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Op-Ed: Voice of America in intellectual twilight zone against Putin

The Voice of America, one of America’s taxpayer-funded weapons against Russian propaganda, had something in common with Russia’s propaganda weapon RT last week. RT (formerly Russia Today), a multimedia English-language website, still looked vastly more polished, more frequently updated and far more visually appealing than VOA’s late 20th century GI (Government Issue) English news site. Both, however, ignored the death on August 3 of British-American historian of Stalinist genocide Robert Conquest.

When this major Western intellectual figure, a laureate of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom who spent 28 years at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in California where he was a Senior Research Fellow, died in Palo Alto at the age of 98, the Voice of America Russian service only managed to produce a 100-word news item two days later. VOA’s short report in Russian had no details how this great scholar of Soviet history had exposed Stalin in the West as a cold-blooded killer rather than a progressive revolutionary many Western communists believed him to be.

Robert Conquest’s death was noted with extensive commentary and analysis by many media outlets in the United States, as well as abroad, except in countries which still tinker with communism, oppression, or both. It was ignored by most of Voice of America’s foreign language services despite Conquest’s American roots and affiliations. His father was an American.

In a Washington Post op-ed, George F. Will described Conquest as “the man who helped kill the Soviet Union with information.”

Reacting to the news of Robert Conquest’s death, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz said:

“Robert Conquest set the gold standard for careful research, total integrity, and clarity of expression about the real Soviet Union. He taught us all and he will live on in that spirit.”

The Wall Street Journal wrote in “The Triumph of Robert Conquest” editorial:

Many today across the world still offer solace to dictators and mass murderers, whatever their reasons, so Conquest’s insights into human deception remain and will always be relevant.

Anne Applebaum wrote in her Washington Post op-ed:

After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine last year, the Russian regime concocted not one lie about the event but dozens, each more absurd than the other. It’s no longer possible to fight a big lie with a single book. But the world needs the creativity and the courage of Robert Conquest more than ever.

The Voice of America even has a special “U.S. Opinion and Commentary” page in English. It has nothing on Robert Conquest.

Among VOA foreign language services, it appears only the Ukrainian service gave his groundbreaking work sufficient analysis. In his book Harvest of Sorrow (1986), Conquest had documented the deaths of millions of Ukrainian peasants from Stalin-engineered mass starvation.

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), another media outlet funded with U.S. taxpayer dollars and like VOA is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), did provide on its English and Russian websites extensive analyses of Robert Conquest’s work. The BBC did as well.

The Voice of America stayed in its intellectual twilight zone, treating Russian audiences instead to a video report on a cat fashion show in New York and a historical piece on hunger in America during the Great Depression. Ironically, millions were dying at that time from the artificial regime-imposed famine in the Soviet Union, a minor point VOA Russian Service failed to mention. From Putin’s point of view, VOA could not have done better.

While the Voice of America in the words of one former VOA foreign correspondent “is just not perceived as a player any more,” the passing of an intellectual giant was given extensive coverage on BBC News English website and on BBC Russian website. BBC Russian Service also offered a British press review on Robert Conquest.

A nine-minute program on Robert Conquest on BBC Radio 4, “A revolution of consciousness‘” can still be downloaded [ends in 3 days from today]

BBC described Robert Conquest as a historian who brought about a profound change in the attitude in the West toward Soviet communism.

The historian and poet Robert Conquest, who died this week aged 98, was a writer who carved out a huge reputation as a chronicler of the Stalinist era.

Robert Conquest had been a Communist as a young man but became disillusioned by what happened in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and eventually produced The Great Terror, a magisterial account of the years of oppression.

In the face of the Soviet “lie,” Conquest sought to emancipate himself from his past romantic credulity, the British novelist Martin Amis said. Amis is the son of the writer Kingsley Amis who was one of Conquest’s closest friends and also a disillusioned former communist. “He [Robert Conquest] effected a revolution of consciousness,” Martin Amis told the BBC. At one time, VOA contributed to this revolution.

The world today does indeed need the creativity and the courage of Robert Conquest more than ever, but it can no longer get it from the Voice of America.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors with the help of the U.S. Congress and the White House needs to fix structural problems which have made the agency in charge of VOA, in the words of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “practically defunct,” and are keeping the Voice of America in an intellectual twilight zone.

The bipartisan Royce-Engel H.R. 2323 bill to reform the BBG is stuck in a log jam behind the Iran bill. Literally nothing is moving until the Iran legislation is dealt with. But once the Iran bill is out of the way, Congress needs to act quickly to make the BBG and the Voice of America much more effective against Putin’s and ISIS’ propaganda. I am not suggesting that the two are in the same category or that they represent the same type of threat, but America’s security depends on how well VOA can respond with accurate news and alternative ideas to ISIS’ recruitment of terror fighters and to Putin’s lies.

Ted Lipien is a former acting Voice of America associate director who was in charge of VOA’s broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity’s successful struggle for democracy.

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