BBG Watch History
A Cold War Radio Museum article points out official bias and censorship in Voice of America’s (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Radio Farda coverage of the Iranian regime under the current Obama administration Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) leadership [now the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM)] while examining pro-Soviet bias and censorship during early years of the Voice of America.
A recent (2017) independent study by the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) focusing on Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts to Iran has found that under Obama administration officials these broadcasts “perpetuated to audiences the appearance of pro-regime [Iran] propaganda, rather than objective reporting, on the part of both the VOA and Farda.” Radio Farda broadcasts to Iran are produced by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Both RFE/RL and VOA have been managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency which has been renamed in August 2018 as the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The AFPC study also found that “reportage on bilateral relations between the U.S. government and the Iranian regime conveyed an impression of equivalence between the parties, a position that is both surprising and improper for broadcasting that is funded by the U.S. government.” “It is also deeply misleading,” the study said, “insofar as it conflates the Iranian regime with the Iranian people, whereas the U.S. government opposes the former while supporting the latter.”
While the BBG denied that there was “systematic bias,” the independent study, which had been commissioned by the BBG, revealed a fundamental managerial and journalistic failure on the part of BBG officials as well as VOA and RFE/RL executives, editors and reporters. The study also hinted that opposing points of view on the Obama administration policy toward Iran were censored.
Such bias and censorship are not new to the Voice of America. VOA officials and journalists had embraced and promoted Soviet propaganda lies during World War II and covered up Stalin’s crimes during certain periods even after 1945. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty generally avoided such pro-Soviet bias and censorship during the Cold War.
At certain periods, especially during its early history, some VOA officials and reporters were easily deceived by Soviet propaganda. A few of the early VOA journalists later went to work for communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
Others tried to present the truth, but their voices were silenced by Voice of America managers. One of those censored by the Voice of America during his visit to the United States in 1950 when he attempted to talk at length about the Katyn Massacre was Polish military officer, writer and artist Józef Czapski. In 1941 and 1942, he had made a futile search for thousands of missing Polish officers in Soviet Russia. They were killed on the orders of Stalin in 1940. Some of the members of the U.S. Congress spoke publicly about VOA’s censorship of Józef Czapski. VOA officials claimed there was no censorship and that Czapski agreed to the shortening of his interview. Later, under tremendous pressure from the U.S. Congress, VOA stopped its censorship of the Katyn story but resumed it partially until the Reagan administration eliminated all VOA censorship about such Soviet crimes.
In an 1984 interview with VOA Polish Service correspondent Wacław Bniński, Józef Czapski described the Soviet propaganda lies about the Katyn Massacre and the initial acceptance and promotion of such lies by U.S. government officials and propagandists.
Promoting of Soviet propaganda lies in early Voice of America broadcasts and later coverup of Stalin’s crimes in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not go unnoticed in the U.S. Congress. Congressman Philip J. Philbin (D-MA) spoke about it in the House of representatives on May 16, 1952. He mentioned VOA’s censorship of Józef Czapski’s Katyn statement and efforts by former Office of War Information (OWI) journalist Julius Epstein to expose the pro-Soviet bias in Voice of America broadcasts. VOA officials tried to discredit Epstein and his claims. One VOA official suggested that Epstein, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany, was perhaps unworthy of being a naturalized U.S. citizen and should be investigated.
The SPEAKER. Under the previous order of the House, the gentleman from Massachusetts [Mr. PHILBIN] is recognized for 30 minutes.
POLAND AND HUMAN LIBERTY
Mr. PHILBIN. Mr. Speaker, it has been my custom since I have been a Member of this body on the anniversary of Poland’s Constitution Day to join other Members of the House in commemorating that great event in world history. I think that Poland’s Constitution Day has new significance this year, because already there are signs that the indomitable Polish people and other people similarly oppressed in Western Europe and in other parts of the world are at last, after many years of persecution and suffering, prepared to move in order to throw off the shackles that so cruelly bind them.
There is another reason this year why those of us dedicated to democratic principles of self-determination and justice should make special efforts to keep the great issues of human freedom alive in diplomatic and political circles and that is the current investigation of the outrageous massacre at Katyn.
Since this frightful mass slaughter occurred the world was led to believe that the Germans were responsible for it. Even the publicity agencies of our own Government, such as OWI and the Voice of America, either by their silence or by implication, have given the impression that the Germans perpetrated this horrible and indescribable blood bath. It is interesting for me to note that even though the OWI and later the Voice of America had, or should have had, access to the facts of this cold-blooded slaughter of 15,000 loyal Polish officers, who were massacred on Soviet soil in the spring of 1940, the evidence unhappily shows that these agencies apparently accepted the Russian version of the horrible incident, namely, that it had been perpetrated by the Germans.
All the more distressing is that after the war, when a large number of undeniable facts became available indicating that it was not the Germans, but the Russians, who massacred the Poles, the Voice of America kept silent. This silence was all the more difficult to understand in the light of the fact that that agency had available to it complete evidence in the Katyn case as assembled by a well-known writer for the New York Herald Tribune. Not only did the Voice of America fail to publish or broadcast this evidence, but it failed to protect the efforts of public-spirited citizens and good American patriots, some of them former high officials of the Government, to try to bring out the facts. Despite the fact that there was intense interest in it all over Europe, where front-page feature stories appeared in the European press concerning the incident, our own foreign publicity and propaganda agencies were as silent as the tomb.
Are we to assume, according to the views of the writer mentioned above, that the Voice therefore decided to play down Katyn because it would create too much hatred against Stalin among the Poles. It is indeed appropriate to ask, as he has. whether anyone connected with this Government desires to create love for Stalin among the Poles at the American taxpayer’s expense.
Moreover, it should be noted that the Voice censored the speech of Count Joseph Czapski, one of the few survivors of Katyn, when he was permitted to ad- dress the Polish people through the facilities of the Voice. He was not permitted to mention the mere word of Katyn. I am at a complete loss to understand such a policy. Why was it pursued?
If we are interested in helping the Polish people to liberate themselves from oppression, why was the truth about Katyn suppressed for more than 8 years? Why did the officials of this Government consider it proper to tell the truth about Katyn in May 1951 when the same truth was unfit to be produced in 1949 and 1950, not to speak of the years before that?
Now that a House committee, under the leadership of our esteemed colleague from Indiana [Mr. MADDEN] is currently investigating all aspects of the Katyn massacre, we may at least expect to get the full truth as it is available from witnesses and documentary evidence.
In order to document the foregoing remarks that I have made in behalf of Poland and especially my references to Katyn, I desire to set forth in the RECORD a portion of an article entitled “The OWI and the Voice of America,” by Julius Epstein, experienced foreign correspondent, former language editor of the OWI and a well-known newspaperman.
It is very difficult for me to understand the tenderness found in many high places for the welfare of persons who are the known enemies of this Nation and its institutions.
We are engaged in a war, call it a police action if you will, but it is one of the bloodiest wars in American history. What is happening in Korea is only a Sunday School picnic compared to what can happen elsewhere if patent instigation from the Kremlin succeeds. …
During World War II, overseas radio broadcasts of the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), which only later became known as the Voice of America (VOA), repeated and promoted Soviet propaganda lies under VOA’s first so-called director but in reality the radio program production chief John Houseman. Houseman’s extreme pro-Soviet line resulted in him being forced to resign in 1943. 1 But the real directors of these early “Voice of America” wartime broadcast and Soviet sympathizers hired by John Houseman continued their collusion with Soviet propagandists and covered up Stalin’s crimes until the end of World War II. Partial censorship of the Katyn massacre story by the Voice of America continued with interruptions until the 1980s.
One of the early contributors to OWI information programs and later a volunteer in launching first VOA broadcasts in Russian in 1947 was Kathleen Harriman, daughter of President Roosevelt’s wartime ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman. She had worked for OWI as a young reporter in London and later in Moscow, where she accompanied her father. It was Ambassador Harriman who in 1944 sent her 25-year-old daughter on a Soviet-organized propaganda trip to the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, the site of the mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia. After her trip to Katyn, she produced a report for the State Department which supported the Soviet propaganda claim that the Germans were the perpetrators of the mass murder. The Polish prisoners of war in Soviet hands were in fact executed in the spring of 1940 by the NKVD secret police on the orders of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Politburo. As Russia was then America’s military ally fighting Nazi Germany, President Roosevelt did not want to disclose Stalin’s genocidal crimes to Americans and foreign audiences.
When the Germans announced the discovery of the Katyn graves in April 1943, the Office of War Information immediately started to broadcast and promote the Soviet propaganda lie about Katyn, even though high-level State Department diplomats, who earlier had warned the FDR White House of Soviet and communist influence at the agency in charge of “Voice of America” broadcasts, advised against blindly accepting the Kremlin’s claims of innocence. Ambassador Harriman, his daughter, and OWI’s “Voice of America” propagandists helped to boost and spread the Kremlin’s false propaganda claims. It was one of the most blatant Russian propaganda lies, or what now would be called fake news, of the 20th century.
With so many high-level U.S. government officials and the Voice of America tainted by the Soviet lie, it is no surprise that VOA’s early history has been covered up, distorted, re-written and falsely presented by friendly writers with links to the agency, now called the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and previously known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). They have ignored and most likely purposely obscured the early collusion between the Roosevelt administration and Soviet propagandists. They never mentioned VOA’s participation in the Katyn lie. They also did not address the later cover-up of Soviet crimes which lasted until the Voice of America and State Department officials in charge of VOA were forced by Congress to change the course on Katyn reports in the early 1950s.
John Houseman is presented in these books and VOA promotional materials (even in 2018 VOA public relations materials) not as an apologist for Stalin, but as a defender of truthful journalism. His biography posted online by the VOA Public Relations Office says nothing about the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Military Intelligence preventing Houseman from traveling abroad during World War II because of his suspected pro-Soviet activities.
“John Houseman, a Romanian-born immigrant and successful actor, author, and film producer, served as Voice of America’s first director just as World War II was entangling the Western world. In spite of a steady stream of bad news related to wartime losses, Houseman determined that VOA would tell listeners the truth, whether it was good for the U.S., or bad for the U.S. ‘Only thus,’ he explained, ‘could we establish a reputation for honesty which we hoped would pay off on that distant but inevitable day when we would start reporting on our own invasions and victories.'” 2
One will not learn from these books, online articles and promotional brochures about Kathleen Harriman as one of the early contributors to the Voice of America programs and about her defense of the Katyn lie. Even in the late 1940s and in 1950, the Voice of America was censoring witnesses of Stalin’s crimes, including statements by Józef Czapski.
One of the early VOA directors, Charles W. Thayer, who himself was described by another Foreign Service officer Chester H. Opal as not being convinced that the Soviets had murdered the Polish officers at Katyn 3 disclosed in his memoirs published in 1959 that “unpaid volunteers including Averell Harriman’s daughter, Kathleen, were recruited to help in the studios, in violation of government regulations” 4 when in 1947 the Voice of America finally launched its Russian-language broadcasts. Thayer was VOA director from January 1948 to October 1949 but before that he was in charge of launching VOA Russian broadcasts. VOA did not broadcast in Russian before 1947, most likely because U.S. officials in change of the Office of War Information during World War II did not want to offend Stalin and may have assumed also that Soviet radio propaganda in Russian was sufficient for Russian-speking listeners.
Both Charles W. Thayer and Kathleen Harriman, who later went by her married name Kathleen Mortimer, at least initially believed in the Soviet Katyn lie. When questioned by a bipartisan committee of the House of Representative which investigated the Katyn massacre, Kathleen Harriman-Mortimer admitted that she was wrong in accepting the Soviet claims but insisted that in 1944 she was convinced that the Germans were responsible for the murders.
In line with the wishes of her father and President Roosevelt, who wanted at all cost to protect Stalin’s reputation as America’s main military ally against Hitler, Kathleen Harriman embraced the Soviet propaganda lie on Katyn. She wrote a special report for for her father and the State Department supporting the Soviet claims.
Testimony of Hon. William Averell Harriman, Director of Mutual Security in “The Katyn Forest Massacre: Hearings before the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, Eighty-second Congress, Second Session, on investigation of the murder of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, Part 7, 1952, page 2124.
Telegram From United States Embassy,
Moscow, January 25, 1944
Moscow, January 25, 1944- Secretary of State, Washington. (For President and Secretary & strictly confidential.)
Member of Embassy staff and my daughter have returned from trip Smolensk with British and American correspondents. While there they were shown evidence being collected by special commission to investigate German shooting of captured Polish officers in Katyn Forest close to Smolensk.
None of party was able to judge scientific evidence of autopsies which were performed in their presence. Moreover, they were not permitted to make independent investigations except for formal questioning of few witnesses made available. Correspondents filed reports telling what they saw without expressing opinions, but for some reason censor has held up these stories. The general evidence and testimony are inconclusive, but Kathleen and Embassy staff member believe probability massacre perpetrated by Germans. During Kathleen Mortimer’s testimony, her report on the trip to Katyn was also presented as an exhibit. It appears on page 2132.
Embassy of the United States of America,
Moscow, February 23, 1944. No. 207
Subject : Investigation by Soviet Authorities of the Massacre of Polish Soldiers in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. Secret The Honorable the Secretary of State,
Sir: I have the honor to refer to luy secret telegram No. 247 of January 25, 7 p. in., concerning the activities of the Special Commission to Establish and Investigate the Circumstances of the Shooting by the German Fascist Invaders of Captive Polish Officers in the Katyn Woods. On January 21-23, 1944, the foreign correspondents in Moscow made a trip to Smolensk to witness the pro-ceedings of the Commission. The correspondents were accompanied by my daughter, Kathleen, and Mr. John F. Melby, Third Secretary of the Embassy. I am enclosing copies of their memoranda containing their observations on this trip. I am also enclosing a copy of the January 29, 1944, Moscow News which contains an abridged version of the formal report of the Commission.
William Anerell Harriman.
File No. 711.6. Enclosures : 1-2-3-/ as stated.
Report Written by Mrs. Kathleen Harriman Mortimer After Visiting Katyn in January 1944
(Enclosure No. 2 to Despatch No. 207 dated February 23, 1944, from American Embassy, Moscow)
On January 23, 1944 members of the foreign press were taken to Smolensk to get first hand the evidence compiled by the Commission on the Katyn incident.
The party was shown the graves in the Katyn Rorest and witnessed post mortems of the corpses. As no member was in a position to evaluate the scientific evidence given, it had to be accepted at its face value.
The testimonial evidence provided by the Commission and witnesses was minute in detail and by American standards petty. We were expected to accept the statements of the high ranking Soviet officials as true, because they said it was true.
Despite this it is my opinion that the Poles were murdered by the Germans. The most convincing evidence to uphold this was the methodical manner in which the job was done, something the Commission thought not sufficiently important to stress. They were more interested in the medical evidence as conclusive proof and the minute circumstantial evidence surrounding the crime.
These Soviet declarations of innocence were the biggest propaganda lie of the 20th century, but they were eagerly promoted in the early Voice of America broadcasts under the influence of its pro-Soviet fellow traveler sympathizers. Among them was the person later declared to be VOA’s first director, Hollywood actor and theatre producer John Houseman.
Houseman was hiring his communist friends to work on producing Voice of America broadcasts. In 1943, the State Department and U.S. Army Intelligence secretly identified him to the FDR White House as being dangerously pro-Soviet. It was an unusual accusation made by some of President Roosevelt’s closest advisors because he and the administration pursued a policy of what could be called an extreme accommodation toward Stalin. The secret accusation against Houseman and a few other OWI officials, made by FDR’s friend and confidant Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, led to the forced resignation of the man later known as the “first Voice of America director” although Houseman was never publicly identified as a communist sympathizer. This allowed for spreading of the myth that he was a defender of truthful and honest VOA journalism. Under other officials who were even more responsible for the pro-Kremlin tone and content of early Voice of America broadcasts, VOA continued to air Soviet propaganda for the remainder of the war and even into the late 1940s, with the Katyn story still being occasionally censored as late as 1951.
In 1952, Kathleen Harriman Mortimer was called before a bipartisan investigative committee of the House of Representatives and admitted that she had been wrong in blaming the Katyn mass murder on Nazi Germany. After that she faded into relative obscurity and Voice of America officials never mentioned her as volunteer contributor to VOA programs.
Testimony of Kathleen Mortimer on November 12, 1952 before the Select Committee on the Katyn Forest Massacre:
Mr. Pucinski. I wonder if you would straighten out one point for us here.
There has been some speculation that you went to Katyn as a correspondent or adviser or observer for the OWI. Did you have any connections with the OWI at that time?
Mrs. Mortimer. I was a correspondent in London for Newsweek magazine, before I went to Moscow, and I resigned from that post when I went to Moscow with my father. I worked for the OWI in a purely unofficial capacity. Everybody there at the Embassy was very short-staffed and, in other words, pitched in and helped.
Mr. Pucinski. Did you file any reports for the OWI as a result of your visit to Katyn?
Mrs. Mortimer. No, this was the only thing I wrote.
Mr. Pucinski. I have one more question. You were quite admired in Moscow, were you not? You were 25 years old, and the Ambassador’s daughter, and people sort of looked to you with a great deal of respect, did they not?
Mrs. Mortimer. At the time I went to Moscow I was the only American woman there.
Mr. Pucinski. The reason why I asked that question is this. I was wondering, had your observations and had your conclusions been different, had you believed in all the reasoning through your report, which indicated so strongly that the Soviets committed this massacre, could you, or were you in a position to so state, or were you somewhat bound by your position in Moscow to say that it was the Germans who did this?
Mrs. Mortimer. I would not say that my position in Moscow would have any bearing on what I would write in a report. I have been a correspondent before, and writing up a news story was not something that
Mr. Pucinski. You were free of any pressures, to state your con- clusions as you saw them ?
Mrs. Mortimer. When I came home, my father asked me to write down what I had seen, and that is what I did.
Mr. PuciNSKi. And what is your conclusion today ?
Mrs. Mortimer. I have since had the opportunity to read your interim report and read what the New York press has said about your committee, and you had access to every side of the picture, and I think, undoubtedly
Mr. Pucinski. Aside from our report,
Mrs. Mortimer. Well, that is my information on it,
Mr. Pucinski. Aside from our report, can you think of anything that you observed there in 1944 at Katyn, which may strengthen the evidence that we have already compiled, to the conclusion that the Soviets murdered these men? In retrospect today, is there anything that you observed at that time that would strengthen that belief today?
Mrs. Mortimer. I would say that would be, off hand, hard to answer now, without going over your report here and mine here.
Mr. Pucinski. No further questions.
Chairman Madden. As a final question let me ask. You would testify today, would you, that the Russians committed the massacre at Katyn ?
Mrs. Mortimer. I would. 5
- “First VOA Director was a pro-Soviet Communist sympathizer, State Dept. warned FDR White House,” Ted Lipien, Cold War Radio Museum, May 5, 2018. http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/state-department-warned-fdr-white-house-first-voice-of-america-director-was-hiring-communists/. Last accessed September 2, 2018. ↩
- John Houseman (1942 – 1943), Past VOA Directors, VOA Public Relations. https://www.insidevoa.com/a/john-houseman-1942-1943/4485185.html. Last accessed September 2, 2018. ↩
- “How a refugee journalist exposed Voice of America censorship of the Katyn Massacre,” Cold War Radio Museum, April 16, 2018, http://www.coldwarradiomuseum.com/how-refugee-journalist-exposed-voice-of-america-katyn-censorship/. Last accessed September 1, 2018. ↩
- Charles W. Thayer, Diplomat (London: Michael Joseph, 1959), 187. ↩
- Ibid., 2148-2149. ↩