The VOA Mission: Long May It Wave – AFGE Local 1812 Editorial on VOA Charter

BBG Watch Commentary

We repost an editorial from the union representing federal employees of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which includes the Voice of America (VOA). Many of the points made in the AFGE Local 1812 editorial are similar to what BBG Watch has been reporting and commenting upon in recent years, especially the anti-employee management culture linked with a handful of International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and VOA executives and the decline of news reporting by VOA combined with violations of the VOA Charter.

AFGE Local 1812

AFGE Local 1812: The VOA Mission: Long May It Wave

AFGE Local 1812 has learned that a fear has arisen, among some of the employees we represent, that the reform of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and U.S. international broadcasting, as envisioned by the bipartisan legislation now pending in Congress, might in some way compromise the integrity of U.S. International broadcasts. After hearing the opinions of many VOA broadcasters including the language services and carefully examining the proposed legislation, the Executive Board of AFGE Local 1812 does share some concerns but believes that the Bill, with a few changes, should be enacted.

We also share a belief with some that for the last dozen years or more, BBG/IBB/VOA management thought they knew better what the Agency’s mission was than the goals and directives contained in the VOA Charter. Under this management, the Voice of America was largely turned into an also-ran, imitation-commercial news service, albeit in many languages.

The VOA Charter has been pretty much ignored by those in charge these past dozen years or so. The Voice of America is not a commercial broadcaster. It is financed by U.S. taxpayers who through Congress mandated that:

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

Over the past 12 years or so, VOA, under the directives of Agency management, gradually stepped back from fulfilling this first mandate, as it padded its website with Reuters and AP stories, ignoring important statements by U.S. leaders including the President and the Secretary of State, concentrating on frothy stories from the entertainment world and failing to report on multiple critically-important international events, to the point where it has much catching up to do to regain its credibility as a source of news to other parts of the globe.

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

Over the past 12 years or so, VOA stopped fulfilling this second mandate as Americana stories were avoided like the plague. Language services were transformed into essentially surrogate broadcasters, with some services on some days not even mentioning any U.S. news, much less U.S. “thoughts and institutions.”

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.

Over the past 12 years or so, VOA stopped fulfilling this third mandate. Some language services simply refused to carry editorials. The English-language newsroom began ignoring statements from top U.S. officials, including the White House, Congress, and the State Department; such information became anathema. Audiences desiring to know about such things turned to Al-Jazeera, the BBC or even Xinhua or Russia Today to find out, in a manner suiting the presenters’ agenda, what the U.S. Secretary of State had said, or hear the statements of the President of the United States on global issues of importance.

In place of the VOA Charter, those in charge concocted a confusing new mission for the Broadcasting Board of Governors: “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy”. The result of this nebulous, touchy-feely goal was that programming suffered and audiences began to dwindle.

In the end, some of the currently entrenched senior management represent a far greater threat to VOA’s journalistic independence, indeed to the very existence of the VOA, by abandoning the Charter and trying to turn VOA into something they envisioned as a global variant of CNN. The U.S. taxpayers and Congress are not providing funding for just another news service. That is why there are three parts to the VOA Charter.

We support the passage of this Bill. However, specific wording should be included that ensures that the news product remains objective and accurate in its presentation, even as it covers news and issues affecting and concerning the United States, including political issues and policies. By doing so, the VOA will serve as an example of the American value of a free press.

VOA should be directly presenting U.S. Government policies and positions and promoting American ideals, but only when these are clearly identified as such. The status quo that avoids some Charter responsibilities is more dangerous to the existence of the VOA than the enactment of this Bill.

It’s time to return the VOA to its original mission of providing unbiased and accurate news, presenting U.S. foreign policy with responsible discussion of such, and bringing the enduring story of America and American ideals to the world. For most of the past 70 years, it was a noble mission. And it worked.

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