Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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What if America Loses its Voice?

A Conversation With Some Russian Friends

Ernest Partridge
The Online Gadfly

Fall, 1995

In the mid-term elections of 1994, a conservative Republican majority took control of Congress (remember?). The charter of that "revolution" was "The Contract for America," which proposed a radical cutback in the size of the Federal Government. Among the targets was the Voice of America, which, the conservatives suggested, was no longer necessary in an era of international communications firms such as CNN. In the ensuing struggle, the supporters of the Voice of America prevailed.

In the summer of 1995, the fate of the Voice of America was still very much in the balance., and very much on my mind, as I visited the field laboratory of some young Russian scientists at Valaam Island in Lake Ladoga, east of St. Petersburg.  The following conversation was written down within hours of the event and shown to our Russian hosts for their validation and approval.  Upon our return, it was turned over to friends at the Voice of America.  Although the future of the Voice of America appears secure at this time, this glimpse of Russian culture, and of Russian attitudes toward Americans, deserves retelling.

"What did you say? They're going to shut down the Voice of America?" Volodya was stunned. "How is this possible? Don't they realize that Western radio, and notably the Voice of America, was our only reliable and prompt source of news during the 1991 coup?" As my friends voiced their amazement, I wondered where they will get their vital information, the next time the fragile Russian democracy is put to a severe test. What, for that matter, would have been the results four years ago, had the Voice been silent?

All this came to my mind just last night as my Northland College students and I chatted with our Russian colleagues around the dining room table at their laboratory at Valaam Island, Lake Ladoga.

I asked them if the Russian media, now that it was free of government control, was not capable of carrying on the functions formerly performed by foreign broadcasts. "Not really," Lara replied (as with the others, not her real name). "You see, the Russian media are evolving. They have no experience in independent and accurate reporting -- in fact, quite the contrary is the case." "Just ask the families of Dmitri Kholodov and Vladislav Listev," Yuri added. "The attempts of these journalists to accurately report the news, cost them their lives."

"The media in Russia, not under the control of the government, are influenced by the same market forces at work in the States, and they are moving toward the same result." Ivan knew whereof he spoke. When he was in the United States last year he had an ear and eyeful of American media. "All I seem to hear on the news is that 'Whitewater' business!" he recalled. "Wasn't there anything else of importance happening in America?" I could only wonder what he would make of the O.J. obsession today.

The new conservative majority in Congress tells us that CNN and other commercial enterprises will now do the work of the Voice of America. And so I asked: how many had seen CNN? Two of the seven at the table volunteered that they had. "Not very interesting, "they said. "CNN International is just that, international." With news offered from around the world, the Russian share is quite small, they complained. The Russian service of the Voice of America, on the other hand, is directed at Russia.

Galya observed, "I rather doubt that many Americans appreciate the cultural differences between us. What seems important to you often strikes us as strange and even funny -- that OJ business, again. And I suppose that many things about us seem strange to you too. But I felt that the Voice was sensitive to such things. We heard Russian voices, speaking from shared culture and experience. We felt that these were professionals, whose job it was to communicate, and not to sell."

"And that's important," added Leonid. "Sure, we enjoyed hearing your music -- jazz, folk, rock, and that sort of thing. But Russians want most of all to hear about Russia. The Voice of American had that function. Without this, the Russians would not take your media very seriously."

"Without the Voice, we can expect that the American mass media, as they come over here, will feed the Russian masses, just as they feed yours, with what the masses ask for," Volodya observed. "Our media are doing the same. Even now, when it comes to thoughtful and scholarly analysis, the Russian media don't offer very much. You gave us that commentary. We will miss it."

What view of America might you get without the Voice, I asked. "Oh, pretty much what the Soviet media was telling us: decadent popular culture, crime, violence, poverty for the masses, opulence for the few. Trouble is, we all knew that the Soviets were lying to us. But when you tell the same story about yourselves, what are we to believe?"

Did the Voice give you a different picture? "Oh certainly! There was always something a bit strange and, well, 'foreign' about it, but it had an air of authenticity. It was willing to report social and political problems in America, and its reporting about Russia had the ring of truth to it."

I listened to it all with fascination and with a profound sadness.

I have seen the results here of unconstrained American private enterprise, and I am not encouraged. In five trips to Russia over the past six years, the growing presence and influence of our popular culture has become ever more apparent. Rock and Rap music everywhere. Badly dubbed American gangster films on TV, too campy even for our audiences who retire before 2 AM. Russian youth wearing t-shirts that celebrate American media heroes, and American tourists wearing t-shirts that mock Russian culture and history. But what do these Russians know about Independence Hall, the Gettysburg Address, the melting pot, the Freedom Rides, native American art and religion, Carl Sandburg, Duke Ellington, Rachel Carson, and those transplanted Russians, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland? How will they learn?

Absent a bond of mutual respect, how much will we learn from this great people? Not much, I fear. On one flight back to the States, I sat next to a senior officer of a conservative "think tank." For hours, he told me what he and his "seminar" had taught the Russians about free enterprise. I doubt that I heard a word from him about what he had learned from the Russians. And these are the people who are bringing our culture to the Russians.

Do we care at all what the world thinks of us? Should we? Should we be content with the picture of America that is emerging as we go about our private business? Is our global reputation worth the dollar a year each of us pays to operate the Voice of America?

What on Earth were those congressmen thinking when they voted to silence America's Voice?

Copyright, 1995, by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .