- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

On Feb. 24, 1942, the Voice of America (VOA) went on the air for the first time, in German, in the midst of a world war. Its mission was to report the news, good and bad, about the fight against fascism. Sixty years later, VOA is still on the air and in the midst of another war, this time against an international terrorist network that is, in some respects, reminiscent of the Nazis. In this war, VOA's mission remains what it has always been to try to broadcast the truth about the United States and developments on the international scene. And, as it has on other occasions, VOA continues to face controversies in carrying out this mission.
The latest erupted in the days after September 11 over VOA's coverage of terrorists, specifically over the question of whether an interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the head of the Taliban, should be broadcast by the U.S. taxpayer-funded agency. In newspaper accounts and editorials, the issue was defined, perhaps not surprisingly, as a struggle for the soul of VOA a struggle between honest journalists, who simply wanted to do their job of covering "all sides" of the story, and administration policy-makers, who, acting in the perceived interests of the United States in time of war, wanted to "censor" VOA by pushing messages other than the government's off the air.
This controversy continues to bubble up. Just this week, as President George W. Bush was about to visit VOA to help mark its 60th anniversary, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was again asked about the Omar interview and the administration's "philosophy on the news-gathering and news reporting independence of VOA."
This sort of question suggests that the good journalist/bad administration version of this controversy has taken hold, and may well be on the way to becoming a minor myth in the annals of press freedom. All the handwringing notwithstanding, however, the truth is that the Omar-interview episode was never about censorship. The only real issue was whether VOA was going to allow itself to be used by terrorists and their allies.
The typical account of this episode reads like that in the Chicago Tribune of Feb. 6, which refers to a VOA journalist "who scored an exclusive and controversial September interview with the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar." In fact, the interview came about as a result of an offer by the Taliban to let VOA broadcast a statement by Omar, an offer that was rejected. In the circumstances, some felt it would be fine to try to use this opportunity to get an interview. Others felt strongly that that would be inappropriate. Ultimately, an interview was done, but only a small part of it was carried in a news story that included segments of interviews with other sources.
When asked about the interview, administration spokesmen sought to explain the objections to broadcasting it. Those objections, and the decision not to air the interview in full, provoked the cries of censorship. But in the emergency situation created by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a situation in which American lives at home and abroad were clearly at risk airing the Omar interview would have been extremely ill-advised from the point of view of both policy-makers and sensible journalists. For it would not only have aided the cause of America's terrorist enemies and their backers, and conferred on them a prestige they do not deserve, but it would also have suggested that VOA could be compromised by such people. That would have been a serious blow to VOA.
What's interesting is that while some at VOA were struggling with this test, the commercial television media were passing it with flying colors. They immediately recognized their professional responsibility when the issue was raised of whether they should broadcast the Osama bin Laden videotapes. Instead of simply putting the tapes on the air, the networks reported on them with considerable care. And in doing that, they prevented themselves from being manipulated into serving as a vehicle for al Qaeda propaganda or aiding the terrorists who now threaten public safety.
There are, of course, times when journalists do choose to let themselves be "used." When the Unabomber demanded that major newspapers publish his environmental manifesto, they agreed but only after serious deliberation and with the goal of averting future attacks. Broadcasting the interview with Omar would have been bad journalism for it would have served no such larger purpose and, indeed, would not even have served any real news purpose.
It is routine for people with non-journalistic goals to try to use the news media. And how these situations are handled varies depending on the circumstances. But what the Omar episode reveals is something relevant not just to VOA but to all news organizations that one threat to their integrity and professionalism comes from those who seek to take advantage of their sense of fairness and skepticism toward their own government. This is one reason why there are times and for VOA, what better time than its 60th anniversary when journalists need to remind themselves of how to do their job wisely, in particular, how to exercise good judgment in deciding who and what to put on the air. An insistence on using good judgment and on adhering to reasonable standards of what is "news" so as to avoid manipulation is not censorship.

Steven C. Munson is director of policy in the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau and a former news specials chief for the Voice of America. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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