- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

Nearly 20 years ago when I was director of the Voice of America, I was confronted with a dispute between the head of VOA news and a USIA policy officer over the word we should use to describe the ruling entity of what had been South Vietnam.

VOA news routinely referred to the Vietnamese "government." State Department officials had ruled it should be called a "regime."

In the grand tradition of Edward R. Murrow (we all cloak ourselves in the wisdom of Murrow), I had vowed that at VOA our policy and standard would be the same to tell the truth.

So what was the truth? Victorious communist forces had installed a government in South Vietnam so VOA should refer to those ruling there as the "communist-imposed government."

I thought the policy officer would be elated by my decision. Instead, he grew red in the face and muttered, "Department guidance requires you to use the word 'regime.' "

The fact of the matter was I didn't particularly give a damn whether we used the word "government" or "regime." My concern was that VOA was not doing near enough to report what was really happening in information deprived countries controlled by communism.

I keep thinking of that long-ago incident as I follow the sometimes mindless dispute between VOA and the State Department over the airing of an interview with Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Now good cases may make bad law, but let's apply some common sense here.

No journalistic entity be it VOA or the New York Times would have gone with an interview with Benito Mussolini or Hideki Tojo on the issues behind World War II. (Can you imagine Perry White's reaction had Jimmy Olson had rushed into the newsroom waving copy from his interview with Hitler?)

The news balance required by the law governing America's radios is not found half way between the victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy and the terrorists who inflicted this crime on America. News balance is not half way between good and evil.

Mullah Mohammed Omar is the protector of Osama bin Laden and his terrorist thugs who are among the most evil criminals of any age. Obviously, VOA should not be broadcasting an interview with this guy.

That is why it is so disturbing to read a column in The Washington Post by the founding chairman of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (1995 to 1998), David Burke, in which he says: "In fact, VOA nearly validated the maxim that truth is the first casualty of war. It delayed four days in broadcasting the remarks of Mullah Mohammed Omar. Why? Opposition from the State Department."

David Burke is an able man who served this country with distinction, but spiking an interview with this Taliban criminal is "censorship" violating "freedom of press and First Amendment rights"? I don't think so.

But before we rush to crucify those who have been labeled as demanding equal time for Hitler, we should listen carefully to the State Department spokesman who opposed any use of an interview with Omar "because VOA should not be broadcasting the voice of the Taliban."

When Richard Boucher demands that VOA not broadcast "this guy's voice back into Afghanistan" I hear the voice of that long-ago policy officer who fumed over the phrase "communist-imposed government" because it was not lockstep with State Department guidance.

From the beginning VOA, should have handled this interview in the tradition of news professionals like Jim Lehrer or Brit Hume. Mr. Lehrer would have used excerpts from what Omar had to say, but they would have been surrounded by the voices of authorities who would have explained where this guy is coming from (i.e. he lies and through his actions he is an accomplice of some of the worst criminals in history.) If Mr. Hume had conducted the interview, he would have found a way to document and confront Omar with the horrendous murders and atrocities that the Taliban has inflicted upon the people of Afghanistan.

That's journalism.

Mr. Burke repeatedly labeled the work of America's radios as "public diplomacy." Now I hate to take a cheap shot at Mr. Burke, but in the past the concept of public diplomacy has served to restrict their mission to serving the positions of the United States government. (Remember that when detente was the official policy of the U.S. government the "public diplomacy" crowd effectively barred Alexander Solzhenitsyn's voice from VOA.)

When Mr. Burke questions the concept of a Radio Free Afghanistan as "propaganda", he also needs to go back and examine the performance of Radio Free Europe in the 1980s. Surrogate radio is not "propaganda." It represents what journalism should be because it utilizes the research of serious scholarship while careful monitoring ensures high standards of truth and accuracy. Surrogate radio played a major role in the fall of communism.

Fortunately, there has long existed a consensus on Capitol Hill among both conservatives and liberals as to what the goals of U.S. international broadcasting should be. Rarely do commentators call for unity based on the views of Jesse Helms and Joe Biden, but that should be the case today.

Even if they do not always agree, each senator has demonstrated a profound understanding of the issues involved in international broadcasting.

Those whom the Bush administration would have lead international broadcasting should gather with Mr. Helms and Mr. Biden and agree that once again our policy and standards are the same to tell the truth.

Then we can get on with a real war against terrorism.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who retired as editor in chief of Reader's Digest in 1996, served two years as director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration and eight years on the U.S. Board for International Broadcasting.


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