Voice of America – Information War Lost: An Untenable Position With Consequences
By The Federalist
Sonja Pace and Alex Belida, retired Voice of America (VOA) senior news executives, offer argument in opposition to congressional legislation to reform US Government international broadcasting (“Death Knell in Fine Print,” USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Summer 2014, Volume 6, Issue 4).
You can read the article in its entirety here:
Also see a companion piece:
From the outset, we find it somewhat ironic that Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida chose this venue to air their views. Our sense of irony comes from what is a cornerstone of the argument offered by opponents to the legislation; namely, the view that “public diplomacy” is perceived to be propaganda. It is something opponents rail against and see as an infringement on their “journalistic credibility and integrity.”
At the outset, Pace and Belida declare,
“…if signed into law, it (HR4490) will end the Voice of America as the world has known it for over seven decades – as a trusted and reliable source of news.”
This is a favorite argument of those opposed to the congressional legislation. It is an argument founded upon fear-mongering and hysteria which has no basis in reality.
As we have argued previously, the legislation does not end VOA core news programming or that it should be diverted from its intended purpose as codified in the VOA Charter.
The news content of what the agency broadcasts remains intact.
What the legislation does do is address what is viewed as a serious lapse in the agency’s other programs: issues of public diplomacy and discussion of US foreign policy. These programs are handled outside the VOA newsroom.
Here is what the VOA Charter says about the agency’s news mission:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.
What opponents to the legislation want nothing to do with are the following two provisions of the Charter which they often make synonymous with propaganda:
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
Is there something wrong with this or for an agency of the United States Government to be doing?
The VOA Charter is unchanged. These provisions of the Charter represent as balanced a mission statement as you will ever find for an agency of this kind. It has served the agency well for seventy years – except when purloined by senior agency officials who want the agency to be some kind of stand-alone news outlet – with no accountability and funded exclusively by taxpayer dollars of course – to the tune of about $750-MILLION dollars annually.
What opponents can’t get away from is making an argument in support of what amounts to the agency’s status quo: a broken management structure and a failed “strategic plan.” Business as usual inside the Cohen Building has put the VOA in the position it is in today.
As Pace and Belida point out, the legislation would relegate the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to an advisory role and separate the Voice of America from the grantee broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
In our view, this represents an improvement over the existing structure.
The BBG has been a terrible arrangement almost from its inception and of late routinely manipulated – some would say intimidated – by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) home to many of the agency’s career-entrenched bureaucrats who champion the “strategic plan” that is a bust.
Distinguishing the different missions between the grantees and VOA is also a good idea.
Belida and Pace object to the ascendancy of the grantee/surrogates and their broadcasting mission. Opponents of the legislation clearly want VOA to lord over all US Government international broadcasting. Under the circumstances – an agency that has gone dysfunctional and defunct – that is a rather arrogant (and untenable) position to take.
As we like to say, the proof is in performance – and of late VOA performance has been horrible and getting worse by the day. VOA is not what it used to be, particularly in the newsroom.
The authors claim that the direction of the legislation,
“…will cause its audience to plummet and risks turning the flagship service into a government mouthpiece.”
The authors are behind the curve: the agency has already lost audience attention to substantive news programs in critical countries and regions – as a result of actions by agency officials who seem to be doing everything they can to reduce to size of the agency’s direct broadcast footprint and program delivery independent of government and commercial gatekeepers.
In our view, you have to earn the right to have and/or retain flagship status. That isn’t happening with the VOA today. The agency has lost its way.
And we should note that flagship status is not an entitlement for an abysmally underperforming agency. Entitlement is never a rational justification for failure.
As we have noted previously, there is no piece of congressional legislation related to this agency that can remotely approximate the damage to this agency and its audiences than what has been delivered by the agency’s own senior officials.
These officials are in the process of taking the agency out of the business of direct broadcasting and uncensored news reporting. In place of these broadcasts is what amounts to reliance upon “placement” and the Internet – which is perfectly fine if you live in places that have complete freedom of the press and even then the so called “affiliates” often ask the Voice of America not for hard-hitting news but for music and entertainment programs. The primary audiences for VOA programs are not in those places. And one can add that in many parts of the world – free or not – the kind of income or infrastructure necessary to support or make accessible an Internet-only delivery system does not exist.
Stand alone broadcasts, particularly in radio and satellite television, set the agency apart from others. Instead, the agency has chosen to obscure its programs by using “placement:” having foreign stations embed the agency’s feature programs inside their own programming. Worse, if not carried live, these programs can be edited or not be broadcast at all if the content is such that the foreign station could be jeopardized in its relation to the sitting government.
And Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida are also well aware that there have been recent and recurring attempts to substantially reduce or eliminate altogether the VOA newsroom. That effort has been the proverbial “inside job.” And the perpetrators are senior agency officials.
Ending direct broadcasts will substantially reduce the agency’s audience reach to substantive news programming. And as we have said before, we repeat again:
No audience to news programs equates with no credibility.
You can have the best news journalists in the world. But if no one can see, hear or read what they produce, the value and effectiveness of their work is zero.
In short, Congress isn’t trying to kill VOA. To all appearances that job is well in hand by officials inside the Cohen Building.
The authors also don’t like the idea of two chief executive officers (CEOs), one for VOA and the other for the grantee/surrogates.
This must be done. The current agency structure is unwieldy. And the first order of business for the CEOs under the legislation is a reduction-in-force (RIF) of the IBB executive staff which will be a difficult and necessary task, and one which the IBB will undoubtedly obstruct in any way available to it.
Belida and Pace also make suggestions which mostly seem to have the potential for adverse impact on the employees of the agency rather than on the managers responsible for its implosion. The agency is already an accident-in-progress with regard to its personnel practices, including grossly exceeding the limits on its contractors. In short, the options don’t get at the heart of the agency’s problems with mission effectiveness and limitless mismanagement. In fact, they would likely contribute even more dysfunction.
The authors do not appear to have an appreciation for the complete picture of where the agency stands. It is reeling. It has imploded. Congressional staff, representing both parties and both the House and the Senate, has worked on this legislation for well over a year if not longer. There have been many hearings at which the BBG’s management problems and problems with reaching an audience have been mentioned. There have been even more numerous Office of Inspector General (OIG) audits. Contrary to the claims of some, the agency isn’t getting better. It is getting worse. A lot worse.
This legislation represents what amounts to a last chance for the VOA to get its act together.
We are not hopeful.
More disturbing than anything else: in order to be fixed, the intended agency must want to be fixed. That doesn’t apply here. Instead, opponents to the legislation are taking an arrogant and defiant posture, most often associated with an employee op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times titled, “Back Off Congress and keep Voice of America real.” Trying to tell the Congress to back off and to hold the Congress and the American taxpayer hostage to the agency’s dysfunction does not bode well for the future existence of this agency.
Further, being the “flagship” for US Government international broadcasting is not an agency birthright. But all too often, that seems to be the position that opponents to the legislation take.
Both Ms. Pace and Mr. Belida bemoan the position the agency is in. That process started long before the crafting of this congressional legislation.
This legislation is very necessary. It should be passed by the Congress and signed by the president. To do so is in the national and public interest.