BBG Watch Commentary
When someone in the Middle East discovers by reading the “All About America” Voice of America (VOA) blog that Americans view each other as mostly “selfish” and “lazy,” unlike most Americans that person is not likely to have a point of reference to question such an opinion.
An American might know that she or he has just volunteered several hours at an animal shelter or sent a check for $100 to a charitable organization during the holiday season. An American might also already know that the United States has been ranked one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of charitable giving and volunteering. A foreign visitor to the Voice of America website might not be aware of these countervailing facts. VOA’s audiences abroad can’t evaluate what VOA reports on its websites and in its broadcasts the way most Americans can based on their personal experience. They can’t easily correct such VOA reports for any lack of balance or objectivity.
Someone in the Middle East, in Russia or in China who is reading on the VOA blog post that “More than two-thirds (68 percent) believe the term ‘selfish’ also applies to the typical American,” may very well assume that this statement represents a true reflection of how most Americans are. When they also read on the same VOA blog that “Half of the American public says their fellow countrymen and women can aptly be described as ‘lazy’,” they may assume that this is indeed true.
Russian and other propaganda outlets already delight in presenting America as a nation in decline full of stupid, lazy, selfish and overindulgent individuals. Hollywood already presents a highly distorted image of America and Americans as violent and obsessed with sex. We thought, perhaps naively, that American taxpayers fund VOA to give the world a fuller and a more accurate and more objective picture of America.
Even when all the facts being reported are right, which is not always the case with the Voice of America news reporting, some facts without any context or an explanation for a foreign audience can be highly misleading, especially to audiences who know little about America and are exposed to anti-American propaganda.
Recently, the Voice of America posted a highly one-sided U.S. opinion roundup suggesting that America was in a “State of Fear” after the terrorist attack in California. VOA also had a number of reports suggesting that support among Americans for Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump increased after he made his racist comment about Muslim immigrants. VOA even cited polls to prove its point. The problem was that those polls were largely taken before Mr. Trump made his comment.
Only after prodding by BBG Watch, did VOA report that the majority of all Americans, not just Republicans, in fact do not agree with Mr. Trump on banning all Muslim immigrants and do not support him as a presidential candidate. In fact, many Republicans in the United States do not agree with Mr. Trump either. VOA was not very good in explaining this to foreign audiences and, at least in our view, for several days created an impression that most Americans were both cowards and bigots in their response to the California shooting.
As to Americans considering other Americans as selfish and the Voice of America reporting this fact without any questions asked, research on the actual behavior of Americans and actual statistical data do not support this highly subjective impression. VOA should have pointed it out. The United States happens to be the second most generous country in the world when it comes to charitable giving, according to the U.K.-based CAF America, an international nonprofit organization. The first is Myanmar. “The majority of Myanmarese people are highly devout Theravada Buddhists, regularly giving money and time to ordained monks and nuns, and for the upkeep of temples,” the report concluded. The two countries shared first place last year. Most immigrants who have settled in the United States, millions of them, would agree that Americans are highly generous and welcoming.
So while the Pew polling of Americans and the results of the poll represent facts which could be reported as such, the job of the Voice of America, according to its VOA Charter, is to “be accurate, objective, and comprehensive,” not just to report what somebody else says, but to “represent America.”
We read “represent America” (the VOA Charter which is U.S. Public Law 94-350, also says “not any single segment of American society,… [but] a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions”) as requiring VOA writers to do more than rewrite press releases issued by other organizations, in this case, the Pew Research Center press release. VOA’s mission, according to its Charter, is to explain to foreign audiences what Americans truly are like as a nation, in addition to “present[ing] the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.” This requires VOA to provide a context and when necessary some balance to any information being reported when “communicating directly with the peoples of the world.”
Some VOA writers who are U.S. government employees make over $80,000 in salary in addition to generous federal employment benefits while VOA’s annual budget is over $200 million. American taxpayers expect them to do more than to delight in showing what’s wrong with America, reporting only some facts, but omitting others. Russia’s RT and Iran’s state media are already doing their job of showing what’s wrong with America quite well without worrying about any context, objectivity or balance.
We are not suggesting at all that VOA should do only good news about the United States. Not at all. It would be totally counterproductive. It would be boring. It would be against the VOA Charter. But posting one-sided articles to show what’s wrong with America is also boring and is often misleading.
Voice of America should by all means report what’s wrong with America, but it should do it accurately. We are big on controversy and debate. We believe that excellence in reporting on controversial issues builds VOA’s credibility abroad. Reporting anything and everything, not questioning anything, is not what great journalism is about.
We are very big on objectivity and balance, which often seem to be missing from some Voice of America web content and VOA broadcasts. It’s time for better leadership and more oversight for the Voice of America and its parent federal agency the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). It’s time to respect the VOA Charter.
The U.S. Congress should move quickly to enact administrative and structural reforms at the BBG.
VOA editors should do a better job of editing, and VOA and BBG executives, some of whom make well over $150,000 a year, should look at VOA websites to see what is being reported to the world and perhaps do their job.
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