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"Is Democracy Merely Disney and Bur

Subject: "Is Democracy Merely Disney and Burgers?"

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The Daily Yomiuri
Feb. 28, 1996

By Tom Plate 
(Tom Plate is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.)

Will America's exports amount to no more than a duck, a
mouse, a cheap burger and rock - video madonnas shaking
their cheap merchandise in the eyes of the world?

The question is poignant for California as it seeks to forge a
special relationship with the other countries and cultures of the
Pacific Rim.

But to the extent that our worldwide profile sometimes does
tend to resemble a monster mail - order catalogue as much as
anything else, the question we must ask is: Are we underselling

One voice that broadcasts a far more nuanced vision of
America is a worldwide radio network that has an estimated
100 million listeners and is more popular than CNN and the
BBC combined. It can't broadcast in the United States, accepts
no commercial advertising, operates daily in 47 languages and
is led by a high - voltage Los Angeles man whose father,
interestingly enough, held the same position under President
Roosevelt 50 years ago. It's called the Voice of America. But
now the Voice of America, still reeling from the budget cuts of
the past two years, is vulnerable to new damage in the frenzy
of capital budget punishment.

But would diminishing VOA any further be wise?

America's message of freedom remains our most valuable
export. In extremely dangerous and volatile places such as
North Korea, the United States should be repeating simple
messages, because very little from the outside world other than
VOA's vital broadcasts seeps into North Korea.

In the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where
countless people have been slaughtered in brutal clashes with
Indonesian government forces; in little lost Laos, with its
dubious distinction as one of the five remaining communist
countries; and in confused Cambodia where human rights are
so often under a cloud, VOA is virtually the only sustained
message of hope. In Myanmar, so miserably oppressed by the
military, 40 % of the Burmese population are VOA listeners.
And in India, even the Dalai Lama, exiled from Beijing -
blanketed Tibet, views VOA as the proverbial godsend. "Vital
medicine," he calls it.

Consider this dramatic letter dropped anonymously into a
VOA post office box in Asia: "I formerly was a longtime
officer in the Public Security apparatus. I regarded listening to
Voice of America as counterrevolutionary behavior, behavior
that was traitorous.... Now I realize that the VOA was an omen
of disaster to the Chinese Communist hard-liners.... VOA's
voice is a voice that the Chinese people yearn for but which is
practically altogether denied them.... This is the first letter I
have written you. It may be the last."

In fact, staffers at the East Asia and Pacific Division of the
Voice of America never heard from him again. But they never
stop hearing from the people of China for whom VOA -- on the
air in China 12 hours a day -- is their chief lifeline to the
outside world. After the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square
were snuffed out in 1989, some 5,000 Chinese graduate
students around the world applied for jobs at VOA. Inside
China, according to one study at Beijing University, perhaps at
least 60% of all university students listen to VOA at least once
a week. "Not even MTV has that penetration in America,"
laughs VOA Director Geoffrey Cowan, a former head of the
L.A. ethics commission and a well-known author, university
lecturer and screenwriter.

VOA, on the whole, is not some hackneyed Defense Dept.
public-information mouthpiece. It's a professional network that
respects the listener's intellect, run by a sophisticated staff that
probably has as much diversity as the U.N. Secretariat and
holds more degrees than any radio station you've ever
encountered. Not long ago, I toured VOA's Washington I
headquarters and observed the daily I whirlwind of radio
programs beamed to Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. I
quickly realized that, for many of our immigrants who
productively live here and contribute richly to our culture and
economy, VOA was probably their first introduction to
America -- indeed to the spoken English language. (Some
programs even have simple English language instruction.) So,
too, for those born in today's economically surging but
politically troubled East Asia, where America's $103 million -
a - year government network broadcasts daily in 11 different
languages, and for emerging Latin America, where millions
glue their ears to short wave and FM satellite transmissions of
news, information, cultural and music feature programs in
Spanish, Portuguese and even Creole. 

The VOA projects the side of the American character that
favors openness and debate.

That message is especially vital for Asia, where California's
destiny will be increasingly found and where governments are
often deeply distrustful of the very political openness that is the
prerequisite to healthy democracy.

Let's put it this way. If Congress downsizes this vital agency
any further, it will have saved a few dollars but abandoned
many souls.

Wouldn't it prove hugely ironic if, after all those decades of oft
- ineffective electronic jamming by so many repressive regimes
around the world, it is patriotic Americans, many of them
conservative Republicans s who wind up effectively muffling
America's clearest worldwide voice.