In the last decade, authoritarian regimes have increasingly used their print, broadcast, and social media to control or restrict their own citizens’ access to news and information – in order to shape or channel the opinions of their populations. The same regimes use the media to influence international opinion, often propagating outright lies and falsehoods.
In today’s tense international environment, the Voice of America remains a “consistently reliable and authoritative source of news…accurate, objective, and comprehensive.” Its coverage has had human costs — almost a dozen front-line broadcasters targeted and killed in dangerous beats over the years. And its listenership continues to rise.
In the past, however, the Voice was often battered by controversy. Critics have said its broadcasts are U.S. propaganda – or, conversely, that the Voice insufficiently supports U.S. policies. Its work was tangled by quarrels over language services and means of transmission. It has long had to do more with less. Its people have had to dodge many slings and arrows of partisanship.
Facing these criticisms, the doctor prescribes some fresh air – the words of President John F. Kennedy when he visited VOA on its 20th anniversary on February 26, 1962.
It’s fair to say that the President’s understanding of U.S. overseas broadcasting also applied to Public Diplomacy while Edward R. Murrow was the Director of the U.S. Information Agency. Many of JFK’s words – and Murrow’s principles — are still in the DNA of U.S. Public Diplomacy. What the President said of the Voice can describe Public Diplomacy too. Both are “an arm of the Government” and “part of the arm of freedom…obliged to tell our story in a truthful way…”
Re-reading these remarks again, I am struck by their democratic self-confidence, as when President Kennedy said “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
Kennedy was, of course, echoing Thomas Jefferson’s comment that “Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
The President’s charge to VOA – and implicitly to all of Public Diplomacy – was to “make our ideas alive and new and vital in the high competition which goes on around the world.” Alive. New. Vital. Demonstrating these three words nearly six decades later calls for confidence in American values, the freshest thinking, and the finest programs.
From the President’s speech:
….The Voice of America occupies, I believe, a key part in the story of American life. What we do here in this country, and what we are, what we want to be, represents really a great experiment in a most difficult kind of self-discipline, and that is the organization and maintenance and development of the progress of free government. * * *
This is an extremely difficult and sensitive task. On the one hand you are an arm of the Government and therefore an arm of the Nation, and it is your task to bring our story around the world in a way which serves to represent democracy and the United States in its most favorable light. But on the other hand, as part of the cause of freedom, and the arm of freedom, you are obliged to tell our story in a truthful way, to tell it, as Oliver Cromwell said about his portrait, “Paint us with all our blemishes and warts, all those things about us that may not be so immediately attractive.”
We compete with other means of communication, of those who are our adversaries who tell only the good stories. But the things that go bad in America, you must tell that also. And we hope that the bad and the good is sifted together by people of judgment and discretion and taste and discrimination, that they will realize what we are trying to do here.
This presents to you an almost impossible challenge, and it is a source of satisfaction to me that in the last 20 years you have met that challenge so well. I know that there are those who are always critical of the Voice, but I believe that over the years, faced with this very difficult challenge, far more difficult than that of an American editor or a newspaperman, or a commentator on an American radio or television station, you have been able to tell our story in a way which makes it believable and credible. And that is what I hope you will continue to do in the future.
The first words that the Voice of America spoke were 20 years ago. They said, “The Voice of America speaks. Today America has been at war for 79 days. Daily at this time we shall speak to you about America and the war, and the news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.” And so you have, for 20 years–and so you shall for 20 years more.
In 1946 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution reading in part, “freedom of information is a fundamental human right, and the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” This is our touchstone as well. This is the code of the Voice of America. We welcome the views of others. We seek a free flow of information across national boundaries and oceans, across iron curtains and stone walls. We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.
The Voice of America thus carries a heavy responsibility. Its burden of truth is not easy to bear. It must explain to a curious and suspicious world what we are. It must tell them of our basic beliefs. It must tell them of a country which is in some ways a rather old country–certainly old as republics go. And yet it must make our ideas alive and new and vital in the high competition which goes on around the world since the end of World War II.
In the last 20 years the Voice of America and its parent organization have grown in strength and in stature, but in the next 20 years our opportunities to tell our story will expand beyond belief. The advent of the communications satellite, the modernization of education of less-developed nations, the new wonders of electronics and technology, all these and other developments will give our generation an unprecedented opportunity to tell our story. And we must not only be equal to the opportunity, but to the challenge as well.
For in the next 20 years your problem and ours as a country, in telling our story, will grow more complex. The choices we present to the world will be more difficult, and for some the future will seem even more empty of hope and progress. The barrage upon truth will grow more constant, and some people cannot bear the responsibility of a free choice which goes with self-government. And finally, shrinking from choice, they turn to those who prevent them from choosing, and thus find in a kind of prison, a kind of security.
We believe that people are capable of standing the burdens and the pressures which choice places upon them, and it is because of this strong conviction that this organization functions, and it is because there is this commitment to this view that you continue to serve in it.
None of you are interested in serving in an agency which merely reflects a line which the Government from time to time may set down. You serve in it–and you all could serve in different agencies or in different parts of life–because you believe, I am sure, that this is a vital part of telling our story around the world.
And as you tell it, it spreads. And as it spreads, not only is the security of the United States assisted, but the cause of freedom.
So I salute you on your 20th birthday and say that in the next 20 years when these choices will become more vital to us, I believe that the Voice of America will be fulfilling its function, as it did that first day when it committed itself to truth.
A hat tip to Matt Armstrong for flagging this speech. Source: John F. Kennedy: “Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the Voice of America,” February 26, 1962. (Scroll to the bottom of the web page.)
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.