Ted Lipien, who is one of BBG Watch’s sponsors and supporters, has agreed to write for us from time to time on the history of U.S. international broadcasting.
Edward R. Murrow – A Propaganda Hound
By Ted Lipien
Experts and Hillary Clinton say that the U.S. is losing the information war against ISIS and against Putin. According to some, American journalists no longer know how to counter propaganda because they don’t study history. U.S. government does not have enough experts who can identify propaganda and deal with it.
I recently heard a Voice of America (VOA) senior correspondent arguing that countering violent extremism in U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA programs is a bad idea.
“As a policy goal, I know of no one who would argue with the notion of countering violent extremism,” the VOA correspondent said.
“But the growing focus on and funding of the initiative [‘Countering Violent Extremism’] within VOA and the apparent desire to involve journalists in pursuit of a policy goal casts doubt on our independence and our journalistic integrity,” he stated with great conviction.
In support of his argument, the VOA correspondent chose to quote an American journalist who, ironically, later became a U.S. government propagandist.
“It was Edward R. Murrow who once said: ‘To be persuasive we must be believable, to be believable we must be credible, to be credible we must be truthful’.”
The VOA correspondent added:
“Murrow’s picture still hangs in the VOA Newsroom, a reminder to all that our mission was, is and should remain credible journalism.”
To hear that countering propaganda and violent extremists is something bad was a complete surprise to me. I did it when I was in charge of VOA’s Polish Service, one of VOA’s most successful foreign language services in the 1980s. I considered myself a follower of Edward R. Murrow.
He was, after all, a true hound of countering propaganda and using certain forms of propaganda without crossing the line between truth and falsehood. He did it with a passion. Many VOA journalists even now counter propaganda without compromising their professional integrity. Some of them had lived in countries where they were fed propaganda. They know how to spot it and how to counter it effectively, but fewer and fewer of them remain. Effective countering of propaganda requires from journalists expert knowledge, sophistication and subtlety which are now in short supply in the West.
Edward R. Murrow was indeed a strong believer in news reporters telling the truth. He had a keen understanding of history, foreign policy and foreign cultures. But based on what he knew and the period during which he was active as a journalist and later as a government official, he had absolutely no qualms about the Voice of America being involved in exposing and countering propaganda. According to him, this was to be done not only with facts but also with ideas and commentaries.
Edward R. Murrow accepted the job of the public diplomacy (a polite term for propaganda) chief in the Kennedy administration in 1961 when he became director of the United States Information Agency (USIA). “Public diplomacy” was a new term used to describe U.S. government propaganda and all other PR and information outreach in support of U.S. foreign policy and in improving America’s image abroad.
But even before he joined the U.S. government, Edward R. Murrow applauded government efforts to counter propaganda of racial and class hatred. In a 1943 radio broadcast, he strongly supported the activities of the Office of War Information (OWI) — VOA’s parent agency — precisely because he knew that VOA practiced anti-Nazi propaganda and even psychological warfare. He may have not known at the time that wartime VOA and its parent agency were also spreading Soviet propaganda and Soviet lies. This became a major controversy, one of many which led to the OWI being abolished in 1945 and to the passage of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act which restricted use of public money to distribute VOA programs in the United States (some of the Smith-Mundt restrictions were recently weakened, which also produced a controversy). Shortly after the war’s end, VOA was moved to the State Department and in 1953 to the United States Information Agency.
During the Cold War, as a U.S. government official Edward R. Murrow led the propaganda war against the Soviet Union and against global communism.
In a declassified 1961 memo, as USIA director he wrote:
EDWARD R. MURROW: “Decisions by the President call for an energetic campaign of persuasion — by diplomacy and propaganda — to unify Latin America against Castro, to isolate and ‘quarantine him,’ to nullify his potential for subversion, and ultimately so to weaken him in Cuba and in the rest of Latin America that his Cuban opponents (and Hemisphere pressures) can overthrow him.”
The U.S. News & World Report article argues that Edward R. Murrow wouldn’t be surprised at all at the U.S. inability now to win hearts and minds. The article attributes it largely to insufficient funding. I argue in an op-ed in Digital Journal that while more funding is definitely needed, America’s soft power will not become more effective without a complete overhaul of the federal agency in charge of it and without hiring competent managers and journalists.
At this point, Voice of America journalists who object to countering violent extremism should probably worry more instead about their agency being mismanaged, even defunct. They should worry whether some of their colleagues might be falling for Putin or Castro propaganda because of poor knowledge of history.
The real problem now is not even inability to counter propaganda but VOA unintentionally reinforcing anti-American propaganda.
The real question is to whom these VOA journalists are accountable. Can the new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO manage them as well as journalists working for several other BBG media entities? Many experts think this job is too big for one person and one super-agency too big to produce quality media content of different kinds to many different audiences to achieve different goals from countering propaganda to promoting America’s image abroad. Supporters of reform propose splitting the agency into more manageable components.
I’ve seen too many poorly-researched, one-sided VOA news reports and commentaries which could very well be confused with those originating from Russia’s RT or Radio Havana. While most of the VOA output is not tainted, some is excellent, and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) output is even better, this is unfortunately happening with disturbing frequency at VOA, and to some degree even at RFE/RL.
New Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO and Director John Lansing needs to find new executives to manage the ailing agency, and find new leaders for VOA and RFE/RL. Congress must help him by legislating much of the agency’s bloated government bureaucracy out of existence and by strengthening oversight.
As to VOA reporters who object to countering propaganda, I’ll be brief and will only say that they need to find a new patron saint, definitely someone other than Edward R. Murrow.
In his June 1943 broadcast, Edward R. Murrow discusses both domestic and overseas U.S. government propaganda. He specifically mentions and praises U.S. government’s “propaganda,” “psychological warfare,” and “campaign of political warfare against the enemy.” The U.S. Congress almost abolished the domestic branch of the Office of War Information in 1943 because in addition to VOA’s overseas broadcasts OWI also engaged in domestic propaganda and in some cases illegal censorship of domestic media in the United States. Many members of Congress were furious about these activities, as well as about some VOA broadcasts. It turns out that many of VOA’s most controversial wartime radio broadcasts, some of which repetitions of Soviet propaganda, were produced by OWI and VOA leaders and journalists acting on their own beliefs and their own initiative.
Democratic congressman from Indiana, Rep. Louis L. Ludlow, on March 29, 1944, called the Director of the Office of War Information Elmer Davis “America’s leading propagandist, the generalissimo of the propaganda forces of this great nation, that Mr. Davis is rendering a service of inestimable value to humanity.” It was meant as a compliment.
The super-propaganda agency and its largest element, the Voice of America, were a managerial disaster with very little oversight and accountability during WWII — not unlike the Broadcasting Board of Governors of today.
Edward R. Murrow may not have been yet fully aware of some of these problems and controversies when he recorded his broadcast in 1943.
A transcript of Edward R. Murrow’s June 20, 1943 radio broadcast was placed in the Congressional Record by Rep. Walter K. Granger (Democrat – Utah).
PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 78TH CONGRESS
VOLUME 89–PART II
JUNE 9, 1943 TO OCTOBER 15, 1943
UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE, WASHINGTON, 1943
BROADCAST BY EDWARD R. MURROW
EXTENSION OF REMARKS
HON. WALTER K. GRANGER
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Monday, June 21, 1943
MR. GRANGER. “Mr. Speaker, we are all familiar with the radio voice of Edward R. Murrow who has been one of our outstanding radio reporters from Great Britain. On yesterday at 6 o’clock over the Columbia network from Philadelphia Mr. Murrow delivered the broadcast that I desire to insert in the Record. It is such a forthright statement and so timely that I think it deserves being made part of the RECORD.
That city of Washington is filled with hardworking people. To this reporter it’s the hardest working capital in the world. They tell me there are a lot of bureaucrats down there. That’s probably true but bureaus are needed to run a war and men and women are required to man the bureaus and that’s how they become bureaucrats. Whatever name we choose to call them, they’re a lot of hard working Americans down there trying to help win this war.
The House of Representatives has decided to abolish the domestic activities of the Office of War Information. If the Senate concurs, that organization will fold up. May be it should–but there ought to be a reason and claiming that Elmer Davis is another Goebbels isn’t a reason. It’s ludicrous. As I understand it, the Office of War Information was established to help win this war. Its success or failure at that job ought to determine its future. No one can be sure what part propaganda and psychological warfare has played so far, but there can be little doubt that the time is coming—-and soon–when the Germans will be vulnerable to a sustained campaign designed to weaken their will to fight. If that job is done well it might shorten the war by months and shortening the war by months means saving of a great many American lives.
Next winter in Europe will be a terrible winter. As it closes in, the German people will be weary and wondering if we have anything to say to them, it will be the time to say it. Optimism and courage are pretty hard to hold on to when you’re cold.
I’m not competent to speak of the domestic activities of the Office of War Information, but I can tell you that if that organization is wrecked our campaign of political warfare against the enemy will suffer, and I can report that in the opinion of every competent observer, military and civilian, that I have seen in the course of considerable traveling we are not so near to winning this war as to be justified in discarding anything that might help win it.
There are those in Washington who see in this effort to fragmentate the Office of War Information the opening gun in the 1944 campaign, the Presidential campaign.
It’s difficult, almost impossible, for one recently returned from the fighting fronts to accept that explanation. Healthy political controversy is one of the safeguards of democracy, but it just can’t be that any of us are confused about the relative importance of the 1944 campaign and the bloody, bitter campaigns of the winter of 1943.
In Britain, ministers of information came and went with surprising speed. They once talked of forming a club for ex-ministers of information, but the principle of political warfare was never seriously questioned because, it was agreed that it might help win the war. If the Office of War Information can’t do anything to help win the war, then we would all agree that it should be abolished, but if it can, then those who destroy it for reasons of polities or personalities are assuming a considerable responsibility.”