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Former Voice of America (VOA) director David S. Jackson has published an opinion article on the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC) website in which he argues for combining journalistic objectivity and independence with greater attention being paid by VOA reporters to covering U.S. foreign policy news and cultivating news contacts with U.S. government officials, but without taking orders from the State Department or the White House.

Currently, many Voice of America reporters, who are federal employees, appear to avoid seeking and receiving information from administration officials. This seems particularly true, with some exceptions, among VOA English newsroom correspondents. Some VOA foreign language service directors and reporters are believed to be more inclined to cultivate such contacts. David Jackson seems to be arguing in favor of more such interactions as long as VOA reporters are not told by administration officials what to report.

David Jackson noted in his article that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) re-introduced this week bipartisan reform legislation that Royce said would bring about a “complete overhaul” of the BBG, which he called “an agency adrift.” The new bill, H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015, replaces a previous one from 2014, H.R. 4490, which unanimously passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House of Representatives, but was not picked up in the Senate.

Many former and current VOA journalists expressed support for the 2014 H.R. 4490 bill because of its strong management reform provisions while privately urging lawmakers and congressional staffers to modify the language about VOA’s mission. Those supporting the bill included some former BBG members and some former VOA directors, as well as the American Federation of Government Employees AFGE Local 1812 union representing federal employees at the BBG.

Some other VOA journalists were highly critical of the 2014 H.R. 4490 bill. Al Pessin, a VOA English Newsroom foreign correspondent, criticized it in his  op-ed, “Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real” in The Los Angeles Times. While the controversial title of the op-ed was probably chosen by the editorial staff, the author, who represented only himself, kept referring to the bill as “the Royce bill,” even though the 2014 legislation was fully bipartisan, as is the new 2015 H.R. 2323 bill.

In commenting on H.R. 4490, former Voice of America deputy director Alan Heil said last year that the changes the bill envisioned would be devastating. “If that bill becomes law, VOA’s worldwide following on radio, TV and online channels would plummet precipitously. The Voice’s greatest asset, its credibility, would be in shreds,” said Heil. He also took issue with statements by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rep. Ed Royce and other congressional critics who warn that U.S. international media outreach, including the Voice of America, is “practically defunct” and the agency is “dysfunctional.” Alan Heil said that VOA cannot be dysfunctional if it has an estimated weekly audience of 164 million. Critics, including current and former VOA journalists, say that this figure is misleading. They argue that VOA has limited impact and dismal social media statistics compared to such outlets as Russia’s RT because of mismanagement and lack of reforms. Mismanagement has resulted in record low employee morale, missed news stories, late or superficial coverage, and videos and other programs that fail to meet basic production and journalistic standards. Hillary Clinton said that the United States is losing the information war with countries like Russia.

Referring to the new version of the bill, H.R. 2323, David Jackson wrote that Voice of America, “the government broadcaster which has historically been responsible for ‘telling America’s story,’ is facing the most drastic changes in its mission if the proposed legislation passes.”

DAVID JACKSON: “Yet the debate over its [VOA’s] future has been stuck on two irreconcilable positions: One would leave VOA completely independent journalistically, as it is now, with no oversight and virtually no influence by the State Department or any other branch of government; the other would bring VOA under the direct supervision of State or another government policy-oriented institution.
I believe there is a middle path that could satisfy the concerns of both sides.”

On the issue of VOA’s journalistic independence, Republican and Democratic co-sponsors of the 2015 H.R. 2323 bill made changes in the “SEC. 123. DUTIES AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE VOICE OF AMERICA” to address some of the concerns expressed in reaction to the 2014 H.R. 4490 bill. Lawmakers dropped a requirement, which was included in the 2014 bill, that VOA programming be designed to promote the broad foreign policies of the United States. The word “promotes” in H.R. 4490 was replaced with “presents” in H.R. 2323. The new bill also introduced a new requirement for VOA to report on U.S. foreign assistance programs: “Producing content and related programming that provides a comprehensive understanding of the impact of United States foreign assistance programs and United States international philanthropy, complementing other media outlets.”

Everything else remains essentially the same as in H.R. 4490. Despite these changes, the 2015 H.R. 2323 bill makes it abundantly clear that the Voice of America will be part of the U.S. public diplomacy structure, as it was for most of its existence, first after World War II directly under the State Department, and later under the United States Information Agency (USIA) until the Broadcasting Board Governors  became the independent entity responsible for all U.S. Government and government-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting on October 1, 1999 and the direct link with U.S. public diplomacy was eliminated except for occasional consultations of BBG members with the Secretary of State or his or her representative, usually the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs who attends BBG board meetings.

The draft report language for H.R. 2323 says that “This legislation makes clear that the Voice of America (“VOA”) is an indispensible element of United States public diplomacy efforts by serving as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news on the United States, its policies, people, and the international developments that affect the United States.” “SEC. 5. BROADCASTING STANDARDS” of H.R. 2323 says that all of United States international broadcasting is to be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.

The draft report language for H.R. 2323 acknowledges that “Credibility requires strong adherence to the highest journalistic standards of accuracy, objectivity, and comprehensiveness” and proposes a compromise solution. “In order to accomplish these objectives, the Committee believes that the VOA should have a division devoted to commentary and analysis, distinct from the News Division,” the draft report language says.

Some critics say that even this new language is still highly confusing about the mission of the Voice of America. These critics  claim that the legislation promotes advocacy rather than journalism by VOA. In their view, creating a commentary and analysis division at VOA would lead to further confusion.

David Jackson seems to suggest that there is a middle ground between public diplomacy and complete journalistic independence — a compromise solution that can preserve VOA’s credibility with audiences abroad while making sure that the Congress continues to fund VOA operations.

David Jackson was the 26th Director of the Voice of America, from 2002 until 2008. Earlier he was a correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine covering a wide range of stories in the U.S. and abroad. After VOA, he worked for the State Department as a senior advisor for communications and was later as executive editor of The Washington Times.

The Public Diplomacy Council, which published his article, is a nonprofit organization composed mostly of former U.S. diplomats and other foreign affairs and foreign diplomacy experts. Some of its members had worked at VOA in high level executive and managerial positions while also holding Foreign Service officer appointments at the State Department or the United States Information Agency. “Its members believe that understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and dialogue between Americans and United States’ institutions and their counterparts abroad are vital to the national interest and core elements of 21st century American diplomacy,” PDC states on its website. Current BBG member Matt Armstrong is listed as PDC Secretary. Hans N. Tuch, former acting director and deputy director of the Voice of America (1976-81) and former Foreign Service officer in the State Department and the United States Information Agency (USIA), is listed as a PDC member. The Public Diplomacy Council includes many former high-level USIA Foreign Service officers.

PDC also includes members who were not U.S. diplomats. Former VOA directors Mary Bitterman and Geoffrey Cowan are listed as PDC members. Alan Heil, former Voice of America deputy director (1997-1998) and acting director (1996-1997), is also listed as a PDC member, as is former VOA broadcaster and executive Myrna Whitworth. They and other PDC members may have different views on issues raised in David Jackson’s article. Alan Heil, David Jackson, and Myrna Whitworth were not USIA Foreign Service officers, but came to VOA as journalists.

DAVID JACKSON: “Any discussion of what rules government-paid journalists should operate under is complicated and inherently controversial, for both journalists and non-journalists. But it’s time to get specific. I want to see VOA survive, and I don’t think that’s likely in the long run unless VOA makes some major changes, and improvements, in how it conducts its mission.
The choice today is not between VOA being a propaganda mouthpiece for the government, or just another independent news organization. Audiences will pay no attention to the former, and Congress will not pay for the latter. VOA’s future depends on it finding a way to maintain its journalistic credibility while also creatively serving the country it represents.”


READ MORE: How to Save the Voice of America, David S. Jackson, Public Diplomacy Council, May 15, 2015


ALSO SEE: Voice of America Mission by Hans Tuch in New York Times, BBG Watch, April 22, 2015


ALSO SEE: Former Voice of America Director critical of delay in VOA coverage of Brian Williams story, BBG Watch, February 12, 2015