In a sense, it’s a little hard to know what, exactly, to think of the Radio/TV Marti and the Voice of America “scandal” that has been unfolding these past few weeks.
The story actually has two distinct, mostly unrelated parts, although you would be hard-pressed to separate the two by reading most of the coverage of them. It all began when the Miami Herald reported that ten South Florida journalists had been paid thousands of dollars by the federal government for broadcasts aimed at weakening Cuban President Fidel Castro. Included in this group were three El Nuevo Herald reporters, (the paper is the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper), who had been paid $175,000, $71,000, and $15,000, respectively, since 2001 by the U.S. Office of Cuba Broadcasting to host shows on Radio and TV Marti. All three have since been let go by the paper.
Obviously, different news organizations have different rules when it comes to their staff freelancing for other publications, but when a reporter working for a non-partisan publication decides to partake in some overtly political or ideological freelance work, it’s up to them to disclose it to their bosses. And the Marti radio and television programs, which are funded by the federal government to broadcast explicitly political propaganda for consumption by the Cuban populace still living under Castro’s iron fist, fit this criteria. Given that, the Herald had every right to cut those reporters loose.
But a secondary issue has cropped up in connection with this story. In the New York Sun last week, Josh Gerstein reported that several journalists who have appeared on other Voice of America programs are also coming under fire for similar ethical concerns.
But is this is really fair?
Specifically, guests on the VOA’s Issues in the News program, who have included Hugh Sidey of Time, Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News and Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News, have been paid between $100 and $150 a pop to appear on the program, and do so on their own time. Even with journalists’ salaries being what they are, $150 doesn’t seem like enough to buy anyone off — which makes me wonder what the stink is all about.
It’s admittedly sticky ground, since the VOA is an arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is headed by Kenneth Tomlinson, who has a long and blatant record of trying to inject ideological programming into domestic public broadcasting.
As a regular panelist on Issues in the News, David Lightman of the Hartford Courant told the Sun’s Gerstein that his gig at VOA “is nothing like Radio Marti. Nobody at VOA has ever told us what to say or suggested what we should say.”
And on the face of it, it looks like Lightman did everything right. Although the Courant recently announced that he will no longer be appearing on the VOA program (even though his superiors had long known of his affiliation with the program, and had no problem with it until the taint of the Herald case brought everything into question), so far no evidence has emerged of anything even approaching wrongdoing.
Of course, the VOA hasn’t been immune to Tomlinson’s ideological agenda. Although it has received far less press than his moves at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as CJR Daily reported in December 2005, under Tomlinson the VOA “awarded a two-year contract … to continue developing international broadcast products designed to present U.S. policies, culture, and institutions in a better light,” and in the May/June 2005 issue of CJR Corey Pein chronicled the rumblings of discontent among the VOA’s reporters with the new regime.