Lawrence Martin-Bittman, a former professor in the Boston University Department of Journalism, died Tuesday, Sept. 18 at the age of 87.
Before coming to BU, Martin-Bittman worked as a top agent spreading disinformation and propaganda against the West in Czechoslovakia, journalism professor Caryl Rivers said.
“Larry’s work on propaganda and disinformation, which is more and more important in the modern world and remains so, I think gave students a look at a new dimension of what they would face in their journalistic lives,” Rivers said.
After defecting to the United States, Martin-Bittman began working at BU in the early 1970s, according to the Boston Globe. One of his students was photojournalism lecturer Peter Smith, whom he taught in the course now titled “History and Principles of Journalism,” Smith said.
During his time at BU, Martin-Bittman went by the name of Larry Martin, Rivers said, as he feared Soviet agents would find and kill him if he went by his real name.
Martin-Bittman’s perspective as an expert propagandist allowed him to deeply understand the importance of truth and the harm that comes from disrupting it, Smith said.
“I think when you’re that much of an expert in propaganda, you also understand that it’s the antithesis of truth,” Smith said. “And our mission as journalists is really getting at the truth.”
Martin-Bittman’s initial experience fighting freedom of the press, and subsequent defection, impressed the importance of such freedom upon students, Smith said.
“When you could see somebody that fought against those freedoms, that turned around 100 percent and was able to explain to you how and why they did that, you could understand even more why those freedoms are so important,” Smith said.
Upon retiring from BU in the late 1990s, he turned his attentions to painting and exhibiting work at his gallery in Rockport, Rivers said.
“His works were extremely popular and he was very well-regarded as an artist,” Rivers said.
Martin-Bittman was memorable not only for his unusual story, Smith said, but also for his kindness, compassion and generosity toward students.
“Now that I’m working here in the journalism department, I’d like to think that I would model myself after somebody like him, because he was a very big-hearted guy,” Smith said. “He wasn’t judgmental, he wasn’t harsh, he wasn’t a bully. He was just an interesting person with a fascinating story, and he liked to share his wealth of information.”
Julia Chinigo contributed reporting.