BBG Watch Commentary

H.R. 4490Former Voice of America (VOA) Director Dan Austin, who in 2008 ended all direct VOA radio and television broadcasts to Russia, does not like former VOA Director Robert Reilly who presided over one of the most successful periods in VOA’s history, and it shows.

In a letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Austin makes his points, but he also distorts Mr. Reilly’s points in his Wall Street Journal op-ed to such a degree as to make them appear ridiculous while presenting himself as a knight in shining armor in defense of the truth.

Readers of Mr. Austin’s letter are led to believe that Mr. Reilly and all the members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who had unanimously voted for the bipartisan H.R. 4490 – the Royce – Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Legislation, do not want the truth and are only interested in fighting propaganda with propaganda.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are hardly naive or stupid. They do not want to turn VOA into a propaganda or even a direct public diplomacy arm of the U.S. government, that role is reserved for the State Department and possibly the proposed the United States International Communications Agency, in which VOA would reside as it was part of the former United States Information Agency (USIA) while still operating under its Charter that protected its journalistic independence.

Members of Congress want VOA to continue to be effective as a news organization and to observe the VOA Charter. Some of the Charter’s key provisions have been included in the H.R. 4490 bill.

Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said:

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): “Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.”

But we agree that some of the wording in the bill is imprecise and could use further editing. The phrase “promoting,” even with reference to the broad goals of U.S. foreign policy should not be there, but there is nothing wrong with VOA programs being consistent with “the broad goals of U.S. foreign policy.” This phrase had been used when Radio Free Europe was established in the 1950s and was always interpreted as allowing RFE and Radio Liberty to criticize specific current U.S. policies, which they did and still do when reporting news and comments critical of the U.S. administration. The Voice of America is in fact required by law, its own Charter, to report such criticism. Under the new legislation, there would no change in the Voice of America’s journalistic mission as defined by the VOA Charter, although the key role of the Charter could be even more emphasized when revisions are made in the H.R. 4490 bill.

The broad goals of U.S. foreign policy are the U.S. constitution, rule of law, freedom and democracy. We do not see anything wrong with that as long as the Voice of America is not required to actively “promote” these goals but simply to produce news programs and present opinions, both in support of and critical of specific U.S. foreign policies. That in itself is consistent with the broad goals of U.S. foreign policy.

Mr. Austin minimizes the main goal of the legislation — reform of the management of U.S. international media outreach — although he makes one short reference to it. In fact, 95% of the legislation is designed to address some of the serious management problems which Mr. Austin had himself helped to create. VOA’s ability to report news, including U.S. news, started to decline before Mr. Austin’s directorship, but it accelerated during his tenure. Mr. Austin had served as Director of the Voice of America from October 2006 to June 2011, and as Acting Deputy Director of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) from August 2007 to September 2010.

Mr. Austin’s decisions on ending VOA radio and television broadcasts to Russia and the subsequent forced departure of many experienced VOA Russian Service journalists and their replacement with poorly paid and poorly trained contractors resulted in massive audience losses and the VOA Russian website being declared in 2011 in a Broadcasting Board of Governors-commissioned study by an new media scholar and independent Russian journalist as having “a pro-Putin bias.”

“Yes, some of the proposed changes now before Congress in the way VOA is run need to be made. But trading in principles of good journalism for gussied up government press releases isn’t one of them,” Mr. Austin wrote.

We doubt that Mr. Reilly or the authors and other supporters of the Royce – Engel bipartisan legislation want “gussied up government press releases” on the VOA website. What he and many critics want is for VOA under its current leadership to report U.S. news accurately, with balance, and comprehensively, as the VOA Charter requires it to do.

Because of mismanagement, the Voice of America is not doing this right now. The number of bureaucratic IBB and VOA positions grew tremendously under Mr. Austin’s tenure while broadcasts and news programs were being cut. His successors continued this process.

As VOA’s current director David Ensor was reportedly lobbying against the bill on his European trip that eventually took him to Ukraine, a VOA video report on the inauguration of Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko failed to show or mention the presence at the event of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and members of a bipartisan congressional delegation. Other VOA reporting on their visit was limited, to say the least. VOA paid for Director Ensor’s trip abroad but could not pay for a VOA correspondent to travel with Vice President Biden to Kyiv. The Royce – Engel bill is trying to put an end to this kind of mismanagement of U.S. taxpayers’ money.

We also do not want VOA to post “gussied up government press releases.” We want VOA to be better managed and to report the news accurately, with balance, and comprehensively according to its congressional Charter.

READ: WSJ op-ed by former VOA director Robert Reilly – Unmuffling the Voice of America, BBG Watch, June 5, 2014.

READ: VOA Should Be a Beacon of Truth, Danforth W. Austin, Letter to the Editor of The Wall Street Journal June 10, 2014.

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