The politically incorrect secret at VOA is the wildly inconsistent journalistic acumen of the language services. Some possess a wealth of journalistic expertise; others are woefully bereft. The disparity is explained by the simple fact that it is difficult to find people who are fluent in a given language, and also have experience in the kind of rigorous journalism VOA has traditionally required. Many are academics, here or in their country of origin, but have no journalistic background. The services often turn to émigré communities for recruitment, and a lot of the staffers come from countries where news organizations are expected to be politically partisan or pro-government. Some language services—in particular the Farsi-language service broadcasting to Iran—have been criticized on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for alleged bias in their broadcasts, arising in large part from deep partisan divides over developments or movements in the countries to which they broadcast.
But VOA officials continue to deny there is any disparity in journalistic expertise. At a recent program review of the Central News Division, one of the reviewing officers said: “There are still two classes of reporters in this place, the English-language reporters and then everybody else who is a reporter or stringer. And some of those reporters and stringers in the field, in vernacular language, are as good or better than the English-language people, and we think Central News cheats itself by not allowing, not taking advantage, frankly, of all of the voa news sources that are covering stories.”
Thus, the journalistic coherence that Central News brings to VOA has been rendered impotent. In effect, VOA now has 45 different news operations, each with the potential to put a different spin on the same story. If there is a clash on the India-Pakistan border, let’s say, the Pakistani-oriented Urdu Service may issue a very different view of events than the Hindi-language service aimed at India.
The Board of Governors is trying to sell the Obama administration and Congress on a scheme to merge all the broadcast entities into something called the Global News Network, under the authority of an international broadcasting czar. The BBG’s Strategic Plan outlines a grandiose vision to “become the world’s leading international news agency by 2016.” There are indications this plan may be shelved for now, or ramped down, because of the fragile budgetary climate. The FY 2013 budget for BBG is $756 million—chump change in the governmental scheme of things—and the kind of effort envisioned by the BBG would require huge increases if it is to be done right. The proposed 2014 budget asks for $732 million. Without significantly more money, something Congress would likely be leery of approving, the Global News Network cannot hope to compete with other news entities.
And there is the unresolved question of whether what would emerge under consolidation would really be a news organization. The board and VOA management say the VOA charter is still valid, but a new mission statement in the strategic plan says the goal is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy [italics added].”
That last phrase is advocacy, not journalism. Regimes around the world—especially hostile ones like Iran—will read that and see VOA as a regime-change instrument of the US government. This formulation not only undercuts VOA’s journalistic credibility, it puts VOA correspondents at even greater risk than necessary. I made several trips to Iran to cover events, including the 2005 presidential election. Iranian officials told me they gave visas to VOA Central News correspondents, but not to the Farsi-language service, now called the Persian Service, because the language service is perceived as partisan.
VOA was offered an opportunity to comment on the issues raised in this article, and questions were submitted to the agency for response. It declined to answer any of the questions. The VOA Public Affairs Office’s response was: “Frankly speaking, the questions submitted by Mr. Thomas, a former VOA employee, contain multiple errors and suggest a bias that concerns us greatly. We invite those who want to evaluate the quality of VOA journalism to look at our websites or our programs that reach over 135 million people each week in 45 separate languages.”
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US international broadcasting is at a crossroads. If it is to be a truly dynamic, respected news organization in the 21st-century media market, then several steps must be taken: