By Ted Lipien
When in 1974 the Voice of America (VOA) banned Alexandr Solzhenitsyn from its programs, the push for the ban may have originated with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Today, personal, ideological and partisan preferences of VOA managers and journalists largely determine what news stories about Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are covered in full and who may or may not be interviewed by the U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet. The additional factor, absent during the Cold War, are corporate or family business interests of some of the key Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and VOA officials in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. Those were also absent during the Cold War. They appeared when the BBG became VOA’s parent agency in 1999.
As misguided as Kissinger and Presidents Nixon and Ford were in their assessment of the tyrannical Soviet regime and in their presumed behind-the-scenes effort to censor the Voice of America programs on Solzhenitsyn, they believed that the policy of détente and any orders issued to VOA through the United States Information Agency (USIA) were in America’s national interest and in support of U.S. foreign policy. Today, BBG and VOA officials, managers and reporters make their programming decisions in almost complete secrecy based on their own personal, often partisan, views and preferences without hardly any scrutiny or accountability.
The Ford administration’s decisions with regard to Solzhenitsyn were widely reported, analyzed and criticized in the media and on Capitol Hill. One of many Americans who knew about and commented on President Ford’s reluctance to invite Alexander Solzhenitsyn for a visit at the White House was Senator James R. Buckley. Speaking on the floor of the Senate on July 16, 1975, he unleashed his criticism on Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for urging President Ford not to meet with Solzhenitsyn.
The Secretary of State is reported to believe that the symbolic effect of a meeting between the President and Solzhenitsyn could be to the disadvantage of the United States, presumably because it would offend the sensibilities of the leaders of the greatest tyranny the world has known. The foundations of détente must be weak indeed if the President of the strongest nation of the Free World must avoid meeting with the most eloquent living spokesman of the values represented by the Free World. Détente on such terms is neither worthy of the United States nor worth the keeping. Nor will it buy us ultimate safety from the dangers of which Mr. Solzhenitsyn warns.[ref]Senator James Buckley, “Statement on Kissinger,” Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 94th Congress, First Session, Volume 121–Part 18 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1975), July 16, 1975, 23009.[/ref]
During the Reagan administration, James R. Buckley served as President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from 1982 to 1985.
In the end, President Ford did not meet with Solzhenitsyn, although faced with growing public pressure he eventually issued an open but vague invitation which the Russian writer, having been publicly humiliated by the administration, refused to pursue. The Voice of America would not interview Solzhenitsyn until after the Reagan administration took office. But the public debate and criticism of Kissinger and Ford, as well as condemnations of censorship by the Voice of America, had at least a partial effect on U.S. international broadcasting at that time. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were able to defend their journalistic independence and continued to air extensive excerpts from The Gulag Archipelago. Of course, if RFE and RL were in the hands of supporters of détente and the Soviet Union, overseen by private businessmen eyeing making profits for their corporation in the Soviet block, and staffed by partisan journalists selected by partisan officials, the result might have been quite different even at Radio Liberty. Fortunately, unlike VOA, RFE and RL maintained their independence under the presidentially-appointed Board of International Broadcasting (BIB). Its members were strong critics of communism and were not pursuing private business deals in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. Benefiting from public criticism of the Nixon and Ford administrations, even a few of the VOA foreign language services were able to go around at least some of the restrictions being imposed on them by the management.
In the 1970s, there was a spirited public debate about censorship at the Voice of America when Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was in the news after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago and his forced exile from the Soviet Union. Today, with almost no one in Washington, in the rest of America and hardly anywhere in the world paying attention, Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America officials and journalists decide on their own, according to their own personal and ideological preferences, which newsmakers and which polices deserve their supportive coverage, and which do not. After the end of the Cold War, personal political preferences of key Broadcasting Board of Governors officials and, in some cases their private business interests, seem to have replaced institutional U.S. foreign policy goals as the driving force for programming decisions. The ability of BBG chairmen and members to do corporate business in Russia and China and to influence hiring of partisan managers, who in turn hire partisan reporters, transformed VOA from a largely nonpartisan federal organization representing the entire U.S. government and most of America into a taxpayer-funded medium of political and ideological advocacy for some of its officials and journalists.
When in 2011, the Voice of America posted what was presented a news video by one of its correspondents who was granted a visa to go to North Korea, the VOA video turned out to be largely devoted to repeating North Korean propaganda. It was praised, however, in a BBG press release.[ref]As of November 6, 2017, the BBG press release on the visit to North Korea by a VOA Korean Service correspondent was shown with the January 1, 1970 date when in fact it was issued in 2011. The change of date makes it more difficult to find. See Broadcasting Board of Governors Press Release, “VOA Reporter Gets Rare Glimpse of Life in North Korea” accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.bbg.gov/1970/01/01/dddd/. Also see, “BBG makes press release with VOA North Korean propaganda hard to find,” BBG Watch, August 29, 2017, accessed November 6, 2017, http://bbgwatch.com/bbgwatch/bbg-makes-press-release-with-voa-north-korean-propaganda-hard-to-find/.
The VOA video did not show pictures of prisoners in the North Korean gulag or faces of starving North Koreans. It showed well-fed children of the North Korean communist elite and shops full of food and merchandise. Self-censorship has replaced former institutional censorship at the Voice of America with even more devastating results. Hardly anyone in the United States noticed this example of VOA’s kowtowing to a repressive regime. During most of the Cold War, some VOA programs were censored, but VOA was never accused of repeating or promoting communist propaganda. When VOA censored Solzhenitsyn in 1974, at least the censorship was met with widespread public condemnation in America.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, VOA strongly supported and rarely questioned his administration’s policy toward Russia during the so-called “Reset” period of improving relations with the Kremlin. Following the same pattern, VOA later became a taxpayer-funded advocacy outlet for President Obama’s outreach to Iran and Cuba and pursued its own policy of wooing the North Korean regime. VOA Persian Service editors banned certain critics of the Iranian government from participating in VOA programs while giving apologists for the Iranian regime an open platform without being challenged.[ref] “Opinion Journal: Voice of Anti-Americanism,” The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2014, accessed November 6, 2017, http://www.wsj.com/video/opinion-journal-voice-of-anti-americanism/E9C9A9F6-3AB2-43F1-8A7B-077D60AA55EE.html.
[/ref] The Voice of America also became a target of successful Iranian hacking and disinformation attacks.[ref]”Voice of America internet site hacked by Iranians,” CNN, February 22, 2011, accessed November 6, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/02/22/iran.voa.hacking/index.html.[/ref] A Twitter account presented as belonging to the director of VOA Persian programs and followed by VOA’s own Persian Service and many VOA and BBG managers and reporters was declared by the BBG in 2016 to be fake after being allowed to stay online for several years.[ref]”BBG management followed, legitimized fake VOA Iran Twitter feed for years,” BBG Watch, February 22, 2017, accessed November 6, 2017, http://bbgwatch.com/bbgwatch/bbg-management-followed-legitimized-fake-voa-iran-twitter-feed-for-years/.[/ref] During the 2016 presidential election campaign, the Voice of America showed an unprecedented bias in favor of the front-runner Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton and produced one-sided programs with unchallenged accusations against both Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.[ref]Dan Wright, U.S. State Media Runs Hit Piece on Bernie Sanders, ShadowProof, June 16, 2016, accessed November 6, 2017, https://shadowproof.com/2016/06/16/us-state-media-runs-hit-piece-on-bernie-sanders/.[/ref]
After the 2016 election, there have been plenty of opinions expressed in more left-leaning liberal media, including The Washington Post, as to how President Trump might be a threat to VOA’s future independence and objectivity by using VOA to promote his policies at home.[ref]Callum Borchers, “The news outlet Trump could most easily control says he has not interfered at all,” The Washington Post, July 26, 2017, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/07/26/the-news-outlet-trump-could-most-easily-control-says-he-has-not-interfered-at-all/?utm_term=.94ea54fcc1d4.[/ref] The truth is, the Trump administration has not done anything yet to VOA, but VOA’s independence, objectivity and effectiveness around the world have already been largely destroyed by the bureaucracy of its BBG parent agency over more than a decade of mismanagement and chaos. The greatest turn for the worse happened during the last two years.[ref]Robert Reilly, How to Make the Voice of America Come Through Loud and Clear, The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2017, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-to-make-the-voice-of-america-come-through-loud-and-clear-1487375332.[/ref]
The most current controversy over the senior management’s decision to shorten a Voice of America Mandarin Service interview with Chinese whistleblower Guo Wengui despite objections of many VOA rank-and-file journalists[ref]Evelyn Cheng, “How an interview with one Chinese billionaire threw a US broadcaster into turmoil,” CNBC, June 9. 2017, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/09/interview-with-guo-wengui-throws-voice-of-america-into-turmoil.html.[/ref] is a reminder of similar incidents during the Cold War when officials of the U.S. international broadcasting agency spiked interviews with famed Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn over the objections of the then VOA Russian Service Chief Victor Franzusoff and his staff.
After the April 19, 2017 Guo Wengui interview incident, senior leaders of the Voice of America and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, known for its perennially low employee morale, the worst in the federal government among medium size agencies[ref]“The Broadcasting Board of Governors, another regular bottom-feeder that oversees the Voice of America and other government broadcasters, also scored 56. But unlike DHS, BBG is going backward. It scored two points better last year.” See, Joe Davidson, “Homeland Security finally shows employee morale improvement, though still rates low,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2016, accessed November 6, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/20/homeland-security-finally-shows-employee-morale-improvement-though-still-rates-very-low/?utm_term=.cf2e6ba5ad09.[/ref] put on forced leave with pay some of the best VOA Mandarin Service broadcasters who had objected to the shortening of the interview. It was cut short after the Chinese government protested and made threats to withhold visas for VOA reporters going to China. The full interview was to reveal details of corruption among senior Chinese communist leaders and provide examples of China’s influence buying and spying operations in the United States. To prevent VOA from interviewing Guo Wengui, the Chinese government intensified its propaganda campaign against him.
The forced suspensions of VOA Chinese journalists by the agency’s leadership, which denied caving in to any pressure from Beijing, were an unprecedented move against such a large number of VOA foreign language broadcasters never before attempted by any previous management. The State Department denied any role in the interview incident. Chinese American community has established a legal defense fund, VOA5 Justice, Inc., for the VOA Mandarin Service journalists placed on forced suspension. Several members of Congress have asked for an investigation by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). One of the signatories was House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) who is one of the few members of Congress paying close attention to U.S. international media outreach and urging reforms. The letter was also signed by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) who has strong support among Cuban Americans. Meanwhile, an independent human rights NGO inquired whether any senior BBG and VOA officials might have business interests in China. Chinese Americans, Iranian American, Cuban Americans, Korean Americans and a fews other ethnic groups in America are still paying some attention to U.S. international broadcasting, but the scrutiny is not nearly as intense and as effective as it was during the Cold War.
When several years ago, I met the late Harry Wu, a former prisoner of the Laogai, the Chinese equivalent of the Soviet Gulag, he described to me how similar Solzhenitsyn’s experience in Soviet labor camps was to his in China. Harry Wu was deeply alarmed by what he saw as the declining quality of some of the VOA programs to China, VOA’s reluctance to focus on some of the most controversial issues of the communist government, and the growing influence of Chinese propaganda in the U.S., but he defended VOA journalists and lobbied against BBG-proposed program cuts in the China Branch. Shortly after his sudden and tragic death in 2016, the Laogai Museum he had established in Washington shut its doors. Some Chinese Americans blame it on pressure or interference from the the Chinese government. Harry Wu was also a victim of smear campaigns orchestrated against him by China’s security services, just as Solzhenitsyn was a victim of defamation by the KGB.
The next several Cold War Radio Museum articles will examine these events and provide a historical perspective and rich documentation from the Congressional Record and from previously classified U.S. government documents on how the censorship of Solzhenitsyn by the Voice of America was part of a larger pattern of Soviet propaganda influence going back to World War II. Hopefully, they will also offer some lessons for today’s propaganda wars being waged against the United States by Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and ISIS.
Main article for “How Voice of America Censored Solzhenitsyn” Cold War Radio Museum Exhibit in November 2017:
Solzhenitsyn – Target of Red Propaganda
Censorship at the Voice of America – A Historical Background
Decision to Ban Solzhenitsyn from VOA
Political Fallout for President Ford
Fallout for VOA Managers During Reagan Years
Criticism in Congress
VOA Foreign Broadcasters Against Institutional Censorship
Solzhenitsyn Criticizes VOA and Radio Liberty in 1982
A Partial Reconciliation with VOA
Solzhenitsyn Records for VOA
KGB, Solzhenitsyn and U.S. Media
Another Solzhenitsyn Reading on VOA
Photos: (Top) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalia Dmitriyevna Solzhenitsyn exiting from Alaska Airlines plane upon their arrival on May 27, 1994 in Vladivostok as they returned from exile in the United States.
(Bottom) Local Russian officials and VOA reporter Ted Lipien awaiting the arrival of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in Vladivostok on May 27, 1994. VOA had no plans for on-the-ground coverage of Solzhenitsyn’s arrival in Russia, but Ted Lipien and VOA Russian Branch Chief Sherwood Demitz who were in Vladivostok on a marketing trip to promote rebroadcasting of VOA programs by local radio stations sent in a report to Washington.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien was VOA acting associate director in charge of central news programs before his retirement in 2006. In the 1970s, he worked as a broadcaster in the VOA Polish Service and was a reporter and service chief in the 1980s during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy in Poland. He is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch whose volunteers monitor management and performance of taxpayer-funded Voice of America and other U.S. government-run media operations within the Broadcasting Board of Governors.