BBG Watch History Documents & Quotes Series
BBG Watch begins today publishing historical documents, some of them recently declassified, which relate to U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. We will not be posting them in a chronological order. We will select them for their relevance to the current debate over various proposals to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the agency now in charge of U.S. international media outreach.
1975 – The Keogh Memorandum: Voice of America and U.S. Policy
A 1975 memorandum from the Director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) James Keogh to the Ambassador at Large Robert J. McCloskey, the State Department’s spokesperson, argues for stronger policy guidance for the Voice of America (VOA) and for VOA to be “an instrument of U.S. policy.”
“It has been my effort to change the Voice’s approach from that of an international CBS into a consciously government-related communications entity,” USIA Director James Keogh wrote in 1979. He added: “As we go forward I hope that we can work out additional and better means of communication and consultation between the Department and USIA to refine and enhance the contribution of VOA and all of USIA to the furtherance of U.S. foreign policy.”
For those unfamiliar with the subject, it is important to point out that a discussion about the interweaving of foreign policy, public diplomacy, and Voice of America programs has continued for decades with a lot of confusion and disinformation about VOA’s origins and history. One of the most common misconceptions about VOA is its original slogan that “The news may be good or bad but we shall tell you the truth.”
These words were indeed spoken in what is considered to be the first VOA radio broadcast in 1942. But USIA director James Keogh was wrong to suggest in 1975 that this promise was inspired by the World War II-era Office of War Information director Elmer Davis or observed under his leadership. Davis considered his government office, which managed VOA’s overseas broadcasts, to be completely in the service of the White House, war propaganda and psychological warfare, as did the first VOA director, Hollywood actor John Houseman. They both repeatedly reaffirmed VOA’s propaganda and psychological warfare role in various statements written both during and after the war.
These early leaders did not allow VOA to function as a news organization if it interfered with what they considered to be their instructions from the White House and their own political preferences. It is a little known fact that under a powerful agency CEO and without any institutional oversight, the Voice of America–in violation of all journalistic standards and ethics–became during World War II a major promoter for Soviet propaganda, sometimes against advice and guidance from the State Department, which the Office of War Information ignored when it went against ideological preferences of VOA executives or individual reporters or if they thought that President Roosevelt would have wanted them to report favorably on the Soviet Union. Elmer Davis himself initiated broadcasts with Soviet propaganda lies. He said after the war he did not know they were lies.
While the State Department attempted to provide foreign policy guidance to OWI and VOA during the war, the process was not institutionalized and sometimes failed with spectacularly bad results for U.S. diplomacy, U.S. military operations and America’s public image abroad. OWI became a target of immense suspicion and criticism in the U.S. Congress, which reduced OWI’s funding in 1943, an almost unprecedented move during wartime. The State Department refused to issue a U.S. passport to VOA director John Houseman for official travel abroad.
With growing criticism and no domestic political support, the Office of War Information was abolished in 1945 and the Voice of America was placed within the State Department, where it remained until 1953. In a response to OWI’s and VOA’s abuses during the war, the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act was passed by Congress to restrict VOA’s and State Department’s ability to distribute government-funded and generated news programs in the United States
In 1953, VOA was moved from the State Department to the newly established United States Information Agency (USIA).
When USIA director James Keogh wrote his memo in 1975, he was apparently unaware of the early history of the Voice of America. In his memo, Keogh is making strong arguments for the Voice of America to be seen abroad as an authoritative voice of the U.S. government and to be “an instrument of U.S. policy.”
Former VOA staffers remember the Richard Nixon/Henry Kissinger years as a period of increased USIA interference with VOA program content and attempts to soften some of the criticism of the Soviet Union and communist regimes in Eastern Europe as the White House pursued the policy of détente with the Kremlin.
The Keogh memorandum does not make any references to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which did not report to USIA and enjoyed at that time much greater editorial freedom than VOA.
James Keogh (October 28, 1916 – May 10, 2006) was the executive editor of Time magazine and the head of the White House speechwriting staff under Richard M. Nixon. He was director of the United States Information Agency from 1972 to 1977.
USIA was abolished in 1999 and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was established to manage U.S. international broadcasting.
100. Memorandum From the Director of the United States Information Agency (Keogh) to the Ambassador at Large (McCloskey)1
Washington, January 8, 1975.
Voice of America and U.S. Policy
From the very beginning of the existence of the Voice of America, there has been recurring controversy about its relationship to U.S. policy. On the first VOA broadcast in February, 1942, a statement inspired by OWI Director Elmer Davis2 promised that “the news may be good or bad but we shall tell you the truth.” This original precept has been the symbolic basis over the years for contentions that VOA should stay as free as possible of U.S. policy considerations. There have been intermittent storms around the issue of USIA management of the Voice. Both Henry Loomis and John Daly departed as Directors of the Voice because they felt their authority was encroached upon by Directors of USIA.3
Under my predecessor as Director of USIA, the Voice was given an almost absolute freedom to do what it wished. He was essentially interested in only one issue: an ideological cold war battle against communism. So long as the Voice was in line with him on that issue, he was little concerned about its policy or programming.
My point of view is entirely different than that of my predecessor. I consider the Voice of America an instrument of U.S. policy. In the past two years we have tightened the policy reins to a considerable degree. This has involved a number of key personnel changes in important positions at the Voice. It has been my effort to change the Voice’s approach from that of an international CBS into a consciously government-related communications entity. This has not been done without some trauma. The most recent example is the story in the December 16, 1974, issue of Time which was inspired (as I mentioned to you) by a disgruntled former VOA staffer who was removed from his post because he was doing “a bad job.4 While his removal was related to management rather than policy, he was the leader of the element that believed in “the sanctity of the news” and felt that the Voice should indeed be an international CBS or NBC and should not be sensitive to U.S. foreign policy considerations.
For some time our efforts to create a sensitivity to U.S. policy at the Voice have been greeted by the “sanctity of the news” people with charges of censorship, “news management” and warnings that we were undermining the Voice’s credibility. A favorite tactic of this group has been leaking to the press complaints that USIA management is interfering with free journalism at the Voice. However, I believe we are gradually bringing the situation under reasonable control.
We are not indulging in censorship. I have taken the position that when the Voice says “This is the news . . .”, we cannot avoid reporting legitimate news that may be bad for the United States. However, I have sought with some success to convince the professionals at the Voice that the matter of selection, timing and tone of news stories involves not censorship but sense. I have laid down guidelines which make clear that they are not to take on the obsessions of the private sector media. We require double sourcing on all news stories and do not indulge in our own speculation.
On the matter of policy, the most sensitive area of our programming is what the Voice calls “Analysis”—which is essentially the editorial page. Here we have a procedure through which the USIA policy office advises the Voice staff and carefully monitors its output. We have tightened this process substantially in the past two years—again not without some outcry at the Voice—and we are now tightening it further in ways which hopefully will not provoke too much counterproductive criticism in the press about “censorship.”
One of our serious problems with respect to policy is that at times we do not have enough inside guidance to know exactly where and how to place the emphasis on a given issue. Our officers at desk level are in constant contact with Department officers. We carefully monitor the White House and Department press briefings. We pay close attention to the statements that have been made by the President and the Secretary of State. From these general sources of information we can usually do quite well. Nevertheless, I must admit there are times when we are uneasy because we feel we do not really know enough from the inside councils to be certain that our nuances are what they should be.
In the Voice’s total broadcasting (777 hours a week in 36 languages), approximately 43% is devoted to feature materials—such as science, education, sports, music, and other cultural subjects reflecting American life; 29% is devoted to newscasts; and 28% is devoted to news-related subjects, such as analyses, discussions, roundups of editorial opinion in the United States and abroad, speeches and press “conferences by the President, the Secretary of State and, at times, other U.S. Government officials. Much of this last area of our programming has both opportunities and sensitivities with respect to policy. We can and I believe do make many policy points through the manner in which we use speeches, statements and press conferences of the President and Secretary of State.
In total, I see VOA—as I see the rest of USIA—as a communications instrument whose mission is to present a fundamental picture of the U.S. to the rest of the world and to support the foreign policy of the United States. While doing this, we must be careful to maintain the Voice’s credibility as an international news medium. (I have been convinced that it must be a news medium in order to attract and hold audiences.) However, we must not allow credibility to be used as an excuse for irresponsibility. We must maintain credibility as a tactic. It is necessary for us to reflect all relevant areas of opinion in the U.S., with particular attention to areas of important Congressional opinion. On the other hand, our own analyses should be used as tools to make points for U.S. policy. While there are occasional lapses and aberations in the mass of material broadcast by the Voice, I believe we are doing much better in all this than the Voice was doing two years ago.
As we go forward I hope that we can work out additional and better means of communication and consultation between the Department and USIA to refine and enhance the contribution of VOA and all of USIA to the furtherance of U.S. foreign policy.
1 Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 59, Records of the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Subject Files, 1960–1976: Lot 78 D 184, Stanton Panel, 1975. Personal; Eyes Only.
2 Director of the Office of War Information, 1942–1945.
3 Henry Loomis was Director of the VOA, 1958–1965. John Daly was Director, 1967–1968.
4 Time Magazine reported that VOA journalists alleged that Keogh and USIA Assistant Director for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe John W. Shirley had “allowed political considerations to mute the Voice” by censoring stories about popular dissent behind the Iron Curtain that ran counter to détente. Keogh rejoined, “Détente has changed what we do in USIA. Our program managers must be sensitive to U.S. policy as enunciated by the President and the Secretary of State. That policy is that we do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. We’re not in the business of trying to provoke revolutions.” (“Muted Voice of America,” Time, December 16, 1974) In a June 16, 1972, memorandum to Kissinger, VOA Acting Director Henry Loomis outlined the USIA’s planned post-Moscow Summit output. Haig responded to Loomis by memorandum, June 29: “The policies you are proposing for USIA/VOA broadcasts to the Soviet Union definitely appear to be in the right direction. We would agree, with regard to internal Soviet developments, that you should continue to place the emphasis on reporting, at the same time continuing the VOA’s policy of eschewing polemics, not seeking quarrels and not attempting to magnify small incidents in your broadcasts to the Soviet Union.” Both memoranda are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 295, Agency Files, USIA, Vol. IV, 1972 [1 of 2].
101. Editorial Note
[3 pages not declassified]
Excerpt From: Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. “Organization and Management of Foreign Policy; Public Diplomacy, 1973–1976 (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1917–1972, Volume XXXVIII, Part 2).” iBooks.