Washington — Telling America's story to the world, and keeping it believable, has never been politically easy.
President John F. Kennedy was grappling with the problem back in 1962 as he addressed the Voice of America (VOA) on its 20th anniversary:
''We compete with . . . adversaries who tell only the good stories [about themselves],'' he said. Nevertheless, to win credibility, he urged, tell America's story ''warts and all,'' not only the nation's official policies, but also the full spectrum of what Americans think.
Risks aside, ''we hope that the bad and the good is sifted together by people of judgment and discretion . . . , that they will realize what we are trying to do.''
When President Reagan went to congratulate the Voice of America on its 40th anniversary this February, he too urged it to present ''a clear picture of America and our policies.''
But the style of presenting that picture had taken on totally new dimensions.
The US, as his administration sees it, is in a ''war of ideas'' with the Soviet Union that has grown more serious. While retaining its credibility, America's voice must more vigorously counteract Soviet ''disinformation'' about America and the world, says Charles Z. Wick, director of VOA's parent organization, the United States International Communications Agency (USICA). And too many of the warts have been showing. More positive features should shine through.
The approach goes far beyond a shift in emphasis:
* A new USICA campaign called ''Project Truth'' aims to provide the US diplomatic community with fast-reply information to identify and counter Soviet propaganda.
* The agency has turned to Hollywood for new broadcasting weapons. One result was the 90-minute star-studded film ''Let Poland Be Poland,'' produced by the man who puts on TV's Academy Awards, and beamed worldwide in February.
* The ''statement of mission'' in the agency's budget has changed. Absent is the Carter administration's ban against covert, manipulative, or propagandistic activities; added is the agency's goal to ''unmask and counter hostile attempts to distort or to frustrate the objectives and policies of the United States.''
* Director Wick, a close friend of the President's, enjoys an access to national planning that is far enhanced over the previous administration. Mr. Wick often dines with the President and sits in on meetings of the National Security Council and morning planning sessions of the secretary of state.
Some observers fear that the new style will plunge the agency far too deep into the ''propaganda business''; others that it won't go far enough.
USICA's leaders say both fears are unfounded -- with Director Wick making major new appointments to prove it. In the VOA alone, for instance, he has been shoring up professional news credibility by appointing a former editor of The Christian Science Monitor, John Hughes, as director and former NBC Moscow correspondent Gene Pell as deputy program director for news and current affairs.
USICA's organizational chemistry has been a formula for controversy from the start. Visit most any branch of this mammoth bureaucracy, for instance, and you'll find a mini-melting pot of political appointees, Foreign Service officers of both parties, and journalists and translators, all of whom take their professions very seriously and many of whom are strongly opinionated emigres from oppressed lands. Just about every move in the agency's history has drawn instant political heat. (Similar charges of politicization were made back in 1969 when President Nixon's VOA appointee, Frank Shakespeare, announced reforms.)
Nevertheless, its latest operating style worries some congressional staff members who oversee its work.
In setting up the agency, Congress emphasized that it must portray not only the policies of whatever administration is in power, but also the full spectrum of American life and responsible opinion. When the House Subcommittee on International Operations holds hearings April 22, it will be asking whether USICA is, in fact, staying true to that course.
Answers are not easy for your average congressman to find, let alone your average American.
The range of activities, for one thing, is vast. In addition to VOA radio, the agency is responsible for speakers and exhibits sent to other countries, cultural and educational exchanges (including the Fulbright fellowships), embassy information services, and US libraries overseas. By law all these products are distributed only outside the US, which tends to seclude the agency from scrutiny.
This reporter's investigation began through listening to VOA broadcasts in Rome in January. The tone of most broadcasts sounded objective and free from speculation (see box for observations from other Monitor correspondents). But an occasional news report seemed to deviate from the norm. For instance, at the top of the VOA's broadcast one morning was the Soviet Union's latest economic report.
''The news was almost all bad,'' said the announcer in a deep, resonant voice. After a prediction by ''Western analysts'' that Moscow would have to spend millions on grain to compensate for poor harvests, a piece of editorial comment (not labeled as such) seemed to intrude: ''(The Soviet harvest) was apparently so disappointing that Moscow did not release any figures. . . .'' The report then cited a US estimate of the overall Soviet grain crop, thought to be the lowest since 1975, and again speculated that ''the omission in the current report suggests that the figure might have been even lower.'' The one bright spot, Soviets' progress in natural gas production, was termed ''the only consolation to Soviet state planners.''
When asked later about the content and tone of that particular broadcast, Director Wick stressed that it is not typical of the standard he expects of VOA's news reporting. In fact, though he remains adamant that these times require a new operating style at USICA, he is eager to neutralize the widespread public fears about ''propagandism.''
The office from which he steers the large bureaucracy is high up in an office block here in downtown Washington not far from the White House. The large desk of the former California film and nursing-home executive backs up against a window on one end of the long chamber. At the other end are black leather armchairs under a huge wall map of the world dotted with hundreds of tiny lights. When illuminated by a control panel at his desk, the lights indicate USICA's 201 posts in 125 countries, and the VOA transmitters in some 100 locations around the planet. VOA's broadcasts, translated into 39 languages, reach an estimated 67 million listeners worldwide, not counting tens of millions in the People's Republic of China.
''The fears are unfounded,'' says Mr. Wick, when asked about recent reports of an alleged ''propagandizing'' of USICA.
''And they're totally unsubstantiated,'' he adds. ''The people who make those assertions don't listen to the Voice of America. They have not one shred of evidence. . . . The role essentially is still to tell the world about America in a credible way.''
But, he argues, the changing world requires a changing style for the USICA.
''We place a new priority on our awareness that the sophistication of Soviet . . . disinformation is hurting our [national] interests . . . by painting us as warmongers while [the Soviets] shout 'Peace, peace, peace' and go on pursuing territorial expansionism. . . . They've had an unrelenting buildup of their military weapons. So we've had to call more attention to that [buildup] . . . and we certainly do want the [VOA's] commentary to be more attuned to [ correcting] Soviet disinformation.''
Does all this mean that VOA and USICA publications will be more strident when talking about East-West issues?
''Not at all,'' he says. ''We find that's anathema to credibility. If we're to have an audience, we must maintain our credibility or we won't have an audience to communicate to.''
''Certainly, we can influence what we wantm [to cover as news],'' he adds about VOA.
''The principles for selection go through the same editorial judgments that any journalistic enterprise has. Very frankly, in the past a lot of those people down there (in the VOA news room) have thought they had First Amendment rights. What you had was 32 or 34 people . . . exercising their own interpretation of what the news is. We said, no, there's only one editor in chief, and that's the director. . . . As in any other journalistic enterprise, whether the people who work there (are) on the (political) left or right, they must leave their preferences at home. . . .''
In one sense, the agency's new stress on forwarding US ideals and countering Soviet propaganda is nothing new. It has been a motivating force since its founding at the end of World War II. Even those most worried that the drift is ''too propagandistic'' do not question current analyses of the threat posed by Soviet propaganda systems.
The Soviet Union is pouring a great deal of money into a professional institution designed to bang out anti-American propaganda, says Ithiel Poole, a communications specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Foreign Service officers have also long been aware of Soviet efforts to plant false information about the US in newspapers published outside the Soviet bloc through paid sympathizers.
But if most everyone seems agreed on the Soviet threat, there is far less unanimity about how best to neutralize it. Some of USICA's latest efforts continue to draw extensive public and in-house questioning.
Although Congress waived its ban on the domestic broadcast of agency programs so that ''Let Poland Be Poland'' could be aired in the US, fewer than half of the public television stations decided to air it.
Reactions abroad and in American newspaper editorials were mixed, admits Mr. Wick, although he says that overall worldwide response was favorable.
Some longtime Foreign Service officers also express uneasiness about what they feel is propagandalike packaging of USICA's new monthly alerts about Soviet propaganda. The stationery's letterhead has large block letters ''PROJECT TRUTH ,'' followed by a bold red-letter subheading: ''Soviet Propaganda Alert.''
And some loyal cultural attaches in the Middle East told the Monitor of embarrassment over ''Let Poland Be Poland'' and the slick USICA-produced magazines on Afghanistan and the Russian arms buildup.
Perhaps the greatest concern of veteran USICA officials is that the new emphasis will drain resources from more important longer-range programs.
One of the agency's success stories over the years, says Ginny Schlundt, who serves on the House Subcommittee on International Operations, has been its investment in developing long-term mutual understanding between Americans and citizens abroad. The International Visitors program, for instance, introduced such leaders as Anwar Sadat, Kenya's president Daniel arap Moi, and many of France's current Cabinet ministers to the US over the years. Japanese business leaders, Cabinet-level Saudi Arabians, and many others were also introduced to America this way.
Concerned that such investments may now be shortchanged, the former staff director of the presidentially appointed oversight commission, Louise McKnew, says: ''The saddest thing to me is that this administration is enjoying the fruits of their predecessors' labors, but seems to have so little sense of planning for future generations. . . .''
Although some deeply concerned agency officers have decided to give USICA's new style the benefit of the doubt and continue to work within the system, others have not been so accommodating. The former head of news at VOA, Bernie Kamenske, decided to leave after 27 years. Others were removed or transferred after expressing doubts about the new directions. Senior news editor Mark Willen was transferred to New Delhi after he talked to the press of his concerns that VOA's hard-earned credibility was in jeopardy.
On the other hand, the agency has also been under pressure to become openly propagandistic. A major flap erupted in November when a memo from the coordinator of VOA commentary, Philip Nicolaides, was leaked to the Washington Post. The memo called on VOA to recognize that ''we are -- as all the world understands -- a propaganda agency,'' and that VOA should ''portray the Soviet Union as the last great predatory empire on earth.'' Mr. Nicolaides was transferred to another office, and eventually left the agency.
Since then, Director Wick has been striving to reassure his agency and the public. The new style, he insists, will not end up compromising VOA's objectivity, its mission of projecting the ''whole picture'' of American life, or the agency's long-term cultural investments.
No official directives that he knows of have been issued to reverse those purposes, he says.
Recent appointments by Mr. Wick have won considerable approval within the agency and without. To reestablish confidence in the VOA's commitment to ''objectivity,'' for instance, he has filled key positions with well-known professional journalists: John Hughes, former editor of The Christian Science Monitor, as the new director; Frank Scott, former news chief at Washington's WRC radio station, as director of programming; and former NBC correspondent Gene Pell as the deputy program director for news and current affairs.
Mr. Wick is also lauded for saving most of the agency's $490 million budget from cuts (with the exception of some in educational and cultural exchanges); and securing $115 million in new funds for long-needed improvements in VOA's archaic broadcasting equipment.
But recent assurances aside, some longtime staff members of the agency still find themselves pursued by one nagging question: Is a dangerous one-sided politicization of USICA's work going on, even though it is not outwardly stated, or even always intended?
To some the thought looms like some political abominable snowman. ''Footprints'' have been seen; ''sightings'' reported. But somehow the beast seems to elude identification.
The half dozen USICA staff people expressing this concern are Foreign Service officers and journalists who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. They charge that:
* An unusually high concentration of VOA programs are being geared to issues of special political interest to the Reagan White House.
* A ''political litmus test'' is being used to screen out speakers who do not happen to agree with Reagan administration policies (internal memos show rejection of requests for speakers like former Carter administration officials Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hodding Carter III, Harvard economist Paul Samuelson, journalists Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, and George Reedy, the author and former aide to Lyndon Johnson).
* For political reasons, news items are being screened out of VOA foreign language broadcasts to selected regions of the world (''the director of Chinese translations,'' said one VOA newsman, ''told me that every word is now being so carefully scrutinized for its (political) safety for Chinese audiences that he decided to take early retirement'').
* An abnormal influx of political appointees is taking hold of the traditionally bipartisan staff.
None of the critics making these charges can point to official guidelines that actually call for systematic politicization per se. Agency officials repeatedly stressed to the Monitor that no such guidelines exist. Still, the critics seem sure that something is encouraging such a result, with many staff members feeling compelled to follow suit.
''All it takes is for a couple of politicizing precedents to be set or decisions to be made, and people seem to get the message of what's expected,'' says one of the concerned Foreign Service officers.
In the final analysis, the test of whether there's anything to such fears of politicization will be made by those who actually receive USICA products overseas. To get a glimpse of how those products may be coming across, the Monitor asked its overseas correspondents to offer their observations (see box). This reporter also scanned VOA ''menus'' listing story topics and scripts of programs.
Most menus of news stories being considered for broadcast seemed to span the full range of timely topics being followed by most major US newspapers. The weekly feature program ''Perspective,'' on the other hand, appeared to be devoting a high proportion of air time to topics and speakers of direct political interest to the current administration.
''Perspective's'' lengthy personal interviews are introduced as a ''series in which influential thinkers and doers share their thoughts about our rapidly changing world.''
If you had been an overseas listener tuning in to ''Perspective'' from December through early March, for instance, you would have heard professors commenting on Cuban political failures, Soviet expansionism, the Afghanistan occupation, background to martial-law Poland, and an analysis of how ''Moscow Pays for Cuban Blood.''
You would have heard why a magazine editor thinks America's political left has been ''too Utopian'' and that conservatives need to evolve an ideology of ''revolutionary capitalism'' to help developed and developing countries.
You would also have heard how Midge Decter, author of ''Liberal Parents, Radical Children,'' organized a meeting of ''intellectuals and political figures from both sides of the Atlantic who seek to defend democratic institutions.'' (She is the wife of Norman Podheretz, editor of the conservative Commentary magazine and newly appointed chairman of USICA's ''New Directions'' advisory panel.)
And you would have heard Dr. Edwin Feulner Jr., president of the conservative Heritage Foundation (and chairman-elect of USICA's presidentially appointed Advisory Commission) talk about how ''ideas have consequences.''
To be sure, there were elements of diversity in ''Perspective'' programming. For example: a discussion of emancipation of the sexes by Betty Friedan; the creation science debate with a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union; the federal budget with the Democratic director of the Congressional Budget Office; and memories of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a former Kennedy aide, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Because such elements of diversity are being included in USICA's products, those concerned about the ''political snowman theory'' are not now likely to press their concerns too far. The theory has also been somewhat undercut lately by Director Wick's new appointments, which have reassured many USICA and congressional oversight staff people that the agency is attempting to stay true to its legal mandate. In addition, Mr. Wick's appointees have been stressing their determination to put past mistakes behind.
Says John Hughes, the new director of the Voice of America: ''I really see no problem in [carrying out] the three separate mandates Congress has given the Voice. One is to tell the news fully and fairly: There is not the slightest . . . suggestion that anybody is going to attempt to slant the news . . . otherwise I wouldn't be here. [On] the second mandate, to be sure that the broad spectrum of American society is covered . . . we will discuss those aspects of American society that are troubling, but I also feel that we have an obligation to point the way to solutions, and where people are thinking constructively. . . . As for the third mandate, to articultate US foreign policy . . . , that can be done just as any newspaper states the opinion of its publisher. . . . Insofar as that policy is more assertive than the Carter administration . . . then the Voice of America, in commentary clearly identified as commentary, must [report] that.''
But the final test of the new style will be whether the world will be able to distinguish VOA and USICA's products from the rising flood of propagandistic international broadcasting.
''I think that in the long run a severe propagandizing drift will be avoided, '' reflects MIT's Ithiel Poole. ''I don't think Congress, the press, and the Foreign Service would stand for that.
''But to retain their credibility,'' he adds, ''VOA and USICA will have to work hard at broadcasting only what can be proved, be consistent in its reporting of news and information, tell the bad news as well as the good, and above all, respect the sensibilities and sophistication of the audiences themselves.''
No mean feat. But then again, no one ever said presenting America's story would be easy.