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.
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.