Waging the Word War

Washington — Newt Gingrich, rising in potential 2008 presidential ranks, wants a more resolute U.S. stance in what he considers the “Third World War.” For example, he depicts failed efforts to broadcast the truth to Iran and North Korea. The problem is that Gingrich has played fast and loose with facts, understating the actual U.S. effort.

Gingrich ignored a personal correction from Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and continued the misrepresentation. He may be influenced by Iranian exiles who want to take over U.S.-financed broadcasting to their homeland. They have triggered a Senate investigation and possible hearings on allegations voiced by Gingrich.

The former speaker of the House of Representatives long has advocated a foreign policy that does not flinch from a resort to arms. A hawk on Iraq dating back to 1990, he now takes a hard line toward potential Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats. Labeling negotiating attempts as “appeasement,” he derides as insufficient U.S. propaganda efforts to utilize discontent against the Tehran and Pyongyang regimes.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” July 16, Gingrich declared: “We’re sending signals today that no matter how much you provoke us, no matter how viciously you describe things in public, no matter how many things you’re doing with missiles and nuclear weapons, the most you’ll get out of us is talk.” When moderator Tim Russert asked what he would do, Gingrich replied that “we are currently broadcasting I think it’s 90 minutes a week into North Korea. We’re currently broadcasting a trivial amount into Iran.” He painted a picture of rebellious populations in both countries ripe for American broadcasts.

That got the attention of Tomlinson, Reagan-era head of the Voice of America (VOA) who in 2002 was named by President George W. Bush to head the BBG (which oversees U.S. non-military international broadcasting). A conservative Republican who provoked the Left in his tenure (2003-05) as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Tomlinson is proud of his record communicating with difficult places — especially Iran.  A State Department investigation, released Tuesday, alleged that Tomlinson had improperly used his BBG office in a matter unrelated to Gingrich’s complaints.

In a “Dear Newt” letter July 17, Tomlinson explained to Gingrich that “we launched . . . live satellite television to Iran in 2003,” quadrupling live TV feeds to four hours daily, for 12 daily TV hours in all. Radio Farda is broadcasting more than eight hours of news a day to Iran. He said VOA and Radio Free Asia are on the air three and one-half hours a day (not 90 minutes a week as claimed by Gingrich) with original programming, repeated to total 47 hours weekly.

When Tomlinson did not hear from Gingrich, he made sure that the former speaker saw his letter. But on “Fox News Sunday” Aug. 6, Gingrich complained about “how many things we could be doing” to undermine the Iranian regime “if we were broadcasting more than three hours a week” — disregarding Tomlinson’s letter.

On Aug. 16, I asked Gingrich for the basis of his allegations. He told me his staff at Gingrich Communications would send me supporting information. A week later, I received a list of television guests used by VOA “who favor the Iranian regime” and a post-9/11 VOA interview with Taliban leader Mohammed Omar. In fact, the guests listed were defectors from and critics of the Iranian regime. The Omar program was compared by Tomlinson, a year before his return to VOA, to interviewing Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo during World War II.

That response, I pointed out to his staff, did not address Gingrich’s complaint of inadequate broadcast hours. With Gingrich on vacation, a second response asserted that “Newt” erred in saying only 90 minutes were broadcast into North Korea a week “when he should have said a day” — still short of the actual 47 hours a week. Gingrich’s staff added, “He stands by the assertion that this is an inadequate amount.” His original complaint about insufficient broadcasting into Iran was ignored.

Newt Gingrich is a rare charismatic Republican, making his remarkable political comeback. But unfounded accusations about U.S. international broadcasts point to a longtime carelessness with facts. The broader problem is his implication that oppressed millions in Iran and North Korea can be programmed by the Voice of America into overthrowing their governments.