Lou Boccardi

Balance and Freedom in the News

VTR Date: August 2, 1984

Guest: Boccardi, Lou


I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, I happen to have two particularly good, media-wise friends, both of whom I respect a great deal, like a great deal, and know to be careful, responsible, reasonable, and particularly concerned believers in our American tradition of free expression of ideas. Yet they differ, I know, on some quite vital aspects of an enormously compelling question that faces all of us involved with the flow of ideas and information in our nation, as well as between nations. Sometimes that question becomes, whether the flow of ideas and information should be balanced or free, and no amount of goodwill or good words will enable us simply to ignore, or to pass over, that continuing dichotomization. So what I’ve done now is to prepare two programs, one for last week, the other for today, putting more or less the same questions to both guest experts in the media, so that we can compare and evaluate their respective points of view.

Today’s guest is Louis D. Boccardi, the Executive Vice President of the Associated Press.

Mr. Boccardi, I’m glad to welcome you here today and…

BOCCARDI: Thank you.

HEFFNER: …see what you reply about some of the same questions that I asked William Fuller last week. I said, started off – and we ought to start off the same way – that we come on to these questions that we’ll deal with today largely because, in developing countries, the smaller countries of the world, of the Third World, there is pressure for a new world information order, one that presumably will be fairer to smaller, newer nations. And I wonder what your view is, initially, on this new world information order?

BOCCARDI: Well, most of the discussion tends to look at this as a journalistic issue, almost in its entirety. I think, though, that the journalism in it is a very small part of the discussion, and that, for the most part, this is a political issue. To the extent that this is a journalistic discussion, I think there have been some positive developments over the last couple of years, and certainly the debate is in a much more constructive and, I would say, less intense environment. For the political issue, which I assume we’ll explore a little bit, the debate remains, the views remain as far apart as they ever were. And I think, basically, they’re not reconcilable.

HEFFNER: What are those views?

BOCCARDI: Well, simply whether the journalism of a country, whether the journalists of a country, face a first obligation to support the policies of the government. If you answer that question affirmatively, yes, that that is the function of the journalism of the country, well, then there is not a great deal left to discuss about the Western notions, the American notions of the journalist as an observer, a human, and therefore flawed observer, but a detached observer of what government does. If, on the other hand, you regard the journalist as we do, as a person who is outside, detached, looking, sometimes criticizing, the government and the government’s policies, well, then you see the new world information order in a very different frame. You see it simply as another name for journalism which is part of government. And that’s something that we in the West think is not an attractive kind of journalism.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you say that if you opt for the former position, if you see journalism as an appendage to governmental policy, well, that sort of leaves us out, because our tradition is different. Yet we can’t be left out. We now have to deal with a larger and larger part of the world that is saying to us, “Take your tradition of free flow of ideas and go away because we want no part of it”. We can say the dialogue, the argument can’t be joined then, but what do we do?

BOCCARDI: Well, you do a couple of things. And this is what I alluded to a moment ago when I said that he journalistic side of this discussion has had, I think, some positive developments over the last year or so. You open training programs. You open the technology that we have. You engage in dialogue with the journalists of the world of every stripe, so that there is a better understanding at lest of our system of journalism, and a better understanding, more than that, of the benefit of that, that kind of journalism, to the other countries of the world. There’s a group called The World Press Information Committee, which has had a great deal to do with exchanges, with training programs. I think, in 1983 they had 52 programs scattered all over the world, mostly in Third-World or underdeveloped countries, where they either brought technology, brought experts, or brought the journalists or others from these other countries to the United States where they could see advanced journalistic techniques. I think a great deal of that sort of thing can be done to open these areas of the world to a better understanding of what we do.

Let me make just one other point.


BOCCARDI: I can see a question forming on your lips. One positive effect, I think, of some of this discussion, again in the journalistic sense, has been to heighten the sensitivity of Western journalists to the need for a better cultural understanding, a better understanding of the cultures into which they are immersed, and from which they would propose to report. Better language training, a very basic point. But better language training is now being done of the journalists who would go into those parts of the world where English is not the basic language. So, those things, I think, are a positive outgrowth of this cry that has gone up in essence, that “You don’t understand us. You don’t try to understand us. And you come with your American eyes looking for American things”. So, there’s been, I think, some gain in that respect. Where it’s impossible to envision a gain is in the clash of ideology which says that journalism’s obligation is to support the policies of the government, and the other view, which says journalism’s obligation is to comment as fairly and truthfully and accurately as we can, on the policies of government.

HEFFNER: When you talk about the fact that these are political decisions and ideological decisions too, I thought initially that you might say, and I wonder what you would say about the notion that this is a matter of politics, but it’s not the politics of a smaller nation that wants to be heard, but the politics of a basic ideological conflict between East and West. And what we’re experiencing now is more of the same. An extension of a Soviet-American rivalry. Is there anything of that about this?

BOCCARDI: There is a great deal of that about it, except that’s not the whole story. Because these problems exist in other countries which are not Soviet dominated or Soviet inspired or Soviet sympathetic, if you will. The issue you raise is one that surfaces in totalitarian environments of the right as well, where laws are passed threatening journalists with jail for saying something that displeases the government. That’s really the same issue. So, while the Soviets and the eastern bloc have been very much at the heart of the creation of this new world information order debate, and have been very active in the UNESCO effort in its earliest days and on through, I don’t think it’s accurate to define the discussion to this issue as one where there is simply another clash between the Soviets and the West. It’s a little bit wider than that, although you are right that the Soviets had been very much in the forefront of the new world information order discussions within the UNESCO framework.

HEFFNER: How sympathetic are you to the point that we, from our imperial country, form our imperial vantage point – an Associated Press reporter, for instance – cannot really be sympathetic enough with what is going on in a Third-World country where, perhaps, as you suggest, he may not know the language, he certainly isn’t part of the culture? How sympathetic are you to that notion, in a sense you have to be part of a group, a nation, a country, a culture, to be able to report accurately and adequately on it?

BOCCARDI: I don’t think that that’s true. It would come as news to come of my correspondents that they were imperialists. I said earlier that I think one of the positive aspects, outgrowths of this discussion ahs been an increased sensitivity, an increased concern for language, for cultural background, for cultural understanding. So I think that we are doing – Western journalists generally – are doing better in this respect. I would not agree that unless you are a Nigerian, you cannot write about Nigeria. The few, the journalists I know from some parts of the world where these issues are most focused on, can’t write the truth, must write what is part of the government line. We have stringers in some parts of the world, whose names – stringers are part-time correspondents, as I’m sure you know – whose names dare not ever appear anywhere because of their concern about what might happen to them if what they wrote would be identified with them by name in their country. Now, we don’t think that it’s a secret that they are being stringers, but it just removes some of the pressure, or potential pressure, if their name is not attached. So this addresses, I think, this notion that, well, you can’t really write about country X unless you’re a citizen of it. I don’t think that that’s valid.

HEFFNER: Okay. You say you don’t think that that’s valid.

BOCCARDI: I don’t.

HEFFNER: How sympathetic are you to those who hold that point of view? Can you understand it? Can you deal with it?

BOCCARDI: Oh, yes, I can understand it, certainly.

HEFFNER: Can you deal with it, now?

BOCCARDI: We have to deal with it.

HEFFNER: How do you deal with it?

BOCCARDI: You deal with it by trying to have better-trained correspondents, by refraining from lecturing other countries. I don’t think that Western journalists have a right to take our First Amendment, Constitutional, Jeffersonian notions and try to plant them in a country that is perhaps half a dozen years old, struggling for some kind of infrastructure, struggling to find people with a capacity to run a simple government. We’re not trying to take our notions and demand of the entire world that they run their press the way we want. That’s not the issue.

HEFFNER: But aren’t you doing that right now? Because you’re speaking from the vantage point of a person who looks at journalism, who defines journalism, in those traditional American terms, and in very large part they are American terms. You say “Journalism is…” and then you give a definition that really is a definition fostered, formed by Madison, by the Federalist Papers, by our tradition, not by the traditions of the rest of the world. So aren’t you in a sense doing that yourself?

BOCCARDI: No. What we are saying, we in the Western press, are saying that what system you wish to have in your country in your present state of development is really not any of our business. We have no right to go to any country and say, “Your press system must follow this regime”. What we say instead is that there is a benefit, if you will, an international benefit to the unfettered flow of information. That the kind of journalism is the kind, the only kind really, that stands any chance of an accurate portrayal of events in these countries.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you see, you say “the only kind that stands a chance”. And so many of the Third World people are saying, “Listen, that’s your definition. In your Webster’s, that’s what journalism means. In our Webster’s, it means something else”. Isn’t that the point at which there is that irreconcilable conflict between the two groups?

BOCCARDI: You summarize the debate quite well. There is a basic conflict there, of course. What we are suggesting, those who have been involved in things like The World Press Freedom Committee and some of the other efforts to train and to open, what we are suggesting is that there is a benefit to the world from the free flow of information…

HEFFNER: And, of course, they’re saying there’s a benefit to the world if the Third World countries are permitted, alone, to give expression to what’s happening there, because these Westerners, and particularly Lou Boccardi and his friends at Associated Press, they’re not sympathetic enough to what it is we’re doing. So real journalism is giving expression to what the Nigerians or the Filipinos or, you name the country, has to offer the rest of the world.

BOCCARDI: A couple of problems with that: You seem to like the word “sympathetic”. And I think that the Western press is sympathetic to the aspirations, to the problems that, if you will, underlay some of these concerns that are at the top of our discussion today. But what you really need to look at is whether you can get anything resembling journalism out of a system which is controlled by government in which everything written must fit a government mold in which those who would practice journalism are simply practicing, as some of the constitutions say, working as ideological tools of the state and the party. Now, is that journalism; or is it propaganda? You’re taking what I think might more properly be labeled propaganda and asking me why won’t you accept that kind of journalism?

HEFFNER: Lou, I have to say to you that I’m not sympathetic to the ideas that I’m expressing, but I do know that they are expressed. And they are expressed, seemingly, not by some people, not by half the people of the world, but increasingly, it would seem, by a larger and larger number of people. And the question is, what do we do about it? I’m not talking about a proper respect for the opinions of mankind, because if we conclude that the opinions of mankind along these lines are not acceptable, we’re not going to embrace them, but we still have to figure out what to do about them. And we’re not doing too well at the moment.

BOCCARDI: Perhaps not. But, in my observation, the journalistic side of this question is getting a little bit better. The truth is that only about a quarter of the world – there are some 160 or so nations in the world now – and in only about a quarter of them might we say that there exists freedom of the press. Not all of it precisely on the American model, obviously, but in about a quarter of the nations of the world. In the rest, to one degree or another, there is an absence of freedom. What do we do about this? As I said, I don’t think that the Western press is in a position to go around telling people what kind of press system they ought to have for themselves. That’s really not our place. What we can do, I think, is help with training, with exchanges, and do a better, if you will, more sensitive job of reporting that tries to get us over this issue of cultural misunderstanding or lack of understanding. But do it in a way that does not leap off into the pond of the government control of the media or the press as a tool of the government.

HEFFNER: You’re so wonderfully reasonable and rational, and you’re a good guy, and you believe in our system. I’d like to go back, though, to the question as to whether this isn’t essentially a political matter and whether we aren’t so divided in terms about our basic assumptions, about the nature of man, and the nature of man’s institutions, that we can’t really begin to diminish this difference because the fact is, in so many of these countries, the press is, as you suggest, an arm of government, and that’s all there is to it. You’re looking for ameliorative device, and I wonder whether they can go particularly far. And I’m not being critical. I just wonder whether you can, with all the goodwill in the world, begin to meet the objections that you’re faced with now.

BOCCARDI: I think that we can make some modest progress. I think I said at the beginning of your program though, that on the hard political issue raised here, there really isn’t much more to say once you state the dichotomy of view. And I don’t envision a time when we will convince some of the totalitarian governments that they should have a First Amendment. That’s not realistic.

HEFFNER: Do you see, Lou, a growing or a diminishing – let’s not call it totalitarianism – but a growing or diminishing assumption that journalism, as important as it is, must be a tool of government serving the interests of all the people?

BOCCARDI: I would say yes, that it has become tougher to practice the kind of journalism that I’ve been speaking about over the last, let’s say, decade. And, you know, censorship now is practiced in many different ways. Access is probably the best form or worst, if you will, form of censorship. When reporters cannot get visas to enter a country, you don’t have to worry about an elaborate mechanism of submission of copy and the censoring of photographs and all that. There is no journalism. There’s nothing to censor if you can’t get in. So, yes, I think, the answer to your question, clearly, is that the world has become a more difficult and more dangerous place to cover in, though I said ten years, you could extend that to 20. Progressively, it has become more difficult, and is becoming more difficult. No question about that.

HEFFNER: The question of licensing comes up as one of the means of…


HEFFNER: …exercising control. But I was thinking, what I knew I wanted to ask you about licensing journalists, we license in this country, not journalists, but another kind of educator: educators. We say those who play an extraordinarily important role in determining what it is that we think and how we think, educators, that they be licensed. What would make it so strange if we said that journalists needed to be licensed too?

BOCCARDI: In the United States?

HEFFNER: Well, let’s start around the world first.

BOCCARDI: Start with the easy question first?

HEFFNER: Start with the easy one.

BOCCARDI: Okay. The fact is that there is a kind of licensing in place with something like the visa requirements that I alluded to a moment ago.

HEFFNER: But that’s just let ‘em in or kick ‘em out.

BOCCARDI: Yes, but that’s strictly, that’s a form of governmental control of the journalists’ ability to practice.

HEFFNER: Well, what’s your criticism of licensing?

BOCCARDI: Precisely that licensing would put in the hands of government or whoever might be the issuing agency of this license the capacity to control what the journalist wrote.

HEFFNER: But we do that in education. Would you object to licensing of educators abroad?

BOCCARDI: Well, there’s something in the U.S. called the First Amendment, which you’re quite familiar with. And the basis, certainly, in this country, for the absence of a license to practice journalism lies in the Constitution. It is quite clear in the context of this UNESCO debate, that New World Information Order debate, that licensing as practiced anywhere in the world in connection with journalism would simply be a legitimization of control of what the journalists did. We license in this country doctors and dentists. And they license you and me when we’re going to get into a car and drive it. And the pilot who flies us around the country is licensed. So, licensing is an honorable thing to do. In the journalistic context though, it takes on a completely different color.

HEFFNER: But if you had to make a guess –now let’s come home – as to what’s happening not only around the world – you said it’s becoming m ore difficult…

BOCCARDI: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: …for honest, free flow around the world. At the time of the Grenada venture in this country, there certainly was every indication, even the press ultimately reported it, that many, many people, most, very many, didn’t care. But the press is licensed, in a sense, and it didn’t get a license, couldn’t go.


HEFFNER: Okay. Access. Now, you were talking about the trend around the world. What do you think will happen here?

BOCCARDI: Well, I think that the Grenadian thing was an example of some of the concerns which we’ve discussed previously at this table, in the American society, about the place and performance of media. I think they really are two very separate kinds of issues; that is, the international problem we’ve been talking about and the American problem.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the question I’m asking, Lou, is that, are we likely to become more like them or are they likely to become more like us?

BOCCARDI: Well, I think that, in the American term, that ten years from now this issue of press, the press’ role in society, press and public and so on, that the press will be a lot better off in that discussion than it is today. For the rest of the world, the trend certainly, in the last decade or two, has been against the kinds of things that I’ve been talking about. And I don’t see that there are very many more countries that might fall in that fashion because there are only a quarter of the countries now that are free. So, I suspect that the international debate will go on. But there are these things of training, and exchange, and the growing stability, one would hope, in some of these countries that now have this view because they really can’t, they say they can’t, tolerate the free flow of ideas. As they become more stable and more confident, it may be that they will be a little bit more willing to trust their journalism.

HEFFNER: Well, last week, Dr. Florham basically was saying, if I understood him correctly, that the AP for instance, such a giant, has such great economic strength that there’s really no way of its being anything other than – I used the word “imperial” before – than its being anything other than an imperial, colonializing power.

BOCCARDI: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You laugh at that. You think it’s funny…

BOCCARDI: Sure, because it’s so…I think it’s funny. I think it’s silly.

HEFFNER: Why is it silly?

BOCCARDI: We are not an imperialist power. The very term suggests a complete misunderstanding of the discussion. I wish I had been here so we might have joined the idea. We’re not information imperialists or any other kind of imperialists.

HEFFNER: And that’s all you have to say about it. But he talks about…

BOCCARDI: What do you want me to say? We’re not. It’s a ridiculous notion.

HEFFNER: How much of the information that we receive in this country about the world outside comes from Lou Boccardi and his associates?

BOCCARDI: A great, a good deal of it, sure. Does that make the gatherers of that information imperialists?

HEFFNER: Well, it does…

BOCCARDI: And there are many other sources aside from any single news agency, any single network.

HEFFNER: Traditionally in this country we’ve thought that bigness, of and by itself, tended to become abusive. And I think, to a certain extent, that is what Dr. Florham was saying. Your suggestion is a good one, though. What I need to do is to get the two of you here together. We’ve heard each of you now on this subject. And maybe in the weeks ahead I can get you both. I’m not a good devil’s advocate when you’re here or when he was here. But the question of your power – I don’t mean you, qua Lou Boccardi…

BOCCARDI: I’m glad you don’t mean that.

HEFFNER: …but…Well, maybe you just don’t like that thought, of the power that you people may have. Makes you uncomfortable?

BOCCARDI: I think that the problem is simply whether, in our efforts to report form around the world, we are trying to be accurate and fair, trying to understand the other cultures in which our people operate. Now, that’s a subjective judgment, but that’s certainly the motivation, and that’s the standard by which we judge ourselves, and the standard by which those we serve judge us. It’s not as though any news agency that might circulate in the world – and there are four or five major international, four generally, major international agencies – we don’t exist in a vacuum. We serve newspapers, we serve radio, we serve television. So there are thousands of minds and eyes looking at what we do.

HEFFNER: Lou Boccardi, I know the intentions are good. And what we’re going to have to do is get you two here to talk it out. Thank you so much for joining me today.

BOCCARDI: You’re welcome.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you, too, will join us here again next time on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.