What US government agency was recently labeled “dysfunctional” by the State Department’s Inspector General, and year after year is rated in employee surveys as the worst—or near worst—place to work in government? If you guessed the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Marti, Radio Free Europe, and the rest of the federal government’s media outlets, you are correct. In 2009, Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson wrote that the bbg has come to mean “bottom of the barrel in government.”
The core problem afflicting the BBG and its various entities is institutional schizophrenia. It is simultaneously a news organization trying to be a government agency, and a government agency trying to be a news outlet. Since 1942, the US government has been broadcasting—and now texting, tweeting, and Facebooking—to the world. VOA was the first, and remains the best known of the government broadcasters. In VOA’s first broadcast (in German), the announcer said, “The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.”
VOA’s journalists have had a clear mandate under the charter, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, to present unbiased news to the world, especially to countries denied uncensored news. But the charter also says VOA will “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” The schizophrenia, then, was built into the equation from the start.
Today, though, the problem of conflicting missions is exacerbated by the fact that the Board of Governors—and in particular the VOA, where I worked as a correspondent and news analyst for 27 years—has become mired in bloated bureaucracy, duplication of effort, internecine warfare between broadcast entities, and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) efforts to politicize the news. The workforce is demoralized, and the credibility of the news has been undercut. It raises the question of whether, given that people around the world now have unprecedented access to news and information, we still need the VOA and its sister outlets to attempt this awkward dance between journalism and public diplomacy.
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Policymakers have long viewed US international broadcasting as part of the public-diplomacy effort. The USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s website notes that the term was coined to get away from the pejorative word “propaganda.” The center says that “in the past few decades, public diplomacy has been widely seen as the transparent means by which a sovereign country communicates with publics in other countries aimed at informing and influencing audiences overseas for the purpose of promoting the national interest and advancing its foreign policy goals [italics added].”
In other words, “public diplomacy” is simply public affairs—that is, spin, propaganda, messaging, whatever you wish to call it—relabeled and repackaged for foreign consumption. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as much before departing from the Obama cabinet. “We have abdicated the broadcasting arena,” she said at a congressional hearing. “[W]e have private stations, CNN, Fox, NBC, all of that. They’re out there, they convey information. But we’re not doing what we did during the Cold War. Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”
VOA has often been called a propaganda agency, but it’s not. It has fulfilled its public-diplomacy role by broadcasting editorials, which are labeled as official government viewpoints. In this way, the separation between news and propaganda is maintained, at least in theory. VOA correspondents travel on normal passports (although non-journalist employees use “official” or “diplomatic” ones) and get journalist visas to travel to countries with visa requirements. However, when VOA/BBG executives and administrators travel overseas, they use official or diplomatic passports and get logistic and other assistance from the local US embassy. It’s no wonder that governments are confused about the role of American international broadcasting.
VOA earned credibility around the world on the basis of its honest journalism, even when its stories conflicted with US policy. “Some might argue that as a government-funded network, the voa should always be expected to portray US policies as righteous and successful,” wrote former VOA Director Sanford Ungar in Foreign Affairs in 2005. “But experience demonstrates that the VOA is most appreciated and effective when it functions as a model US-style news organization that presents a balanced view of domestic and international events, setting an example for how independent journalism can strengthen democracy.”