by Ted Lipien
Published in American Diplomacy, December 2011
U.S. policy makers have used traditional diplomacy, public diplomacy and government-sponsored journalism to promote America’s interests and to influence public opinion abroad. On the journalistic side, the so-called surrogate radios: Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty – more independent and more confrontational – were established in the 1950s, while the Voice of America (VOA) – broadcasting since World War II – remained under greater control of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Gradually over many decades, VOA gained more journalistic freedom but still retained its semi-official status, while the surrogate radios dropped their link to the CIA as they continued their hard-hitting journalism in defense of democracy.
With the current efforts by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to de-federalize the Voice of America, it may be worthwhile to look at the history of the gradual divorce between public diplomacy and U.S. international broadcasting over the past several decades. Relying on my own perspective as a VOA journalist employed by the United States Information Agency (USIA) to broadcast radio programs to Poland during the Cold War, this article describes the disappearing links between the two cultures in frequent conflict with one another but also successfully working in tandem to advance U.S. interests and support for human rights.
Changing this model by privatizing VOA and undermining the independence and specialization of the surrogate broadcasters would be bad for both public diplomacy and journalism on behalf of the United States in support of democratic change abroad. This article offers a short history of how journalistic and diplomatic cultures interacted in U.S. international broadcasting with a focus on several key players.
Arthur Bliss Lane
When in 1948 former U.S. Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane (1894-1956) published his book “I Saw Poland Betrayed,” he put in two paragraphs about the Voice of America overseas radio broadcasts. A man of high social standing and strong convictions, he had resigned the previous year as U.S. Ambassador to Poland to protest the abandonment of Eastern Europe to Soviet rule at Yalta and to embark on educating Americans about the communist threat. While Lane was still ambassador, he had disagreed strongly though not publicly with FDR’s handling of Stalin and later bemoaned what he considered the Truman Administration’s insufficiently firm stand toward Moscow. Critical as well of his colleagues at State, he became convinced that the United States was not sending the right kind of message in diplomatic exchanges with the communist government in Warsaw, but also in VOA radio broadcasts to Poland. He retired at the relatively young age of 53 to be able “to speak and write openly, without being hampered by diplomatic convention.” Dean Acheson allowed him full access to the Department’s secret files to write his book, which turned out to be highly critical of U.S. foreign policy and the State Department.What U.S. Government-funded stations should broadcast, under what management and on whose behalf were the burning questions when Arthur Bliss Lane was writing his book, as they are now. When “I Saw Poland Betrayed” was published, the term public diplomacy was not yet invented. Some of its tools, however, were used by American diplomats to influence public opinion abroad and they were far more integrated into the official policy than in later decades.
There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the contents of what Voice of America communicated at that time directly to the Polish people over the heads of their Soviet-imposed government was set at the State Department in Washington. State Department officials forbade, for example, any mention in VOA programs of Stalin’s responsibility for the murder of thousands of Polish POWs in Soviet prison camps during World War II, referred as the Katyn massacre after the location of one of the camps where the murders took place. Offering the audience what it wanted to hear and could not get from its domestic media would have been good public diplomacy, but in those early years this concept was not yet universally accepted. An open dispute over the Katyn massacre would further complicate U.S.-Soviet relations. Some State Department officials preferred to keep this issue out of the public eye.
Arthur Bliss Lane understood, however, that VOA could support long term U.S. foreign policy goals in ways that could not be achieved easily through government-to-government diplomatic contacts or even through meetings of American diplomats with groups of private citizens. He became more and more convinced that under the State’s guidance, VOA programs were not even remotely appropriate for their intended audience. “My opinion of their value differed radically from that of the authors of the program,” he wrote. Still, he saw the Voice of America and later Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty as critical tools of public diplomacy “if appropriate material is used.”
Lane objected particularly to the Department’s policy in the 1940s of telling the people of Eastern Europe about the benefits of democracy in the United States. He thought that such programs showed a complete lack of appreciation of the psychology of those living under Soviet domination. “It was indeed tactless, to say the least,” he complained in his book, “to remind the Poles that we had democracy, which they also might again be enjoying, had we not acquiesced to their being sold down the river at Tehran and Yalta.” He wanted VOA to report more on the Soviet takeover of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, but he also wanted to see a change in the official U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.
While Lane disagreed with the State Department, he did not consider U.S. government-funded broadcasting as totally separated from traditional diplomacy. His concern about VOA programs to Poland showed that he viewed such radio broadcasts as important in supporting what he believed should be the right kind of U.S. foreign policy, certainly not something to be given up or ignored by policy makers. He not only understood the power of transnational radio, he was willing to use it to its full potential – not to help the U.S. to engage with the Soviet empire or to transform it, which would have been the traditional goal of diplomats, but to destroy it. His peer George F. Kennan, who articulated the policy of containment – with which Lane strongly disagreed because it did not call for encouraging a speedy liberation of Eastern Europe – likewise initially supported the expansion of U.S. radio broadcasting behind the Iron Curtain but with a somewhat different purpose and a longer timeframe. Lane would have been much happier with a single, clearly defined policy and a single public message.
Radio Free Europe
After his retirement from the Foreign Service, Lane became a public supporter of greatly expanding U.S. radio transmissions to the Soviet block outside of the State Department’s control. He believed that what the Voice of America was putting on the air did not only send a wrong message, it was not nearly enough to help topple the Soviet regime. He joined a group of prominent Americans who in 1950 created and supported Radio Free Europe (RFE), a station run by the CIA and staffed with East European émigrés. This group of organizers and supporters included General Dwight Eisenhower, General Charles Douglas (C.D.) Jackson, who later became President Eisenhower’s advisor on countering Soviet propaganda, the hero of the Berlin Airlift General Lucius Clay, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan and former Under Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew, U.S. intelligence specialist Frank Wisner, future CIA Director Allen W. Dulles and many other distinguished members.Having achieved his goal of helping to create the surrogate radios, Lane spent the rest of his life trying to protect RFE and RL, but also VOA, from what he perceived as a pro-Soviet bias among some of his former State Department colleagues. He and many others like him became convinced that the U.S. military and intelligence communities had people who were professionally better suited to manage foreign language broadcasting as a strategic weapon against communist expansion and as a Trojan horse against the Soviet Union.
According to many former Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty officials, Bliss Lane was right. What made the station successful was ample funding but without the usual U.S. government institutional controls under which the Voice of America had to operate at that time. There was also an additional benefit of maintaining an appearance of having a privately-run radio station. When communist regimes raised protests with American diplomats against the content of the broadcasts, the State Department could claim that RFE had no official links to the U.S. Government, although practically no one believed such claims.
From the very beginning, the surrogate radio enjoyed far more editorial freedom than VOA broadcasters working in Washington. Still, RFE commentators were monitored by CIA officers who often told them what they should cover and how, a practice which diminished greatly over the years. It did last, however, until 1971 when Congress finally removed the CIA link. RFE was based in Munich, West Germany, in much closer proximity to Eastern Europe than VOA. From a journalistic perspective, this was very important at a time when there was no Internet or even the ability to phone news sources behind the Iron Curtain. Better funded and broadcasting more hours than VOA, RFE soon had a much larger radio audience in Poland, but the station – as RFE’s own clandestine surveys showed – was viewed by listeners as somewhat less credible than the more official and cautious Voice of America. RFE presented itself to its audience in Poland as a free Polish Radio. VOA remained an American government radio station broadcasting in Polish and in other languages. For the vast majority of radio listeners in Eastern Europe, Radio Free Europe offered far more interesting programs. Voice of America, however, was equally important because of its more official association with the U.S. Government.
Still U.S. Government-funded transnational radio journalism was not entirely government-controlled, even in its beginnings. While State Department and CIA handlers at VOA and RFE often played a key role in the immediate post World War II years, individual journalists and particularly language service directors were able to secure for themselves considerable leeway to report what they thought was right, far more so initially at RFE than at VOA. Lane understood the dynamics of independent journalism and the fact that a single editor, and especially a person directly in charge of a foreign language broadcasting service, can make a big difference. As he was working to establish Radio Free Europe, he was also looking for ways to replace some of the pro-Soviet broadcasters hired by the Voice of America during the Roosevelt Administration.
Zofia Korbonska: A Long View of U.S. International Broadcasting
Even after retiring from the government, Lane used his excellent connections to try to bring about a change of personnel at VOA, knowing that some of its World War II era editors are indeed Soviet sympathizers. During World War II and immediately thereafter, one of the editors of VOA’s Polish radio programs was a communist journalist who later moved to Warsaw and became the regime’s chief anti-American propagandist. While still employed by the U.S. Government, he and some on his team produced programs that supported the Kremlin’s position against the anti-communist Polish government in exile in London, to which Bliss Lane was named as the U.S. Ambassador based in Washington. During the war, Lane received frequent complaints from Polish diplomats in Washington that VOA was uncritically promoting the Soviet version that the Nazis had been responsible for the murder of Polish officers in Katyn.Still aware of the pro-Soviet tone of VOA Polish broadcasts two years after the war, Bliss Lane helped Zofia Korbonska, a famous anti-Nazi and anti-communist resister, to get a job at the Voice of America after she and her husband, Polish democratic politician Stefan Korbonski, had defected to the West in 1947. Prior to joining VOA, Korbonska had been a war hero, a reporter and a radio broadcaster. She risked her life daily, gathering news and sending coded radio messages from Nazi-occupied Poland to London. Those messages were then transmitted back in news bulletins by shortwave radio from Britain by a station that many Polish listeners assumed was based in Poland. She was just the right kind of person to help VOA become effective in broadcasting more relevant news from America to Poland.
Korbonska used her experiences of fighting the Nazis and the Communists to try to change the content and the tone of VOA Polish programs. She and other editors often managed to ignore instructions from FSOs who were technically their bosses but who seldom understood enough Polish. They tried to sneak in more relevant news with a sharper anti-communist message. In later years as the policy of engagement with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe took hold, Korbonska continued to poke holes in pro-detente statements by U.S. officials and academics, often using irony that could not be easily detected by American managers. She also steadfastly resisted attempts by some U.S. officials to start treating the communist regime in Poland as a legitimate government. She believed that these regimes would eventually collapse, not because of the policy of engagement or convergence, but because of their own internal weakness. It was fine for U.S. diplomats to engage in negotiations if they had to, but the role of VOA – she argued – was to hold a high moral ground and give hope to the people in Poland.
I had the pleasure of working with this remarkable woman for many years. Most VOA language service broadcasters agreed with her views, although there were some who did not as U.S.-Polish official exchanges intensified. When in the 1970s one VOA journalist accepted an invitation from the Polish Embassy in Washington to a diplomatic reception marking the anniversary of the founding of the communist government, she and many other Polish Service broadcasters would not speak to him for months.
After a distinguished career as a broadcaster with the VOA Polish Service, Zofia Korbonska retired in 1985 and died in Washington D.C. in 2010 at the age of 95. She understood the long-term value of radio broadcasting and strategic public diplomacy far better than some of the FSOs who supervised her. But she also realized that working at the Voice of America was a two-way process, with U.S. diplomats and journalists trying to influence and outsmart the other. As much as she resented State Department’s interference with the broadcasts, she understood the value of VOA’s special U.S. Government status. Radio listeners in Poland tuned in to VOA broadcasts because they reflected America’s official views in addition to anything else journalists like Korbonska managed to include. She was grateful for America’s moral support for her native country and for VOA broadcasting to Poland.
RFE’s Jan Nowak: Courage to Resist Official Policy
While VOA struggled, Arthur Bliss Lane continued to support the work of the more independent Radio Free Europe and helped to raise funds for its operations. One of those soliciting private donations for RFE was Ronald Reagan. These campaigns did not succeed in producing the millions of dollars needed to keep the station on the air. The money had to come from Congress and was hidden in the CIA budget. With it came restrictions and instructions of various kinds but of a more general and sophisticated nature than those at the Voice of America in Washington. Émigré journalists were told that they did not have to agree with or support every single U.S. policy provided that their broadcasts served long term foreign policy interests of the United States.But even this more strategic and nuanced approach did not save individual editors and language services at RFE from having to disagree frequently with their American managers. Some, like Jan Nowak, the legendary director of the RFE Polish Service, often openly defied the management’s instructions and survived, although at least one U.S. ambassador to Poland, Jacob D. Beam, wanted to have him fired and RFE broadcasts to Poland terminated for being too critical of the Polish communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. Vice President Richard Nixon, to whom Beam complained about RFE, reportedly told him that besides fostering good relations with the government, an American diplomat also has a duty to maintain a close relationship with the people of the country where he serves. Beam later served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
A single diplomat, a wrong person in charge of a broadcasting service, blatant censorship, a demand to terminate broadcasts – each can destroy years of journalistic and public diplomacy work. Not everybody at RFE or at VOA was as independent or as wise as Jan Nowak. Ironically, during the 1956 workers’ riots in Poland and afterwards, Jan Nowak adopted a cautious approach, which helped Gomulka gain power and diminished the threat of a Soviet military intervention. The RFE Hungarian Service during the uprising in Hungary the same year aired more militant broadcasts. Some have argued that if CIA officers, who by then no longer believed in the quick fall of communism in Eastern Europe, had a handle on what the Hungarian Service was putting on the air, they would have censored statements that may have encouraged the hopeless and bloody uprising and the subsequent Soviet invasion. On the other hand, the Eisenhower Administration’s public statements on the events in Hungary were also highly confusing. RFE’s role in the Hungarian Uprising and the CIA’s involvement with the broadcasts are still a subject of some controversy.
There was, however, one real benefit of having CIA close at hand at the surrogate radios. The CIA was also there to protect Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty from infiltration by communist intelligence agents and agents of influence. Not all were caught; some managed to find work at the radios, but no major damage to RFE programs and reputation was done. Interestingly, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is now in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, has practically no capability of protecting its journalistic workforce from such infiltration, even though it now has large numbers of employees in Russia and in other countries known for still engaging in this kind of mischief. Used to operating in the world of U.S. commercial broadcasting, BBG executives sometimes forget the high stakes of the international war of ideas. The BBG also has no money to translate into English much of the foreign language output for post-broadcast review, which prevents top managers from identifying problems before they escalate. The airing of statements from Holocaust deniers on Alhurra TV, the BBG’s new television service to the Middle East, is a good example of what can happen when a U.S. Government-funded broadcaster has no clear official or surrogate identity and lacks sufficient editorial oversight.
Legacy of Arthur Bliss Lane
For Arthur Bliss Lane the 1950s were not a happy period personally and professionally. His only child, Peggy, died at a young age from pneumonia when he and his wife were visiting her in San Francisco. He became active in the Republican Party but was not able to translate his involvement into a radical policy change toward the Soviet Union. Despite the pre-election rhetoric, the policy of containment remained in place during the Eisenhower Administration. After joining the Republican National Committee, Lane courted East European ethnic communities in the U.S. for the GOP and tried to undermine without success the State Department’s reluctance to confirm Stalin’s responsibility for the Katyn massacre – an issue which resonated well with the Polish American voters and the U.S. Congress.As far as VOA broadcasts to Poland were concerned, the Katyn story became a barometer of the State Department’s involvement with editorial policy. Even many years later, when such involvement was already minimal, some VOA editors tried to censor a news reference to the Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre. Due to the protests from Polish Service journalists, however, a clear attribution of the crime to Stalin was restored in subsequent newscasts. As far as I know, in that particular incident no FSO was involved. It appeared to be an internal VOA squabble. It was, however, a case of a long-term damage from the history of previous interference with the Katyn story by the State Department. It was a sad legacy of the early decades of VOA broadcasting to Poland.
At least initially and for several decades after his death, it seemed that Arthur Bliss Lane was a failure as anti-Soviet and anti-communist crusader. He was not given any prominent role in the new Eisenhower Administration, his political star had waned and he became more disillusioned when Eisenhower extended an olive branch to the Kremlin after Stalin’s death in 1953. Increasingly short-tempered and in poor health, he began to associate more and more toward the end of his life with the most militant anti-communists like Senator Joseph McCarthy. It would not be until the Reagan Administration that Lane’s vision of managing U.S.-Soviet relations would be given a serious try. By then, however, the Soviet Union was a crumbling giant. It is not easy to know to what extent the more cautious approach of professional diplomats during the early decades of the Cold War helped to weaken the Soviet power and made Reagan’s policy less risky and ultimately successful.
Arthur Bliss Lane was definitely different from typical FSOs of his time who executed the policy of containment, many of whom – as I had a chance to observe much later – were not temperamentally and professionally prepared for the world of journalism. A biographer later observed that Lane, who despite being in a few important posts never rose to the very top ranks of State Department officials, was not temperamentally suited to be a diplomat. His biographer thought that Lane would have been happier and more successful in politics and journalism, which was in fact what he did after retiring from the Foreign Service.
Most of Lane’s colleagues at State and USIA who were plunged into a government-run but nevertheless media institution like the Voice of America found it difficult to suppress their diplomatic instinct for restraint and control. If they had, it could have been bad for their careers. It’s not that most did not appreciate what the power of free radio could do for the United States in countries without free media; they were afraid to use it because it could upset diplomatic relations with other governments and bring upon them the wreath of their superiors. Some thought that the Soviet system could be reformed from within and resented most VOA and RFE broadcasts. Others wanted to undermine Soviet communism gradually and saw the usefulness of these broadcasts as long as they did not interfere with their immediate policy initiatives. Very few diplomats were willing to accept the proposition that independent journalism, but still seen as practiced on behalf of the American Government and the American people, could bring about the ultimate collapse of communism in the Soviet block much faster than traditional diplomacy and should be used without direct interference from government officials.
When Arthur Bliss Lane died in 1956, he was viewed by the State Department establishment as an extremist despite his considerable accomplishments, both in his diplomatic career and afterwards. One of his old friends, Ambassador John C. Wiley, observed that the chief trouble with Bliss Lane was that he had “never accepted the principle that a diplomat should learn to tolerate his own government.” But Lane was greatly admired by anti-communist leaders in Poland and VOA and RFE journalists familiar with his protests against the Yalta Agreement. More significantly, some of the future advisors to Ronald Reagan agreed with Lane’s belief in pushing back communism in Eastern Europe with a combination of military strength and a war of ideas. Lane’s book, “I Saw Poland Betrayed,” was translated into Polish and published by the underground Solidarity press in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, for a long time after Lane’s death, the links between the Voice of America and the foreign policy establishment had remained quite strong throughout the early decades of the Cold War, causing many frictions between VOA editors and State Department and USIA diplomats. Not all, however, was doom and gloom. The journalists who helped to create VOA during World War II did manage at least to establish the principle that VOA news should be always accurate to maintain credibility. Public pressure from anti-communist figures like Arthur Bliss Lane, Congressional interest in U.S. broadcasting and the work of journalists like Zofia Korbonska and Jan Nowak helped to encourage more hard-hitting reporting. Foreign language editors did what they could to include human rights messages in their programs. Just being able to hear Voice of America broadcasts in their languages was a moral boost for the people of Eastern Europe even if some of the content seemed out of touch with local realities. Being associated closely with the U.S. Government was both VOA’s curse and its blessing.
William A. Buell, Jr.: A Well-Respected FSO at VOA
Not all FSOs working at VOA in the early years were treated by the journalistic staff as an undesirable element. Some were remembered fondly by former language service employees as good managers and innovators. Others even tried to defend VOA’s editorial independence.
William A. Buell, Jr., who died in November 2011, was director of the Polish Service from July 1965 to July 1966. Born in 1925, he served during World War II as a fighter pilot, graduated from Princeton and entered the Foreign Service in 1951. After tours in Taiwan, West Germany, Belgium, Togo, where he was Deputy Chief of Mission, and Paris, where he was Consul General, Buell served four years (1960-1964) at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw as Chief of the Economic and Political Sections. He spoke reasonably fluent Polish. Some of his VOA predecessors, naturalized American citizens who were not FSOs, followed all State Department instructions to the letter and were viewed by the staff as unbearable tyrants. His arrival at VOA was greeted as a breath of fresh air.
According to an email Bill Buell wrote in 2010 to Jaroslaw Jedrzejczak, the unofficial historian of the VOA Polish Service, the manager whom Buell replaced at the Voice of America made a mistake of not hiring a relative of a Polish American politician. The politician pulled strings to have the service chief removed and to transfer Buell from State to VOA. Zofia Korbonska described Bill Buell as a true gentleman. Another former VOA Polish Service broadcaster Roza Nowotarska remembered that he allowed for the first time short music programs to be aired – something that the previous management for whatever reason would not tolerate. I joined VOA in 1973 and did not know Bill Buell personally. Some of the old timers recall that he was not particularly strict in enforcing programming instructions coming from the State Department or USIA.
Bill Buell subsequently became the Polish Desk officer at State and Director of the Office of Northern European Affairs. Following his retirement from the Foreign Service, he worked as a legislative assistant to Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III and after 1977 spent ten years at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the first two years as RFE Director in Munich and later as Senior Vice President of RFE/RL in Washington. He was one of many officials who moved back and forth between the broadcasting entities.
VOA Under USIA
In the 1960s and 1970s, the State Department continued to exercise its influence to various degrees through FSOs placed in key VOA managerial positions. Their numbers and seniority, however, kept declining as the policy of engagement with the Soviet Block countries took off and a VOA posting was becoming less and less attractive for their Foreign Service careers. Not even USIA officers, specializing in public diplomacy but viewed as second class citizens by some of their colleagues at State, considered a VOA job as a desirable posting. In later years, institutional interference with the editorial content of VOA broadcasts diminished and depended more on the personalities of U.S. ambassadors and other FSOs. Those who took themselves more seriously, were less sophisticated and more insecure in their jobs interfered more than others. Meanwhile, the funding for VOA was being cut and remained low until the onset of the Reagan Administration.The FSOs who saw themselves more as political officers than benign managers were not the only problem for VOA foreign language service journalists. The VOA management, which by then included many non-FSOs, also made it difficult for language services to originate their own reporting, no doubt to prevent further clashes between themselves and State or even the White House, but also to maintain a central monopoly on news reporting. For decades, VOA foreign language broadcasters were denied access to wire services and forced to translate centrally-produced English news and correspondent reports. While there is always a need for some central news output, regionalization and targeting of news to specific countries was essential for success and was lacking at VOA until the early 1980s.
In that kind of environment, delivering relevant news similar to what Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were able to offer was initially a big challenge. This was especially difficult for VOA language chiefs because they had access to classified cables from U.S. embassies and the State Department. They could see what was going on in the region better than some of the VOA correspondents and central news division writers who did not receive cable traffic or on principle refused to review it. This led to many clashes between VOA language services, which demanded more relevant news, and the central news service, which was unable and sometimes unwilling to produce it. Sympathetic central news editors, especially those with ethnic ties to Eastern Europe, tried to be helpful, but they themselves got in trouble with their superiors as did at least two USIA officers whose career advancement was delayed because they sided with VOA journalists in disputes with the State Department.
During the Vietnam War, there was more censorship from the Pentagon and the White House, targeting largely the central news service whose reports were then translated by the language services. Poor funding, lack of sufficient regional specialization in the VOA central newsroom, and an attempt by the English Service to mirror U.S. domestic media coverage made the life of VOA language services very difficult. Due to interference coming from all sides, the end product was not as credible or as effective as it otherwise might have been, but VOA was still viewed abroad as more authoritative and relevant than it is now.
Eventually, the incidents of censorship declined, but during the era of detente one FSO was still able to prevent the VOA Russian Service from reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works on the air – something that Radio Liberty could do without restrictions. During the Watergate scandal, however, the Voice of America reported objectively on all aspects of the story. VOA correspondents no longer had to seek U.S. Embassy permission to travel to various countries, use diplomatic passports, or to submit their reports for a prior review by U.S. ambassadors, although the State Department still tried to stop VOA from interviewing PLO officials. As late as 1976, during the anti-communist demonstrations in Poland, the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw had asked VOA to not overplay the story, but this time VOA news editors went with it despite the warning. Regarding Solzhenitsyn, a few years after the initial censorship, the VOA Russian Service scored a broadcast coup during the Reagan Administration when Solzhenitsyn agreed to read excerpts from his latest book which were broadcasts in special 38-part series.
The VOA Polish Service did not receive as much scrutiny from State and USIA officials as the Russian Service. In 1976, I was able to interview Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, future Pope John Paul II, when he visited the United States. I did not know whether the service chief Marian Woznicki and his deputy Zdzislaw Dziekonski had to have a clearance for the interview from the State Department or their VOA higher-ups. They probably did. It is also possible the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw might have suggested that VOA should ask for this interview. Such requests were not infrequent at that time and often involved Polish democratic leaders and cultural figures sent to the U.S. under various Embassy programs.
What we did know was that Cardinal Wojtyla would not have been able to give a similar on-air interview to RFE without risking a retaliation against himself and the Catholic Church in Poland. Later we found out that he was communicating secretly with RFE Polish Service director Jan Nowak, but Wojtyla could not allow his name to be used on the air as a source of information. The interview confirmed to me once again the value of having both VOA and RFE broadcasts to Poland. Finally, also in 1976, the U.S. Congress passed a law which guaranteed VOA its editorial independence while instructing it to explain U.S. foreign policy to international audiences – thus still acknowledging VOA’s public diplomacy function. The law, also referred to as the VOA Charter, made it essentially illegal for ambassadors, lower-ranking FSOs or any other U.S. government official to try to prevent accurate and objective news reporting by VOA. It also gave U.S. diplomats a convenient excuse to dismiss protests from foreign governments unhappy with the contents of VOA programs. VOA had finally moved closer to the independent status previously enjoyed only by the surrogate broadcasters while still retaining its American and semi-official brand.
”Let Poland be Poland” and the Reagan Years
Since the Voice of America was still part of the United States Information Agency, the link between foreign policy, public diplomacy and broadcasting remained, which became more obvious during the Reagan Administration. The USIA Director was still able to fill key VOA management positions. After President Reagan took office, a few VOA managers viewed by the new administration as insufficiently anti-Soviet were transferred to other less responsible jobs and language services were given access for the first time to more resources and more freedom to report on their own.While some central news editors saw these changes as interference, censorship and propaganda, instructions from USIA to carry Reagan’s anti-communist and anti-Soviet pronouncements did not bother most VOA language service chiefs. Being at that time in charge of the VOA Polish Service, I turned into a combination of a surrogate and American broadcaster — in my opinion, the best programming mix for a semi-official media outlet like VOA. Our reporters were in almost daily telephone contact with Solidarity and other opposition figures in Poland, many of whom became later top government officials in democratic Poland. We also interviewed hundreds of prominent Americans and West Europeans who supported the Polish Solidarity trade union movement. VOA broadcast religious services from a Polish American church in the D.C. area without worrying about any constitutional restrictions and quoted extensively from news dispatches of American newspaper and television correspondents based in Warsaw. There were music and satirical programs as well. VOA Director Eugene Pell approved the Polish Service requests to send our own reporters to Paris and Rome to be in contact with exiled Solidarity activists and Catholic Church leaders who were close to Pope John Paul II. There was ample funding thanks to USIA Director Charles Wick and President Reagan’s Soviet affairs advisor at the National Security Council John Lenczowski. VOA language services broadcasting to Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and other communist-ruled countries could not have been happier.
On the other hand, many of our colleagues in the central English news service were upset with instructions from USIA to broadcast presidential speeches and to give them full coverage. Part of the White House public diplomacy strategy at that time were also covert activities, disinformation, psychological warfare and military components, of which we were vaguely aware but in which we did not participate. There were reports that the VOA Polish Service was ordered to play specific music selections as secrets signals to underground opposition leaders in Poland. These reports, which even made it into a couple of books, were false. There is no doubt, however, that the Reagan Administration engaged in such activities and was proud of it. John Lenczowski would later call the integration of all strategic communication methods against the Soviet Union “a full spectrum public diplomacy.” By the end of 1980s, for the first time VOA Polish programs, with fewer on air hours, had more listeners in Poland than Radio Free Europe.
When General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law in December 1981, a top USIA official who called me at home only wanted to know what I needed to expand VOA Polish broadcasts from three and a half to seven hours daily. But while some key positions were filled by USIA Director Charles Z. Wick, who was a close friend of President Reagan, other USIA officers still serving at VOA were by no means big fans of Reagan’s policies. When Charlie Wick gave orders to produce a 90 minute television program “Let Poland Be Poland,” which featured statements of support for the Polish people from President Reagan and numerous other world leaders as well as appearances by Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and other celebrities, one USIA Foreign Service Officer exclaimed in a panic “We’ve to got to stop him [Wick].” I also remember another FSO who was my immediate superior, being horrified after watching Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech. He was, however, a very nice man who never tried to interfere with what the Polish Service was reporting and gave us all the resources we needed to do our job. My contribution to “Let Poland Be Poland” was quite small. I convinced Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize Polish poet living in exile the United States, to participate in the program. He was apparently put off by the Hollywood producers who were solely responsible for the public diplomacy extravaganza. VOA broadcast to Poland the audio portion of the “Let Poland Be Poland” program.
At that time, I also experienced what became perhaps the last and somewhat unusual attempt by the State Department to interfere with VOA Polish programs. The Polish Service phoned and interviewed Solidarity leader Lech Walesa after he had been released from detention by the Jaruzelski regime but still kept under police surveillance. The next day I was called by the VOA Director Gene Pell, who later became President of RFE/RL. He informed me that the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw had doubts whether the person interviewed by VOA was really Lech Walesa.
It was immediately obvious to me that perhaps because of some sensitive negotiations with the Jaruzelski regime to lift the martial law restrictions on the Polish people or because of the usual diplomatic restraint, the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw did not want us to talk to Lech Walesa at that particular time. Being unable to forbid us to contact him because of the 1976 VOA congressional Charter, I thought the Embassy came up with a creative excuse to discourage such interviews. Peter Mroczyk, the person who interviewed Walesa, was formerly one of his advisors in the Solidarity movement, and neither he nor I had any doubt he was talking with Walesa. To his credit, Gene Pell, formerly an NBC correspondent, smiled and told me to be careful, but he did not try to prevent further phone interviews with Polish opposition figures.
Peter Mroczyk later followed Pell to RFE/RL to take charge of its Polish Service. I later went with Vice President George H. Bush to Poland and interviewed both him and Lech Walesa. The communist regime allowed at that time VOA correspondents to visit Poland, while such visits were still denied to RFE/RL journalists. I worked completely on my own and the White House staffers did not try to influence my reporting. The Solidarity leader and future Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of independent Poland thanked me for VOA programs. In the 1980s, I also met Pope John Paul II during a visit to Rome with VOA Director Ken Tomlinson. The Pope also told us how much he appreciated what VOA was doing for his countrymen in Poland.
During the Reagan years, I felt that the link between U.S. public diplomacy and broadcasting was finally working without undue interference and censorship. I could ignore phone calls from low level State Department officers who from time to time still made weak attempts to influence our programs. I had a WikiLeaks-like view of what was going on behind the scenes, easy access to important news sources and support from top level USIA officials without them looking over my shoulders – an ideal situation for a journalist. I was also lucky to have a very able deputy Marek Walicki who formerly had worked for many years for the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe.
But other service chiefs who treated seriously various restrictions issued by this time mostly by higher-level VOA managers had a much more difficult time. Their situation did not improve when the United States Information Agency was abolished and the Broadcasting Board of Governors was created in 1995. Many lost their broadcasts and their jobs. I had learned another lesson from that experience: if money is tight and government or corporate bureaucrats are in control without a powerful institutional patron or domestic constituency to check on them, they will not hesitate to cut even the most critical programs serving U.S. interests abroad to save their positions and to do what they think is right based on their limited experience and parochial interests. Unfortunately, victims of human rights abuses abroad and those seeking uncensored news in Russia and China do not vote in American elections.
Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy and the BBG
In the 1980s and beyond, my contacts with FSOs were on the whole positive and useful to me as a journalist. When Poland was still under martial law, I always received many good news tips from two Polish Desk Officers at State, Christopher R. Hill and Daniel Fried, who later became U.S. ambassadors to Poland. Most of the time I initiated these calls, and they never tried to influence our political news coverage. I also had good help from USIA Cultural Officer in Poland John H. Brown who later resigned from the Foreign Service in protest against President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq. Publicizing U.S. Embassy-sponsored cultural events was an important service for our listeners who saw them as signs of America’s interest in them and as another way of undermining the communist regime. Quite a number of Public Affairs Officers serving in Poland appreciated the role of VOA Polish Service reports showing that despite official relations with the regime in Warsaw, various U.S. Embassy programs were designed to show America’s support for the Polish people and to encourage a democratic transformation.After I left my journalistic job at VOA in 1993, I had the pleasure of working in Munich, Germany, with another Foreign Service Officer Csaba Chikes. He was probably one of the last FSOs directly supporting U.S. international broadcasting in a full time position. At that time, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials discovered that their new strategy of placing programs on local radio and TV networks often required help from U.S. embassies. Having an experienced FSOs with extensive contacts within the U.S. Foreign Service community was enormously helpful.
But soon after the elimination of USIA, the somewhat integrated public diplomacy approach that worked so well under Reagan was never again tried, not even after 9/11. By then there was no longer a USIA and the BBG served as a buffer between the Administration and the broadcasters. But as far as I was concerned, interference with the news and editorial content ceased to be a major problem even before the BBG was created. As the Board was gaining more independence from the foreign policy establishment, its political visibility in Washington and funding, however, began to wane without a strong institutional sponsor and prominent outside supporters.
Members of the bipartisan Board, recruited largely from the private media and entertainment sector, focused on expanding the audience among the youth in the Muslim world. Without sufficient new funding, a large number of VOA language broadcasts were eliminated to pay for Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. Although set up on the surrogate station model – Sawa and Alhurra never attracted the mass audiences that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty enjoyed during the Cold War. However, the BBG went a step further and completely silenced VOA programs in Arabic targeting the intellectual elites. News broadcasts that could be identified closely with the United States and also served U.S. public diplomacy needs in the region were considered by BBG members with commercial radio and TV experience as no longer necessary. It was left unclear to what extent these stations are surrogate or represent official and unofficial American views.
The American VOA brand and official links to the U.S. Government were viewed by some within the BBG as a liability. A music format, successfully used by American stations on Norman Pattiz’s Westwood One network, was chosen for Radio Sawa. Norman J. Pattiz and Edward E. “Ted” Kaufman were the two key Democrats who developed this plan with the support of the then BBG Republican Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson. Unlike RFE in the 1950s, in the new era of the Internet and satellite television the two new surrogate stations were based in the United States.
Nearly all current and former VOA and RFE/RL journalists I have worked with described to me the transition from the previous arrangements to the BBG model as a change for the worse. Some told me that even though they themselves experienced various forms of restrictions on their journalistic work under the previous regimes, they were able to engage in more effective pro-human rights reporting, especially in the later decades. Consultants and bureaucrats replaced realpolitik diplomats. They could change programs and their content far more quickly and drastically than FSOs in previous decades. There was no USIA to save the public diplomacy work of VOA language services that were set by the BBG for elimination. There was no one like Arthur Bliss Lane or George Kennan to offer a consistent vision of what the new broadcasts to the Middle East were to achieve. The attention moved away from the message to program distribution and salesmanship.
Few among the new generation of individuals in charge of U.S. international broadcasting had vast experience in foreign policy, diplomacy, military strategy, and human rights. What the current BBG members bring to the table is their knowledge of commercial U.S. broadcasting and the entertainment industry. Such individuals were also employed when VOA and RFE were first created, but with the exception of a few like John Houseman, a Hollywood actor who was the first Voice of America director, they were not placed in the top decision-making roles. Those were reserved for high-level government officials from State, CIA, and USIA, or prominent former journalists like Edward Murrow and John Chancellor – all with years of experience in covering international affairs.
Audience measuring calculations of BBG officials, adopted from the world of commercial broadcasting, led to the ending of VOA radio and TV broadcasts to Russia in 2008. The tone of Radio Liberty Russian broadcasts changed after BBG-hired consultants determined based on audience surveys that most Russians viewed RL as “hostile” toward Russia. If it were not for a strong intervention from Congress, BBG officials would have also ended VOA radio and TV to China in 2011.
While some VOA journalists may think that it would be better to have a complete separation between broadcasting and public diplomacy, political realities dictate that they themselves can only be effective and supported with public funds if U.S. international broadcasting is to some degree linked to the foreign policy and national security parts of the U.S. Government. These links, while risky in some respects, also helped to give a certain stature and focus to U.S. international broadcasting. They don’t have to be direct or allow for censorship of any kind, but there is a need for a long term view and approach that the current commercial culture of the BBG is lacking. As with public diplomacy messages, which should promote America’s long term values and interests, U.S. Government-funded broadcasting as well as new media content, should not be changed, stopped and resumed every time new BBG members are appointed. At the very least, more BBG members should be recruited from within the human rights and international affairs communities rather than from the commercial media and the domestic political circles.
The dual model of U.S. international broadcasting with independent surrogate broadcasters and the Voice of America, each having a different mission and operating under different rules, served well the needs of the United States Government, the American people and radio listeners behind the Iron Curtain. It worked initially much better for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, but once the Voice of America’s editorial independence was protected by law in 1976 and VOA news reporting decentralized during the Reagan Administration, the dual arrangement became even more effective in promoting human rights, media freedom and understanding of America.
After the United States Information Agency was abolished and the Broadcasting Board of Governors was created, this successful model was first weakened and may now be completely dismantled, with the Voice of America and U.S. public diplomacy being the primary losers. If America were a smaller nation, not seen internationally as the leader of the free world and the only country capable of effectively standing up to dictators, it might be ideal to have a BBC-like, journalistically independent international and domestic multimedia broadcaster, well-funded and easily identified abroad as the voice of the American people and to some degree the U.S. Government but also able to offer targeted and hard-hitting news and commentary to countries without free media.
As a journalist, I would prefer the BBC model, but unfortunately, it is not an arrangement that will work well in America or in America’s interest for a variety of historical and political reasons. A complete privatization, centralization of news gathering and the removal of at least informal links between the Voice of America and the foreign policy community and U.S. public diplomacy will harm the cause of supporting media freedom, human rights and democracy abroad. U.S. national security interests abroad will also be harmed by this proposal. Under the de-federalized, corporate and centralized model, getting funding for U.S. international broadcasting would become even more difficult, if not impossible.
Unlike Great Britain and the rest of Europe, the United States does not have a strong tradition of public broadcasting that serves well both domestic and international audiences. What may make political and business sense in other countries is not necessarily good public policy in America, which has international obligations, including military ones, that smaller democratic nations do not have. American taxpayers are not likely to support another CNN or NPR-like media outlet for international and domestic audiences, which is what the Voice America might become under the de-federalization plan. It is hard to imagine what a corporate VOA would represent to those abroad who seek not just uncensored news but primarily look for a proof of America’s moral support for their struggle.
Someone, somewhere — whether they are U.S. diplomats, political figures, corporate officers, or journalists — will have to decide what goes into U.S. Government-funded broadcasts and to where they should be directed. A corporate model being proposed by the BBG could offer either Fox News or a combination of NPR and CNN. It will be almost certainly the latter. The current BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson, the author of the best-selling biography of Steve Jobs, is a former CNN executive. Former CNN managers and reporters already occupy several key posts at the BBG. But in terms of changing the world, it is not the model of hard-hitting, pro-human rights journalism that helped the U.S. win the Cold War. It is a formula more suitable to manage the decline of U.S. influence abroad than to help the victims of oppression establish free press and more democratic governments.
A corporate VOA would still not be able to compete with BBC or CNN. International audiences already have CNN and AP, they do not need another similar network or a news agency. What they need is a Voice of America that speaks not just to their minds but also to their hearts, and does so with some authority and support of the American people. A de-federalized, corporate VOA would lack both the stature and the ability to meet such needs and expectations.
The BBG is also proposing to remove the Smith-Mundt Act’s restriction on domestic distribution of its programs, although private broadcasters in the U.S. are not strictly speaking prohibited from using these programs if they obtain them on their own. What the BBG is not allowed to do is to actively market its output in the U.S., which is a good thing. Currently all VOA content is in public domain. This would change if VOA were to be de-federalized. What the U.S. Congress should do is to insist that all U.S. international broadcasting material, including that of the surrogate stations, be placed in public domain and available to anyone who wants to use it. The surrogate broadcasters like RFE/RL currently copyright their output even though it is fully paid for with public funds. Putting their content in public domain would be a good change, de-federalizing VOA and Radio and TV Marti would not.
Allowing the BBG to actively distribute and market its programs domestically, to operate as a taxpayer-funded corporation, to become another CNN or NPR, is a politically risky proposition without any merit. Such an entity would lack any public support, especially during the current period of very tight budgets. Thanks to the First Amendment, the private press has always played a check on the power of the big government, which may explain why there is no-BBC-like public broadcasting giant in the United States, and public funding for PBS and NPR remains controversial. Americans view with suspicion any U.S. government-funded domestic media. This suspicion extends even to international broadcasts. But if properly used, censorship-busting radio, TV and Internet programs targeted abroad do save American lives by making military interventions less likely. It is one of the best and least costly investments in making America safer. It comes from supporting free flow of information where it is most needed to undermine dictators and encourage democracy. Domestic distribution of programs would only create a controversy and distract those in charge from their primary mission abroad.
Starting with its name and its nine part-time CEOs, the BBG itself is a dysfunctional body. The commercial culture, which has replaced the foreign policy, public diplomacy and human rights culture of previous decades, has not worked very well for U.S. international broadcasting. No one with any knowledge of the history of broadcasting and public diplomacy wants to see interference with journalistic freedom that in the past made the Voice of America less successful than it could have been. U.S. ambassadors and other State Department officials should not exercise a veto power over what goes on the air. But a complete divorce of U.S. international broadcasting from the experience of the U.S. Government’s foreign affairs community is politically unwise and will not be good for America or the world. While the BBG should be reformed or replaced, the dual model of surrogate and Voice of America broadcasting should remain with strong protections against government interference with editorial content but kept within the U.S. foreign policy and national security structures. The system of checks and balances that developed between U.S. Government broadcasters and government officials toward the end of the Cold War, although far from perfect, gave the United States the ability to send both authoritative and journalistically bold messages targeted to specific countries and to the whole world. It might be wise to study this history before rushing into a new arrangement.
After leaving VOA, where his last position was acting associate director, Ted Lipien founded Free Media Online (FreeMediaOnline.org), a media freedom NGO. He is also a co-founder of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB.org). His book “Wojtyla’s Women: “How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church” was published by O-Books in the UK in 2008.