Editor’s note: This guest editorial by Dean Edstrom describes a seminal moment in history. It occurred 60 years ago today. It is also a story about today. It describes how the interplay of information, freedom, and education can inform, or warp, civil society and discourse. Ultimately, it describes one of the ways – a free and factual, independent press – Americans’ have retained their freedom and how they can keep it.
EPLN Guest Editorial by Dean Edstrom
Sixty years ago today, on August 13, 1961, the East German government closed the border between East and West Berlin. It commenced the construction of the Berlin Wall.
On that day, my wife, Karen, and I were in Budapest, Hungary. On the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
The streets filled with anxious people. They were watched over by a large number of Hungarian and Soviet soldiers. Everyone knew that there was an international crisis.
No one seemed to know what was really happening.
A few days later, we arrived in Vienna and read the International Herald Tribune. We learned about the Wall. We witnessed the debate concerning whether the United States and its European allies should have intervened.
President Kennedy could have confronted the East Germans and Soviet Union militarily. If he had, we could have been interned in Hungary as enemy aliens.
We were on a two month trip through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We were in a group of nine Minnesota students and a professor from the University of Minnesota. We were traveling and doing research on a variety of subjects, earning academic credit from our respective colleges and universities.
Beginning in Berlin, we traveled through Poland, the Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian and Uzbek Republics of the Soviet Union, and out through Hungary. We knew enough Russian to converse.
The real impediment to discussion –particularly in the Soviet Union— was an almost complete misunderstanding of the West by the people we encountered.
There was no Internet. Western television and radio couldn’t reach people in those areas. Or it was jammed. Newspapers were government controlled. Many books were banned.
In conversation with our young Georgian hosts, it was almost impossible to describe the United States in terms that they could understand. They had been taught that our workers were essentially slaves. They could not believe that our working class had decent homes, cars, and social security.
When we finally made some progress in describing life in our country, they announced that they did not believe us.
They said we would not be in the Soviet Union unless we were part of the privileged class in the United States. They said we must have wealth and status that would allow us to travel.
We emerged from that experience with a deep appreciation for our freedom to read, learn, and speak.
Over the entire history of the United States, a free press has been fundamental to our lives and freedoms. In recent years, the ways in which we receive and process information has changed greatly. Our news media is encountering increasingly difficult challenges.
Corporations and private equity investors focused on profit alone have aggregated, trimmed and shuttered a large segment of our print media, in both major metropolitan areas and local communities. Intelligent discourse has often been replaced with sound bites and tweets.
Across the country many people are experimenting with media alternatives to counter these adverse trends. The Eden Prairie Local News is one such example.
We are fortunate that Eden Prairie has an identity based on nearly identical municipal and school district boundaries as well as healthy residential and business sectors.
We hope to do our part in maintaining a source for information and a forum for debate in the future. We have seen the consequences of the lack of a strong and free press. Let’s not go there.
Editor’s note: Dean Edstrom is a member of the Board of Directors of the Eden Prairie Local News.