In an exclusive interview with BBG Watch, U.S. journalist, author and Russia expert David Satter discussed what could be done to reform and improve U.S. international media outreach which is now managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).


Ted Lipien: What made Western broadcasts so successful during the Cold War?
David Satter: We view them as successful only in retrospect. They did not appear so successful at the time when they seemed to make little dent in official Soviet propaganda. What Western broadcasting did, however, was to offer support for a set of values opposed to the totalitarian values of the regime. Although the broadcasts themselves may not have swayed many people, the alternative view of reality they helped to nurture reinforced the ideological self-confidence of the democratic minority and became a factor in the thinking of nearly everyone, even those who were opposed. Viewed from the perspective of the whole country, they helped to preserve those elements of truthful history and political sanity whose validity is sensed instinctively and became a major influence once the system of repression in the Soviet Union began to come down. .
Question: Are Meduza and Rain TV doing the surrogate work that Radio Liberty once did?
David Satter: Meduza and Rain TV are doing very good work as is Novaya Gazeta but they cannot replace Radio Liberty because in a closed system, Radio Liberty speaks for the outside world. I’m not sure about Meduza, which is based in Latvia, but even opposition Russian media are subject to censorship in the interests of their own survival. Any shortcomings in the coverage at Radio Liberty are not the result of political censorship. Russians, who have heard of Radio Liberty and know its traditions, at some level, understand this. The absence of censorship, in turn, gives Radio Liberty immense potential authority.
Question: What would make Radio Liberty and the Voice of America more effective?
David Satter: Russians need to see a democratic, Western view of the world that they can compare with the propagandistic view of reality presented to them by state TV. The priority given to stories is therefore very important. We should not treat the day’s leading news stories as if they are all alike, which is the inevitable result of an inflexible format. At the same time, Western broadcasting, having limited resources, should be aimed at the intellectual elite. It should constitute, to quote Stolypin, a “wager on the strong.” But to appeal to that elite, its coverage must be based on genuine learning about Russian and Soviet history and the fundamental differences in mentality between Russia and the West. Western broadcasting should be prepared to treat all the fundamental issues facing Russian society and to correct and augment the historical record which has been badly distorted even in the years of so called “reform.”
Question: Is merging the VOA and RL brands the right approach?
David Satter: They need to be kept separate and to preserve their separate identities. This gives Russians the benefit of a variety of perspectives and also a sense of the pluralism that, in a free society, characterizes the media market.
Question: How can VOA and RL counter the Kremlin’s false historical narrative?
David Satter: We have several anniversaries coming up, including the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power. It is worth devoting space to the publication of memoirs and historical documents as well as interviews with key participants and observers of historical events. Much of this is already being done but it needs to continue and be broadened. We should also devote ourselves to the investigation of incidents from Russia’s recent history. Lying about history did not come to an end with the fall of the Soviet Union. The history of post-Soviet Russia is replete with crimes that cry out for serious historical examination.
Question: What should be the social media content of Radio Liberty and VOA?
David Satter: If RL and the VOA get the content right, members of the generation born after the end of the Cold War can help get the message across on Facebook and Twitter. The danger is failing to perfect the message or compromising it to meet the requirements of technology. For a country that is as spiritually damaged as Russia, what matters is the message.
Question: What is the role of government funded media in the future?
David Satter: Government funded media is essential when it comes to foreign broadcasting because there is no commercial entity that will engage in it. At the same time, we need to influence the outside world and not remain passive in the face of the spread of pernicious ideas that could literally kill us. My hope is that the U.S. government will grasp the security role of foreign broadcasting and treat it with the seriousness that it deserves.
Question: What should happen to VOA and BBG?
David Satter: I think VOA should concentrate on presenting the U.S. to the world instead of presenting the U.S. to the U.S. As far as the BBG is concerned, I think that it is important to bear in mind the nature of public diplomacy which involves influencing people whose value systems are very different from ours. This is a formidable intellectual enterprise. It is not necessarily best carried out by people who have made successful careers in our system and it’s not something that can be engaged in part time.
Question: How can the State Department explain U.S. foreign policy and improve America’s image abroad.
David Satter: The State Department could show the moral roots of American policies and the Western democratic system. But for us to have people in high positions in the State Department who were capable of doing that, we would have to be a different country.


READ BBG WATCH REPORT: David Satter on reforming U.S. media outreach to Russia, August 17, 2016


David Satter’s latest book, “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin” was published in May 2016 by Yale University Press.

Poland’s former Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski wrote in a review: “‘The Less You Know, the Better you Sleep’ is an uncompromising, cogent, disturbing account of a country whose authorities’ nihilism may yet lead it to disaster.”

In December 2013, David Satter became the first American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the Cold War. At the time, he was working as a consultant for RFE/RL. The Moscow Times said it was not surprising he was expelled, “it was surprising it took so long.” Satter is known in Russia for having written that the apartment bombings in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens and brought Putin to power, were actually carried out by the Russian FSB security police.

David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His previous books, all published by Yale University Press, include “Darkness at Dawn.”

David Satter was interviewed by Ted Lipien. He is journalist, author, former VOA acting associate director, and one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch. He also co-founded with Ann Noonan the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (, an independent and non-partisan NGO which strives to improve governance and impact of U.S. government-funded media for overseas audiences.