Mollie King, a program analyst within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) who spent more than 25 years as a journalist with the Voice of America (VOA), has published an op-ed in The Hill’s Congress Blog critical of the bipartisan U.S. International Communications Reform Act (HR 4490). The bill was introduced by Rep. Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and passed unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee where Rep. Royce is Chairman and Rep. Engel is Ranking Member. Ms. King’s article carries a disclaimer that the views expressed are entirely her own.
MOLLIE KING: “With all due respect to Reps. Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), while the House bill would address some of the issues that have negatively impacted U.S. international broadcasting, it doesn’t go far enough in effecting real reform.
HR 4490 would engrave in stone a myth of recent years that the Voice of America (VOA) should focus primarily on news about the United States and international developments that affect it. That was not the initial concept when VOA was launched during World War II, broadcasting to war-torn Europe; nor was it part of the 1976 VOA Charter signed into law by President Gerald Ford that says VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news, will represent America, and will present U.S. policies along with responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. The mission then was clear to Congress and VOA.”
READ MORE: Is it news, or is it propaganda? By Mollie King, The Hill, Congress Blog, July 22, 2014.
ALTERNATIVE VIEWPOINT: AFGE Local 1812, union representing Voice of America and other Broadcasting Board of Governors employees:
“How many times have we heard management claim that the Union was an obstacle to change? Yet, the Union has publicly stated its support, with some reservations, for comprehensive changes in U.S. international broadcasting contained in the reform legislation, HR 4490. It’s interesting to see who is fighting to prevent this much needed change.”
READ MORE: The Union an Agent for Change, AFGE Local 1812, July 22, 2014.
ALTERNATIVE VIEWPOINT: Voice of America – Losing The Information War: Wishful Thinking Versus Reality, The Federalist, BBG Watch, July 25, 2014.
Voice of America’s Golden Years
By Ted Lipien, former chief of VOA Polish Service and former VOA acting associate director
Voice of America’s best years were when VOA observed all provisions of its Charter.
During World War II there were no significant U.S.-funded surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, but even then, other than presenting international and U.S. news, most of Voice of America program content was very much U.S.-focused and very much in defense of U.S. foreign policy, both good and bad. I applaud Ms. King for defending VOA’s journalistic independence, but the early VOA history alluded to by her is a myth. The threat of the return to propaganda at VOA under the Royce – Engel reform bill is also a myth. If anything, U.S. International Communications Reform Act (HR 4490) is designed to save VOA from the forces of mismanagement that are pushing it toward destruction with their own kind of propaganda through lack of direction and lack of editorial oversight.
The myth of VOA’s initial news-only mission is easy to debunk. During World War II and for years after the war, Voice of America consistently denied any Soviet role in the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish officers on the orders of Stalin and at least during the war actively promoted the Soviet propaganda line on this and many other contentious issues. To what degree was this U.S. foreign policy-driven VOA programming part of “the initial concept when VOA was launched during World War II,” which Ms. King refers to? One of the persons in charge of the VOA Polish Service in Washington during World War II was a Polish communist who after the war returned to Poland and became one of the chief anti-American propagandists for the Moscow-controlled regime in Warsaw. During its early years, Voice of America was not a news-only operation, as Ms. King implies–far from it.
Also during and after World War II, Voice of America was never a successful surrogate broadcaster. (A few VOA language services which launched television programs to the 1990s to countries with already a semi-free media environment managed to play a moderately successful limited surrogate news provider role.) Most local or surrogate news from Nazi-occupied countries during World War II was generated by BBC, which was much closer to war-torn Europe and had many local news sources among resistance fighters–not by Voice of America from Washington. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty took on this kind of surrogate role in the 1950s and were enormously successful and popular among their audiences.
In years immediately after World War II, Voice of America became almost a full public diplomacy arm of the State Department. In those years, VOA was criticized by Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane and others for continuing to mislead audiences on Katyn and Yalta and for simplistic and counterproductive promotion of American democracy to people who had lost their freedom as the result of American decisions at Tehran and Yalta.
Voice of America was viewed to be so ineffective as a news and alternative opinion source in the Soviet block in the late 1940s and early 1950s that prominent Americans of both parties, statesmen like George Kennan and General Eisenhower, launched a successful campaign to create Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which made a big difference during later years of the Cold War. Writing in 1947 about VOA radio programs, Ambassador Bliss Lane observed “My opinion of their value differed radically from that of the authors of the program.” “It was indeed tactless, to say the least,” he complained in his book, “to remind the Poles that we had democracy, which they also might again be enjoying, had we not acquiesced to their being sold down the river at Tehran and Yalta.”
To suggest that during World War II and immediately after the war, VOA enjoyed full editorial independence and had no connection with U.S. foreign policy is major revisionist history. In early years, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were operating under the CIA, but even then individual language services exercised considerable editorial independence–much greater than VOA language services were allowed then–and in later years and after the CIA link was eliminated, RFE/RL became remarkably independent as a news outlet–again much more so than VOA. RFE/RL was also always much better managed, except for a major but short-lived management crisis in 2012.
Voice of America gained some editorial independence in later years and with the passage of the VOA Charter in 1976, but few people could argue from reading the Charter that this document does not put a heavy emphasis on reporting U.S. news, reporting on U.S. policies, and presenting U.S. institutions and culture as the mainstay of VOA program content.
During the Reagan years, some VOA language services were able to combine U.S. news reporting with sufficient local target area news content to become moderately successful, but never as successful in terms of much needed and desired surrogate news as RFE/RL language services. This was impossible to do for VOA then and it is still impossible for VOA to do now for most countries, particularly those without free media and with restrictive media environments. But VOA was never as popular abroad or as successful as it was when it operated under the United States Information Agency (USIA) during Reagan years. The Royce – Engel bill does not even go nearly as far as recreating something similar to USIA-VOA link of former years. Working at VOA under USIA, I was able to reject all outside attempts to interfere with news, of which there were very few after 1976, by pointing to the VOA Charter.
Whether part of USIA or BBG, VOA’s strength continued to be in U.S. news reporting and in reporting on U.S. foreign policy when there was no editorial interference from the White House or the State Department and no internal mismanagement that exists now. In broadcasting to many countries in and outside of the Soviet block, VOA’s strength was also in reporting on American society and culture. This was especially true then for VOA English language programs and continues to be true now.
I do not want to see the Voice of America as it was before the VOA Charter, but I also do not see much use for or, more importantly, public support for a Voice of America as a global news provider without fulfilling VOA Charter’s 2nd and 3rd provisions on presenting and explaining U.S. policies, institutions and culture. U.S. taxpayers and members of Congress don’t want to pay for yet another global news provider.
Ms. King argues for combining Voice of America and surrogate media outreach into one to avoid duplication, save money and increase effectiveness. The problem with this solution is that the two cannot be combined and remain effective. Any attempt to combine them makes both ineffective since their missions are fundamentally different but also fundamentally important. Ideas for centralization generate from within the discredited IBB bureaucracy. These ideas are fiercely opposed by surrogate broadcasters and by many VOA journalists who realize that they could lose their federal status and VOA could lose its unique role as America’s voice to the world.
Centralization of all U.S. international media outreach would perpetuate the enormous Washington bureaucracy of the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Broadcasting Board of Governors with well-paid and secure jobs for countless bureaucrats. Already under the current system, programs and journalistic positions are being constantly cut by the central bureaucracy and there is less and less money for program delivery, with resources being diverted to maintain the status quo.
I disagree with critics who say that Congress wants Voice of America to engage in propaganda of any kind. What members of Congress and U.S. taxpayers want is for VOA to observe its Charter in presenting American news and opinions, including those that relate to foreign countries, and for surrogate broadcasters to be effective as surrogate broadcasters. Voice of America as a surrogate media outreach makes absolutely no sense and would not have much credibility. Likewise, a surrogate broadcaster attempting also to be like Voice of America makes absolutely no sense and would have zero credibility.
The two do not belong together and H.R. 4490 wisely recognizes this fact. The bill also attempts to eliminate the bureaucracy that makes VOA ineffective and surrogate media outlets less effective. The duplication, waste and mismanagement are found in the IBB bureaucracy, not in having the Voice of America and U.S. surrogate media outlets as separate well-managed entities with different missions.
Both VOA and surrogate broadcasters need journalistic independence to be credible, but VOA needs to define its role according to the VOA Charter. Otherwise, U.S. taxpayers have no reason to continue to pay for the news organization which has now fewer Twitter Followers for its main English language news than the UN Peacekeeping Force, and nearly ten times fewer Twitter Followers for VOA English news than the U.S. State Department Twitter (English language) account. With such dismal social media and audience engagement numbers, the focus should be on management reforms at the Voice of America, not on non-existent threats from Congress or the State Department, which the VOA Charter–if properly included in full in the legislation–will guard against as the current and future U.S. law.