10 November 2008

The Death of a Former VOA Director

Henry Loomis, who died Nov. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida, at the age of 89, was director of the Voice of America from 1958 to 1965. His VOA career is worth remembering for two important reasons.

For one, he was largely responsible for the creation of VOA’s enormously popular Special English programs, the shows which have helped millions worldwide learn English.

According to his widow, Jacqueline, Loomis wanted to make English easier to understand by VOA’s foreign audiences. He asked Barry Zorthian, VOA’s program manager at the time, to devise a way of reaching an audience with a limited knowledge of the language.

The result was called Special English and it embraced two changes from VOA’s standard procedures: the news was delivered at the slow pace and the vocabulary was limited to 1,500 words.

Mrs. Loomis writes, “University critics said it would never work; American embassies abroad demanded the program be taken off the air. With the support of Mr. Loomis, the program stayed on the air, and soon, hundreds of letters of praise came in to VOA every month from pleased foreign listeners.”

The second reason worth remembering Loomis is this: he was a man of principle who understood VOA news could only be credible if it was free of political interference. It was under his guidance that the VOA Charter was drafted.

Loomis said: “It is my hope, it is my belief that the Charter, like the Constitution, is so fundamental and so represents the realities of the world and the moral principles that undergird this nation, that the Charter will endure for the life of the Voice.”

The final version of the Charter, initially known as a directive, was approved by President Eisenhower shortly before he left office. It eventually became law in 1976.

As we have noted here many times before, the Charter is our audience’s guarantee that the news we report is accurate, objective and comprehensive as well as independent.

Loomis’s belief in the principles embodied in the Charter led to a sharp confrontation with President Johnson during the Vietnam War. The President had ordered American intervention in Laos and wanted it kept out of the news. Loomis thought otherwise and quit as VOA director.

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