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Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2001 / 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Voice of America lives up to its name -- RECENTLY, the editors and reporters of Voice of America threatened to resign en masse in response to the VOA's board of governors killing an exclusive interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, the head of the Taliban. The Voice of America staffers' action was an admirable illustration of the freedoms we are fighting to protect.

The pressure to censor the broadcast came from the State Department, whose spokesman, Richard Boucher, explained that this federally financed operation was not being consistent with its charter by broadcasting the voice of the enemy to Afghanistan and elsewhere.

But the Voice of America's charter requires it to be "a reliable and authoritative source of news." Its broadcasts are to be "accurate, objective and comprehensive." As Edward R. Murrow of CBS, who later served as director of the U.S. Information Agency, said: "To be persuasive, we must be credible."

Jules Whitcover reported in the Sept. 28 Baltimore Sun that the insistence of the VOA's editors and reporters that they be faithful to its charter and to the First Amendment resulted in a petition to the board of governors by more than 150 members of the staff. And the program, including parts of the interview with Omar, was finally aired, so that that the Afghans and other listeners would know that we do not fear to let our enemies expose themselves in their own words.

But the State Department, still not able to get the point, said, through Boucher, that it "would look into the defiance."

The annals of the free press should include the memorandum to the VOA's staff from its news director, Andrew deNesera, who described the initial killing of the broadcast as "a totally unacceptable assault on our editorial independence (and) a frontal attack on our credibility."

If I were teaching journalism at a high school, graduate school, or in a newsroom, I would cite what VOA's then-acting director, Myrna Whitworth, told the staff, urging it "NOT to fall under the spell of 'self-censorship.' If you do, 'they' have won. ... Continue to interview ANYONE, ANYWHERE."

As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black said in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case (New York Times Co. v. United States ), affirming the right of newspapers to print a once-secret report on our government's deception of the American people during the Vietnam War: "In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy." And that is true of our voice, the Voice of America.

This freedom does not, of course, extend to disclosing troop movements or other legitimately classified information that would aid the enemy. But the First Amendment certainly does include letting the enemy reveal itself in its own voice.

What surprised me was that New York Times columnist William Safire -- a consistent defender of the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, and a scholar of its origins -- agreed with this attempted censorship of the VOA.

In his column "Equal Time for Hitler?" Safire declared that the "VOA is the wrong voice in this area in wartime." He actually attacked the VOA for being "evenhanded" when "the nation is on a kind of war footing."

Were CBS and other networks being disloyally evenhanded when they kept broadcasting Hitler's speeches? Also surprising to me was the similar inability of The Wall Street Journal to get the point emphasized by Justice Hugo Black. The Wall Street Journal's editorial pages are among the strongest and clearest illuminations of the First Amendment.

Yet in castigating the successful resistance of VOA editors and reporters to forfeiting their responsibility to listeners everywhere, the Journal noted sternly that the VOA is "paid for by American taxpayers." It is also paid to be credible, and therefore useful.

The Journal went on the say that because of Sept. 11, the VOA needs "a leader who can reconcile its charter obligation to observe the highest journalistic standards with its mandate to represent America to the world."

That is just what the VOA did in showing the world that we are not afraid to broadcast the very words of our enemy, because it is vital for us and for the world to know our enemy.

As Justice Black said: "The word 'security' is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment."

The new director of the VOA, Robert Reilly, says he believes the Voice of America must remain credible. Let us hope so.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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