Bernard Kamenske

Radio journalist who became the moral conscience of the Voice of America
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The Independent Online

Bernard Harold Kamenske, journalist: born Nashua, New Hampshire 11 October 1927; married 1960 Gloria Cheek; died Bethesda, Maryland 25 September 2003.

Bernard Kamenske was a journalist who made a difference. Although he was virtually unknown in his own country, the radio-news organisation that he nurtured at the Voice of America provided the lifeline of balanced and reliable news for millions of shortwave radio listeners around the world.

He was born in New Hampshire in 1927 and grew up in a Jewish family in the Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester. From childhood he developed a keen interest in the news and at just 16 years old he persuaded his mother to let him take a job at the Associated Press office in Boston. She agreed that he could try it for a day. That day turned out to be 6 June 1944, D-Day. Young Bernie worked late into the night and from that point never really wanted to be away from a newsroom.

As soon as he was able, Kamenske took a full-time job with the Associated Press. In 1951 he was conscripted into the US Army but was seriously injured when hit by a motorcycle before he could go overseas as a combat correspondent. He spent the next three years in hospital. Thereafter he always walked with a stick. In 1955 he joined the organisation that was to be his great passion: Voice of America.

The US government's official radio station, VOA had been founded as a tool of propaganda in 1942 and by the mid-1950s was developing away from these roots towards a new vision of a role as a global provider of balanced news. Kamenske became a key figure in this process.

From 1960 the VOA's ethical principles were enshrined within the VOA's charter. This was a sacred text to Kamenske, who fiercely believed in the need for VOA to project the best in America by showing balanced journalism at work, even if the story being reported - such as civil-rights problems in the South - did not reflect well on the United States. He also felt that the US had much of value to share with the world and kept a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on his office wall as a symbol of the ideology of the US system.

Kamenske began his VOA career in the Latin American news section. He received awards in 1963 for his news writing during the Cuban missile crisis and in 1966 for sustained excellent coverage of South and Central America. He rose to increasingly senior posts at the Voice, becoming chief of news at the time of Watergate.

He experienced plenty of attempts from the officials in the VOA's parent organisation - the United States Information Agency - to manipulate the news in politically favourable directions, and worked tenaciously to resist these. He also demanded the highest standards of news writing from his staff, insisting on two independent sources before a story went on air.

Following the experience of covering both Watergate and the final phase of the Vietnam War, he and like-minded colleagues realised that VOA would not be free from intrusions from the policy makers unless its charter was enshrined in federal law. He discreetly lobbied the Democrat congresswoman from New York Bella Abzug, while colleagues secured the help of the Republican Senator Charles Percy. With their support the VOA charter became law in July 1976. Although this law carried no penalties per se, Kamenske delighted in pointing out that it should be possible to prosecute anyone who sought to flout it for conspiracy.

Kamenske felt that the VOA had a duty to be watchful. He was well aware that the station had failed to carry news of the Holocaust during the Second World War and determined that there should be no such oversight "on his watch". It was with the example of the Holocaust in mind that he paid particular attention to the developing crisis in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. VOA became the first major news organisation to break the story of the Cambodian genocide. Sometimes the bad news was closer to home. Kamenske's newsroom pulled no punches in its coverage of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

He was immensely proud of one scoop in particular. VOA was the first station to carry news that the plane carrying the Iranian hostages had left Tehran, because it had a correspondent on the telephone at a villa with a view of the airport watching for exactly the right moment. The VOA's reputation for credibility and timely news increased its effectiveness. Like the BBC World Service, Kamenske's VOA became part of everyday life in the Soviet bloc, and undermined the authority of the Communist governments of the region.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 ushered in a difficult period in the history of the VOA. Although the renewed Cold War brought an expanded budget, it also saw a string of intrusive political appointments at VOA and some clumsy attempts to roll back the balanced-news culture. In 1981 Kamenske resigned in protest and took a senior job at the newly opened Washington bureau of CNN.

Kamenske's time at CNN was cut short by a heart attack in 1983. His later years were dogged by ill-health; however, he still kept a keen eye on developments at the Voice and would take directors on one side to remind them of their ethical responsibilities. He was always eager to help young historians writing about the station. One of the things which gave him most pleasure in recent years was the success of his protégé Andre de Nesnera in his old job a chief of news. De Nesnera won awards for his journalistic courage in defying a State Department bid to prevent the broadcast of an interview with the Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the weeks following 11 September 2001.

Warm-hearted, generous and a wonderful storyteller, Bernie Kamenske was a legend among the broadcasters at the Voice. But he was never one to rest on laurels and he wished that he had been able to do more. He felt that the VOA had said less than it ought in a number of critical situations in his own time and subsequently.

He was saddened by the decline of international radio in recent years and the policy of the present US administration of broadcasting popular music to the Middle East rather than serious news.

Nicholas J. Cull

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