Old Propaganda and New

Matt Welch's rambling discourse "Old Propaganda and New" (March) contains a great deal of misinformation from unreliable sources. Unfortunately, Welch did not contact the Broadcasting Board of Governors for the facts.

Far from living in the past, as Welch suggests, the Broadcasting Board, with the support of the Bush administration and Congress, has utilized the latest audience research techniques and 21st-century technology to produce a radio and television service for the Middle East that operates in a competitive broadcast market. The result has surpassed our most optimistic predictions.

The Voice of America Arabic shortwave service Welch would like to bring back operated seven hours a day to an estimated audience of 1.8 million. The 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week broadcasts of Radio Sawa include 325 newscasts weekly, and its music/news format is widely acknowledged to be one of the region's most popular. That's why The Washington Times called Radio Sawa "one of the great success stories in the administration's war on terrorism." The world-renowned research company ACNielsen, in a 2005 survey, showed that Radio Sawa and Alhurra television now reach a total unduplicated audience of 35 million.

Even Welch's personal insults are baseless. Radio Sawa is not "staffed by Lebanese who famously mangle their Arabic," but by professional journalists from various Arabic-speaking countries—including Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Sudan as well as Lebanon —who have the courage to work for an American news organization in a hostile environment.

Larry Hart
Communications Coordinator
Broadcasting Board of Governors
Washington, D.C.

Quite apart from everything else in Matt Welch's article with which one might take issue, it is simply a lie that Commentary was ever subsidized by or took a penny from the Congress for Cultural Freedom. From its founding in 1945 until 1990, and throughout the years in which the Congress created and supported Encounter and a string of other magazines around the world, Commentary was fully subsidized by the American Jewish Committee. (Since 1990, it has raised its own operating funds while continuing to be housed by AJC.) Welch is not the first to propagate this lie, but I'm surprised he fell for it and repeated it without checking.

Neal Kozodoy
Editor, Commentary
New York, NY

Matt Welch replies: If our Mideast broadcast propaganda has "surpassed our most optimistic predictions," the problem is much worse than I thought. In addition to the Lebanese bias (an issue, as Larry Hart well knows, that was brought to Congress' attention by Al-Hurra's own staffers and admitted by Al-Hurra's own executives), "the numbers released by the station," the Center for Public Diplomacy's Alvin Snyder noted in December, "paint a much more optimistic picture of its viewership than do those calculated by outside sources." (The dispute over those rosy "unduplicated" figures is also well-known to Hart.) It's a desperate bit of cherry-picking indeed that lunges for glowing blurbs from The Washington Times, whose own editor at large, Arnaud de Borchgrave, has repeatedly slammed the broadcast mouthpiece under headlines like "Few Hurrahs for Al-Hurra."

Neal Kozodoy is right to criticize me for stating that the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), created and funded by the CIA, "subsidized" Commentary; I should not have written that. It would have been more accurate to note that Irving Kristol became head of CCF in 1952, the year he stepped down from the editorship of Commentary; that several of Commentary's contributors (Melvin Lasky, Sidney Hook, and Daniel Bell, for starters) received money that originated from the CIA during the 1950s and 1960s (with varying degrees of awareness on the writers' parts); and that its editor from 1960 to 1995, Norman Podhoretz, chaired an advisory committee to the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), the government's official overseas propaganda arm during the Cold War, from 1981 to 1987. During Podhoretz' tenure Ronald Reagan greatly expanded the USIA's covert activities, under the leadership of the former senior CIA official Walt Raymond. The same period saw the launch of the USIA-affiliated National Endowment for Democracy, an international organization modeled directly on the CCF.

Absolution in Your Cup

Kerry Howley's article "Absolution in Your Cup" (March) is well-documented in certain aspects (especially the historical background of coffee) and brings up some real concerns about the fair trade certification model. But many other elements don't correspond to reality.

Howley states that the fair trade certification system has grown into a "complex bureaucracy" without really explaining what she means by that. To maintain the integrity of the logo; to make sure that producers fully benefit from the fair trade system; to be able to monitor all the transactions and therefore guarantee to consumers that the fair trade standards established by Fairtrade Labeling Organizations (in consultation with different stakeholders) are met, some "bureaucracy" is needed. The core of the certification system hasn't changed much during the last few years. At TransFair Canada, we have put a lot of effort into simplifying the reporting system and all business requirements that we impose on our licensees. But as an independent, third-party certification body, we also have to ensure the integrity of the logo, traceability of the products, and respect of the standards by our licensees. I know that FLO does the same when dealing with fair-trade-certified organizations in the South.

Why certify only coffee that comes from cooperatives? An important percentage of the coffee grown in the world comes from small, family-owned lands. Those producers, who rely entirely on coffee to make a living, are the most vulnerable ones and the worst affected when coffee prices drop. Most of them live in remote areas and are illiterate and highly dependent on intermediaries (like coyotes) to buy and transport their coffee.

That is why, since the beginning of fair trade certification for coffee, the cooperative model has been encouraged. Cooperatives bring producers together, empower them, and give them better access to Northern markets and a better understanding of the market. They provide members with technical support, give them training on quality issues, and help them diversify their crops. Most of the time, the benefits a co-op receives by selling some of its coffee on the fair trade market accrue as well to the larger community, as when the fair trade social premium is used to build a school, provide health services, or build a road.

Most cooperatives FLO deals with have between 50 and 500 members. As long as a co-op has a proven record of participatory decision making, good service, accountability, quality, and environmental responsibility, it can be certified by FLO. As for hired labor, the cooperative and the producers are fully entitled to hire additional people when it is harvest time; there is no limitation on that, as long as it is occasional. It is true that under the current system, small or medium-sized coffee farms cannot be certified. That might change at some point.

Most co-ops sell only 20 percent to 30 percent of their coffee on the fair trade market because the demand in the North is still not high enough. When most small producers are able to sell 100 percent of their coffee on the fair trade market, the next logical step will be to open the door to coffee farmers like Gregorio Martinez, who is mentioned in the article.

I was quite surprised by the claim, quoted in the article, that "Fair Trade does not incentivize quality." If fair trade relied only on concerns about social justice without incentivizing quality, it wouldn't have grown as it has. If there is one thing that customers and roasters tend to agree on, it is the great quality of most fair-trade-certified coffees. Many of these coffees have won prizes at the Cup of Excellence (a coffee competition held annually in Central America) over the years and have brought a lot of pride to the producers. To respond to the needs of the Northern market and to have a better price for their coffee, many cooperatives have invested in technical support and quality control at every step of cultivation.

Chantal Harvard
TransFair Canada
Ottawa, Ontario

Kerry Howley replies: If I failed to explain the term "complex bureaucracy" in the body of the article, Chantal Harvard does so for me here. TransFair requires an extensive, expensive reporting and monitoring system to maintain the brand. The question isn't whether such a bureaucracy is necessary to the existence of TransFair but whether the costs imposed by such a bureaucracy are worth paying at the supermarket counter. I argue that they are, in that certified coffees deliver what they promise: a particular vision of social justice in which cooperative production is favored over individual enterprise. Consumers who support this vision are getting what they pay for.

Harvard argues that because some fair-trade-certified coffee is of good quality, it must be true that fair trade encourages quality improvement. Perhaps a better way to put it would be that the success of the Fair Trade brand incentivizes high-quality producers of financial means to seek certification. Gourmet coffee growers will continue to seek out and pay for the Fair Trade label. This hardly proves the system itself encourages producers to improve the quality of their beans.

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