Spare the indignation: Voice of America has never been independent

There’s been a lot of speculation—and no small amount of hysteria—about what President Trump may do with Voice of America and its parent federal agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Reports in Politico and The Washington Post implied a takeover plot is afoot for Trump to mold VOA to his own purposes, as if POTUS has no other channels with which to communicate to global audiences.

Trump plans to slash State Department spending, under which VOA falls, by as much as 28 percent, which means some reductions are quite likely. But let’s make one thing clear: As federal entities, VOA and similar media do not do, and have not done, journalism for journalism’s sake. They are and always have been funded by taxpayers to support a larger agenda.

Whether that agenda is to make audiences feel good about America, as the last chairman of the BBG once put it, or to push the notion that they tell America’s story but do so by exercising press freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, it’s still an agenda.

There are many reasons to be concerned about Trump administration treatment of and attitudes toward media, and to watch closely the actions of a two-person Trump team in place at VOA. But to hold VOA and its parent agency out as journalistic paragons of virtue, as some major media have done, and assert they are no different from non-government media, ignores basic facts.

I spent about 35 years with Voice of America, serving in positions ranging from chief White House correspondent to overseas bureau chief and head of a key language division, and I can tell you that for a long time, two things have been true. First, US government-funded media have been seriously mismanaged, a reality that made them ripe for bipartisan reform efforts in Congress, climaxing late in 2016 when President Obama signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Second, there is widespread agreement in Congress and elsewhere that, in exchange for continued funding, these government broadcasters must do more, as part of the national security apparatus, to assist efforts to combat Russian, ISIS, and al-Qaeda disinformation.

Obama’s reforms, but also various precursor measures, paved the way for VOA (and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks) to become even more closely associated with the so-called Counter Violent Extremism and counter-disinformation programs.

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It’s little-remembered now, but just over two years into his presidency, in September 2011, Obama ordered an “integrated strategic counterterrorism communications initiative”—designed to get agencies including VOA’s parent agency to collaborate in combating terrorism and extremism. The order also created a Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, bringing representatives of all departments and agencies into counter-terrorism efforts, including DOD, CIA, and significantly, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

In March 2016, another Obama order created a Global Engagement Center, which costs taxpayers about $160 million annually to counter disinformation, with initial funding from the Pentagon budget. Meantime, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is on a path to eventual elimination, to be replaced by a CEO—which would be a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate.

That structure alone makes clear that VOA and other government-funded media are most certainly not “news companies,” a description former VOA director David Ensor was fond of using (before arriving at VOA in 2010, Ensor had crossed over from mainstream roles at NPR, ABC, and CNN to heading public diplomacy programs at the US Embassy in Kabul, what many still consider to be propaganda).

A yet-to-be-formed International Broadcasting Advisory Board will include the Secretary of State advising the CEO (John Lansing, an Obama holdover, currently holds the role). Meanwhile, the aforementioned Global Engagement Center is supposed to coordinate all government efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation efforts “aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”

The Center itself is located in the Department of State: That might seem sufficient to insulate VOA behind the firewall that has allegedly immunized government-funded media from political and policy interference, but let’s take a closer look. At best, it is difficult to believe there will not be significant levels of policy-based coordination between the new advisory board, which includes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the broadcasting CEO. And it’s hard to envision Donald Trump wanting to tamper with the kind of inter-agency approach ordered by Barack Obama.

As for firewalls, VOA already established an Extremism Watch Desk. Its material appears prominently at the top of VOA’s website—the same VOA that a former director tried label a “news company” while in the same breath describing it as a “state broadcaster.” It’s hard to imagine there won’t be interaction between this VOA extremism unit and the Global Engagement Center, and that members of the unit will not at some point be detailed to the State Department-based Center and vice versa.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has also been deeply involved in the development and funding of anti-Internet censorship technology, which clearly supports freedom of expression. This is also another obvious area of overlap between the broadcasters and the Global Engagement Center.

The impression often given in media reports is that programming by VOA and other government-funded media is not influenced, directed, or shaped by foreign policy objectives of any administration. This is just absurd. Among other things, the revered firewall certainly didn’t stop officials from standing up the Extremism Watch Desk.

In a tense confrontation with management in 2015, some VOA reporters protested against a day-long workshop that had been arranged by VOA officials at a conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute, whose director sat on the BBG. VOA reporters demanded from their news managers “a swift and complete renunciation of the idea that VOA would engage in countering violent extremism.” They also asked why such an operation would be placed at VOA “as opposed to an intelligence agency.”

Yet, as of this writing the VOA Extremism Watch Desk remains, allowing broadcasting bureaucrats to retain their high-paying jobs and be seen as loyal warriors in countering ISIS, regardless of who is in the White House.

A few years ago, Obama adviser Ben Rhodes video-conferenced with the BBG to lament how far behind the agency had fallen in countering Russian disinformation. It’s difficult to accept the notion that there wasn’t some impact on programming from that.

Whatever Trump decides to do, remember too that taxpayers, who VOA and BBG officials assert get maximum bang for the buck from US international broadcasting programs, also expect VOA to be a key player in countering terrorist and Russian disinformation.

VOA still operates under its congressionally-approved 1976 Charter, requiring it to report accurately, objectively, and comprehensively, and reflect a range of opinions.  It carries what are called “editorials” reflecting US government positions, written by a special policy office at VOA. Over the decades, VOA has succeeded, to varying degrees, at making the case that its government-paid reporters are no different than those working for commercial media.

But any notion that “whole of government” approaches can exclude participation by VOA, challenges common sense. A recent Washington Post editorial, in support of a new agency TV program that is clearly part of the counter-disinformation effort, said staffs at VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are “made up of professional journalists … [who] do not want to be US propaganda tools.”

Good for them. But the fact remains that every two weeks they accept government paychecks. And at the end of the day will be progressively more enmeshed with the national security and foreign policy objectives of the United States. Government-paid journalists can no longer pretend they are just like their friends at CBS, NBC, AP, NPR, Reuters, and others, or expect to be seen as such by those working for non-government media.  That’s simply living in delusion.

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Dan Robinson had a nearly 35 year career at the Voice of America, serving most recently as senior White House correspondent from 2010 until 2014, congressional correspondent based in the US House of Representatives from 2002 to 2010, and chief of VOA's broadcasts to Burma from 1997 to 2002.