BBG Watch History
Former Voice of America broadcaster and acting associate director Ted Lipien posted on his private blog a draft paper on VOA’s early history and its lessons for today. The paper includes copies of numerous recently declassified U.S. Government documents showing how the Office of War Information (OWI), the parent agency of the Voice of America, and VOA broadcasters themselves, some of whom later joined communist regimes in Eastern Europe, disseminated Stalin propaganda to cover up his role in what became known as the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre by the Soviet Union of thousands of Polish officers and other POWs. The paper also documents how the OWI practiced domestic U.S. media censorship during the war and how these failures and illegal practices led to the establishment of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty surrogate broadcasters. Disclaimer: Ted Lipien is one of the founders and supporters of BBG Watch.
WWII Voice of America aired Stalin propaganda to cover up his role in Katyn massacre
From deliberate pro-Stalin WWII propaganda to careless “pro-Puntin bias” — Avoiding propaganda pitfalls at Voice of America
By Ted Lipien
Official documents declassified and released by the National Archives since 2012 show that during World War II and for years afterwards, the U.S. Government-run Voice of America external radio station broadcast Soviet propaganda and disinformation to Poland and to other countries throughout the world with the intention of covering up Stalin’s crimes. This was done primarily in the interest of supporting immediate U.S. military and foreign policy wartime goals set by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and other high-ranking U.S. officials. It was a far cry from the promise enunciated in VOA’s first broadcast on February 25, 1942: “The news may be good. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth.” WWII diplomatic dispatches and other accounts prove beyond any doubt that following the wishes of the Roosevelt White House, the State Department, its own parent agency, the Office of War Information (OWI)–but also on its own initiative and through the work of some of its staffers who later joined communist regimes in Eastern Europe–VOA was guilty of hiding, censoring, distorting and minimizing news about Stalin’s order to kill Polish military officers and other POWs, estimated to number over 20,000, in in what became known as the 1940 Katyń Forest Massacre near Smolensk and at other locations in the Soviet Union. OWI-VOA officials even formally proposed to the White House and the State Department to coordinate American war propaganda with Soviet war propaganda. The central government propaganda agency, which included the Voice of America, operated during the war without any direct accountability except to the White House. It was rife with intrigue and distributed false or misleading information both in the United States and abroad. OWI officials put pressure on U.S. domestic media in an attempt to censor their reports on Katyń and other sensitive though legitimate news stories which included no military secrets. Some members of Congress of both parties and many prominent private Americans strongly objected to such biased VOA reporting and to OWI’s domestic media censorship, but the official clampdown on the Katyń story continued at the Voice of America to some degree during long periods of time from 1942 until the Reagan Administration took office in 1981. It is a shameful event in U.S. Government and Voice of America history which most VOA chroniclers preferred to ignore. Under different circumstances and for somewhat different reasons Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and disinformation, which are very similar in substance and tone to Stalin’s propaganda, also have not been properly exposed by VOA in recent years and are sometimes repeated without any challenge and balance because of massive mismanagement and other problems at the Voice of America and its current parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). To some degree history is being repeated at the U.S. taxpayer-funded VOA. The growth of BBG bureaucracy is also threatening wellbeing of BBG’s surrogate media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which during the Cold War made up for VOA’s bureaucratic and journalistic failures and helped the United States win the ideological struggle. As bad as VOA was at various times, it also contributed at other times to this historic victory. But at least one VOA program suggested to global audiences that it may have been all a mistake. VOA reported without casting any direct doubts that Russia was humiliated by the Cold War defeat and NATO’s eastward expansion, which explains President Putin’s annexation of Crimea and military aggression in eastern Ukraine. Similar propaganda claims from Moscow were aired by the Voice of America during World War II on a far more regular basis. When President Putin recently defended the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, with its secret protocol to divide Poland, VOA worldwide English language news service failed to put it online.
The United States needs the Voice of America (VOA) in some form as an authoritative news source representing the Government and the People as a democratic nation to foreign audiences in accordance with VOA’s Charter and put it under an agency and a board that is more than a cheerleader for the White House or for propaganda of success of its own bureaucrats. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), or its successive agency, needs a new system for selecting better qualified managerial and journalistic staff. Accountability is absolutely essential. 1 rather than promoting specific foreign policy goals of any particular U.S. administration. The quality of VOA managers and journalists must be vastly improved through better recruiting, management and more funding, and the organization must be under public scrutiny and held accountable for its journalistic performance.
To have an effective news and analysis service able to recognize and respond to Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and disinformation abroad, the U.S. Congress must keep specialists of its surrogate media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), independent from the Washington government bureaucracy and provide them with more funding. RFE/RL has greatly outperformed the Voice of America during the Cold War and is best equipped to respond to Russian propaganda if given sufficient freedom and resources.
Above all, the United States must avoid creating an all-powerful, central propaganda agency similar to World War II Office of War Information or give unlimited control over all U.S. international media outreach to one CEO. The Office of War Information and wartime Voice of America misled both foreign and domestic audiences, disappointed radio listeners and engaged in frighteningly illegal domestic U.S. press censorship. Such appear to be the main lessons drawn from the public release of WWII records in the custody of the U.S. Government which were previously classified. Many of them relate to the 1940 massacre by the Soviet Union of thousands of Polish POWs at the Katyń forest near Smolensk and at other locations in Russia which some U.S. Government officials tried to cover up even for many years and decades after the war.
Recently declassified documents also show the deception of a widely promoted and accepted narrative that the Voice of America started out in 1942 as primarily a journalistic enterprise telling “The Straight Story” and committed to the Jeffersonian principle of letting “facts be submitted to a candid world.” It is a reassuring claim, but for many years of VOA’s existence it was not true, due to either deliberate distortion of the journalistic truth in the interest of sometimes misguided U.S. foreign policy or, more recently and also throughout much of VOA’s history, because of poor organization and bureaucratic mismanagement.
Yet during long periods of foolish censorship and administrative declines, audiences desperate for news and information from the United States continued to tune in to VOA for reassurance that the American people had not forgotten them. VOA’s history thus became a mix of sad failures of the Washington bureaucracy, perseverance of some of its journalists, and occasional great successes in bringing uncensored news to people suffering from repression.
U.S. taxpayer-funded surrogate broadcaster, Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), did a much better and most of the time outstanding job, which I can say both as a former young listener to both RFE and VOA in communist-ruled Poland, a former VOA broadcaster and program manager, Eurasia regional marketing director and VOA acting associate director in charge of Central News. For decades, from 1950 until 1980 and even beyond, Voice of America’s upper management, which included in-house program managers and some State Department and later United States Information Agency (USIA) Foreign Service officers with rotational assignments at VOA (a few of whom were excellent area specialists), blocked access to wire services to journalists working in VOA’s foreign language services. One of their fears was that they might report some new news development on the Katyń story without it being carefully evaluated and censored at a higher level. I started my VOA radio career in the 1970s. Even though I worked with some exceptional Polish Service broadcasters and a few VOA English newsroom editors, managers and correspondents who had a solid background in international affairs and journalism (some of them had European education), the 1970s were a particularly depressing period in VOA’s history. I already knew about the unchallenged superiority of RFE journalistic staff and its programs to Poland, but when I visited RFE headquarters in Munich for the first time in the early 1980s I was also amazed by how well managed the surrogate station was compared to what I had experienced at VOA. Even during Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule, the Voice of America English Central Newsroom correspondent in charge of the VOA bureau in Moscow barred from the office a VOA Russian Service correspondent on a reporting trip because–as the VOA bureau chief reportedly said–a VOA language service employee “is not a journalist.” The VOA Russian Service reporter later transferred to Radio Liberty where he had a highly successful tenure. Ironically, the VOA bureau chief in Moscow held a special U.S. Foreign Service assignment, a practice instituted by the Office of War Information during World War II.
The Voice of America in 2015 can only be described a failed child of the Office of War Information. The Broadcasting Board of Governors bureaucracy behaves very much like the all-powerful OWI-VOA bureaucracy, but without being accountable to anyone, not even the White House. Technically, it is accountable to the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors board, but most of its part-time members behave as cheerleaders for BBG bureaucrats rather than acting as a true oversight board. It is impossible for one part-time board to oversee both VOA and the surrogate broadcasters. Members don’t have the necessary expertise or time to do their job right.
As badly as some of the OWI mangers behaved in imposing false news and censorship on foreign and U.S. domestic audiences, some of them were outstanding writers and even journalists. Some objected to WWII era OWI-VOA news censorship, but not necessarily or successfully on the Katyn story. Some were much more concerned when their pro-Stalin reports were censored on rare occasions. Members of Congress, private Americans and foreign diplomats protested from time to time, but there was no effective official oversight of the OWI-VOA.
Official U.S. Government censorship is no longer an issue at VOA, but the BBG and VOA management censors VOA programs produced for placement in some countries in violation of the VOA Charter. The real problem rests within the huge BBG bureaucracy which BBG officials would like to make even bigger by combining VOA with the semi-private surrogate broadcasters under one administrative umbrella. This enormous bureaucracy already contributes to VOA’s frequent failures to detect, understand and present President Putin’s propaganda and disinformation for what they really are. Nothing could be more appalling than high-level BBG bureaucrats presenting the Voice of America with a faulty poll conducted in Russia-annexed Crimea so that a VOA report could state without any questions asked or mentioning the Crimean Tatars–also victims of Stalin’s WWII crimes–that Crimeans are overwhelmingly happy with the Russian rule. I have seen a VOA report presenting at length the official Kremlin propaganda line that Russia was victimized by the West without providing any meaningful balance. This is an eery reminder of what went on at the Voice of America during World War II when VOA also aired pro-Stalin propaganda no questions asked. At least then it was done in the interest of U.S. war effort however misguided the official reasoning may have been. In 2015, it can only be attributed to failures of a failed government bureaucracy. A well-regarded Russian scholar of new media and independent journalist in Russia reported to the BBG in an official 2011 study that the VOA Russian Service website had a “pro-Putin bias.”
It is astounding how similar Soviet propaganda themes of the 1940s are to President Putin’s propaganda narrative today. It would take experienced journalists and analysts to respond to such propaganda. RFE/RL still has some; VOA has very few and those who could do the job can’t most of the time because of general mismanagement and insufficient resources. The Voice of America has also been a dismal failure in generating audience engagement through social media when compared to Russia’s RT, BBC, or even one single major U.S. newspaper. Astoundingly, the State Department’s Facebook page has more “Likes” that VOA’s English news Facebook page targeting a global audience. Most VOA foreign language social media platforms are in the same category. Just as VOA Polish Service failed to report on the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the VOA Kurdish Service had no direction or resources to update its website, Facebook and Twitter pages when ISIS was murdering fleeing Kurds in Iraq. A VOA report described Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, as a “vibrant city busy with activity.” VOA has also posted regularly what appeared to be in-house commentaries, but which were not identified as such, praising President Obama’s openings to Iran and Cuba but not offering any significant American criticism within these op-eds. There was also an in-house VOA commentary attacking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–again without any balance–all to similar to what the Voice of America was airing during World War II.
Another striking similarity between the behavior of the 1940s Office of War Information, the State Department and Voice of America officials and the current state of affairs is how State Department officials in charge of VOA lied to Americans who wrote letters by claiming that the Katyn story had not been censored and was receiving extensive coverage. It would not have received much coverage if it were not for members of Congress and prominent private Americans raising hell. These days we also hear from officials that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is in great shape, reforms are being made, audiences are delighted and the only thing missing is getting the U.S. Congress to approve a super-CEO in charge of a super-agency.
Legislators would be wise to study the history of the Office of War Information, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and the recent history of the Broadcasting Board of Governors before they give any credence to such claims. I could add that I could not find a single individual making such claims for a new super-bureaucracy who had listened to VOA and RFE/RL radio broadcasts during the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain, participated later in their creation, managed them and observed the BBG first hand from an executive position. I can honestly say that a single Washington-based U.S. government bureaucracy in charge of all U.S. international media and public diplomacy would be so large, so wasteful and so inefficient that it would destroy whatever effectiveness outlets such as VOA and RFE/RL still have. But I admit that I can see how such a large Washington central government propaganda bureaucracy would look attractive to some current and former BBG and VOA officials, former USIA-VOA officials, public diplomacy experts and perhaps a few others. Despite forcing State Department and Voice of America officials to make some programming changes, the 1950s congressional hearings did not result in any meaningful administrative reforms in Washington, but they did lead eventually to the establishment of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (later renamed Radio Liberty). Major structural reforms are even more desperately needed now, but destroying the independent U.S.-funded surrogate media model, which was the major reform of the 1950s and which worked wonders for freedom in countries without freedom and free media, is not one of them.
READ MORE: WWII Voice of America aired Stalin propaganda to cover up his role in Katyn massacre, Ted Lipien, TedLipien.com, June 24, 2015
- VOA CHARTER
To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford. It reads:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350) ↩