OPINION: Flying journalism under a false flag

BBG Watch Guest Commentary

BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This commentary by former Voice of America foreign correspondent Gary Thomas who analyzes the recent study of U.S. international broadcasting

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READ A RESPONSE: Wimbush and Portale respond to Thomas on BBG reform

 

Gary Thomas

Gary Thomas

Flying journalism under a false flag

 

By Gary Thomas

 
No one with any experience or knowledge of international broadcasting could argue that the whole U.S. government broadcasting setup is in appalling shape. A once solid and respected house, it is now dilapidated and badly in need of repairs. Bumbling management, denuded resources, and internal turf fights have thrown sand into the gears of the entire organization to the point that it is a wonder that it can barely function – and, as of late, it so often does not.

Hopes soared that the hiring of Andrew Lack as CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors would finally bring order out of chaos, only to be dashed after Lack departed a mere six weeks for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained. Voice of America director David Ensor – a lackadaisical leader who proved no inspiration at all to dispirited troops and who seemed bent on leading the organization deeper into a dark maze with no discernible exit – announced he is leaving at the end of May.

The conversation on reform thus far has been rather one-sided, all too often consisting of bashing the Voice of America and its oversight panel, the Broadcasting Board of Governors – not all of it undeserved, mind. Much of it has emanated from the BBG Watch blog, which has served up much useful information and criticism of the parlous state of BBG affairs, but has of late become more tendentious, repetitive, and tired.

The recent study on international broadcasting by former BBG Governor Enders Wimbush and former RFE/RL executive Elizabeth Portale sets good goals in that it seeks to advance the conversation on how to fix what has gone so awry and what the United States should be doing in terms of global media outreach.  It lays the framework for discussion by enunciating some of the alternatives that have been proposed in various quarters.

But the study by is a deeply flawed work.   Although there is much in it worthy of consideration, its methodologies are problematic and its conclusions questionable.   This is clearly a skewed study, culled primarily from a policy perspective to reach a policymaker’s conclusions on the relationship between journalism and government broadcasting. In addition to lacking a working journalist’s perspective, it is weighted for surrogate broadcasting, and against VOA.

The study rests on a faulty central premise – that journalism is a “tool” to be wielded in support of policy objectives or that it is to be used “promote” U.S. foreign policy goals (from the legislation that died last year but is expected to be resurrected). This presumption arises when policymakers, politicians, and bureaucrats try to define and dictate the role and practice of journalism.

“Really good journalism directed at a particular goal is actually a really powerful tool,” one interviewee is quoted as saying.

But what policymakers have never understood is that once you take up journalism as a tool in support of a cause or a goal or a policy – however noble – it crosses the line and ceases to be journalism. It becomes something else: advocacy, or public relations, or propaganda. But, whatever you call it, it is not journalism, and should not be labeled as such. But that is exactly what the many in the study (and soon-to-be-reintroduced legislation) propose: to expropriate the good name of journalism to fly it under a false flag.

To reach their conclusions the study’s authors utilize questionable methodology. The authors say their interviews were “open-ended” and the selection of interviewees was “not scientific.” But problems with the authors’ approach are glaringly apparent:

  • The authors interviewed “approximately 30 individuals.” But nearly all of them come from diplomatic or policy backgrounds. This colors the responses as there is a distinct lack of any journalistic perspective – as in from working journalists, not media executives or ex-media executives – to be found anywhere in the report. This is a critical other side of the coin, yet the authors choose not only to omit it, but to denigrate it.
  • What were the questions? If there was such a large interview sample, there must have been a list of questions to be asked of the participants. Even if the interviews were “open ended,” knowing how a question is phrased for research is extremely important, for a question can be skillfully constructed to elicit a certain response or another.
  • Not a single quote of the many – sometimes lengthy – quotes is attributed. Not one. Knowing which perspective is emanating from whom is vital. The interviewees are not anonymous; they are identified by name and title in an appendix to the paper. So why are attributions withheld? This is the most puzzling and serious lapse in the paper of all. (At the Wilson forum, Portale said this was because they wanted to allow the respondents the “sense that what they could say could be off the record,” which, again, given that the respondents were not anonymous, is nonsensical.)
  • In addition to the lack of attribution there is no quantification of the responses. The reported is riddled with vague generalizations, as: “there is a consensus,” “several interviewees stressed,” many interviewees also expressed,” “a consensus view emerged,” “a common view held,” “a dominant theme of interviews,” ”nearly all interviewees,” etc. With absolutely no numbers or percentages of opinion on key issues, we get only the authors’ personal interpretation of responses. And at the Wilson forum the authors said they were inserting their own views in there as well.

Journalism – at least as it is practiced, or supposed to be practiced, here in the U.S. – is to inform people without bias, and (supposedly) without an agenda.

“No one in our sample argued for turning the VOA or the surrogate broadcasters into ‘propaganda’ instruments that slant or twist information to support tendentious policies, preferences or points of view. U.S. international broadcasting is not ‘a messaging machine,’ “ said one interviewee.

They talk journalism, but agitate for propaganda, albeit under a more benign-sounding and soothing name. This study underscores how some self-professed reformers of the mess at BBG are trying to have it both ways – claiming to support journalism on the one hand, while with the other looking to impose a policy support mandate on it that negates the very essence of journalism itself.

When confronted with unpleasant or adverse news, policymakers and politicians simply cannot help trying to use the machinery to weave a positive narrative. The temptation for them to spin it is overwhelming, and without protection, VOA and would soon become a tired propaganda machine – no matter how you tried to dress it up.

The VOA Charter was drawn up and passed in 1976 in a very different climate. At the time the journalism profession was riding high. Journalists were heroes in the wake of the deceptions of Vietnam and Watergate, and schools were full of aspiring Woodwards and Bernsteins. The Charter came into being to guard against any tainting of the journalistic product and to ensure credibility.

Today there is a 24-hour news cycle concerned more with speed than accuracy and consumed with gossip and trivia to fill dead air. Journalists are not held in the same regard as they once were. And politicians do not have the same respect for the profession that the authors of the Charter did 39 years ago and thus have little interest in preserving journalistic integrity.

What is perhaps most stunning in the study is the authors’ cavalier dismissal of VOA journalists’ concerns that too close or obvious connections to the policy apparatus will compromise credibility. Given the slanted selection of interviewees, this is not surprising. The study says the “interviewees in our sample were unsympathetic to this view,” and quotes one interviewee – identified only as “one who had had extensive interaction with the VOA Newsroom” – as calling this “a great conceit and indulgence that has taken place over time.”

This is not a conceit. This is not an indulgence. It is at the core of the most basic journalistic principles of unfettered pursuit of truth as embedded in the VOA Charter. To characterize it as a “conceit” and “indulgence” demonstrates a total lack of familiarity with journalistic ethos. Indeed, the attitude of the study and its participants towards the journalistic profession borders on contempt.

The authors state that the firewall is overblown and “frequently counterproductive.” The firewall is most emphatically not overblown. On the contrary, it is critical to the success of the mission of U.S. international broadcasting. Without independence, there is no credibility; without credibility, no one listens, for VOA or other entities will be perceived as just another tired propaganda organs.

Turning VOA into a policy cheerleader is not only forefront in the study but is embedded in the language of HR 4490, which called on VOA to “promote” foreign policy. (It died in the last Congress but is expected to be reintroduced soon.) The authors’ aims are clear: to shore up the surrogate broadcasters at the expense of VOA. As they note:

“If HR 4490 becomes law, the VOA will be refocused on a public diplomacy role cooperating closely with the Department of State.”

Reform of US international broadcasting is long overdue and desperately needed. There is much heavy lifting ahead. The strengths of both VOA and the surrogates could and should be marshaled together to eliminate duplication and strengthen editorial content under protection of a renewed and strengthened firewall.

But when it comes to dealing with journalism, the path outlined in the Wimbush-Portale study, and as embodied in provisions of the proposed legislation, is both wrongheaded and dangerous. To repeat: policymakers say they do not want to turn U.S. international broadcasting into a mouthpiece, but the temptation to do exactly that will prove irresistible at the first major international crisis that crosses the horizon.

If policymakers want to telegraph (well, there’s another outdated term) American values, then there is no better way to do so than by living up to the First Amendment and showing the world that even in the corridors of power, the government’s journalism is true and untainted by spin doctors. Otherwise the once-proud name of Voice of America will be just another policy messaging megaphone preaching to the pro-American choir. Just as you can’t fire with fire, you can’t fight propaganda with more propaganda.

As the great journalist and former USIA director Edward R. Murrow said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.” We hope that the crafters of any new reform legislation remember that maxim.

Gary Thomas was VOA’s Senior National Security Correspondent when he retired in 2012 after nearly 40 years in journalism, 27 of them at the VOA, where he served as correspondent in South and Southeast Asia, covering events from Indonesia to Iran. In addition to covering security issues at the intelligence agencies, he also covered diplomatic, military, and political matters in Congress, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the United Nations. He has written pieces on U.S. international broadcasting for the Columbia Journalism Review.

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Former BBG Governor S. Enders Wimbush and former RFE/RL executive Elizabeth Portale interviewed for the study former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former chairmen of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Marc Nathanson and Amb. James Glassman, former Voice of America directors Geoffrey Cowan and Robert Reilly, former RFE/RL President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, former Freedom House President David Kramer, Dr. Francis Fukuyama, and several other prominent American scholars, diplomats, journalists and media experts. A panel discussion of the study took place at the Wilson Center on April 22, 2015, SEE DESCRIPTION AND VIDEO.

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