08 May 2008

Journalism Moments: “Shame the Devil” (Remembering Walter Lippmann)

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) has been described as the most influential American journalist of the 20th century. He was a newspaper columnist and an author. One of his books, published in 1920, was “Liberty and the News.” In it, he addressed issues related to journalistic credibility.

Here are some sample quotes worth noting:

“…the most destructive form of untruth is... propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news… For when a people can no longer confidently repair 'to the best foundations for their information,' then anyone's guess and anyone's rumor, each man's hope and each man's whim becomes the basis of government… Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.”

“In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system. There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

“The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information.”

Why bring this up? While we receive a lot of praise, hardly a day goes by when here at VOA we don’t also receive an email or a call or a letter in which someone challenges our credibility for not doing something they would prefer that we do.

Here’s an example. We received an email this week from a man who disapproved of a recent story we did marking the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech about combat operations in Iraq. The emailer said:

“Have you ever thought about reporting some balanced news? You always want to print negative stories. (S)ay something good about (the U.S.)… rather than printing all the negative articles your news station prints.”

Others have written recently suggesting that rather than report news even-handedly about countries like Iran whose governments are considered hostile to the U.S., we should focus only on news that counters what those regimes may be saying. Such critics suggest that by not doing so, VOA is somehow unpatriotic and not worthy of continued taxpayer support.

Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion. But consider this: back in the old days when there was a Soviet Union, Radio Moscow was the world’s largest international broadcaster. Yet, as historians have noted, its audience was far smaller than major western broadcasters like VOA and the BBC.

Why? It’s no surprise. Radio Moscow broadcast propaganda.

VOA hasn’t and won’t. And because of that, our credibility will remain high among our audiences internationally. Independent research shows those audiences consistently rate what they hear and see from us as “trustworthy” or “very trustworthy.”

We want to keep it that way.


Anonymous said...

Lippmann also wanted to abolish the VOA. See his article in the LA Times, April 29, 1953, "The Voice of America Should be Abolished."

Alex Belida said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for pointing this out to us. I did a quick check and found the same article appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and at least a similar version in Readers Digest. I found an article online which referred to the commentary by Lippmann and some others:

"Various journalists, through newspaper columns, contributed their thoughts on the proper role of U.S overseas information. The volume of newspaper clippings found in committee files suggests that these opinions were not ignored. And the tone of much of this commentary was along the lines of the editorial opinion of The Washington Post, which said "Psychological warfare, in addition to being contrary to the American way of doing things, is antithetical to the American way of life." (78) Columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote "Democracy cannot be peddled like soap flakes." (79) Walter Lippmann, who wanted to abolish the Voice of America, wrote, "In a society where opinions are free, a government propaganda, which is a monopoly, is an inherent contradiction and practically unworkable." (80)"

That's from:
From OWI to USIA: The Jackson Committee's Search
for the Real 'Voice' of America
Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter 2002; AmericanJournalism.

We'd love to see the full Lippmann article, so if anyone has it, please send it to us. You can mail a copy to:
Alex Belida
Voice of America
330 Independence Ave SW
Washington DC 20237