Should US information broadcasts be more 'combative'?
A morning headline read: ''Reagan Administration Moves for More Aggressive U.S. Information Broadcasts.'' I shuddered.
I esteem many of the new directions in policy which the President is providing. But in announcing that it will ''sharpen'' the tone of foreign broadcasts of the United States International Communication Agency, especially to communist and communist-dominated countries, the administration seems to me to be veering in the wrong direction.
I reach this conclusion on the basis of my firsthand experience in the management of Marshall Plan information programs in Western and Eastern Europe.
The need is not to raise our voices but to lower them and thereby enhance our credibility.
We must realize the Russians have a great sense of devotion to their fatherland even when they are being suffocated by communist-style repression. Theirs is not a ready-made audience intent upon listening to what the United States is reporting. We have to earn our audience every day and we will deserve it as it is attracted to our broadcasts by their self-evident credibility.
Combativeness is not a synonym of credibility.
I am not suggesting that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel prize winner and Soviet exile, is always right in the advice he volunteers to American policymakers. He surely makes sense in the heart of what he said in a recent NBC interview:
''The people of the USSR are hungry for information about their country. They want to know about their workers, the peasantry and the men in military service. The pitiful condition of those disabled in World War II is completely hidden in the Soviet Union. They listen to foreign broadcasts and nothing is ever said about these matters.''
The substance and tone of US broadcasts are crucial to effectiveness. If the substance is appealing and the tone is bad, they fail. If the tone is appealing and the substance is weak, they fail.
This is why the administration's announcement that it aims to give our broadcasts ''a sharper tone'' seems to me to set them on an unproductive course. This is why the phrase of one official spokesman that the broadcasts should be ''more combative'' suggests exactly what is not needed.
The Soviet poeple are more aware of how the Kremlin manipulates the news for political purposes than most outsiders realize. Example: When I was in Moscow in 1933 at the height of Stalin's power, the government was eagerly exhibiting throughout the USSR American newsreels showing US workers protesting in the streets.
Suddenly the Kremlin stopped showing them. Why? Because the Soviet audiences were intent upon admiring the high-quality shoes the American workers were wearing!
The Russians want to know the truth about what is going on in their country and in other countries. The best way to get their attention is to tell it straight - not varnishing the news about our country and about theirs not at all - without combativeness and without shouting.
A lowered voice is the hallmark of credibility.