’s greater understanding of social and political events—can actually help restore nations.

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Christie Chisholm is a CJR senior editor. Follow her on Twitter at @c_chisholm.