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If the world is to listen

Reports that the Voice of America may alter its overseas broadcasting policies in order to become more of a propaganda arm of the US government are disturbing. If the Voice retreats from its 1976 mandate to broadcast ''accurate , objective, and comprehensive'' news - even if this means at times putting the United States in a critical light - it will lose its credibility and usefulness.

At issue is how the US should counter Moscow's massive propaganda efforts throughout the world. One newly appointed official in VOA believes in an ''advertising'' approach and terms the Voice ''a propaganda agency.'' In his view, VOA should ''strive to 'destabilize' the Soviet Union and its satellites by promoting disaffection between peoples and rulers, underscoring the likes and denials of rights, inefficient management of the economy, suppression of cultural diversity, religious persecution, etc.''

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We trust the new leadership of VOA will think twice before adopting such a misguided, risky policy. Surely the aim of the US government is not to deliberately fan instability in any society - however repugnant it may be - but calmly to provide straightforward and objective information on the basis of which people can draw their own conclusions.

Pointing to injustices and inefficiencies in a totalitarian system such as communism may have its place (though one would expect the citizens of a country to know this better than any observer from the West). But the greatest impact comes from how VOA treats the news in general, including its coverage of the United States. When the news is dealt with fairly and fully, even if this involves pointing out peccadillos of the US government or failings in society at large, this says more than propaganda ever could about American freedom. On the other hand, resorting to strident hard sell, exaggeration, and screening of embarrassing news will only lead listeners to conclude that VOA is no different in tone and purpose from Radio Moscow.

America does not need to sell itself. It needs only to be itself - to make sure its institutions reflect its values. Then the world is certain to listen.

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