This is the first in a series of reflections on the legacy of Edward R. Murrow as Director of the United State Information Agency. The series is inspired by the research for my forthcoming book, Truth is the Best Propaganda: Edward R. Murrow in Washington.
Forty-nine years ago this past March, Edward R. Murrow, the most legendary American journalist of his day, faced the cameras on Capitol Hill as the nominated director of the United States Information Agency.
In short order, he would become the chief propagandist for the Kennedy Administration, responsible for packaging America's story to the world. As always, there was an official one to sell like a shiny new Buick that will never ding or rust and an official one to tell where the protagonist stumbles through a maze of missteps and mistakes but comes out okay in the end. Which approach did Murrow favor?
Even Murrow's own misstep early on his directorship supports his theory. When he attempted to censor his own journalistic product, "CBS Reports: Harvest of Shame" from being shown on BBC TV, he had to publicly apologize for his action as both "foolish and futile." It was a powerful teachable moment in American public diplomacy history.
Though Murrow was quickly appointed Director of USIA, much is revealed in a line of questioning between him and Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa).
Hickenlooper: You will admit that the Russians have had more success with their propaganda than we have had with ours?
Hickenlooper: And they have achieved this by promoting and advancing the attractive parts of their programs. Why couldn't we do the same?
Murrow: In the first place, we are operating under a different society. We have an open, pluralistic society; we cannot conceal our difficulties or our controversies, even if we would, and if we don't report them responsibly and accurately, someone else will report them worse.
Hugh Russell Fraser, writing in the Los Angeles Times under the heading, "Ed Murrow's Theory is Wrong," said that "the truth is, whether Mr. Murrow knows it or not, the Soviets will report them worse anyway." Why provide bullets for their guns?
In 1961 Fraser identified American counterpropaganda as the weakest part of our national security armor.
What about today? Is it better to lead with our best forward, knowing that those who are against the U.S. will report them worse? Or is it better to have an open door policy approach to our public diplomacy?
Murrow's successor, Judith McHale, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, may provide some insight. She shared this in her May 23rd Commencement Address at Coker College: "Let me suggest a moral imperative for the twenty-first century: that we must make the necessity to treat people and nations always first as potential partners and not as potential threats. "
McHale's words, at least in this one short phrase, suggest a theory of public diplomacy much more in alignment with the journalist than the senator. They reflect a sentiment shared by historian Henry Steele Commager, who influenced Murrow's own moral imperatives at USIA. Commager said that the United States had a special obligation to the community of nations because it was "particularly dependent on and related to other peoples and other nations."
This does not dismiss or excuse those who are hell bent on destroying the United States. But they will press on to do so, with or without our help. Our best chance for mounting a counteroffensive may be in creating that community of nations and partners in social and economic development that share the same vision of pluralism and the open society.
Am I, or perhaps, McHale, just being naïve? Read her entire speech and let me know.
How will Donald Trump’s first 100 days impact YOU? Subscribe, choose the community that you most identify with or want to learn more about and we’ll send you the news that matters most once a week throughout Trump’s first 100 days in office. Learn more