This is a charming hook for a story about the Velvet Revolution, but the idea that Czech Communism wouldn’t have fallen if not for the inaccurate rumor that a student demonstrator had been killed by police during the demonstrations on November 17, 1989 is pretty far-fetched. Journalist Jan Urban, one of those who reported the rumor as fact, says “I am ashamed of the lie because it was a professional blunder. But I have no regrets because it helped bring four decades of Communism to an end.” Megan McArdle asks whether it’s appropriate for Urban to still be working in journalism. It seems to me that it’s hardly true that one would be automatically drummed out of the profession for making such an error in a fast-moving, violent situation — equally inaccurate things have been reported by still-working American journalists in combat environments.
But more importantly, this was reported during the course of the Czech transition from a Communist totalitarian society to a capitalist democratic one, a transition that took place over just a few months. Under the Communist system, scrupulous concern for accuracy and multiple independent sourcing were not exactly top priorities. If one were to drum every journalist who had reported a lie out of the Czech media, there’d be nobody over the age of 45 working in the sector today. I traveled through Czechoslovakia the summer after the revolution, and they were still playing classical music over loudspeakers every morning in the villages, just as they had for the previous 42 years. Consciousness and culture don’t change instantly; it seems a bit much to expect a student dissident journalist to have immediately begun behaving like a New York Times reporter within a few hours of hearing there were demonstrators out on Wenceslas Square.
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