A Former VOA Correspondent on the Debate Over U.S. International Broadcasting

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch is providing a forum for discussion on  the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490, introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, with Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel and 13 other co-sponsors, and unanimously approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee in a show of bipartisanship.

Former VOA Senior White House Correspondent Dan Robinson

Former VOA Senior White House Correspondent Dan Robinson

A Former VOA Correspondent on the Debate Over U.S. International Broadcasting

by Dan Robinson

Legislation in Congress that could bring about the broadest reforms of U.S. government-funded overseas broadcasting since the 1990’s has sparked the the latest stage in a long debate about journalism and policy promotion.

Many horror stories led to the broken state of U.S. international broadcasting. I witnessed them over the course of a career beginning in 1979 and ending earlier this year as Chief White House correspondent for Voice of America (VOA).

If the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was anything other than one of the most opaque, and at one point secretive, of government agencies, heads would have rolled long ago. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the BBG dysfunctional and defunct.

A level below the BBG, managers in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) must be held accountable for a range of failures.

VOA was populated in recent years by former CNN and other media figures who wanted to turn the agency into a Global News Network (GNN). That idea, attributed to Walter Isaacson who once headed the board, has now been jettisoned, and rejected by lawmakers who say that U.S. international broadcasting should not “duplicate the activities of private U.S. broadcasters.”

In strong terms, HR 4490 reinforces that multi-platform broadcasters such as VOA, as well as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and services for the Middle East are tools to help support and project U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives.

VOA’s central newsroom has long been a target of those who resented its journalistic role, which has been protected by law (the VOA Charter) requiring accurate, objective and comprehensive news. They viewed it as too independent of government control.

Particularly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, members of Congress and key conservative think tank figures stepped up pressure for VOA to become just an arm of the State Department, or even the Pentagon.

Jeffrey Gedmin, president of RFE/RL from 2007 to 2011, called for the independent journalistic work of VOA and other broadcasters to be “subsumed” as an element of American public diplomacy.

James Glassman, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy under George W. Bush, once told employees at VOA that their role was to fight “enemies” of the United States.

David Gollust, the highly-respected former VOA State Department correspondent said at one point:

“The agenda [is] to annihilate what they have always hated, that is civil servant journalists who were doing the job that the VOA Charter called for. . .if we can’t do it by privatizing, we’re going to shut this place down one way or another and we are going to be regime-change little radios.”

To the chagrin of many VOA reporters, even current VOA Director David Ensor said in 2013 that VOA is “not neutral.” The last time someone said that to VOA journalists in their own building was — Bush 43.

Now comes HR 4490, passed unanimously with strong bipartisan support, by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and a struggle is underway.

Journalists in VOA’s Central News Division assert it would be the last nail in the coffin for whatever credibility VOA has built up over the decades, during and after the Cold War and over the past decade as the outlet attempted to transform itself.

What’s the big deal, one might ask? Haven’t VOA journalists always understood that they serve at the pleasure of the government, and the president? Yes, but VOA correspondents also gained a hard-won reputation as solid journalists.

The VOA Charter requires it to reflect the views of the government, but through “editorials” written by a separate policy office, and also requires news to be “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” with “responsible discussion” of U.S. policy. But there has been policy “creep” into other programming.

In 2013, VOA managers rolled out with great fanfare a documentary on the sensitive issue of self-immolations in Tibet. Several lawmakers were staunch supporters of the production, which in my view and that of others was little more than a propaganda screed aimed at angering the government in Beijing.

In addition to its charter, VOA has a separate detailed journalistic code discussing issues such as sourcing, fairness, accuracy, comprehensiveness and balance. All BBG outlets trumpet the role of their journalists in providing, as the RFE/RL web site states, “straightforward, professional journalism.”

But it is fact that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, which Congress would break off as a privatized “Freedom News Network”, were originally created with the agenda of increasing pressure against, and hastening the end of, dictatorial or anti-democratic regimes.

The Persian News Network (PNN), formerly the VOA Persian Service, has clearly always been a surrogate broadcaster. But it has operated for years from within the VOA headquarters building, though there are proposals to separate it.

Amid complaints by VOA journalists, HR 4490 has already been bolstered with language to more strongly protect journalism there. But there is no getting around that it would associate VOA and the “surrogate” media outlets even more closely with the executive branch where, according to the legislation, they would reside.

Where FNN is concerned, the legislation speaks about avoiding “even the appearance” of State Department involvement in “daily operations, decision and management” but also calls for enhanced coordination, including unclassified consultations with State, USAID, the Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

At the same time, it would expand a process already underway, and encouraged by the current VOA director, in which programming content of VOA and the surrogate broadcasters is shared. Such co-mingling of content troubles many VOA journalists, who say it blurs the lines and raises serious questions about sourcing and accuracy.

Just the fact that all of this is being discussed should draw more attention from professional organizations that accredit VOA and other government-funded outlet reporters, either as full members or members with non-voting status, in places like the White House and Capitol Hill.

Curiously, while VOA is a voting member of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), on Capitol Hill it has long been restricted to non-voting status, though it does have booths in the Senate and the House media galleries.

Like other media organizations, credentialing of VOA White House correspondents is done by the Secret Service, and all reporters work with and are supported by the White House Press Office.

VOA correspondents are still part of the radio group in the White House media gallery, which is interesting since VOA now does much more than just “radio” reports, but video and television.

VOA has a physical production booth in the basement, and a coveted seat in the Brady briefing room. Other organizations, from websites to bloggers to al-Jazeera, would kill to get their hands on these.

Yet, for decades an unspoken policy has been in force that presidents do not call on VOA in prime time televised news conferences. One exception — VOA’s Afghan Service use of diplomatic connections to have Hamid Karzai call on one of its reporters in the East Room, which allowed a direct VOA question to President Obama.

Why the restriction? There can be no escaping the reason, one VOA journalists would rather not emphasize, which is that like it or not VOA is still recognized and treated as a government organization. And in the view of many in the White House press corps, and among officials, presidents should not be answering questions posed by government-paid journalists.

It’s also part of the reason that VOA reporters never appear on network Sunday talk shows or other non-government television programming, though VOA and surrogate journalists with expertise on world trouble spots have had a bit more exposure.

Since 2009, the White House granted VOA only one interview with President Obama, which became a political football in the BBG headquarters building as divisions fought amongst themselves for the opportunity.

The interview came about, in part, due to pressure from a conservative think tank blogger who had repeatedly noted that Obama had granted interviews to Al-Arabiya (his first formal interview since being elected in 2008) and the BBC.

Africa is one of VOA’s last areas of effectiveness. Yet, I went through an entire trip in 2013 with Obama, including on Air Force One, without an interview. The president did speak with American Urban Radio, which (like VOA) was handling radio pool duties at one point.

VOA was also frequently not called on for questions in regular news briefings, an issue I raised in face-to-face meetings with Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney, which resulted in VOA being called on more frequently.

But generally, we ranked far below other outlets — AP, Reuters, AFP, The New York Times, Yahoo, even outlets from Turkey and Japan. Impromptu briefings by the president? Forget it. Advance scoops on stories? No way.

VOA was also kept out of background briefings, even on major foreign policy matters, including two for “major” news organizations about Benghazi. In 2013, the White House threw us a crumb, allowing us into a briefing about President Obama’s decision regarding military action against Syria.

In my assessment, White House skepticism about VOA was fueled by the unfolding ugly spectacle of mismanagement and infighting within the BBG. But that skepticism was visible elsewhere. At the Pentagon, a high-ranking official told our defense correspondent: “You have no [expletive] reach.”

VOA officials, by the way, seemed not to care much about any of this. David Ensor told me that asking questions at White House news briefings was overrated. He also said he preferred that VOA White House correspondents (and by inference, reporters at other key VOA bureaus) be out doing TV reports on “Indonesian free trade agreements.”

It is not surprising, by the way, that while scandals at other federal agencies (the Veterans Administration is but one example) are the subject of intense questions at White House news briefings, the most far-reaching overhaul of a key “soft power” tool of U.S. foreign policy, and issues driving it such as improper contractor payments by the IBB and other examples of mismanagement, prompt not a single question to the White House by the Washington press corps.

HR 4490 has major momentum in the Republican-controlled House. Since it sailed through committee, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) has turned up the heat. Under his “Shrink Our Spending (SOS)” initiative, he proposes to eliminate funding for VOA altogether, saying VOA has “veered from its original mission and…sadly. .become another duplicative, federal program.”

Attempting to placate lawmakers, the current BBG, headed by former NBC Universal executive Jeff Shell, stated in its FY 2015 budget submission to Congress, that it “practices objective journalism, great journalism, but not as an end in itself. Rather, there is a purpose: to support U.S. national security interests.”

Indeed, rarely a meeting of the board took place in recent years without one or another official referring to the various pieces of U.S. international broadcasting as “national security assets”. HR 4490 would relegate the BBG to an advisory role.

As a former correspondent at VOA, it was frustrating for me to see members of Congress attempt to meddle (no other word describes it) in VOA’s journalistic work. Examples abound and are too numerous to go into here. Lawmakers would, and did, respond that they were merely exercising their responsibilities and authority to conduct oversight.

At the same time, former colleagues of mine protesting loudly against HR 4490 and warning of the coming apocalypse of VOA becoming a propaganda organ often don’t acknowledge the extent to which VOA and other government-funded broadcasters have always been a tool, sometimes an outright weapon, wielded in the conduct of foreign policy and national security.

I was reminded of this while reading comments on the Public Diplomacy Council web site. Hans Tuch, the former diplomat who served at VOA, spoke of VOA’s “tactical value” and recalled Edward R. Murrow ordering “the massing of VOA transmitters to blast the Soviet Union for endangering the world.”

Tuch and other long-time supporters of preserving VOA at any cost point to occasions when both members of Congress and directors aggressively guarded VOA’s journalistic independence. But I and former colleagues also witnessed VOA directors and others pressuring journalists and programmers to suppress reporting or discussion about news.

Today, there are numerous examples of intertwinement. VOA’s program for South Sudan is supported by money from USAID (also recently in the news over its attempt to build a Twitter network in Cuba).

State Department money supports other programming for Afghanistan among other “target” areas. In the interest of transparency, the BBG should reveal and post on its web site, funding sources for all programs at VOA and other BBG outlets.

Driven by HR 4490, but actually more by mismanagement under the BBG and IBB, the current focus on the future of U.S. international media does not happen often, but when it does, change is usually inevitable.

If VOA and a future Freedom News Network are more deeply connected with U.S. policy by way of statute or actions of one or more planned CEOs of international broadcasting, there will be no more masquerading as policy advocacy under the label of journalism, as my former colleague Gary Thomas put it.

I have concluded it is time to call a spade a spade. Let’s put an end to the long running debate, and quite frankly the hypocrisy spewing forth from all sides.

I often told former colleagues that change often comes from unexpected places. One of those is a web site (BBG Watch) run by a retired VOA executive who decided to focus intensively on how VOA was being out-competed and embarrassed by the BBC, RT (Russia Today), and numerous other outlets.

This was going on for at least much of the past decade. As congressional correspondent from 2002 to 2010, I recall fuming as the VOA website switched away from a live feed of newly-inaugurated Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walking down Constitution Avenue, while the BBC continued to carry the video.

When President Obama spoke in Tuscon after the shootings there, and appealed for a kinder discourse in America, and in Newtown, Connecticut after the school massacre there, it was simply inexcusable for VOA executives not to have picked up that address for airing to the world.

My former colleagues at VOA rage against BBG Watch, and now against HR 4490 and the Salmon bill that would shut down VOA completely. But against a background of news coverage, management, and employee relations failings at VOA, change now being directed from Capitol Hill was all too predictable and inevitable.

Again, this is also a time for the various journalist organizations in Washington (and perhaps overseas) to state clearly where they stand, and conduct reviews, where Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded media outlets are concerned.

How will foreign governments (some have long been hostile to outlets such as Radio Free Asia) treat VOA correspondents when it comes to journalist visas, in contrast to say, the BBC or CNN? Waving a copy of the VOA Charter, like the late Senator Byrd did with his copy of the Constitution, is not likely to carry much weight.

Indeed, given HR 4490‘s call for intensified consultation between a new International Communications Agency, and the Secretary of State and other departments, and the desire of lawmakers for broadcasters to serve national security interests — should VOA still have full voting status in the White House Correspondents Association?

On Capitol Hill, guidelines in the House and Senate Radio/TV galleries state that members “not be employed in any legislative or executive department or independent agency of the Government.” On face, that appears to be a clear conflict.

Some of my former colleagues at VOA now apparently consider me an enemy because I refused to leap to condemn HR 4490. They can continue to work at VOA, which for decades has provided a useful pool of jobs, and well-paid jobs at that. I had such a job for some 35 years — but I was also known for speaking out forcefully, at great risk to my own career.

But they also need to recognize the train moving down the tracks. It is no longer very constructive to yell about the sanctity of journalism, talk about the good old days, and attempt to shoot messengers of bad news, when taxpayers widely view this agency as the most dysfunctional in government, and employees fail to demand accountability from senior managers for documented failures.

It is hard for me and others to pose these delicate questions. But they deserve to be raised, in the interest of free and open debate, and principles that the VOA Charter itself contains.

Dan Robinson covered the White House for VOA from 2010 to 2014, Congress from
2002 to 2010, and was bureau chief in Southeast Asia, and East Africa. He also headed VOA
broadcasts to Burma from 1997 to 2001. His letter to the BBG can be read at
http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowldc/chief-wh-correspondent-slams-voa-in-retirement-letter_b123682

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