Government Executive on BBG Watch coverage of H.R. 4490 reform bill

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GOVERNMENT EXECUTIVE: BBG Watch, the anonymous blog that harshly criticizes the BBG, has been sympathetic toward the bill. Its coverage of the vote showcased former VOA executives expressing hostility.

“If this bill becomes law, VOA’s worldwide following would plummet,” tweeted former VOA Deputy Director Alan Heil. VOA’s own coverage of the bill’s passage, BBG Watch wrote, “includes quotes by two outside opponents of the bill…but has no quotes from any outside supporters of the bill, including human rights NGOs, U.S. community leaders, and former Voice of America journalists who wrote a letter to President Obama in support of the legislation. So much for balance in Voice of America news reporting as required by the VOA Charter.”

READ MORE: House Passes Ambitious Reorganization of U.S. International Broadcasting, Charles S. Clark, Government Executive, July 29, 2014.

BBG Watch Commentary

Mr. Heil apparently worries that Voice of America might be required to support U.S. public diplomacy with its news reporting, which was more or less what VOA was doing when he was VOA program chief. At that time, Mr. Heil’s bosses were White House political appointees, VOA was part of the United States public diplomacy agency — the United States Information Agency (USIA) — and Foreign Service Officers, from both USIA and the State Department, occupied key managerial positions within VOA.

In early years of Mr. Heil’s executive tenure, VOA foreign correspondents had to use diplomatic passports for foreign news reporting travels and cleared their trips with U.S. Embassies. VOA foreign language services were kept on a short leash and their journalists were not allowed access to wire service reports lest they might report something that could get VOA executives in trouble with USIA, the State Department or the White House. Still, even then VOA reporters, both in the VOA English newsroom and in the language services, tried to preserve their journalistic independence, did their job, and VOA still had large audiences around the world.

It seems doubtful that H.R. 4490, if it becomes law, would bring about anything close to what Mr. Heil experienced at VOA when it was clearly part of the U.S. public diplomacy structure under USIA. Ironically, VOA reached the height of its popularity during the Reagan years when Mr. Heil was still occupying higher management positions at VOA. By then, many of the restrictions had already been lifted and VOA language services achieved a measure of independence and could originate their own news coverage.

A congressional staffer told BBG Watch that Mr. Heil met many times with the congressional drafters of H.R. 4490 and offered various suggestions, some of which were incorporated into the bill.

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