Time to Revisit Status of VOA, Other Government Media, in Washington Press Galleries
By Dan Robinson
For decades, the Voice of America has enjoyed the use of physical working space in the press galleries in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, and at the White House.
In these places, VOA’s status has been protected, grandfathered year after year by the Radio Television Correspondents Association (RTCA), and the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA).
However, on Capitol Hill, VOA reporters are denied full voting status precisely because they are part of a federal agency. You’ll find this statement in the section on membership criteria: “[Gallery members must not] be employed by any legislative or executive department or independent agency of the government.”
And this: “The applicant. . .must not work for any individual, political party, corporation, organization, or agency of the U.S. Government, or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or any federal government department, and will not do so while a member of the Daily Press Galleries. . .”
It should be noted that numerous reporters representing foreign governments, to cite some examples — Russian State Radio/TV, and various Chinese media outlets — are among those with general credentials issued by the congressional press galleries.
However, VOA’s membership is a direct technical violation of a guideline that, one has to assume, is still applied when assessing applications by other organizations.
Historical notes show that beginning in the 1950’s (VOA moved from New York to Washington in 1954) the question of the presence and accreditation of VOA’s and other government-funded media, was the subject of protracted debate.
In 1951, rules of Congress “[did] do not permit members of the Galleries to accept regular employment with any Government agency.” In fact, when any non-government reporters “[planned] to engage in any temporary work such as special broadcasts for the Voice of America” a public notice had to be posted.
In 1962, the press gallery association reaffirmed a ban on membership for VOA, though VOA reporters were allowed use of facilities. There was actually a subcommittee on the question, with records showing a notation “VOA – Conflict of Interest”. In 1968, a requirement was renewed for anyone performing work for any government agency to notify the Executive Committee.
In 1973 and 1976, VOA and Radio Liberty applications for membership were rejected. But in 1979, the association voted to move a recommendation to the House Speaker and Senate Rules Committee for full membership status for VOA congressional correspondents.
There’s a long gap in the record until 1981, when the Gallery Executive Committee (by a 6 to 1 vote) agreed to admit VOA if the Senate Rules Committee agreed. In 1982 it was agreed that VOA did not qualify for membership, but the option was left open for VOA to ask for an exemption from the Senate Rules Committee and House Speaker.
In 1983, Vic Ratner (then with ABC News) objected to a rules change or exception “. . .on the grounds that it would open the doors for Membership for the government agencies. . . blur the distinction between private news agencies and government agencies. . .and raise the specter of government control of the gallery.” Also rejected was an amendment that would have allowed “government news correspondents and broadcasters. . . [to have non-voting] status…”
Finally, in July of 1983, the correspondents committee, Senate Rules Committee, and Speaker’s Office agreed to admit VOA, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (which were directly overseen by the CIA at one point in history), as non-voting members.
A considerable degree of Washington-style persuasion occurred behind the scenes . The single piece of remaining evidence in the record is a letter from then VOA Director Ken Tomlinson to Gene Gibbons, then chairman of the Radio Television Correspondent Association.
Tomlinson (who passed away in 2014) referred to Gibbons’ efforts and “informal conversations” that enabled “us to put the VOA accreditation controversy behind us.” And Tomlinson said: ” . . . one of the positive aspects about our not participating in Gallery elections is that no one will confuse our journalistic needs with political desires [emphasis added].”
No record exists apparently of any communications from Gibbons to Tomlinson, and there are no other notes that detail the substance of actual debate in RTCA meetings, or notes from those “informal conversations” referred to by Tomlinson.
In 2004, the last date in the historical notes, the RTCA Executive Committee also granted admission to U.S.-funded Middle East Television Network (now called the Middle East Broadcasting Network, or MBN), but again only with non-voting status.
FEDERALLY-FUNDED MEDIA INCREASINGLY ENMESHED IN NATIONAL SECURITY, FOREIGN POLICY OBJECTIVES
So, back to the guidelines of the RTCA — while VOA’s working space and non-voting status in Capitol galleries were grandfathered, there has been no change in language barring those “employed by any legislative or executive department or independent agency of the government.”
I would argue it’s time for non-government news organizations that have traditionally held key leadership roles in media associations to revisit the question of accreditation for VOA and other US government media.
This is especially relevant amid developments that at the end of the day more completely associate and enmesh VOA and other government-funded media with national security and foreign policy objectives of the United States, as well as government programs for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Russian disinformation.
Two executive orders signed by President Barack Obama set the stage. The first was in 2011, the second was Executive Order 13584 in 2016 calling for an “integrated strategic counter terrorism communications initiative” and “collaborative work among executive departments and agencies [to bring] together expertise, capabilities, and resources to realize efficiencies and better coordination of U.S. Government communications investments to combat terrorism and extremism.”
A Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) (criticized in subsequent years as ineffective) was also established. A steering committee was to advise the Secretary of State, to include representatives of all departments and agencies — from Defense and CIA to USAID and others, but notably including VOA’s parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Near the end of his presidency, Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) formalized creation of a State Department-based Global Engagement Center to counter ISIS, Russian and other disinformation, costing $160 million in FY 2017/2018, sourced initially from the Pentagon budget.
Under this law, BBG is to be reduced to advisory status, and a CEO (as of this writing still John Lansing, an Obama holdover) was made a powerful figure directing a supposedly independent agency.
I say supposedly, because it should be apparent to anyone watching controversies surrounding the BBG, and monitoring sentiment on Capitol Hill, that VOA and other government media outlets are federal entities.
They are not news companies, as one former VOA director tried to assert at one point.
I include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (which are known as “grantee” agencies) in this description because without congressional funding, they too would not exist. All are part of a larger effort, taxpayer funded to support larger national policy agendas.
As I wrote in an opinion piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, the Obama-signed NDAA created
a five member International Broadcasting Advisory Board (IBAB), not yet formed. Like the BBG, it will include the Secretary of State, who will “[advise] the CEO [emphasis added]“ empowered by the legislation.
It’s difficult to think that there will not be significant regular coordination between this board and the CEO overseeing VOA and other government media now accredited with Washington press galleries, and with the Global Engagement Center.
Remember — that State Department center’s job is to “[lead], synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”
The much-vaunted firewall that supposedly insulates VOA from interference in its journalistic functions is unlikely to be much more than a paper tiger against the background of larger CVE and counter-Russian disinformation policy goals.
I cited one example, what is called the Extremism Watch Desk, which was established by BBG/VOA officials so they could be seen to be doing more in line with the Obama administration’s CVE agenda.
It challenges common sense to think that there won’t be interaction between this VOA unit, and the Center for Global Engagement, which will be “[supporting] the development and dissemination of fact-based narratives and analysis to counter propaganda and disinformation directed at the United States and United States allies and partner nations.”
When I covered Congress for VOA in the House of Representatives between 2002 and early 2010, I got along with colleagues in non-government media. But I could always sense that VOA reporters were seen as different, held at arm’s length to a significant degree because VOA was a federal agency.
During four years as VOA Chief White House Correspondent, I was again struck by how the White House and other journalists viewed VOA reporters, and their parent agency. Speaking generally, we were respected as professional journalists. However, the Broadcasting Board of Governors most certainly was not.
I’ll always remember comments to this effect by a then chief White House reporter for a major network, which interestingly came during a discussion of how many tickets would be granted to VOA to attend the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner, who had some choice derogatory comments about specific members of the BBG.
In essence, BBG members themselves were considered to be little more than bureaucrats serving on a board overseeing propaganda media. As good as we were, VOA reporters were nonetheless tainted by that attitude which, to a great degree, is still pervasive in the Washington press corps.
It should be noted that at the White House, where VOA’s working space has been grandfathered year after year as on Capitol Hill — VOA White House reporters do vote in WHCA elections.
Yet, VOA faced restrictions, whether formally written somewhere or not, the most glaring that presidents do not call on VOA reporters during formal news conferences.
In one rare occurrence, at a joint press conference with President Obama, Pakistan’s president called on a VOA language service reporter. What no one knew, including VOA’s main White House reporters, was that this had been pre-arranged through contacts with the Pakistani embassy.
The same thing applied overseas, where in my experience VOA White House correspondents were never called on by the president at final news conferences wrapping up major regional summits and other events.
As for daily White House press briefings, VOA reporters were still considered second or third class citizens, struggling for question opportunities. Meanwhile, organizations that were seemingly of much lower stature were called on frequently in the course of the average week.
In my four years covering the Obama White house, VOA was excluded from all but one foreign policy-related background briefing. The exception (on Syria) came only after I and my No. 2 correspondent complained to the press secretary (then, Jay Carney).
By the way, like Congress, the Obama administration was fed up with ongoing morale and performance crises at VOA and BBG. Obama granted more interviews to Between the Ferns, You Tube, Linked In and various bloggers than he did to VOA: one brief and limited in scope, in 2011.
VOA still operates under its congressionally-approved 1976 Charter, requiring it to report accurately, objectively and comprehensively, and reflect a range of opinions. But it also still carries what are called “editorials” reflecting U.S. government policies and positions, written by a special policy office in the VOA building with links to the White House and NSC, the State Department, and other agencies.
TIME TO RE-VISIT GUIDELINES ON FEDERALLY-EMPLOYED JOURNALISTS
VOA has successfully made the case to Washington press associations that its government-paid reporters are no different than those working for commercial media.
But the defense bill signed by Obama marked a new stepping off point, and it’s one that correspondent organizations on Capitol Hill and at the White House must take note of, and at the very least need to decide where they stand.
Are they OK with maintaining full or partial memberships for VOA reporters who, in the end, are paid by a U.S. federal agency being drawn ever closer to government policy and direction? Will they put to a vote whether government-paid journalists should have full voting status in the galleries?
Will they continue with a wink and a nod allowing government-funded media to maintain physical working space in a White House media gallery that, especially under Trump, is much sought after by a range of non-government media?
If the answer is yes, then VOA should retain its two person booth in the White House basement next to NPR.
However, President Donald Trump should break with decades of accepted practice and begin answering questions from VOA White House reporters at formal news conferences, in Washington and abroad.
There should be no grousing by non-government reporters, many of whom privately still disparage VOA as a “propaganda” outlet.
But if it’s to be business as usual, it will be in the face of evidence that VOA and similar media are, in fact, card-carrying members of the government’s national security and foreign policy apparatus.
In the ongoing environment of animosity between President Trump and media, press organizations may choose to strike what they see as a symbolic blow for press freedom, and end the last vestiges of discrimination against government media.
If that is the case, it’s also time for commercial media to end policies that still prevent their own journalists from appearing on government-funded media such as VOA.
This would be the time for The Washington Post, which in one article described VOA and RFE/RL as being staffed with “professional journalists”, to get fully on board should the congressional RTCA decide to fully “normalize” VOA’s status.
So, again: fully recognize VOA and other government media reporters as being no different from commercial counterparts, revise gallery guidelines that still technically bar them from full voting status, and at the White House revise policies restricting questions by VOA. . .
Or leave things the way they are, with congressional galleries in technical violation of their own criteria on the books for decades, and at the White House, news organizations imposing unspoken levels of discrimination against VOA and other government-funded media.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to observe what course non-government media organizations take on this issue, especially against the background of the latest speculation about who President Trump may appoint to replace Obama holdovers at the BBG, and at VOA.
A close ally of Steve Bannon is apparently being considered, Michael Pack, a conservative who heads the Claremont Institute. He had served as director of USIA’s WORLDNET TV, as senior vice president for television programming at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and produced award-winning documentaries, principally for PBS. This was reported by Politico, which quoted an unidentified “senior government official” about worries that government media independence would not be protected.
But I’ll say it again — anyone who believes government-funded broadcasters can be truly independent needs to read up on the history of the organizations themselves, from their founding to present day, but especially the most recent legislative history — which makes clear where things are headed.
(BIO) Dan Robinson had a nearly 35 year career at Voice of America, as Senior White House Correspondent from 2010 until 2014, Congressional Correspondent from 2002 to 2010, chief of VOA’s Burma broadcast service, as well as Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and East Africa Bureau Chief.
Dan is a 1979 graduate of the School of International Service at The American University.
DAN ROBINSON: At the BBG — A World of Alternate Universes, BBG Watch, December 5, 2016.