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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Atlanta, Georgia

1990-04-02

Thank you for that welcome. To Messrs. Mays and Fritts, thank you both, and to all of the rest of the leaders of the NAB that are here today. And also I understand there are a lot of Members of the United States Congress here. In my line of work, you always pay your respects to the Members of Congress -- [laughter] -- in the forlorn hope that they will do it exactly my way someday. [Laughter] But nevertheless, I'm glad they're here.

It is my privilege this morning to be back before America's family of broadcasters, the National Association of Broadcasters. And I can't help but marvel at these huge screens as I walked in here. You know, if I were as large as my image -- [laughter] -- on these screens, imagine how easy it would be for me to get my way with the Congress. [Laughter] And this convention is also displayed, I'm told, on monitors throughout the arena, and from here, beamed around the world. I will try to finish each sentence without a preposition. [Laughter]

But there was a time when most Americans knew their Presidents distantly, from woodcut prints in the weekly newspaper. The circle of democracy in ancient Athens and Rome was even more limited, just to those within hearing range of the debates inside the Parthenon or the Forum. But today, through free over-the-air broadcasts, you have brought millions of living rooms within hearing range; you've made every home a part of the American forum. In fact, on this very day, you are providing -- for the 6,000 foreign broadcasters in attendance, through your international seminars, and through USIA's WORLDNET -- a seminar for the world.

Television, which began as the American forum, has become the world forum. And so, when a lone brave man stood up to a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, the world stood with him. When the people of Prague sang the first Christmas carols in over 40 years, the world sang with them. And when the first German took the first hammer to that wall of shame in Berlin, the world shared in an historic act of courage.

We all know that governments can censor, governments can silence, but the voice of freedom will not be stilled as long as there is an America to tell the truth. These sounds and images of the Revolution of '89 belong to the world. But it was here in America that a free people first explored how to put the airwaves into the service of democracy.

We accept regulation, but we firmly reject government programming. We reject government ownership of stations. And most of all, we reject censorship. You see, the freedom that this association enjoys -- probably takes for granted -- is a model for the world.

In my State of the Union Address, I spoke of the cornerstones of a free society: democracy, private investment, competitiveness, stewardship. We will see what competitiveness means just this afternoon -- I'm going out to visit a General Electric plant in Cincinnati, where free workers transformed foreign investment into foreign business. Tomorrow I'm going to Indianapolis -- help promote stewardship, where the city works with citizens to cultivate an urban forest. But these are not what you'd call isolated whistlestops. America's ideas are powerful, and through the power of communication, we share them with the world. After all, we live in a time when commodity prices and travel reservations and fast-breaking news flash from Hong Kong to Tokyo, Tokyo to Bonn, Bonn to Boston, all in the blink of an eye.

Roam among the hundreds of exhibits in this convention center, and you will find 22 football fields chock-full of the latest gadgets in telecommunications -- personal computers and modems, fax machines, lasers, optical fibers, satellites -- all strands in a growing web of world communications, a growing network linking all of us, ``a global village.'' The information industry is not an adornment to modern life: it is the essence of who and what we are. It is truly an information age.

Last May, I discussed the future of Europe with the citizens of Mainz, a German city nestled in the green hills along the Rhine River. And it was while I was there that I appreciated anew the Biblical expression, ``In the beginning was the Word.'' For it was in that German town that the inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg, first put the scholarship of the ages into the hands of millions of knowledge-hungry readers. His one invention made possible all the pamphlets and journals of the Enlightenment and of the American Revolution, from the call to arms of Thomas Paine to the cool logic of ``The Federalist Papers.'' You might argue that out of that one invention sprang the very idea called America.

Today, along with the word, we have the image: images projected on color television and evoked by the sounds of radio. But while Western democracy broadened as our knowledge broadened, the circle of democracy and knowledge narrowed under Communist regimes that took power on many continents. For these nations, truth was something to be twisted and stretched by the brutal hands of authority, manipulated beyond recognition. The Czech author Kundera calls this time the ``kingdom of forgetting,'' when whole nations almost forgot their heroic histories and finest traditions. From Havana to Prague to Phnom Penh, the peoples of these lands never fully gave in to the amnesia, because even in the worst hours of repression, they could always count on a friendly voice to remind them of the truth: Radio Marti, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe and, God bless it, the Voice of America.

To fully appreciate what these broadcasts mean, you need only ask someone who listened to them. Sichan Siv, a young man now works on our White House staff -- he's a Cambodian, an American who lived through the horrors of the killing fields. And he's told me that when the Khmer Rouge took control of a village the very first items they confiscated were the radios, for if they respected and feared anything, it was the power of free information. But even under the threat of death, men and women like Sichan Siv were so hungry for news from the outside world that they would turn on a hidden transistor radio at the lowest possible volume and then put it up flush to one ear. We take free news broadcasts for granted in America, but some people risked death to hear the truth. And some people still do, and we're not going to let them down.

In the realm of ideas and ideals, there are no borders. No government should fear free speech, whether it's from entertainment programs or accurate, unbiased news about world events. And that is why Congress strongly supported TV Marti and why I strongly support TV Marti. We will scrupulously adhere to the letter of the law. But let me say again: The voice of freedom will not be stilled as long as there is an America to tell the truth.

And look, I do understand the practical concerns that some of you have about this, but I also understand that you represent the very principle TV Marti exists to serve: that free flow of ideas. Before we are business men and women, before we are doctors, lawyers, or mechanics, we are Americans. Americans have always stood for free speech, and we always will. So, I have come here to ask something of you. I ask you to stand by your traditions, the best traditions of America. I ask you, once again, to stand for TV Marti and to stand for freedom.

If we broadcast freedom, our message will be heard. After the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square and the expulsion of the VOA from China, I was heartened to see that Beijing relented a little bit and permitted a VOA correspondent to return. In the Soviet Union, publications that once vilified the Voice of America now praise it. Warm words of support even come from Izvestia. A commentator in Moscow News thanks VOA and says that it uses, and here is the quote, ``our own broadening sources of information better than we do and without delay return to us what they have gathered.'' And now Radio Free Europe has bureaus in Warsaw, in Budapest, and VOA even has one in Moscow, an unthinkable development just a few years ago. The very fact that it is no longer considered remarkable for USIA's WORLDNET to link live programs from Washington to Kiev, or from Chicago and New York to Gdansk and Warsaw, is in itself remarkable.

How did this happen? It happened in part because of the power of truth. Czechoslovakia's playwright-President Vaclav Havel paid a very personal tribute to this power in his recent visit to Washington. First he came to the White House and told me personally what this broadcasting of the truth had meant to those who were fighting for freedom. And then he visited the Voice of America and met the employees of its Czech division. It was a very poignant encounter, for though Havel didn't recognize any of them by face, he knew them all by name the instant he heard them speak.

And it's moments like that that convince me of one sure thing: I am determined that America will continue to bear witness to the truth. America must never lose its voice. Just as President Havel and others who were once under Communist domination have thanked us, I am convinced that the people of Cuba will thank us when they, too, win the liberty they yearn for.

Still, we can envision a time when the purpose of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty could be utterly fulfilled. But for now, these networks, along with USIA's WORLDNET and VOA, must continue in Eastern Europe until change is complete. We're still seeing the struggle for freedom, and this must continue until all that struggle is won by the forces of freedom. Free stations and newspapers are still struggling to take root. Their access to their Western colleagues is still erratic. We need to be there now more than ever before to describe and explain our own two centuries of experience in building a democracy.

We can also assist the Eastern Europeans in sharing among themselves their own experience in democracy. After all, Eastern Europeans need more than Robert's Rules of Order: they need to know how the process of reform is working with their neighbors. So, if one nation adopts a novel path to reform, pollution control, or currency law, the others need to be able to benefit from that experiment.

And we must also look ahead to the challenges of a new century. To prepare for our future role, I have directed that an interagency review be conducted of U.S. Government international broadcasting.

And of course, we will be looking for advice from many outside the Government. After all, when it comes to setting an example of a free press, the best example must come from you. The Peace Corps is teaching English in Eastern Europe as the lingua franca of business and journalism, but it is not tasked to offer a model of journalistic excellence. Only the American press corps can pick up where the Peace Corps leaves off and provide a model of accuracy, fairness, and objectivity.

As broadcasters, you can -- and you are -- transferring American know-how to the East. You're working with VOA to train and orient foreign broadcasters visiting the United States. In February the director of Polish radio and television visited your headquarters, in part to seek the counsel and assistance of American broadcasters. And you've sent your representatives to meet with their counterparts inside the Soviet Union. And on top of this, you are helping Americans to invest in joint ventures to establish new radio and television networks in the East. So, most of all, I am here to recognize your energetic, international leadership. And I might make a peripheral plea: Do not neglect this hemisphere and this hemisphere's quest for democracy.

The times have changed. We need no longer act in the fine tradition of the Underground Railroad. But before the Revolution of '89, America regularly received the speeches of Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and other brave men and women of conscience on smuggled tapes. And through the power of broadcasting, America became the courier of freedom, returning the eloquent words of these leaders back to their people, returning hope and the promise of liberty to half a dozen lands. That was our vision then; that is our vision today. And by working together, our American vision is fast becoming a reality for the world.

I can tell you many friends in this audience that there has never in my view been a more exciting or challenging time to be President of the United States. The change is mind-boggling -- the changes around the world. The bid of freedom is irreversible. It's bound to happen to places denied freedom today. But the importance of your work, the importance of your commitment to open, fair journalism is unparalleled in any time in our history. So, I came here to say thank you -- thank you all for what you are doing, thank you for the support you've been able to give this administration. And may God bless you. And most of all, may God bless the United States of America. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:09 a.m. in the Thomas P. Murphy Ballroom of the Georgia World Congress Center. In his remarks, he referred to L. Lowry Mays and Eddie Fritts, joint board chairman and president of the association, respectively. Afterwards, the President examined a scale model of the proposed 1992 Olympic Village in Atlanta. In the afternoon, he traveled to Cincinnati, OH.

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