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by Dick Virden

One of the Foreign Policy Association topics for its “Great Decisions” series in 2018 is “the media and foreign policy.”   Speaking on this and related issues to civic groups around Minnesota has caused me to reflect on my own long experience with the press and to look for insights that might apply to our public life today.

We hear a lot now about the rise of social media, a vital new phenomenon that clearly affects both national security policy and domestic politics. Whether that’s good or bad is debatable, but that these the new media influence world affairs is not.    The “CNN Effect” once put foreign hot spots on the map; now smart phones, Facebook, and Twitter spark movements like the Arab Spring.

Cyberwarfare is another new entry and a cause of great concern for our national security officials.   At its heart, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is about Russia’s exploiting our media, new and old, to affect the 2016 election and weaken our democracy.

We know that Moscow mounted a substantial “influence” or dirty tricks campaign against us. The evidence is overwhelming and no longer in doubt.  Such hostile manipulation of media by outside forces is a new, insidious form of warfare that we ignore at our peril.

Then there’s “fake news,” two four-letter words that when put together are poisoning our political process, as is the related growth of sharply partisan media, particularly cable news and talk radio.

In addressing these trends and their impact, I mean to be fair minded and non-partisan, as befits a career diplomat who worked for nine presidents (five Republicans, four Democrats). But, like the great umpire Bill Klem, I will also call them like I see them.   Readers are free to conclude I’m as blind as other umpires.

Media background

I’ve worked on both sides of the dividing line between government and the media. As a cub reporter one summer, I covered everything from fatal car accidents to a perfect game.   This was for the Daily Transcript, a small paper then published in Little Falls, Minnesota (Charles Lindbergh’s home town). When I misspelled a name or got some other detail wrong, I heard about it the next day. (I also heard, from an editor, that if I wanted to stay in the business, I should learn to type; that seemed reasonable, so I took a night course in touch typing that fall at a local high school).

To earn some pin money as a student, I reported on St. John’s University (Minn.) sports for the wire services and other local media.   St. John’s coaches —including the legendary John Gagliardi, then just starting on his way to becoming the winningest coach in college football history—were not shy about pointing out what they saw as blown calls.

Those were early lessons in accuracy. There is right and wrong and sometimes even fubar (You can look it up in any dictionary of military terms).

After graduating, I worked for three years as a writer-editor for the United States Information Agency (USIA), then led by one of the all-time greats of broadcasting, Edward R. Murrow.   I remember seeing him once standing outside USIA’s iconic address (1776 Pennsylvania Avenue) beside the plaque defining the agency’s mission as “telling America’s story to the world.” He was wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigarette, evoking for me his dramatic reporting from London rooftops during the World War II Blitz.

Later, one of my Foreign Service assignments was as a correspondent for USIA’s press service during the Vietnam War.   My 16 months as a member of the Saigon press corps was an intense graduate course in politics, journalism, foreign policy and the difficulty of sorting fact from fiction. It soon became clear why truth is said to be the first casualty of war (whether hot or Cold).

Dick Virden, then a correspondent for USIA’s Wireless File, interviews a U.S. Army officer in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, early 1971.

I’ve also served as a Press Attaché in several countries.   One tour was in Warsaw in the late 70s, when Poland’s government was communist-controlled and ours was considered a hostile embassy. I had friendly, mutually supportive, relations with the few resident Western journalists, who were under siege themselves.

It was much trickier with Polish media. Contacts with dissidents were understandably sensitive. At great risk to themselves, they slipped us mimeographed copies of their illegal or “samizdat” publications and told us what happened at secret “flying university” sessions in church basements. We gave them bootleg copies of Newsweek and compared notes on local developments. After the transcendent 1979 first return home by the Polish Pope, John Paul II, we showed them videotapes of the reports on American TV networks (much more in-depth than the minimalist coverage seen on Polish state television).

With the official media, relations were adversarial, if generally correct. When Jimmy Carter visited Warsaw in December of 1977, we got Polish authorities to commit in advance to publish the transcript of his press conference in the party newspaper. They did, something of a coup for those times. We couldn’t get opposition journalists into the press event itself—said to have been the first press conference by an American president in a communist country—but the morning after Carter left I hand delivered answers to questions they’d submitted in writing.

My next tour, again as Press Attaché, was in Bangkok, then a regional hub for covering the aftermath of the Vietnam War, including the Boat People, other refugees and Americans missing in action. We’re still grappling with some of these issues today, though in new guises and different regions of the world. Because of the high costs involved, far fewer correspondents are now based abroad to provide on-the-spot coverage; it’s a big loss.

I’d earlier served as a press officer in Sao Paulo, in 1973-74, when Brazil was under military rule. Leading newspapers printed recipes and classical poetry to alert readers where censors had made cuts. Friendly reporters would invite me to their newsroom to read the excised material on their bulletin boards.

Subsequent Foreign Service assignments included directing our public diplomacy—that is our government’s effort to inform and persuade foreign publics as well as governments—in Portugal, Romania and Poland, during and after the Cold War. Working with local media was a vital part of the brief.

Near the end of my Foreign Service career, I taught a course in media and national security at the National War College, our senior staff college for senior military officers on their way to becoming generals and civilians of equivalent rank, where I’d earlier studied. One of my great pleasures during that faculty stint was to bring the famed Vietnam War reporter David Halberstam to speak about war and peace with our group.

So that’s my background for this discussion. That and a lifetime as an avid consumer of information and news.

The First Amendment

Any discussion of media should start with a traditional but fundamental point: democracy requires a free press. That’s how we citizens get the information we need to make good decisions. Because our Founding Fathers believed this so strongly, they made freedom of speech the First Amendment. Before the right to bear arms.

The imperative for the press to be free is bedrock, permanent —Constitutional. It doesn’t go away just because a reporter makes a mistake, files unflattering stories, or fails to do his homework.   Journalists are far from perfect, but my own experience is that most try mightily to get the story right, the object of the exercise. They seek “the best obtainable version of the truth,” as Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame puts it.

I always found that trust and credibility were the coin of the realm for journalists as well as government officials. We needed to rely on each other to respect facts, each other’s word, and the ground rules for using information.

If a press officer lied or deliberately misled a reporter, he and his fellows would never trust you again. Ditto for a reporter who betrayed a trust or made things up. Those who didn’t respect the rules were bypassed and shunned by both sides.

Regimes that resort to censorship to get their way only make things worse. I’ve lived in countries where tyrants tried to control media and information to cement their grip on power.   It’s not in the public interest.

One knee-jerk move is to reserve broadcasting—radio and television—as state monopolies. That way only the regime’s version of events gets out to most people. Among other steps: block websites, ban opposition media, limit circulation, deny visas to outsiders, and harass or jail critical reporters.

When the anti-communist revolution came in Bucharest around Christmas of 1989, there was a fierce battle at state TV headquarters. Control of TV was critical, since that was where most people got their news and information as well as entertainment. I called TV in that oppressed part of the world at that time the true opiate of the people. Pushing for a free press and independent broadcasting was a U.S. priority in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, and it became a condition for admission into the major democratic clubs, NATO and the European Union.

State control of broadcasting remains a pillar of the state in many authoritarian countries, including Russia, where it’s a major reason Mr. Putin remains popular at home. He determines what the mass media report about events, such as his meeting with President Trump in Helsinki or Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea. His ability to control the narrative may help explain President Trump’s admiration for the Kremlin leader.

Attacks on the media

Donald Trump himself, of course, is a creature of television.   It’s how he rose to fame and political power; his ability to dominate the spotlight earned him countless hours of free TV time during his campaign for the presidency. As we used to say in another era, he sells newspapers.

His persistent attacks on the media, however, are problematic. Mr. Trump frequently denounces the media in general plus specific media organizations and individual journalists. He labels unfavorable reports “fake news,” calls the press “very dishonest,” and the media “the enemy of the people.”

To me, denigrating the press undermines not only one of our vital institutions but also our standing as a democratic beacon to people elsewhere. Nor does President Trump confine his criticism to the media; he also belittles the judiciary, the FBI, the intelligence community and the career civil service. The net result is to reduce the credibility of these vital institutions. And that means trust in them won’t be there, at home or abroad, when we need it.

How will we convince others that Iran or North Korea or Syria is cheating on weapons of mass destruction except through believable evidence from our intelligence agencies? That’s how we document these things. Ronald Reagan used to quote a Russian proverb, “trust but verify.”

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Our say-so alone is no longer enough to convince leaders and publics elsewhere, as it was in 1962 when we discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba. Asked if he wanted to see the evidence, President Charles de Gaulle of France said no, the word of the American president was good enough for him. Polls show consistently that we do not currently command such respect and trust around the world.

The mandate of the people

Donald Trump is hardly the first politician to complain about the press. Republicans do it. Democrats do it. Even Pope Francis has been known to criticize faulty media reports. All leaders do it at times. They’d rather the press be a cheerleader than a watchdog.

Yet all democratic statesmen concede, however reluctantly in some cases, that a free press is essential. That’s true even when reporters make mistakes or file reports authorities find unhelpful. A free press is how we hold our leaders accountable.   It’s a cornerstone of democracy (as Americans have been preaching to the world for years).

Without it, people stop believing what their leaders tell them, and authorities then lose the right to govern, what the Chinese call “the mandate of the people.” I saw that happen in Poland in the late 70s. The communist regime there lost the trust of its citizens because it lied routinely about the reality they lived. What official media reported and what people saw in their shops and factories, schools and bars were different worlds. The result was a yawning credibility gap much like our own over Vietnam.

When John Paul II came home for the first time as Pope in 1979, an estimated 20 million Poles (more than half the population) turned out to see him during that six-day visit. State television tried to make it look like crowds were sparse and mainly old people. No one bought it. The regime never did regain enough trust to remain in power and stop a downhill slide into the dustbin of history.

After that historic visit, I urged Western journalists and media executives who parachuted into Warsaw to station staffers there to cover this unfolding story. The New York Times was the first to do so, sending in John Darnton to reopen their Warsaw bureau. John won the Pulitzer Prize for his seminal reporting on the rise of the opposition movement, Solidarity (Solidarnosc) in the early 80s.

Coherence and credibility

Back to President Trump and the media. His tweets often come early in the day and dominate the news cycle, effectively setting the agenda. Unfortunately, the messages are frequently contradictory and/or fact challenged. The Washington Post’s running account of “clearly identifiable” Presidential falsehoods or misleading statements had passed the 5,000 mark by the fall of 2018. Others did similar tracking, with Time magazine, for example, finding 1950 “false claims” in 2017.

Conflicting or erroneous messaging blurs coherence and undercuts trust in U.S. policy, foreign as well as domestic. One such instance is the gulf on Russia between President Trump and his national security team. That team warned in 2018 that Russia was already mucking around in the off-year elections. All the red lights are blinking, as Dan Coats, our intelligence chief, put it. The Commander in Chief himself, however, declined to join in calling out Russia for these threats to our national security.

Consider the foreign diplomats who are paid to decipher U.S. positions on issues that matter to their countries, often questions of life or death. Should they believe today’s tweet – or yesterday’s — or rely instead on the more formal, coordinated statements of U.S. positions on climate change, NAFTA, Syria, immigration, North Korea, terrorism, or our NATO commitments?

Keeping foes guessing can be a valuable battlefield tactic, but deception is dangerous and self-defeating in the world of diplomacy and national security. Others need to know where we stand and whether they can rely on our word; they need clarity, not uncertainty or confusion, from the world’s most powerful nation.

Objectivity and partisanship

Our turn to partisan media, particularly on cable news and talk radio, has increased polarization and helped make our politics dysfunctional; when every issue is treated as black or white, good or evil, we fail to find common ground or room for compromise. As a result, major national problems like immigration and climate change fester, unaddressed and unresolved.

We’ve had bitter partisanship before, including at the beginning of our country. But going back to those times is not progress. Partisan media inhibit honest, balanced debate about the challenges we face as a nation. A U.S. senator, Patrick Moynihan, once observed that every man is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. That was years ago, but Moynihan’s maxim still holds.

We need facts as much as ever, even if the communications revolution has altered how quickly we can get them. My first time in Poland, when it was still behind the Iron Curtain, we got most of our news when the diplomatic pouch brought a weekly supply of the International Herald Tribune. In the same country 14 years later, I could read that morning’s edition of the Washington Post or the New York Times on my computer at the embassy.

The Way It Was

One of my journalistic heroes was CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite, who concluded his nightly broadcast with the signoff, “and that’s the way it is…” There was good reason that, back then, he was considered the most trusted man in America. We believed him because he reported the news straight, even when it was painful, as when he told us it wasn’t working in Vietnam.

Walter Cronkite with Dick Virden and his wife, Linda at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Bangkok, shortly after Cronkite’s 1981 retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

We have quality news outlets that still follow Cronkite’s model today. I put the New York Times on top of my own list for its commitment to all the news that’s fit to print. Without fear or favor. This is the gold standard, even if neither the Times nor any other news organization would claim it always reaches it.

The opposite extreme are one-sided outlets like talk radio, cable news, and the comment sections of social media. What you frequently see there is partisanship run amuck. Standards like objectivity and fairness are lost in this thicket. So are basic principles like the double check rule. The double check rule – verification – is too often ignored in the 24/7 media whirl.

The very concept of “partisan journalism” strikes me as a contradiction in terms. Political advocacy or propaganda are more accurate terms for what these outlets offer. The negative trend has even extended to the Office of the White House Press Secretary, where traditional standards are no longer observed. The sharp partisanship, disregard for the truth and mockery of reporters displayed during the daily briefings are all foreign to my understanding of a spokesman’s role. The bully pulpit should be a place for balanced, civil discourse; the spokesperson after all, is paid by taxpayers, not the President’s campaign or his party.

Foreign interference

The discovery of foreign interference in our electoral process is an unwelcome addition to an already-heady mixture. Russia exploited Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter and more traditional media to try to affect our 2016 campaign. They also tried — reportedly without success – to hack into voter rolls and election machinery in at least 20 states.

Our huge intelligence community, 16 agencies strong, concluded that Russia intervened to undermine public faith in our political process, to denigrate Hillary Clinton and her prospective administration, and to advance the candidacy of Donald Trump.

As of the fall of 2018, 25 Russians had been indicted for multiple, elected-related crimes, from hacking into email accounts at the Democratic National Committee to stealing identities and creating phony on-line personas to running thousands of on-line issue ads on inflammatory and divisive issues or events.

To me, this Russian campaign was nothing less than an attack on our system of government and way of life. We should all be outraged about it, not divided on partisan lines. We would not sit still if a Russian ship bombarded Boston or Miami, and we should not tolerate this new form of warfare either. We went to war in Vietnam in 1964 when a North Vietnamese boat allegedly fired at (and missed) one of our warships off the coast of Vietnam.

Special Counsel Mueller’s job is to find out precisely what Russia did in 2016. He’s also examining whether Americans associated with the Trump campaign conspired with Russians in this effort. He’s not trying to establish whether Russia’s activity swung the 2016 election, which is unprovable —either way.  Countless factors combine to cause citizens to vote as they do (or sit it out).

Still, if you believe in advertising, you have to think all the agitation on social media had some impact. Would U.S. companies spend $83 billion a year on digital advertising if they didn’t think such exposure helped their brand?

In any case, the very effort to try to affect the result is outrageous and unacceptable. Some offer up the everybody-does-it defense, but notably President Putin himself is not among them. Instead, he apparently finds it more tenable to simply deny actions we know to be true.

The United States needs to react forcefully to this outside attack on our democracy. For one, we must improve our cyber defense; we have technical experts working on this, but they will never be able to guarantee 100 percent success, given that technology keeps advancing and playing defense is harder than offense. The most we can expect is reduce the risks.

The other part of a serious strategy must be to convince bad actors that the price will be too high for the potential gains. In other words, deterrence, the policy that helped us win the Cold War. Moscow (and other would-be miscreants, like North Korea and China), need to know they will be held to account, not allowed to hide behind cutouts or the “plausible deniability” that Mr. Putin learned in his KGB days.

The fact that Russia, according to our national security chiefs, was back at it, resorting to the same tricks in 2018, was proof positive that we’ve so far failed to impress Russia with our resolve.

Facebook and Google and other social media organizations have plenty of soul searching to do themselves. They’ve admitted mistakes in allowing their platforms to be abused. That’s a start.   Now they must work with national security officials – and Congress — to develop workable safeguards. Walking the fine line between preventing abuses and censorship will be tough; but, having invented the Internet, Americans can also figure out how to prevent it from being used against us.

Media, the military and national security

When I was on the faculty of the National War College in the early 2000s, our military experts were beginning to think about how to use social media tools to our benefit and defend against those who would harm us. That task has become even more imperative since the 2016 election.

The fight, as it so often is, will be about getting resources needed for the job. The cyberwarfare and Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts in in our Armed Forces are waging an uphill battle for a decent slice of the defense budget. They’re competing with big ticket hardware like tanks, and planes and ships, which create jobs and so have strong Congressional advocates. The military-industrial-Congressional complex can’t just expect more of everything. A choice must be made for the wars of today and tomorrow, not the past. Should we keep building more multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers – we already have more of them than the rest of the world combined – or direct more resources to more modern threats, like cyberwarfare?


Media must redouble reform efforts to grapple with all these issues and others, such as how to report on terrorism without encouraging terrorists. New business plans are needed to make a buck in a digital world while also honoring honor core journalistic standards.  One example is “The Elements of Journalism,” a book by two highly respected journalists, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Another is an internet site developed by the Newseum to improve media literacy; it includes some excellent case studies for students.

Google has said it will spend $300 million to combat the spread of misinformation.   It will explore tactics such as ranking the reliability of sources to lead people to more authoritative content on both Google and YouTube. It will also try to combat bad actors who exploit breaking news to surface inaccurate content.

Google is also launching a “Disinfo Lab” with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard to study ways to curb misinformation, and will partner with Poynter Institute, Stanford U and Local Media Association to help youths with digital info literacy. Some university libraries are doing similar work by offering instructions in computer literacy and tips on identifying reliable sources.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg has acknowledged some regulation of his industry may be needed, as in broadcasting. Facebook itself now requires that political or issue ads indicate their sponsors and that Facebook members get to decide whether and how their data is shared. The European Union has done pioneering work in insisting that social media platforms give users control over their own data. The EU has also levied big fines for non-compliance and required platforms to spot and delete illegal content.

Our federal government must get serious about dealing with cyberwarfare. That includes political measures to dissuade countries to refrain in their own best interests, along with tighter safeguards against lone wolfs, foreign agents or other hostile users. Administration officials, Congress and social media chiefs need to work closely together to develop appropriate and effective forms of regulation.

U.S. diplomats will need great skill to help foreign audiences understand what’s going on in an America they increasingly do not recognize—or support. What should our friends and allies make of our “American First” approach? Are we still committed to collective security? Do we still champion democracy and human rights?   Is our word still good?   It will take smart, tough, creative and credible diplomacy—and public diplomacy—to answer these questions, reassure friends, confront competitors and advance the broad American interest.

And then there’s we, the people. We can improve our media habits—and support good journalism —by respecting facts and accuracy. We can separate information and facts from opinion and political propaganda. Instead of relying on slanted, one-sided reports, we can look for fairness, objectivity and completeness.

Finally, we can hold candidates and officeholders accountable. We can reject falsehoods, platitudes, empty promises and bigotry of any stripe. Let’s demand that they tell us the truth; we can handle it.End.


Dick Virden
Dick Virden

Dick Virden retired from the Department of State in 2004 after more than 38 years in the Foreign Service, with overseas postings in Brazil, Portugal, Romania, Poland, Thailand, and Vietnam. A graduate of the National War College, Virden also served on the faculty of that senior service college for two years and as a diplomat-in-residence at Georgetown University, where he created and taught a course on the evolution of public diplomacy.

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