By Ted Lipien
Cold War – Clip: I’ve Been Ratting On You | Amazon Studios
I was checking on the Voice of America (VOA) U.S. tax-funded English news website to see whether it had anything on Cold War (Polish: Zimna wojna), an internationally co-produced historical period drama film by Oscar-winning director Paweł Pawlikowski.
The film, described as “a passionate love story between two people of different backgrounds and temperaments,” is “set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris.” It has just won the National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Language Film Award and the 2018 New York Film Critics Circle Award in the same category. At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Pawlikowski received the Best Director prize for Cold War, which also won this year’s European Film Awards.
Unfortunately, I could not find anything on the VOA site about Pawlikowski’s latest film despite the station’s strong legacy as a Cold War broadcaster, the film’s recent release in the United States, and its selection as the Polish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards (Oscars). (A Reuters report reposted on the VOA English site last May mentioned the film in one sentence.) The Voice of America seems more interested these days in comparing Donald Trump to Lenin, Stalin and Mao because of Trump’s frequent sharp criticism of the media. Some of today’s VOA broadcasters who are not afraid to use f-words to describe Trump on social media do not seem to know what it was like to live under totalitarian communism. My guess is that they never had to listen to fake radio and television news produced by an army of communist propagandists employed as fake journalists.
I was once in charge of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Poland during the Cold War. I joined VOA because, while living in Poland as a teenager, I had been deeply offended by communist lies about history. But as I discovered later, VOA had not been always strongly anti-Soviet and anti-communist, as it was to a large degree when I was working there in the 1970s and 1980s.
VOA had started out during World War II as a refuge of pro-Soviet communist sympathizers who had supported Moscow’s puppet regimes in Eastern Europe and helped them consolidate their power during and after the war with radio broadcasts from the United States which included Soviet propaganda lies and disinformation. It was a shameful period about which there is still a lot of misleading information being spread by past and current VOA officials who falsely claim that from the very beginning the station aired only accurate news and has never intentionally deceived its audience with lies about history or was biased and partisan in its reporting.
— Amanda Bennett (@abennett) November 28, 2018
For most of its existence, VOA’s overall commitment to accurate reporting was indeed true, but there had been periods when VOA journalism on such topics as Stalinist crimes, Soviet Russia, Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe were associated more with pro-Soviet propaganda than with support for true democracy and freedom.
Eventually, the Voice of America had managed to save itself from disgrace. After postwar management, personnel and programming reforms carried out under pressure from Congress and in response to other American and foreign critics, VOA had played a highly positive role in exposing and countering communist propaganda in the later years of the Cold War. Many Poles and other East Europeans, including myself when I was living in Poland during the 1960s, had found these later VOA broadcasts extremely valuable, but Radio Free Europe, which was never tainted by Soviet propaganda, was much more popular and much more feared by communist officials. While still living in Poland, I was listening more often for RFE than to VOA.
In the Cold War movie, the young singer, Zula (played by Joanna Kulig), makes a startling admission to her impresario lover, Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), that she was forced to report on him to Kaczmarek, a communist functionary. “But I never tell anything that could hurt you,” she added.
Startled by her admission, Wiktor asks her what the regime’s agent wanted to know about him. She then lists some of the questions: “What you did during the war. If you listen to Radio Free Europe. If you have dollars. If you believe in God.”
Zula used the Polish word “Wolna” (Free), a short code in communist-ruled Poland for Radio Free Europe, which in the English subtitles was translated as “Radio Liberty.” Radio Liberty was Radio Free Europe’s sister station broadcasting to the Soviet Union, but for the American audience not familiar with the history of Cold War broadcasting, translating “Wolna” as Radio Liberty actually may have made it more understandable although not historically accurate.
During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were based in Munich, West Germany, and both were funded with American tax dollars. VOA was part of a federal agency managed directly by the U.S. government. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were initially managed by the CIA as semi-private entities. They were created in the early 1950s, RFE and RL broadcasters enjoyed much greater journalistic and creative independence than VOA.
Much has changed in Poland since then. VOA has changed as well, but not always for the better under its scandal-prone federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governor (BBG), which since last year has a new name, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Visitors to the Voice of America English website are more likely to learn these days from VOA that American communist Angela Davis is a fighter for workers’ and women’s rights than to learn about Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s criticism of her for refusing to come to the defense of East European dissidents who were languishing in communist prisons. Solzhenitsyn himself experienced some censorship at VOA during the 1970s. Angela Davis was a proud communist receipient of the Lenin Peace Prize, but not too many VOA reporters and editors know this, or know much about Cold War’s and VOA’s history.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a co-founder and supporter of BBG Watch – USAGM Watch.