Just the other day we received an anonymous email from someone who responded to our recent post on Walter Lippmann by pointing out Lippmann had written an article published in the Los Angeles Times in late April 1953 that was headlined “The Voice of America Should be Abolished.” We guess the unspoken question of the emailer was, “How can you hail Lippmann if he wanted to shut you down?”
Our resourceful library managed to locate a copy of this 55-year-old work. It was written about the time Congress was considering (and eventually approving) the creation of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA).
Lippmann did in fact argue VOA should be abolished. But his view was shaped by his perception of what American political figures were pushing for in U.S. information policy in 1953 at the height of the Cold War.
Lippmann wrote, “The people overseas should have available to them substantially the same news that we have available to us.” He went on, “In principle, the foreigner should not be asked to listen to the U.S. government speaking. He should be able to overhear what the American people are hearing. He will then have the same protection against being made the victim of propaganda that we have --- namely, the right in our free society to challenge the validity of a news report and to criticize the handling of it.”
And he concluded, “This is the only way, and it is the best way, to create confidence abroad in the integrity of the information that we offer them.”
Lippmann was not the only journalist commenting on America’s international information policy at the time. We found this summary:
“…The Washington Post… said ‘Psychological warfare, in addition to being contrary to the American way of doing things, is antithetical to the American way of life.’ Columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote ‘Democracy cannot be peddled like soap flakes.’”
That quote is from: “From OWI to USIA: The Jackson Committee's Search for the Real 'Voice' of America” Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter 2002; American Journalism. USIA was the parent agency of the Voice of America until USIA was shut down in 1999 and its functions, minus VOA, were taken over by the State Department. As the study cited above notes:
“USIA's birth was in response to the threat of global communist expansion. It was an attempt to win the battle for hearts and minds, one waged with words and not bullets... [But] the battle against international communism was just one of a number of factors that led to the birth of USIA. There were also concerns within government bureaucracy, the Congress, the press and the public relations profession over the scope and direction of American overseas information programs. While some felt the U.S. should match communist propaganda with its own variety, there were others who felt that American ideas and virtues needed no embellishment.”
Those tensions still exist to an extent. The Blogosphere is filled with posts on “winning hearts and minds.” (Typical is this blog, for example, and others linked to it.)
But the mission of VOA is not in doubt in 2008. The VOA Charter, signed into law in 1976, with its commitment to reliable and authoritative news, objectivity and a multiplicity of views, makes clear the decision-makers came down on the side of “no embellishment” needed.