In from the Cold
By Sharon McDonnell
Sharon McDonnell is a New York-based freelance writerand author. Her latest book, on job interviews, will be published by Simon & Schuster this fall.
As far as resumés go, it's a show-stopper. But in context it's only a reflection of the unorthodox career path of Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a real-life "professor who came in from the cold." Martin-Bittman, now a Boston University journalism professor, brings to his academic position 14 years of experience as a spy and as deputy commander of the disinformation department of the Communist Party in the former Czechoslovakia.
"He's not the standard sort of journalism professor – he spent the first half of his life actively misleading, misinforming and deceiving journalists of all shapes, sizes and value systems, and was very good at it," says David Anable, chairman of Boston University's school of journalism. "The neat touch is when – disgusted by the Soviet system – Larry switched careers 180 degrees, and devoted the rest of his life to teaching people the need for a free press and how to be sophisticated about [the ways that] governments, corporations and other interests like to mislead it."
Born Ladislav Bittman, the 64-year-old tenured professor defected to the United States after the mild reforms of the Prague Spring were crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968. After unsuccessful stints as a roofing salesman and an art store owner, Martin-Bittman was offered a chance in 1971 to teach a class on the international press at Boston University by the department's former chairman. He has been there ever since.
His lectures draw upon his wealth of knowledge about how "news" is created and disseminated, and feature his collection of 450 videotapes on topics ranging from Hitler as a master propagandist to TV evangelism to CIA spy Aldrich Ames. Guest speakers, including KGB defectors, foreign correspondents and former ambassadors, frequently visit his class.
One class extensively covers Soviet, Nazi and U.S. propaganda, including "disinformation," and each student is required to analyze a propaganda campaign, which may include propaganda's commercial varieties, such as advertising and public relations. Another class, on international news gathering organizations, focuses on three styles of reporting: journalistic, diplomatic and intelligence service. Martin-Bittman says this particular class is "very important for anyone operating abroad."
Martin-Bittman points out as one example of Soviet disinformation the story behind an "NBC Now" report last year on an American woman beaten by a crowd in Guatemala for allegedly stealing native babies. Martin-Bittman claims the Soviets began circulating rumors in Central America in 1985 that Americans steal infants so their organs can be used in the United States. Another falsehood spawned by the Soviets and widely believed in Third World nations, according to Martin-Bittman, is that the AIDS epidemic originated in the United States during lab experiments in biological warfare, and then was spread by soldiers on military bases.
"When I talk about international systems of the press, it's more than a theory – it's my practical experience, which the students enjoy," says Martin-Bittman, who praises the American press as being the most vigilant in presenting all sides of the issues.
Each semester, Martin-Bittman relates his own greatest coup as a master media manipulator. He describes Operation Neptune, which was designed to sabotage West Germany's relations with other European countries. In 1964 Martin-Bittman ordered boxes of Nazi documents, containing the names of alleged spies and collaborators, to be placed at the bottom of a Czech lake – then alerted TV news crews to "discover" the boxes and revive memories of the Holocaust.
The reformed disinformation specialist – whom Anable, a former managing editor of the Christian Science Monitor, calls "one of the greatest experts on disinformation in the U.S., if not the world" – went on to found a center for the study of disinformation at Boston University in 1986. The center, called the Program for the Study of Disinformation, houses an extensive library of books, news clips and videotapes. It also provided source materials for a 1992 book on mass media in Russia, China, the Czech Republic and Lithuania called "On the Unpaved Road to Democracy," a collection of works that Martin-Bittman edited.
Martin-Bittman – whose death sentence for treason was lifted last year by Vaclav Havel's government – visited his native Prague last June for the first time since his 1968 defection. While there, he contacted Prague's Charles University, inviting a Czech professor, Karel Kamenik, to spend a semester at Boston University's journalism department. He also donated hundreds of books on media-related issues to the university's fledgling journalism program, and cooperated with a team studying Czechoslovakia's propagandist role during the Cold War.
When not busy teaching or working on his current project, a book on disinformation since the Cold War, Martin-Bittman, who plans to retire next year, occupies himself doing oil paintings at his Rockport, Massachusetts home, and steering clear of espionage novels. "Very boring," he says.