On a Podcast with Jamie Fly, Former President of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Staff of Current Time, a Russian-language media platform of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, in a newsroom at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, February 7, 2017 (David W Cerny / Reuters)

Jamie Fly is a veteran foreign-policy hand. He has worked in the Senate, the Pentagon, the White House, and elsewhere. Most recently, he was the president of RFE/RL (that combination of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty). He is my guest on Q&A, here. I’ll give you some basics.

Fly is from the Philadelphia suburbs and grew up a Reaganite. That is, he was attracted to the principles and ideals of Reagan conservatism. In 2004, something interesting happened. When Fly mentioned it, I thought, “That shows you what opinion journalism can do.”

He read a column by Peggy Noonan in which she said it was simply critical that President Bush be reelected over John Kerry. Fly quit the job he then had and volunteered for the Bush campaign. He was sent to Ohio for the final five weeks.

Flash forward to June 2019, when he went to RFE/RL. He knew a lot about disinformation — especially Russian disinformation — and thought it highly important to counter it. I regard RFE/RL, along with the other U.S. “radios,” as invaluable. Two years ago, I wrote a piece about RFE/RL called “Still Broadcasting Freedom.”

In our Q&A, Fly talks about the foreign journalists who work for RFE/RL, many of them putting their lives on the line in order to bring real news to people in their home countries.

Like me, Fly was inspired recently by the sight, and sound, of democracy protesters in front of state-television offices in Minsk (the capital of Belarus). They chanted, “Radio Svaboda! Radio Svaboda!” That is their way of saying “Radio Liberty.”

In his tenure as president of RFE/RL, Jamie Fly visited many of the organization’s 20-some bureaus. He also met many customers, so to speak — many consumers. When they found out who he was, they were emotional about what RFE/RL meant to them.

In some cases, the governing board of the organization has found it necessary to go back into previous markets — Cold War markets. Romania and Bulgaria are both members of the European Union, and both members of NATO. But press freedom in those countries is under attack.

Apparently, RFE/RL is set to return to Hungary. This will increase the choice of Hungarians. RFE/RL will provide an alternative to official, or quasi-official, media.

In June, the heads of the U.S. radios were suddenly fired, among them Jamie Fly. The future of the radios seems up in the air. What is critical, says Fly, is that the radios continue to provide independent, objective, non-propagandistic news. Otherwise, they will lose trust and lose their audiences.

At some length, Fly talks in our Q&A about “the toxic impact of disinformation on social media.” We Americans tend to be naïve about disinformation. Republicans, in particular, don’t want to hear about it, because they think that any such talk is designed to discredit Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. But we should not bury our heads in the sand.

I ask Fly about the Chinese government: Are they in the disinformation business, too? More and more, yes. One reason is, they see that the Russians pay no penalty for it. Also, Iran wants in on the act.

It is Jamie Fly’s belief that simple truth — honest reporting — helped us defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Today, he says, we need to “step up our game,” and he is anxious about where we are heading.

A very interesting voice, Jamie Fly’s. Again, our conversation is here.

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