Speaking to the world -- credibly
An information source is good only if it is believed. That goes to the heart of the current controversy over the Voice of America and its parent organization , the United States International Communication Agency. As ICA becomes an increasingly vigorous advocate of the policies of the Reagan administration, many of its own staff members fear that it could lose the objectivity and balance that have established the agency's credibility over the years. This need not happen.But ICA should be alert to the dangers.
Certainly ICA's leadership cannot be faulted for wanting to portray accurately the policies of the Reagan White House, including efforts to counter Soviet strategic designs and to herald the virtues of the US political system. By mandate of Congress, the official views of the administration, be it Republican or Democratic, must be clearly conveyed by ICA. And that need not mean skewing the news. When recording the opinions of the administration, ICA can simply take care to label them opinion.
But ICA's determination to reflect the more anti-Soviet US posture today has complicated the issue of credibility. Even the most straightforward reporting of that posture runs the risk of sounding ''propagandistic,'' especially in a world already saturated with, and suspicious of, government-controlled media. Monitor correspondents report (in an article in today's Special Section) how VOA faces precisely such doubts in places like Africa and Poland. Some US foreign service officers in the Middle East also express concern over the negative political reaction stirred up by the appearance of some ICA products, including the ''slick'' new magazines on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Russian arms buildup, and the agency's recent film ''Let Poland Be Poland.'' As poorer countries grow increasingly wary of the politically charged content of information flooding their countries from the Soviet Union and from regional government networks, it is prudent for ICA to package its products discreetly, even modestly, to win audiences.
But even more important is the need to convey American pluralism. For years the Voice of America has won listeners by covering the full spectrum of American life - both the good and the bad, both the views of the administration and those of responsible critics. Besides presenting a true picture of the nation, such broad coverage has proven to be a persuasive communicator of America's finest traditions of free speech and other civil liberties.Chinese visitors, for instance, say that during the Cultural Revolution many of their countrymen were impressed by VOA's coverage of Watergate.
It would be regrettable if, in order to play up the views of the Reagan administration, ICA neglected reporting the wide diversity of American thinking. This would disappoint millions of people who depend on the breadth and depth of ICA information. On the other hand, taking special care to cultivate variety and objectivity will help ensure the credibility the ICA -- including the Voice of America -- needs to be effective.