A historical perspective on H.R. 4490 debate — propaganda — public diplomacy — VOA Charter

BBG Watch Commentary

Voice of AmericaVOA CHARTER

To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford.

It reads:

The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:

1.VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)

In the current debate over H.R. 4490, some people focus almost exclusively on the part 1 of the VOA Charter. Some of those who in the past strongly condemned VOA editorials now say that part 3 of the charter is satisfied by VOA editorials. It is not. It is satisfied only by comprehensive Washington news beat which has come to a virtual halt with the decimation of the VOA English Newsroom by VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) management and the strategic VOA and IBB switch from a news reporting and Americana-U.S. policies-VOA Charter focus with debate presenting multiple views to an IBB-driven program placement and mass marketing focus.

This IBB-imposed focus has a strong element of public diplomacy, but it is not U.S. public diplomacy. It is public diplomacy of foreign gatekeepers, governments, and stations on which IBB tries to place VOA programs.

It is important to note for historical background and as a contribution to the current debate over H.R. 4490 that Voice of America operated in its early years under the direction of the State Department and later was part of the United States Information Agency (USIA) which was a public diplomacy arm of the State Department. The VOA Charter was passed by Congress in 1976 while VOA was still part of USIA and continued under USIA for some years.

There was always until recent years some kind of connection, often a very direct and very strong one, between U.S. public diplomacy and VOA, that persisted even after 1976. That does not mean that VOA news was severely compromised by attempts to make it serve U.S. foreign policy goals, but if one reads Alan Heil’s book about VOA’s history, it frequently was, even after 1976. But it also does not mean that VOA news is not compromised now under BBG/IBB. It is compromised for different reasons, and threats to VOA’s news independence and especially to VOA Charter are now even more severe than they were under USIA.

It is also worth noting that after the VOA Charter was passed in 1976, Voice of America experienced some of its best years when it was still part of the United States Information Agency. After 1976, VOA reporters and managers easily avoided interference with VOA news from USIA by pointing to the VOA Charter. VOA’s decline started with the abolition of USIA, the creation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the exponential growth of the International Broadcasting Bureau’s bureaucracy.

A few remnants of the old system continue, but USIA Foreign Service officers, who despite some of their faults were also some of the most highly educated, highly experienced and in some cases some of the best managers in the history of VOA, have been replaced by IBB’s government bureaucrats with very little experience beyond the U.S. domestic commercial media or anything outside of the Beltway. (Some USIA FSOs even sacrificed their careers to protect VOA’s independence while others tried to interfere with the news content.)

Some VOA foreign correspondents still serve under limited Foreign Service appointments even though they for years have not been using diplomatic passports or consulting with U.S. Embassies or the State Department. If anything, sometimes in a what appears to be a misguided effort to prove its independence, VOA, especially VOA English Newsroom reporters and correspondents — the same Newsroom that now has hardly any people left — are doing now far less of the Washington news beat, required of them by the VOA Charter, and maintain far fewer news contacts with U.S. government news makers than most U.S. commercial and foreign media outlets. They question arises, why have VOA English News if CNN, The New York Times and even BBC are doing a far better job of U.S. news reporting than Voice of America.

What can be said in defense of VOA English News reporters is that they are also, of course, prevented from doing the Washington news beat by the management which has eliminated many Newsroom positions and gives directions that they should rather post dozens of news reports on the British royal family than one video report on Vice President Biden’s and Senator McCain’s visit to Ukraine. It appears, however, that most of the time there is no direction at all and no one to cover Washington news.

That’s why Deutsche Welle, and certainly BBC and Al Jazeera, even to some extent Russia’s RT and Voice of Russia, often offer faster, better and more comprehensive news reporting from Washington than VOA English News. Some VOA language services, however, still do this kind of Washington-centered reporting because they know that this is what their audiences, and sometimes even affiliates, expect from VOA.

Posting news in support of U.S. public diplomacy should not be VOA’s business, and it is not under the VOA Charter, although the charter certainly gives VOA a different role from U.S. commercial media.

But it is inaccurate to claim that VOA was never connected in some way with U.S. public diplomacy.

Even after the VOA Charter was passed, USIA employees who were Foreign Service officers occupied some of the key positions within VOA. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were established as independent entities at the initiative of such prominent Americans as George Kennan and General Eisenhower, first under the direction of the CIA (the State Department and the Pentagon were also considered) and since 1970s under independent boards.

VOA was viewed in the 1950s as ineffective in countering Soviet and other communist propaganda. RFE and RL specialized in surrogate broadcasting (replacing censored local media) and in countering propaganda and disinformation, but they did not engage and do not engage in propaganda defined as presenting false and deceptive information. No U.S.-funded broadcaster should engage in propaganda and they don’t unless they are badly managed like VOA, and even then it is presumably not intentional.

Some critics of H.R. 4490 paint an idealized view of VOA’s news independence and tend to overlook its long history operating under the direction of the State Department and later under USIA/State Department, under USIA with the VOA Charter in place since 1976, and finally under the Broadcasting Board of Governors where VOA and IBB executives decide the content of VOA programs, as well as program delivery, which in turn often determines program content, resulting in dozens of VOA reports on the British royal family, eliminating news from programs placed on stations abroad when they or governments object, and producing a video showing Uncle Sam as a blood thirsty zombie attacking a Pakistani.

In violation of its charter and journalistic code, VOA already practices public diplomacy, but it is often other countries’ public diplomacy. We are again not saying that VOA should be in the U.S. public diplomacy business, but it should at least stop advancing other countries’ public diplomacy and start observing its charter.

The result of mismanagement at IBB and VOA is sometimes propaganda in favor of the Kremlin, such as VOA posting a map showing Crimea being part of Russia or VOA reporting without any questions asked on pro-Kremlin propaganda results of a faulty poll ordered in Russia-occupied Crimea by International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives who also promoted these misleading survey results.

Almost all critics of H.R. 4490 with regard to the bill’s wording about VOA’s mission also recognize the urgent need of management reform at the BBG and the Voice of America. The VOA Charter represents the right compromise, under which VOA can maintain its news reporting independence while still giving U.S. taxpayers and foreign audiences something extra about the United States. It need not to be public diplomacy and it certainly should not be propaganda. But a return to the VOA Charter is absolutely necessary, as are management reforms to reverse VOA’s decline as a news and broadcasting organization.

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