Commentary | History

The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same

By Alex Belida
Alex BelidaWhile doing historical research recently, I stumbled upon a New York Times series about the Voice of America and other U.S. information services. It appeared in the newspaper in mid-August 1948.

What struck me were the uncanny similarities with the current debate over the mission of VOA and the other U.S. international broadcasters. Here are a few relevant quotes.

The headline of the Aug. 13, 1948 article was: “Accurate News Is The Foundation of ‘Voice of America’ Broadcasts” with a subhead stating: “Distortion, Name-Calling and Fabrication Avoided in Programs Beamed to World…”

In that item, an unidentified VOA administrator is quoted as saying: “We are not interested in vituperation. We are not interested in falsifying the record or in playing the games of charges, counter-charges and denials… The experience of the Germans during the war, and of the Russians today… proves that falsification is in the long run fatal. And exchanges at the opposition’s level merely give added circulation to assertions which are false in the first place.”

The article notes the straightforward presentation of the news is done “with the aim of making the United States, its people, policies, ways of thinking and living understandable to people abroad, especially to see to it that misunderstandings and distorted information about this country are set straight.”

“It does not permit ignoring developments which are unfavorable to our side of the story. It is better to present the unfavorable in its proper proportions than to leave it to the other side to magnify.”

The item in the Times from Aug. 11, 1948 is headlined “Voice of America Girds for Battle” with a subhead that says: “Information Service of Past is Made Intro Hard-Hitting Propaganda Machine.”

It quotes George V. Allen, then Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, as saying that while the then State Department-controlled VOA will not engage in name-calling, “we are going to take a stronger line. If we are going to influence anyone we cannot afford to be apologetic when everyone else is shouting boasts.”

The article goes on to report: “While it [VOA] will continue to tell facts as a general policy, it is planned to have it react quickly and sharply to attacks directed against the United States…”

“Mr. Allen sees the ‘Voice’ making a hard fight for the principle of free information…”

But the Times notes “In attempting to match abroad the sledge hammer propaganda of rivals who have the advantage of… unlimited funds, the ‘Voice’ is beset at home with administrative and technical problems.” (The examples cited: “The Civil Service is not sure how to deal with an activity for which there is little precedent. An overloaded Federal Bureau of Investigation is slow in completing loyalty checks on new staff members. Meanwhile Congressional investigating committees are keeping a close watch over the reorganization of the ‘Voice’.”)

And the article of Aug. 12, 1948 says that while VOA broadcasts are “widely heard,” it cites a survey made by Times reporters in 17 countries of VOA’s effectiveness. It found “programs frequently failed to pull an audience because of inferior material or because of transmission shortcomings.”

August 1948 vs. January 2016. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Alex Belida is a veteran of U.S. international broadcasting who was a senior news executive and correspondent for Voice of America for nearly 30 years. Before joining VOA, he worked as a reporter and news editor for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in both New York and Munich. READ FULL BIO

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