Sunday, July 31, 2016

International Communication Agency Director John Reinhardt on programming vs. communication (1978)

Note: For a brief period (1978-1982), the United States Information Agency (USIA, 1953-1999) was renamed/reorganized as the U.S. International Communication Agency (USICA).

From the newly-published papers newly by the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State:


150. Letter From the Director of the International Communication Agency (Reinhardt) to all ICA Public Affairs Officers 1

Washington, September 6, 1978


Dear PAO: ...

To begin at the beginning: the bedrock purpose of ICA is to deal with what Walter Lippmann once called the “pictures in peoples heads.”2 There is a tendency in a society as pragmatic as our own to deprecate the importance of the pictures in peoples heads. My own view is that it is important—fundamentally important—and sobering work, to be approached with tenacity and humility. I have quoted Oliver Wendall Holmes and H.G. Wells before. I accept, and hope that all of us accept, as literal truth the assertion that “man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.” I accept as literal truth that “human history is in essence a history of ideas.” I continue to agree with President Carter’s assertion at Notre Dame that “it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody.”3

Finally, the heart of this letter: our concept of communication.

I believe it is essential to draw a distinction between “programming” and effective communication. The very word “program” has been much abused in the CU/USIS/ICA lexicon, and we paid a certain price. ...

USIA [reorganized as ICA in 1978] ... was [n]ever acknowledged as [a] full partner [...] in diplomacy, nor in some cases even as [an] important contributor[...] to national goals. One effect of our perceived lack of relevance in the past has been at least a mild case of institutional self-doubt. It is simply human nature in such circumstances to justify one’s existence by being active. My observations of the past year suggest that we may be too active: too many activities, too many programs, too many reports designed for voracious Washington machines and, most importantly, perhaps too many objectives—and too little time for reflection.

I do not believe that activities or “programs” necessarily sum to communication. From our perspective here in Washington we will not be insisting on quantity: a few well-chosen people in the audience, a few well-chosen opportunities for the exchange of ideas among important “agenda setters,” a few discernible changes in the pictures in people’s heads should be our goals. More than that we can probably not accomplish. ...

I also acknowledge the dilemma faced by many posts at which the environment offers almost inexhaustible communication opportunities. We must regret forgoing some in order to focus our minds and efforts on a few. The choice cannot be easy. But I, for one, would vastly prefer a few demonstrable accomplishments in the realm of ideas than a plethora of merely good activities and programs.

Indeed, I am troubled by the verb “to program.” In many instances, it seems to me, effective and stylish “programming” has come to substitute for—and possibly to get in the way of—effective communication.

A program is an event; communication is a process. Effective communication entails the establishment of connections, their sustenance over time, the refreshing of intellectual wells, repetition for effect, the articulation and focussing of post resources for mutual reinforcement. The outcome—without which all else is delusion—should be a detectable increase in the intellectual or social momentum on any chosen subject as a result of our activities. It would, I submit, be worth asking yourselves how many of your post’s activities are in fact contributing to an increase in such momentum or whether your post is spread too thinly for effective accomplishment of the truly important. ...

1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, USIA Historical Collection, Office of the Director, Biographic Files Relating to USIA Directors and Other Senior Officials, 1953–2000, Entry A–1 1069, Box 23, John E. Reinhardt, Speeches, 1977–1978. No classification marking. Copies were sent to all country PAOs.↩

2. Reinhardt is referring, presumably, to Walter Lip[p]mann’s 1922 work Public Opinion. Lip[p]mann’s first chapter is entitled “The World Outside and The Pictures in Our Heads.”↩

3. See footnote 2, Document 57.↩ ...

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