Published February 1, 1987
Washington, D.C., which gets abuzz over things large and small, was aflutter just after the November elections with another Charles Z. Wick flap. Mr. Wick is, of course, the director of the United States Information Agency and a close personal friend of President and Mrs. Reagan.
In the New York Times (November 10), columnist William Satire charged that, during the Reykjavik summit, Mr. Wick was “. . . drawn into a verbal agreement on behalf of our Government that — if not repudiated — would compromise U.S. diplomacy on a fundamental principle and allow the Russians to drive a wedge between the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.” The alleged deal was that the Soviets would discontinue jamming the Voice of America, in return for which the United States would help the Soviets get regular access for Radio Moscow to American medium-wave frequencies (on which most U.S. radios operate).
Since jamming is forbidden by the International Telecommunications Union to which the Soviets are signatories, Safire argued that one ought not give them rewards for ceasing activities that they were, by law, forbidden from undertaking in the first place. Moreover, Safire pointed out, “Over 70 percent of Russian jamming is directed at Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, which includes samizdat and messages from dissidents along with hard-hitting newscasts, [and] less than 10 percent at the softer V.O.A. Russian-language programming.”
Director Wick has denied that any such “deal” was made, and a letter in the Times (November 20) from two of Mr. Wick’s subordinates reiterates that “… no ‘deal’ was struck; no U.S. Government policy was jeopardized or transgressed; no agreement of any kind was made to end Soviet jamming of the Voice of America at the expense of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.”
Whether, and how, this argument continues need not detain us further here. What is of interest, though, is that, in the usual manner of Washington, D.C. flaps, this one tended to obscure the more important policy question: how might the burgeoning technology of international telecommunications be an instrument for breaking the Leninist monopoly of information in the USSR?
Reflecting on the Wick flap in the Washington Post, former National Security Council staffer Carnes Lord made a proposal that strikes us as worth thinking about: “What should the United States do? The best course is to escalate the bidding and call the Soviet bluff. In the first place, the United States should make clear that it rejects the Soviet insinuation that the American public’s access to information is hostage to government action. Attention should be forcefully called to the spreading presence of spokesmen of the Posner and Arbatov school on the American airwaves and the absence of their counterparts in the Soviet Union. The United States could also pledge to facilitate Soviet access to the U.S. media market following the complete cessation of jamming of all U.S. radio broadcasting to the Soviet Union, it being understood that the scope for U.S. government action in this respect is sharply limited. But most important, the United States should propose that both sides move into the contemporary communications age and compete in the medium of television.
“Because of the nature of today’s TV technology, it is a simple matter to give the Soviets access to American living rooms; unlike the situation in radio, they could have an entire cable channel to themselves without inconveniencing the domestic competition. The price, of course, should be an arrangement for American access to Soviet domestic TV. The United States could perhaps be forthcoming to the extent of going beyond strict reciprocity to make [sic] concessions to the inevitable Soviet demand for program control. Let’s put Gorbachevian ‘openness’ to the real test.”
No doubt Mr. Lord’s proposals would have rough sledding at first. But these would seem to be precisely the kind of approaches we should be making to the USSR, if our goals are peace with freedom. Moreover, we ought to be making it widely known that we’re making such proposals: that we fear nothing from the free and open competition of ideas.
Cable TV, direct satellite television broadcasting coupled with mini-dish receivers, “spacebridging” person-to-person TV exchanges-these new technologies can be powerful instruments for de-Leninizing the USSR, and thus advancing the prospects for peace. But two temptations have to be avoided. The first is the temptation, usually found a gauche, to think that any exchange is a good exchange. The second and opposite temptation, typically found a droit, is to assume that all exchange is phony exchange. The point is not to split the difference between these two extremes; it’s to get ahead of the present polarizations and think through the central question, exchange for what?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.