VOA was part of the US Information Agency (USIA), which was an arm of the State Department. But VOA, in particular its Central News Division, which provides content to 45 language services, has fought to protect the agency’s journalistic independence in the face of attempts by government officials to influence news coverage. I once had a deputy chief of mission in Pakistan threaten to have me thrown out of the country if I went into then-communist Afghanistan without embassy permission. In his Foreign Affairs article, Ungar cited instances of attempts by one of his predecessors, David Jackson, to skew news coverage to be favorable to the Bush administration, especially during the Iraq War. (In a rebuttal, Jackson—now executive editor of The Washington Times—denied Ungar’s assertions, saying his piece was “filled with errors and unsupportable accusations.”)
In 1994, Congress reorganized the government’s international broadcasting function by creating the Broadcasting Board of Governors within USIA to oversee all broadcast entities. The USIA as a whole was abolished five years later, with all non-broadcasting functions (embassy public affairs, libraries, etc.) transferred to State Department control, but the BBG was kept as a separate organization. The board was to act as a “firewall” against political or bureaucratic influence over the integrity of the news. But instead of being a solution, the BBG became the problem. The part-time, nine-member, politically appointed board—half Democrats, half Republicans, with the secretary of state as an ex-officio member—started micromanaging operations through the creation of an administrative bureaucracy dubbed the International Broadcasting Bureau. The bureau runs the day-to-day business of the broadcasters, but over time has expanded into peripheral projects like audience research and strategic planning—in essence whatever the Board of Governors wants it to do. Senator Richard Lugar wrote in a 2010 piece in the Foreign Service Journal that “after 15 years . . . it has become clear that, rather than serving as a political ‘firewall,’ the bbg has often become a political ‘football’ as board nominations have become enmeshed in partisan politics.”
One result of this micromanaging is that a commercial mode has taken root at Voice of America, where the equivalent of chasing ratings has become paramount and the news has been trivialized in much the same way it has at networks and stations across the country. As a 2007 report by McCormick-Tribune Foundation put it, “Once the centerpiece in America’s arsenal for fighting the war of ideas through their trenchant and focused programming, American international broadcasting in recent years has lurched in the direction of becoming just another competitor in the crowded field of commercial broadcasters purveying a menu of entertainment, popular culture and news.”
The BBG brought in outside people, many of them former CNN managers, to sharpen this commercial-style focus. Hard news, the meat and potatoes of VOA since its inception, has been greatly de-emphasized. Pressure has increased for softer stories, usually of two minutes or less, which are then translated for use by the language services. (There is virtually no English-language television, and English-language radio programming has been drastically cut back, even though it’s the strongest medium to reach remote audiences that lack computers or TVs.)
The VOA’s journalistic standards have suffered in this push into a more commercial-TV mode. For instance, there was always a strict two-source rule: The essential elements of all stories had to be verified by two sources (typically two wire services) before a story would be issued. The exception was if a voa correspondent witnessed an event. But some language services complained that they were not getting stories from Central News fast enough. VOA Director David Ensor, and a subsequent internal review of the news operation, recommended doing away with that requirement and allowing stories to be pinned on one attributed source, usually a wire service.
The Central News Division has resisted efforts to dumb down the news operation, and that has led to clashes with upper management. VOA management has tried to break up the division, which is staffed by professional journalists, and scatter its members to the language services. Traditionally, most of the news broadcast by the VOA has been produced by the journalists in Central News and sent to the various language services, where it is translated for their respective audiences. For some time now, the language services have been eager to broaden their mandate, and the agency’s leadership has come to believe that much of the work done by Central News can be done by language services. “We have to struggle every day just to cover the important news now,” said one VOA senior news editor, who asked not to be identified.