The Biggest Story in the World
We've met a few Soviet bloc reporters. Never quite took them seriously. Our favorite was a jolly East German sent to East Africa to write stories to butter up the Africans. He despised Kenya, and since he couldn't write anything bad about that country, he exercised his freedom to write nothing about it at all.
That is not a lot of freedom.
Alexei Gubenko, a young political correspondent for Radio Kiev, visited Chicago last week, one of about 20 Soviets from Kiev here to forge sturdier bonds between our two cities. The objective is a formal sister-cities relationship, something that won't happen until Chicago's Ukrainian community warms up to the idea. The community is full of aging political refugees who mortally distrust the Soviet Union and every glad-hander sent here by it.
The delegation from Kiev (the capital of the Ukraine) spent its last night in Chicago being feted at a restaurant in Ukrainian Village. We asked Marianne Liss, local correspondent for the national Ukrainian Weekly newspaper, how it went. She said, "Well, nobody was killing each other."
We then asked her what she thought of Alexei Gubenko. "I think he was careful," Liss said. "He was honest in some things and careful in others. He is a very impressive person.
"He said one thing interesting," Liss went on. "He said, 'You have no idea. You don't know how it is now, how much easier it is now.'
"And I said, 'I have a pretty good idea.'
"And he said, 'You haven't lived through it.'
"And I said, 'You mean we haven't felt it on the skin?'
"'Right,' he said."
To an American journalist, the obvious measure of glasnost is Soviet journalism. Alexei Gubenko is far and away the best-known Soviet journalist in Chicago; that's because for the past year he's been a regular on Sondra Gair's midday show on WBEZ. Gair periodically dials Kiev and Gubenko answers questions posed by her audience. Gair perceives Gubenko as astonishingly guileless, as speaking from his heart come what may.
American journalists who have put in time in the USSR know the type--heck, anyone who's read a Russian novel knows the type--but they've been accustomed to finding it over a bottle of vodka behind closed doors. Last week in Gair's studio, Gubenko faced three curious skeptics: the Tribune's Jim Yuenger, Howard Tyner, and Richard Longworth, all of whom have been stationed in Moscow at one time or another. We monitored the show.
Tyner, the Tribune's foreign editor, wondered how Soviet radio was reporting our race for president.
As something a lot less important to the Soviet people than perestroika, Gubenko said. "Not to insult your process, but this is secondary . . ."
Yuenger questioned the staying power of reform dictated from on high.
"This is an idea that dropped from the top," Gubenko conceded, "but if there was no support from below it would sink like quicksand. But the soil was ready. I know I'm getting rather figurative . . ."
And maybe (we thought) a little too bright and innocent to pass muster as a news operative. We had a moment to speak with Gubenko, and we asked him how long he'd been a journalist. Since 1977. "I've always been a chatterbox," he said. "This is the only place where you can get money for it."
Did you cover Chernobyl? we wondered. "I went there," he said. "Right in the reactor room." But not until six months later, he added. "We had reporters who went there two days later." He shrugged off the radiation he'd received.
We asked him how long he had felt like a real journalist. He let the question go by.
On Sondra Gair's show, Gubenko said blissfully that the Soviet Union was returning to the time of Lenin. In other words, it was going back to a pre-Stalinist Eden to start over. Another of Gair's guests was Vladamir Melnik, a Kiev party official who struck us as a shade more closed and careful (perhaps because when he came here a year ago he was booked onto the Mort Downey show and he swore afterward he'd never return to Chicago). Now Melnik explained, "Many people are not used to the possibility of freedom. They remain passive. This is a bigger problem than activism."
Was there a touch of 1968 in this remark? We wondered how many impassioned young Soviets are ready to jam their half-baked ideas of freedom down the people's throats.
"What if Gorbachev is taken out of office?" Gair asked.
Melnik answered, "Don't think we are a big mass of people in the Soviet Union just waiting for orders. Gorbachev isn't someone sent to us from another planet. If he is out of office I think we would have another Gorbachev because this is his time and he is needed by the country."
"I hope you're right," said Tyner. "You can't read about what's happening in the Soviet Union and not be very excited and wish you were there. I sure wish I was there right now."
Of course he does. They all wish that. So do we. Here is what we really make of Alexei Gubenko: he's a lucky guy who gets to go home and cover the biggest story in the world.
Chuck Ashman Writes Again
Chuck Ashman returned to the Sun-Times the other day in elaborate disguise: as the unidentified author of a sensational Toronto Sun story about a North Korean plot to sabotage the Olympic Games.
The Sun-Times ran a UPI story about Ashman's scoop under the headline "6 weeks of world terror." The UPI account began:
"U.S. military and CIA sources have uncovered a terrorist plot to create 'six weeks of terror' throughout the world and force cancellation of the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the Toronto Sun reported Sunday."
Bigger, fancier papers--such as the other dailies in Toronto--tried to confirm this story, couldn't, and ignored it. "The papers came up sucking wind," said Mike Burke-Gaffney, Sunday editor of the Sun, "except for denials at the State Department and a denial from the solicitor general of Canada, who's responsible for security here.
"The key denial missing is a denial from the CIA. But they refuse to confirm or deny."
We didn't see a word in the Chicago Tribune or New York Times. But two days earlier the Wall Street Journal had run a story that covered much of the Sun's ground. In the Journal's hands, however, the threat of terrorism remained hypothetical.
"Ashman took it a step farther," said Burke-Gaffney. "He had a CIA source. Indeed, there was a plot."
You may recall Ashman from last autumn's whirlwind romance with the Chicago Sun-Times, when Ashman produced one sizzler after another on Kurt Waldheim's secret past. It was an affair too hot not to cool down, and in fact it iced up. The Sun-Times made inquiries into the checkered background of the volatile muckraker, and Ashman vanished from the paper. But Ashman did not fold his tent; he continued to publish in the Sun and London Sunday Express, which also ran his Olympics tale.
Airlines serving Seoul would come under attack, according to the plot Ashman revealed: bombs would explode in cities around the world. "Japanese Red Army snipers, hijackers and bombers" would slip into Seoul.
The next day the State Department spoke up. "We don't have any information which will support that story . . ." said Charles Redman, the spokesman for State. "One of the people allegedly cited [by the Sun] doesn't have any record of ever having given an interview with the publication in question, nor having said that 5,000 terrorists have been trained in North Korea."
Redman was talking about L. Paul Bremer, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism. According to Ashman, Bremer described South Korean security as "'very effective,' but acknowledged that more than 5,000 hard-core terrorists of the Japanese Red Army, the PLO, Libya, Lebanon, and others were trained in North Korea . . ."
Ashman didn't talk to Bremer, Burke-Gaffney admits; what he did was call someone at State who confirmed Bremer's quotes in the Wall Street Journal.
Here they are, in their entirety: "At the moment, we hold no intelligence saying any of these groups is planning to do anything. The [South] Koreans have, to me, an impressive ability to run security. They're a disciplined society with a centralized intelligence apparatus."
As you can see, the words "very effective" were not uttered by Bremer, although they're true to the spirit of what Bremer said. And Bremer said nothing at all about any 5,000 terrorists. That came from a passage much later in the Journal story:
"Over the past 20 years, U.S. officials say, as many as 5,000 soldiers, guerrillas, hijackers and bombers, from two dozen countries, have been schooled and armed in North Korea or by its military advisers."
Besides distorting this information, Ashman misattributes it. He also misspelled Bremer's name. And he lifted what Bremer said to the Journal in a way that "gives you the assumption that he said it to us," Burke-Gaffney conceded.
But "it's a small point in the story," the editor said.
Burke-Gaffney asked us what we knew about Chuck Ashman. We mentioned the spurious law school he ran in California, his quickie books, his astonishing ability to talk himself into important jobs he holds briefly.
"Both myself and my counterpart in London have the same opinion of Ashman," said Burke-Gaffney. "He's quite an extraordinary fellow and controversy does seem to follow him."
We asked if Ashman would be filing again on the North Korean treachery. Yes, said Burke-Gaffney, and his copy will be edited meticulously.