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:
• Get rid of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It has been a disastrous experiment. A January 2013 report by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that, since its inception, the board “has been fully staffed for only seven of its 17 years of existence, and current governors are serving under expired terms.” Members have as a rule lacked journalistic credentials, coming from corporate media executive jobs or diplomatic posts. On May 11, President Obama nominated Ryan Crocker to the board, a diplomat who over a 37-year career has served as ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, and, most recently, Afghanistan. A distinguished record, certainly, but one lacking any journalistic background.
• If a “broadcasting czar” is to oversee the proposed combined operation, then he or she should be someone with an unimpeachable journalistic reputation, not someone who goes through the revolving door between government spokesman and working journalist. The appointee should be named by the president and subject to Senate confirmation (as VOA directors were before the creation of the BBG), and be appointed for a fixed term (like the FBI director) as additional safeguards against politicization of the news.
• Re-establish the Central News Division as the operational hub of VOA (and, if there is consolidation, of the combined operation) to ensure journalistic cohesion, continuity, and credibility. Having what amounts to dozens of separate news shops competing with one another for resources, stories, and interviews breeds duplication and uncertainty.
• Don’t dumb down the news. Without a complete fiscal change of heart in Congress, international broadcasting will never have the money and staff to compete with commercial outlets. So stop focusing undue effort on lightweight fluff that is eroding credibility, and encourage and support intelligent and thoughtful journalism that is unfettered by bureaucracy and politics.
• Stop dismissing radio as a dead medium. Radio remains a highly effective way to reach the many people in remote areas who don’t have Internet or TV, and television broadcasting, such as to Iran, is much more easily jammed than radio. The proposed 2014 budget would gut Urdu and Afghan radio services that broadcast to Pakistan and Afghanistan and shut down all Farsi-language radio to Iran.