End of an era?

Congress tries to neuter Voice of America's journalism

Spurred by the foreign policy crises in Ukraine and Syria, and a fear that the US is losing the global information war with the likes of Russia, China, and Iran, Congress appears ready to turn the Voice of America into a direct tool of government policy. The International Communications Reform Act, being shepherded through the House by Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, constitutes the most far-reaching overhaul of US government broadcasting efforts in 20 years. It has bipartisan support and a similar bill is under discussion (though at the time of this writing not yet formally introduced) in the Senate.

The act’s critics, including a number of current and former VOA journalists as well as media advocacy groups, say it would undermine the journalistic independence and credibility of the VOA and its government-broadcasting brethren. Reporters Without Borders issued a strongly worded statement: “It is legitimate that these media should offer a US vision of freedom. But encouraging or forcing them to support diplomatic positions and to reflect national interests means adopting the attitudes of information warfare and this would be extremely regrettable.”

The measure’s proponents pooh-pooh the idea that VOA would lose its journalistic freedom. Ted Lipien, a former VOA regional marketing chief whose website, BBG Watch, is a vocal critic of VOA, says the real threat to its journalistic independence is not from the bill, but from the bungled management by the administrative bureaucracy of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which was created in 1994 to oversee US government broadcasting operations, and VOA senior officials.

There is little argument over the many missteps by the board, its administrative arm (the International Broadcasting Bureau), and VOA management. As I wrote in CJR last year (“Mission impossible,” July/August 2013), mismanagement has demoralized the workforce, produced a dysfunctional bureaucracy, and, most important, made the line between straight journalism and policy advocacy increasingly hazy.

But Royce’s bill goes well beyond addressing the management issue. Under the proposal, VOA would be placed under a new agency called the US International Communications Agency, run by a chief executive officer. There would be a separate job of VOA director. The Board of Governors would be downgraded to an advisory role. Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network would be outside that umbrella and grouped under something called the Freedom News Network, with its own separate board.

The VOA Charter, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, mandates that VOA present unbiased news to the world, especially to countries denied uncensored news. But the charter also says VOA will “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” In order to fulfill its public-diplomacy role without tainting its news content, VOA airs editorials clearly labeled as US government viewpoints. So there has always been an inherent conflict, but also an attempt to manage that conflict. Royce’s bill would not remove the ambiguity, but it would tilt the balance heavily toward the policy-advocacy side.

The bill, its backers note, includes language lifted straight from the Charter. But the legislation also slightly, but significantly, modifies the original language. Whereas the 1994 International Broadcasting Act says US broadcasting shall be “consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States,” the new bill mandates that the VOA produce “accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and related programming and content that is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.” (Italics added.)

It describes VOA’s “public diplomacy mission” as “essential to broader US government efforts to communicate with foreign populations.” It also says that VOA “shall be limited to providing original reporting in accordance with its public diplomacy mandate . . . .” The boards of both the International Communications Agency and the Freedom News Network would be required to meet regularly with officials from the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Defense Department, and, most alarmingly, the Director of National Intelligence.

As Royce said, “We make clear that the mission of the Voice of America is to ‘present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively’—exactly as it was intended.” A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Committee insisted to The Hill, the Capitol’s insider newspaper, that public diplomacy is not propaganda. But, he added, “We do not pay for the VOA to be just another news outlet. We pay for the VOA to provide news that supports our national security objectives.”

Sonja Pace, who ran the VOA’s Central News operation before she retired a few months ago, sees the mission differently. “The connotation has always been that ‘public diplomacy’—a phrase I’ve never liked—was a nicer word than ‘propaganda,’ ” she says. “But why are we so afraid of honest journalism? Why are we so afraid of the First Amendment? To use someone else’s phrase, we export the First Amendment. We lead by example.”

Ted Lipien, founder and the leading contributor of the BBG Watch website, argues that pure journalistic independence for the VOA is an unattainable ideal, and that VOA’s journalists should just accept the bill. “I understand their concerns, but they are not universal concerns within VOA, particularly in the language services,” he said in an interview. “There is reason for some apprehension, and a need to work on clarifying language. You can argue and hope for an ideal situation but that scenario is just not possible in the US political context.”

But Dan Austin, a former VOA director, notes that independence—even just the perception of it is necessary to achieve and maintain journalistic credibility. “It takes genuine understanding by our own government of journalistic independence,” Austin says. “Credibility is so important. In this age when you have goat herders with two cellphones and all kinds of other access, if you don’t have credibility, you’re lost.”

Pace also challenges Lipien’s contention that bureaucracy is more of a threat to the VOA’s journalistic independence than the measures contained in Royce’s bill. “I understand the frustration. The bureaucracy has been an impediment, for instance, in things like getting funds transferred for news coverage,” she says. “But that is not a threat to our journalistic independence.”

Moreover, the legislation appears to create a larger bureaucracy, with two CEOs, an entirely new agency with a board appointed by Congress, and a separate, conglomerated Freedom News Network. And the current bureaucrats on whom many sins are blamed—some justifiably, some not—have civil service protections and cannot be simply fired en masse. Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, would not comment on the bill except to say that, “One would hope that any legislation would not change the journalistic mission of the organization.”

If VOA becomes more overtly a policy advocate, there could be consequences for its correspondents in the field, too. They may, for instance, find it difficult to get accreditation or visas if they are seen by the leaders of places like Iran, Russia, and China as nothing but another arm of the State Department or the CIA. As I wrote last year in CJR, during my time with the VOA I made several trips to Iran to cover events, and “Iranian officials told me they gave visas to VOA Central News correspondents, but not to the Farsi-language service [of the VOA] . . . because the language service is perceived as partisan.”

My argument in that piece was that the VOA’s journalists had figured out how to manage the inherent tension between their twin mandates—honest journalism and public diplomacy. They had earned credibility around the world, and have a real role to play in the new century. But the drumbeat to overhaul the broken bureaucracy of government broadcasting has now allowed ideologues who think the VOA and its sister operations should be, effectively, US propaganda outlets, to infect the debate about what needs “reforming” and what does not. If the ideologues win, I suggested, if the mission of US broadcasting is to be “messaging” and policy advocacy, then stop hiding behind the label of journalism. Call it what it is public diplomacy—and put it under the State Department. “Anything less is a disservice to VOA listeners and to the profession of journalism, and an insult to the men and women who strive to uphold the journalistic integrity of Voice of America.”

In light of the current legislative proposals, I believe those words are even truer today. US international broadcasting is in need of reform, no question. But in its current form, the International Communications Reform Act just makes a bad situation worse. Giving public diplomacy more weight than straight journalism in the VOA’s mission disrupts the delicate balance that the VOA’s journalists have worked hard to establish and maintain in the face of internal and external pressures. 

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Gary Thomas spent 27 years at Voice of America before retiring in 2012. He was a senior correspondent and news analyst specializing in national security and intelligence issues. He served in Islamabad and Bangkok and covered stories throughout South and Southeast Asia.