When America Embraced U.S. Government Broadcasts for Freedom

Commentary by Ted Lipien

Former Director of Security at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, historian, writer and photographer Richard H. Cummings, re-published today on his Cold War Radios blog an article that shows how those in charge of U.S. international broadcasting during early years of the Cold War responded to the challenge of winning America’s support for their mission abroad.

Richard H. Cummings, former Director of Security at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is author of “Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989” (2009) and “Radio Free Europe’s ‘Crusade for Freedom’: Rallying Americans Behind Cold War Broadcasting, 1950-1960” (2010). Both published by McFarland & Company, North Carolina.

Sixty years ago, on July 25, 1953, a World War Two German “armored car,” covered with foliage for camouflage, driven by Vaclav Uhlik, and carrying seven passengers from communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, rolled over three rows of barbed wire of the Iron Curtain near the Bavarian town of Waldmuenchen, along the Czechoslovakia-German border, Richard Cummings writes.

“Freedom Tank”  was later used to rally Americans to support Radio Free Europe (RFE), a U.S. government-funded broadcaster based in Munich, West Germany, airing programs in foreign languages to Soviet-dominated Central and Eastern Europe.

Several thoughts came to my mind reading this very interesting report. I hope Mr. Cummings will forgive me for using his historical article to comment on a current political controversy over what should be a proper role of U.S.-funded international broadcasts and whether American taxpayers should continue to support them or fear them.

Stations such as Radio Free Europe had always enjoyed strong domestic support in the United States when their mission was simply explained and sharply focused on countries ruled by repressive and authoritarian governments. Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts had enjoyed public backing for the same reasons and also because they served audiences without access to developed media and information about America. That support seems to be quickly evaporating due to some recent very unwise decisions by U.S. government officials.

With the current controversy raging in American media over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, Richard Cummings’s article shows that the 1948 Smith-Mundt law, which officials wanted to change and succeeded in changing, did not interfere in the least with launching effective public relations campaigns in America. While today’s controversy is undermining media freedom mission abroad, earlier U.S.-funded foreign broadcasts had enjoyed for many decades widespread bipartisan backing. There was no major domestic controversy over their mission, the content of their broadcasts or whether they could do any harm to Americans. In fact, the vast majority of Americans applauded them and urged the U.S. Congress to fund them year after year. Some of the strongest supporters of VOA and RFE were in fact members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, and their various constituencies, such as American labor movement and American business community.

Different times, different visions, different leaders in charge, much more bipartisan consensus on foreign policy then than now. Different international threats, different needs for news and ideas, different technologies but ultimately success or failure depends partly on concrete knowledge of the craft but also to a large extent on how politically savvy leaders in charge of U.S. broadcasting are. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while not an elected politician but certainly a political figure, called U.S. international broadcasting defunct. We now see that the only politician on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, former mayor of Knoxville and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, is about to be driven from his post as a result of a nasty partisan intrigue engineered by disgruntled bureaucrats, who are behind the current public relations disaster, and their patrons in the White House. Ambassador Ashe was questioning their ideas and they did not like it.

The current concept of U.S. international broadcasting, as developed by some of these officials in charge, seems to be, to say the least, schizophrenic. On one hand, they stress that the new model should be primarily news oriented and expanded to cover both political and soft news. A “Global News Network” was proposed as a semi-commercial model appropriate for bringing news to the entire world, including the U.S. “De-federalization” or “privatization,” but still with 100% government funding, has also been proposed. In justification of these proposals, I heard suggestions that there is not enough news in the world increasingly dominated by the Internet.

On the other hand, comments from U.S. officials also strongly suggest that what they have in mind is targeting of certain communities in America, such as Somalis living in Minnesota. They have also promised that Americans in general will embrace these broadcasts and support their funding.

But it certainly does not look that way at the moment. Anger, confusion and disinformation abound. The most common word U.S. media and individual bloggers use with regard to this controversy is “propaganda,” whereas “freedom,” “democracy,” and “human rights” were words usually associated with these broadcasts earlier for many decades. The controversy unjustly harms the reputation of many dedicated and professional journalists who produce these programs.

The former “pro-freedom” model was far broader, more politically sophisticated and yet at the same time far simpler in terms of its public relations message. It included news, commentaries, ideas, intellectual discussions, cultural programs, even music, but above all a strong focus on human rights. Many key elements of this mission were assigned mostly to the so-called independent surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe. Voice of America was left more or less as the official U.S. broadcaster focused primarily on America and secondarily on world and country-specific news. U.S. public diplomacy and national security interests were well served by their journalistic missions. Under the old Smith-Mundt Act, there was no question of either becoming a domestic U.S. media outlet.

U.S. officials seem to want to combine a number of government-funded outlets into one, cut down on foreign-country specific surrogate reporting and expand their mission to also serve U.S. domestic audiences. They deny that this is their primary intention, but their desperate efforts to get the Smith-Mundt Act changed with the help of misleading information seem to indicate otherwise. Government propaganda used to remove government propaganda ban was so powerful that it almost convinced me that I had no access to Voice of America news in the United States even though I have been reading, listening, and watching it on the Internet for years and seeing VOA reports in American newspapers, newsmagazines and blogs. I even listened to VOA news on American radio stations. All of it was already possible and it was perfectly legal under the old law.

But seriously, what these officials failed to provide is a conceptual formula for selling to American taxpayers their global news model for a foreign/domestic audience. Americans are not buying it. There is a strong grass roots backlash against it.

Richard Cumming’s article brings us back to the Cold War but also offers some possible lessons for the future. Those were certainly different times, but they were not necessarily simpler as some believe. No one would use now a term like “Crusade for Freedom,” but an explanation of some kind is still needed. “Global News Network” will not do it. Russia Today’s slogan is “Question More.” It largely boils down to questioning and attacking the U.S. but it has a great resonance around the world. Al Jazeera’s slogan is “Setting The News Agenda” and “Fearless Journalism.” Both media outlets are beating the Voice of America in nearly every category–in popularity, reach and audience engagement, with their alternative, anti-Western model of journalism.

Then we have from U.S. government officials “Global News Dashboard,” further defined as “Powered by Networks of U.S. International Broadcasting” or as “Best Journalism from Around the World.” Voice of America does not even show a slogan on its home page but presents itself elsewhere as “a consistently reliable source of news and information.”

There is a remarkable lack of any defined purpose to fill a need for something that is also not defined. But if U.S. government-funded global news for both international and domestic audiences is not the best selling concept both abroad and in America, what can be done to explain what the real mission is now and how it should be presented? Because I do not see many Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Chinese or Russians looking for “Global News Network” if they already have BBC and CNN. I also do not see too many Americans becoming exited about GNN in America, especially if they suspect it of White House propaganda.

U.S. international broadcasting needs a new intellectual concept, especially since it now must erase a negative image created by a poorly thought out and poorly executed push to change the Smith-Mundt Act that only needed some minor tweaking. Whoever will come up with such a new concept has to keep in mind that nothing good happens in a political and historical vacuum. It is easy to cross the line between a focus on accurate but specialized news reporting, human rights and humanitarian concerns abroad to make-you-feel-good-about-yourself-and-your-own-government news (officials may deny it but I already saw examples), commercial style broadcasting and potential profiling and targeting of American ethnic and religious communities.

America has its deeply-ingrained constitutional and historical traditions with regard to civil liberties and freedom of the press. Americans have strong opinions about limited government, government propaganda, government spying and government press. There has never been 100% government-funded radio or television in the United States.  Officials who think that they can pull it off seem completely removed from U.S. political realities.

Americans, however, are at the same time very generous people willing to help those who really need help, at home and abroad. They need to know why they should be generous. Telling them that they themselves need foreign-news funded by their government  or implying they need to be targeted by their own government because they can now be brainwashed by Al-Qaeda and by watching Al Jazeera at home do not look to me like winning concepts for the future of U.S. international broadcasting. As simple and even naive as some of the Cold War pro-freedom slogans may seem now to some younger Americans, some of the concepts presented by U.S. officials, such as the need for broadcasting to Somali Americans, remind me of even more primitive slogans uttered by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

What I found in this inspiring story from Richard Cummings are all the elements of good public relations campaigns that appealed to American desire for helping people who yearned for freedom without telling them that they need to fear their neighbors of a certain ethnic background. While not everything in this report is applicable to new political and especially technological realities of today’s world, some good lessons can certainly be drawn from studying what happened sixty years ago.

Most Americans would no longer respond to the same style of simple pro-freedom slogans and movies offered during the Cold War, but they still need to be convinced why they should pay with their tax money for foreign news broadcasts. I doubt they will want to pay for them if they think these programs are directed at them or if they suspect them of government propaganda.

July 25, 1953: Riding the Czech “Freedom Tank” through the Iron Curtain

The Iron Curtain, with rows of barbed wire, armed patrols, land mines and guard towers, did not stop the flow of persons who were determined in finding ways to “escape” the “Communist-dominated” countries of East Europe.

One daring and ingenious method was crashing through the Iron Curtain in a “Freedom Tank.” The episode was then used to rally Americans behind the Crusade for Freedom and Radio Free Europe.