The Voice of America is not especially grim but then it's not a playpen, either, and people there take responsibility seriously, their heads full of the 100 million people who listen (in the course of a week) to their broadcasts in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and other outlandish places.
It unnerved them a little, at first, to discover the current director, R. Peter Straus, "wandering about the halls at 2 in the morning in blue jeans and sneakers" as one highly placed VOA source put it.
Straus really is a New Yorker but got a house in Southwest Washington, five blocks from the office.
He didn't have a car, but a motorcycle, when he arrived two years ago. As a notable muckety-muck, he had a grand reserved parking place and naturally stabled the old Honda in it.
"Mr. Straus," said a security official late one night, "I am sure you do not have a motorcycle but there's one in your parking place and -"
"I have a motorcycle," Straus said.
"Oh, God, I was afraid of that. Well, it's down there with a ticket on it."
Straus' wife commutes from New York on weekends only, and that is the reason he can be found all kinds of hours in the office, and that is why he is so trim:
"I'm a physical exercise nut," he said, "but not handball, no. Tennis, jogging, and I have a not of time for it with my wife (Ellen Louise Sulzberger, married in 1950) out of town so much."
I mentioned that lately we keep seeing hints in the columns of pundits that the Voice of America keeps raising the hopes of refugees in Indochina, and asked what the hell is going on?
"Nine times out of 10," he said, settling back with the air of a man who knows it's going to take a few minutes, "the job here is challenging and joyful. Eight times out of 10 it's enjoyable."
I said nothing of the reduced percentage, not being one to nit-pick, and he went on:
"But sometimes the Voice of America is in the middle and it's not enjoyable. Take just two examples, the Russian dissidents and the Indochina refugees, including the boat people.
"We have the obligation to broadcast the news and broadcast it straight. We do this 853 hours a week and we are proud of our credibility around the world.
"But when we broadcast news items about, say, Solzhenitsyn's Harvard speech, which was by no means flattering to the United States, we know it may have effects. The Soviet dissidents keep saying it is urgently important to keep hammering at the plight of dissidents. But what about some guy in Kiev, say, who is not a celebrity, not a man of worldwide reputation, who is only a moderate nuisance to his government.
"I keep thinking, maybe he would be let alone as long as nothing much was said about dissidents, but maybe his government would crack down on him, hard, if dissidents are discussed too much in world news.
"Or take the boat people fleeing from Vietnam. Again, we broadcast the news, straight. You've been through the file and read what we've said. But when we report that Malaysia and Indonesia are closing their borders to refugees, and that Hong Kong and Thailand are taking pressure from thousands of refugees, of course a man thinking of becoming a refugee will figure it out that it's better for him to go to Thailand than to Indonesia, and in that sense it could be said the Voice of America directs him where to go."
Or if the Voice carries a pledge from the White House that the refugee problem has top priority with Carter, and another news dispatch mentions the location of the Seventh Fleet, it doesn't take much analysis for the potential refugee to head for the fleet instead of some other direction.
Straus says the wording of refugee news is often agonized over, to make certain it does not give any refugee the impression he will be safe if he just heads for an American ship.
There have been two commentaries (editorials) on the refugee problem, prepared on May 25 and June 15, both of them criticizing Hanoi for expelling the ethnic Chinese and urging a more humane handling of the exodus.
But it's true that in villages in Vietnam or Cambodia, isolated peasants may indeed first learn from news items via the Voice that thousands are finding temporary refuge in Thailand, and are learning their plight is of major concern to the American government, and this may in fact embolden some to try leaving who would otherwise have thought their case was hopeless.
It is not the same thing, however, as if the Voice had tried to further American distaste for Hanoi at the cost of inciting hundreds of thousands to flee, many of them to their deaths.
It has had little attention, but one of the great developments at the Voice of America is the clear separation of news from propaganda.
"Our credibility is rising," said Straus, "and we'd like to think it's because we are fine fellows doing a fine job, but I don't think that has anything to do with it.
"The way the people who hear the Voice of America perceive the United States has changed. They now see the United States as the great power, where formerly they saw Great Britain. They are more likely now to take the Voice of America to heart than the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).
"But before I came to this job, the Voice had handled the Watergate scandal with such objectivity that I think it impressed the world audience. They thought if the Voice could report that news, so damaging and embarrassing to the American government, then probably it could be trusted to report other news without bias too.
"The traditional way to handle policy interests (propaganda) in all international broadcasting companies, has been to do it through the news that's reported. And the news that's not reported. But -"
"Just here," I broke in, "take the case of Andy Young sounding off about American jails being full of political prisoners. That was certainly news. I suppose Voice of America reported it at the time?"
"In 38 languages," said Straus.
"What seemed to make more sense than leaving out damaging news or trying to make policy (propaganda) points by means of the news, was to have straight news on the one hand, and policy commentaries on the other," he said.
"I thought, why shouldn't the U.S. government have an occasional say-so, to argue its own policies before the radio world? Wouldn't it be better to say to the world audience, look, here's the straight news. And now, please listen for two minutes to a commentary that reflects official American policy."
After all, Straus said, "none of that audience is so unsophisticated as to think the American government is in broadcasting just for their health.
"But that audience has to have faith, and we have to earn it, that the American government official viewpoint is contained in the clearly labeled commentaries, not in slanted or managed news. In the long run, your best chance is simply to be honest with the news and then hope they'll listen to the commentaries on their merits."
There are only about three commentaries a week. Usually they are broadcast throughout the world, not tailored for specific countries. In Africa, he said, the commentary about the Tokyo Round might not be broadcast on grounds it did not interest its audience, not on grounds it would be politically or propagandistically imprudent to air it.
Straus, the day I visited him, wore a shirt of murrey color with a dark tie and a neat standard-looking suit of blue cord from Arthur A. Adler. End fashion flash.
When he is not jogging or roaming the midnight newsroom he gardens with 18 kinds of geranium and many ivies.
"It's just the size of an overgrown handkerchief," he said. He does not have a lot of dogs or cats or parakeets and a lot of the time he's simply waiting for his wife. They have four children and both parents, he said, were keen for them to partake of the real world:
"The real world. But instead, all four of them are in media jobs."
You never know, as a parent, where you went wrong, and life is too short to worry about it now.
I asked him what books formed his mind, hoping for Lewis Carroll, Machiavelli, Castiglione and Gaskell, but refusing to prime the pump with any suggestions:
"Interesting question," he said. "Which books. I don't know that I can say." (Pause. And I knew he intended to go to his grave before he told me. People are often embarrassed to confess which books they found glorious. Who wants to admit to "The Anatomy of Melancholy" or "Fairy Tales from Old Japan"?)
"I'll tell you an interesting sidebar about one book," he said. "My father was best friends and college roommate (Heidelberg) with Otto Frank, father of Anne Frank. He visited us at our house with the manuscript diary. My father and I admired it, but thought we were going to have trouble getting it published."
"Probably," I said agreeably. "The book was marvelous, so naturally you would have trouble finding a publisher. How long did it take?"
"About a year and a half," he said. Finally we found a publisher in Germany. And once people read it, it was soon all over the world."
Voice correspondents in various countries used to be able to buy their scotch at embassy commissaries (to put first things first) and had access to classified papers, and to convenient comfy offices in embassies and to Telex machines and so on.
Straus thought that if news was to be independent of government tampering then his correspondents should rent their own offices and find their own means of transmitting copy, and travel on regular, not diplomatic, passports, and buy their own scotch at stores, and needless to say the correspondents thought the end had come to civilization as they knew it.
But once they were weaned, they liked it. So did ambassadors, who no longer felt responsible for what correspondents reported (and were no longer chewed out for what correspondents did).
Straus did not smoke. He is a very strong man, however, and does not faint if others do.
He spoke for a bit on the wide range of men, the richness of variety. If he were not an American official, he probably would have said a thousand flowers should bloom.
He seemed to be a happy man. Of course he does not have three dogs to be walked and his children are grown, and he can come to the office in blue jeans if he wants to.Even so, happiness is a gift.
He has family photographs all over the place. His geraniums are doing fine, and the Carter administration has gone right along with his ideas for the Voice. The boat people are in the water - no American can escape the burden of that fact. The wretched refuse of a teeming shore, as a wit once put it. Still, to be an American, working for the Voice. It's rather a big deal. You sense all this from Straus.
The lady with the lamp in the harbor. (He's a New Yorker). And it's still, by God, a golden door.