27 May 2008

Abolish the VOA?

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for noting my suggestion. You might wish to look at another article by Lippmann, "The Voices of America Are So Often Conflicting" (LA Times December 28,1951). This article, like the other Lippmann piece I mentioned, is easily accessible via ProQuest.

The attitude of Lippmann toward propaganda is, as you know, intriguing. He was not against propaganda per se -- just against what he thought was the wrong kind of propaganda. The right kind of propaganda, of course, would be provided, he so often suggests, by ... no one else than Walter Lippmann, who always aspired to be the philosopher-king of the twentieth century.

At least he wrote well.

FYI, I am involved in organizing a symposium on the Smith-Mundt Act, to be held in the fall in Washington, DC; 2008, as you doubtless know, marks the Act's 60th anniversary. Funding for this event, the importance of which I think is underestimated -- given the many discussion today of the role of government propaganda in a democratic society -- is still pending.

John Brown,
Georgetown University

PS. Meanwhile, regarding VOA and propaganda, may I note the following,

"The way to carry out propaganda is never to appear to be carrying it out at all."

--Richard Crossman, quoted in Frances Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999) introduction, no page [p. 1]

Also, the following:

“News is the shocktroops of propaganda.”

--Sir John Reith, cited in Philip M. Taylor, “The New Propaganda Boom,” The International History Review (Volume II, Number 3, July 1980), p. 498.

Anonymous said...

In order to do propaganda well, you must despise it.

Our news (domestic as well as international) is someone else's view of propaganda. Our information-culture -- many voices, chaotic, but withal united -- is the best propaganda we've got.

Years ago I used to enjoy tuning across the shortwave frequencies: VOA, Deutche Welle, Radio Canada, Australia, South Africa (!) jumped out of the dial compared to the flat and doctrinaire Eastern Bloc countries.

And I have talked to several people who learned basic English from VOA's Special English programs. To receive our news, people first have to find us...and stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

If VOA is done away with, then what voice will be able to replace it in America? I mean North, Central and South Americas. Brazil's President Lula with his breakfast radio talk?