BBG Watch Commentary

Not Knowing Its Own History

The federal agency in charge of U.S. international media outreach through such taxpayer-funded outlets as the Voice of America (VOA) suffers from a critical lack of knowledge of its own history. This may not be entirely the fault of current Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) officials or VOA journalists because a number of books about VOA, particularly those written by former insiders, painted a highly misleading picture of the U.S. broadcaster’s origins during World War II and its role during the Cold War. These writers also largely ignored VOA’s tenuous relationship with the U.S. Congress and American taxpayers, creating a false impression that VOA has always been a news organization given to government-paid journalists to do with it what they want, no questions asked. That was never the case.

In fact, even after the passage of the VOA Charter in 1976, VOA received its funding from Congress with a clear understanding that its role is to supplement objective news with presenting and explaining U.S. policies and debates, pro-and-con, about these policies, in addition to presenting American society and culture to audiences abroad as part of cultural and public diplomacy. These legal mandates are quite clear. Members of Congress and American taxpayers also always understood VOA’s role as serving information-denied nations and exposing lies and deception of hostile propaganda. There is no significant political support for anything more than this role, especially if domestic U.S. commercial media and free international media are seen as doing their job. Ask any member of Congress or any American taxpayer whether they are willing to pay for VOA to be another CNN or NPR, and the answer will be almost always negative. On top of that, VOA has no chance to become a global news provider like CNN or BBC or be perceived as independent journalistically as they are perceived to be.

Without knowing the true history of the organization and its rather delicate place in the American political system no effective reform of the BBG and the Voice of America is possible. BBG member Matt Armstrong recently wrote an exuberant article, praising a recent placement of a VOA news report on a U.S. domestic media outlet, in this case CBS Evening News, and suggesting that more such domestic placement of VOA programs would be desirable. Mr. Armstrong did not mention any editorial and management problems at the VOA, and within the BBG in general, which are numerous and overwhelming. This time, he did not criticize members of Congress for being too harsh in pointing out serious problems with the BBG and the Voice of America, which he had done on an earlier occasion.

Not paying attention to the U.S. Congress and U.S. public opinion had already doomed the BBG’s predecessor office once, and it could easily happen again, especially if VOA tries to expand its news reporting activities into domestic U.S. media — one of the biggest mistakes BBG and VOA could make — or assumes that no major reform and restructuring of the agency are needed. Ironically, at about the same time Mr. Armstrong wrote his post, a Wall Street Journal editorial writer pointed out how VOA, in violation of its Charter, promoted partisan views without offering a proper balance with opposing U.S. points of view. The Wall Street Journal editorial was 100 percent accurate. If members of Congress and U.S. media paid more attention to VOA, as they did during WWII and during the Cold War, they would discover even greater problems with VOA’s journalism. Some of them were in fact revealed from time to time in recent years, but in general the Voice of America is no longer considered a major player as either a news organization or a public diplomacy tool of the U.S. government. Much more attention was paid to VOA during the Cold War when VOA programs were thought to have a significant impact behind the Iron Curtain.

As of a few days ago, Mr. Armstrong post from August 21 was showing only three “Likes,” zero “Shares” and zero comments. This in itself is a commentary on how public interest in U.S. international broadcasting has diminished. But if any BBG Governor thinks that placing VOA programs on domestic U.S. media will make VOA better known and perhaps better liked in the United States, he or she is playing with fire, especially if there is no immediate and dramatic improvement in editorial control over VOA content. For every outstanding VOA program, there are four or five that if given wider distribution in the United States might quickly lead to calls in Congress for VOA’s defunding. If history offers any lessons, VOA should avoid any U.S. domestic media role to protect its funding and existence. Congress does not want VOA to have a domestic media role in the United States, and U.S. taxpayers won’t go for it. It’s time BBG members, its media entity executives and journalists became familiar with the true history of VOA if they hope to have any chance of moving the agency forward instead of advocating for something which cannot be achieved. If they don’t show some political wisdom and some humility, they will never win domestic support for the agency’s programs abroad. They will not be able to respond effectively to challenges posed by foreign propaganda and disinformation. They will only antagonize members of Congress and ordinary Americans.

The most important point to remember is that political support in the United States and in the U.S. Congress for any U.S. federal government agency in charge of government information — whether it is news or propaganda — has been always extremely tenuous. Congress and American taxpayers have been willing, although often very reluctantly, to fund international media outreach if it advanced America’s security and/or human rights abroad. Anything more than that, such as BBC-like, NPR-like, or CNN-like 100% U.S. government-funded news outlet serving both foreign and domestic audiences, has no support in Congress or among voters. Any domestic propaganda or domestic information activity sponsored by the Executive Branch has been always viewed with enormous suspicion and often great hostility in the United States. This is due to a number of factors rooted in American traditions of a highly adversarial relationship between the government and the domestic media, which is codified and reinforced in the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and independent press. Nothing much has changed since WWII in this regard. NPR, PRI and PBS are not in the same category as VOA. Since they already exist as separate entities, there is no domestic space left for another mixed, international and domestic media outlet which would receive not just a small part but all of its funding from the U.S. government. If anything, there is even more suspicion now of any U.S. government’s domestic information role, even an indirect one through providing public funding, than there was a few decades ago during the Cold War. There is now far less consensus among Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy in general than there was between 1947 and 1989.

Very few U.S. government officials in charge of BBG and VOA seem to know this history. They not only fail to appreciate all three elements of the VOA Charter, of which objective news reporting is only one, but they know precious little about VOA’s origins as a WWII propaganda radio and the State Department’s policy tool during much of the Cold War. We have seen BBG and VOA executives, as well as VOA journalists, repeating some of the same statements and public relations mistakes which nearly led to the defunding of the original U.S. government information agency in 1943, precipitated its elimination right after the end of the war, and put a much diminished VOA within the State Department in 1945.

The True History of VOA

The true history of the Voice of America and other U.S. government-funded media outreach, which we will present here only very briefly, is completely different from the one most BBG and VOA employees may believe in if they only read some of the official agency accounts and one or two most popular books pretending to offer an objective historical look at VOA. In 1942, VOA was created within the U.S. propaganda and psychological warfare government office, the Office of War Information (OWI). World War II VOA was all about winning the war and supporting whatever policies the White House wanted to promote while at the same time suppressing the news it wanted to suppress. Those in charge of OWI and VOA during WWI, including OWI director Elmer Davis and VOA’s first director John Houseman, referred to OWI and VOA constantly as propaganda and even psychological warfare outlets designed to win the war.

Contrary to the claim that from its very beginning VOA reported nothing but the straight news, OWI routinely censored news during WWII, not only abroad through the Voice of America, but also in the United States, which it could then do and which immediately created a major political controversy in the U.S. media and in Congress. Davis himself authored some of the most blatant and false pro-Soviet propaganda during the war and Houseman repeated Soviet propaganda after the war without even recognizing what it was.

Even today some less experienced VOA reporters are sometimes fooled by President Putin’s propaganda claims, but this is nothing compared to VOA’s deliberate censorship and propaganda during WWII. Since the moment it was crated in 1942, VOA quickly offended non-Communist foreign audiences with its strong pro-Soviet bias and glorification of Stalin. VOA antagonized democratic governments-in-exile which were America’s allies in the war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It could not be relied upon to present fully and truthfully any controversial news. OWI executives often did not know who worked for the Voice of America and what programs they produced. Some of WWII VOA broadcasters were even more pro-Soviet Union and pro-Stalin than the White House and OWI’s chief would have wished. Even Elmer Davis felt obliged to fire a few of VOA’s most ardent pro-communist broadcasters. The only thing that could be said in defense of WWII VOA was that in general it reflected the foreign policy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What VOA did not reflect was a variety of American views on foreign policy as expressed through U.S. domestic media and on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. VOA censored and eliminated criticism of the administration. It glorified the Soviet Union as a war ally and censored news about Stalin’s crimes.

OWI’s domestic propaganda and VOA propaganda broadcasts also antagonized America’s ethnic communities. As early as 1943 Congress nearly succeeded in defunding OWI’s domestic media activities with many Democrats voting with the Republicans. The State Department was likewise unhappy with OWI and VOA. As some of the members of Congress and VOA listeners observed, probably the only audience that would have been happy with VOA broadcasts during WWII were Soviet communists and their sympathizers in various countries. Many of them worked at VOA. After the war, some went to Eastern Europe and were in charge of anti-American propaganda of the communist regimes.

The OWI was not unlike the BBG of today–large, mismanaged, out of control, and without much accountability. Its executives were arrogant, poorly versed in foreign policy, power-hungry, scandal-prone, unfamiliar with foreign cultures and ineffective as managers. After much criticism directed at the OWI during the war years, the Truman administration felt after the end of hostilities that VOA would receive better supervision within the State Department where it was placed. The controversial OWI agency was abolished and its domestic activities terminated in 1945. VOA’s foreign broadcasts barely managed to survive. Because of OWI’s and VOA’s excesses, at the end of the war there was eventually near zero support in Congress and in the United States in general for any domestic distribution of VOA program content, and even support for its foreign outreach was still very limited in 1945. At the end of the war, there was somewhat more support for academic exchange programs and cultural diplomacy abroad. Even though some members of Congress were also suspicious of the State Department as being too pro-Soviet, they had far less confidence in VOA. A broad consensus emerged that VOA or any U.S. government agency should have absolutely no domestic media role. VOA was saved by the Cold War, but the Congress made sure with the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 that VOA would only broadcast its programs abroad.

The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act turned out to be a wise political move for U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting. However, after being placed under the State Department, the Voice of America was unable to counter Soviet propaganda abroad as effectively as many prominent Americans wished it would. They included General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Lucius Dubignon Clay in charge of administration of occupied Germany after World War II, American diplomat George F. Kennan who advocated for a policy of containment of Soviet expansion during the Cold War, and many others. Their efforts led to the creation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (later renamed Radio Liberty), first under the covert management of the CIA and later as U.S. government-funded grantees. Because they were free of the Washington bureaucracy, much closer to the target area and were able to recruit much better experts and journalists, they proved to be more relevant and more effective than VOA in countering Soviet propaganda. They provided most of informational and moral support to the anti-communist opposition Moscow-dominated Central and Eastern Europe during the entire Cold War period. In most countries, RFE and RL also drew much larger audiences than VOA. There is no denying that their programs had a much greater impact on political discourse in the target area than VOA programs.

VOA foreign language broadcasts, however, were valued for their presentation of official U.S. policy and any reflection of anti-communist sentiments among Americans during the Cold War, which were quite strong and bipartisan. In that respect, VOA’s role had improved compared to the censorship of anti-Soviet news during WWII, but some sensitive topics, such as the Soviet responsibility for the Katyn murders of thousands of Polish POWs, were still subject to censorship by the State Department.

VOA radio broadcasts were also valued for their American cultural content, which was not available in Eastern Europe and in Russia from any other source, as it is now. In general, VOA English language programs had a very limited listenership in the region; they were more effective in various English-speaking countries in other regions of the world. Some East Europeans and some Russians listened to VOA’s Willis Conover’s programs in English and more listened to them in translation. RFE and RL had no English-language programs.

During the Cold War, the Voice of America was still highly relevant as a communication medium for the U.S. government. VOA had a near monopoly on instant, long-distance delivery of U.S. news and information through shortwave radio. Transnational radio was an expensive technology few news organizations could afford. VOA’s shortwave radio broadcasts served at that time as the State Department’s Facebook and Twitter when U.S. diplomats wanted to communicate with with foreign audiences bypassing host governments. This is no longer the case now except for those who have no absolutely Internet access or whose Internet access to U.S. news is blocked. The Internet has severely reduced VOA’s usefulness to the State Department and the White House as a public diplomacy tool.

The State Department’s Facebook page has now slightly more followers than the entire global VOA English-language news Facebook page. U.S. ambassadors can get more “Likes” for posts on their own Facebook pages than VOA can get for news reports on what these American diplomats say or do, assuming VOA even bothers to report on it, which often it does not.

But even as a source of general news, VOA is now a minor player on social media when compared to BBC or Russia’s RT. The U.S. Congress and American taxpayers still want the Voice of America to serve the underprivileged and most suppressed audiences. They also expect VOA to have a successful digital global outreach to counter propaganda and disinformation. VOA is succeeding at neither.

Mistakes Repeated

One of the biggest mistakes the Office of War Information made during WWII was to engage in domestic news distribution, domestic propaganda and domestic news censorship. VOA’s foreign broadcasts were also affected to a much larger degree. Foreign audiences during WWII would have learned much more from reading U.S. domestic press or the Congressional Record than from highly propagandistic and censored VOA programs. This choice, however, did not exists then. It does now, at least for many English-speaking news consumers abroad.

Not everything is now gloom and doom. Mistakes, which still happen frequently, seem caused by inexperienced reporters, poor leadership and insufficient resources than by deliberate actions of management and broadcasters as was the case during WWII. VOA, Radio and TV Marti, RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists still can produce outstanding news reports and news analyses in many foreign languages. (We can’t comment on Ahurra TV and Radio Sawa.) RFE/RL and RFA also produce a limited number of insightful news reports and analyses in English. Mr. Armstrong, however, is completely wrong in suggesting that VOA can be of great help to domestic U.S. media. As our experts on Russia and Eurasia can assure him, if VOA were to substitute its own English-language or even Russian content with a selection of news reports and analyses taken from English-language U.S. media, the end result in English and/or in Russian translation would have been far superior to what VOA is able to offer now. If anybody needs help, it is VOA. U.S. domestic media can help VOA; not the other way around. RFE/RL may have, however, something to offer U.S. domestic media, but some of the RFE/RL content now also fails to meet the highest journalistic standards. Radio and TV Marti also have their problems, but their importance can be tremendous if they can manage to maintain their editorial independence from any pressures from the White House. RFA produces unique content which cannot be easily found anywhere else.

Today’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, or more precisely some of its executives, behave very much like those who were in charge of the Office of War Information. They are a modern reflection of OWI’s arrogant and ineffective WWII CEO Elmer Davis and his staff. The BBG has a new CEO, a successful U.S. media executive John F. Lansing who started at his new job this week. He inherits a federal agency in deep denial about its own problems which produces propaganda of success as it spirals toward irrelevance. The BBG has lost its noble purpose and has become highly bureaucratic. Its executives push for more bureaucratic consolidation despite overwhelming historical evidence that specialized, semi-independent smaller media outlets, such as RFE/RL and RFA, have always been able to do a much better mission-oriented job on their own.

Instead of saying “hooray,” BBG members should study the demise of the OWI to see what mistakes they must avoid. VOA journalists lecturing members of Congress and making categorical statements that “countering” violent extremism and propaganda is unworthy of their journalistic principles should think twice about the message they are sending to American taxpayers. “We ask for a swift and complete renunciation of the idea that VOA would engage in countering violent extremism,” several VOA English newsroom staffers reportedly wrote recently in a draft petition to the BBG. Considering that some of them often can’t get more than 10 Facebook “Likes” for some of their online news reports, which often show zero or very few comments from readers, no one is likely to pay any attention to their misguided protests. They need a different strategy if they want to protect journalistic integrity within the confines of the VOA Charter.

From what we have seen, this is not how BBG members and VOA journalists should communicate with those who pay their salaries. After all, the best journalism is about disseminating news that someone does not want to be disseminated. This inevitably involves countering lies and exposing disinformation and propaganda. It is serving those who are victims of disinformation and propaganda. It is serving those who have no access to uncensored news and information. As someone once observed, other than the news someone, somewhere does not want to see printed, everything else is public relations. Mr. Armstrong should realize that the U.S. Congress and American taxpayers are not willing to pay for public relations in the United States. BBG members should not encourage VOA to have any kind of U.S. domestic media role. BBG and VOA executives should instead demonstrate that they are committed to serving vulnerable foreign audiences and playing a role that only a U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlet can play because there is no one else who will do it. Everything else is a waste of taxpayers’ money.




The Work of the O. W. I.

Thursday, July 1, 1943
Mr. STARNES of Alabama. Mr. Speaker, under leave to extend my remarks in the RECORD, I include the following radio address delivered by me on June 29, 1943:  
My fellow Americans, Executive Order No. 9182 dated June 13, 1942, established the Office of War Information within the Office of Emergency Management in the Executive Office of the President. The existing agencies handling foreign and domestic information which were consolidated to form the Office of War Information were:
3. The Office of Facts and Figures and its powers and duties.
b. The Office of Government Reports and its powers and duties.
c. That part of the former Office of the Coordinator of Information which related to the gathering of public information and its dissemination abroad.
4. The Division of Information of the Oflice for Emergency Management.
The chief purpose in establishing the Office of War Information was to gather and disseminate information at home and abroad concerning the war. Specifically the Executive order outlined its purpose in the following language in section 4:  
“Consistent with the war information policies of the President and with the foreign policy of the United States, and after consultation with the Committee on War Information Policy, the Director shall perform the following functions and duties:
“a. Formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, motion picture, and other facilities, information programs designed to facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the Government.
“b. Coordinate the war information activities of of all Federal departments agencies for the purpose of assuring an accurate and consistent flow of war information to the public and the world at large.
“c. Obtain, study, and analyze information concerning the war effort and advise agencies concerned with the dissemination of such information as to the most appropriate and effective means of keeping the public adequately and accurately informed.
“d. Review, clear, and approve all proposed radio and motion-picture programs sponsored by Federal departments and agencies, and serve as the central point of clearance and contact for the radio-broadcasting and motion-picture industries, respectively, in their relationships with Federal departments and agencies concerning such Government programs.
“e. Maintain liaison with the information agencies of the United Nations for the purpose of relating the Government’s informational programs and facilities to those of such nations.
“f. Perform such other functions and duties relating to war information as the President may from time to time determine.”
The Office of War Information, for administrative and functional purposes has been divided into an overseas operations branch and a domestic operations branch. Wide use of press, radio, and motion-picture facilities has been made to carry out its program.
Certainly there is need for an overseas operations branch to let our allies and the neutral countries know what we are doing and can do to win this war. Furthermore, the psychological warfare of President Wilson used so successfully in World War No. 1 in breaking the morale of the German people and paving the way to an early peace was well worth while and we hope the Office of War Information can successfully emulate it in the war. Recent history has shown that the press, radio and motion can be highly successful in breaking the morale of the governments and their people. Hitler and Hirohito have gained easy and spectacular victories by their use in disseminating propaganda in the Balkans, in the Low Countries, France, and the Far East. We would be foolish indeed if we failed to employ the same weapon against Germany and Japan. Recent signs show that our campaign in Germany and elsewhere in Europe is bearing fruit.
It may help to shorten the war appreciably if we continue to tell the German people how destructive our air raids have been to their industrial facilities and how we are prepared and determined to use this effective instrument of destruction to blast their industries, their arsenals, and their submarine lairs to dust.
No effort was made by the House recently to reduce the amount of expenditures from the overseas operations branch below that recommended by the Appropriations Committee.
The Domestic Operations Branch has not functioned as well as the Overseas Branch. Instead of collecting, coordinating, and channeling factual information on the home front, it has provided a subject of debate and controversy within its own group, in the press, and over the radio, as well as in the public forum.
The Director of the Office of War Information is Mr. Elmer Davis, a member of the American Labor Party in New York City. Mr. Davis enjoys a splendid reputation as a writer and radio commentator. He is a man of pleasant personality and undoubted personal integrity. However, he is one of the first to admit mistakes have been made in the Domestic Operations Branch and that poor administrative work has been of no help. Furthermore, he admits some of the pamphlets and publications of the Office of War Information have dealt with domestic problems in other than a factual manner. Their admission justifies that it was indulging in propaganda or a colorization of news on the home front. The consolidation of the four agencies bringing into being the Office of War Information has not resulted in noticeable efficiency of operation and on the contrary has increased the cost of operation.
In the last year of operation of the four constituent agencies they cost approximately $10,400,000. Under the first year of the Office of War Information this amount was increased to $35,847,292, or more than three times the amount originally spent. The Domestic Operations Branch rather than effecting a reduction in cost or personnel increased both. The monetary increase was over 100 percent, or from approximately $4,000,000 to more than $8,000,000. The personnel Increase requested raised the number from 3,253 to 4,407. In the fiscal year 1944 the Office of War Information asked for $47,342,000 and an increase of personnel to 5,438.
The sum of $8,865,900 was requested for the Domestic Operations Branch in 1944, which was a sizable increase over the amount available for 1943. The House Appropriations Committee trimmed the over—all request by $12,869,496. The amount recommended by the committee for the Domestic Operations Branch was $5,500,000, or a reduction of 37 percent. The amendment which I offered from the floor struck this amount from the bill.
Exhaustive and searching hearings on every phase of the Office of War Information were held, covering several days in time and almost 400 pages of printed testimony. The House, when presented with the facts, adopted my amendment by at roll-call vote of 218 to 114.
The chief objections and criticisms leveled against the Domestic Operations Branch of the Office of War Information may be briefly summarized as follows:  
1. Poor administration, resulting in an increase of personnel and expense of operation.
2. The employment of too many aliens.
3. The failure to properly collect, coordinate, and channel information so as to eliminate confusion and uncertainty over conflicting statements being issued by the Office of Price Administration, the Petroleum Administration for War, and other agencies.
4. The issuance of propaganda on strictly domestic issues.
5. Colorization of news by improper analyses and interpretation.  
6. Attempts to censor and control press releases.
7. The unusual number of requests for deferment from military services of eligibie men–more than 50 percent of the male employees of Office of War Information being between the ages of 18 and 38.
8. The failure to reduce personnel to help relieve a critical manpower shortage for the armed services, war industries, and food production.
Certainly we could not sustain our population at home and our fighting forces abroad on the mental diet furnished by the propaganda of the Office of War Information on domestic issues.  
The American people know why we are at war. Their Congress has appropriated over $300,000,000 for war purposes since July 1 1940.
Their sons are fighting on the seven seas, on far-flung battle lines which encircle the globe, and in the skies over every continent. Unprecedented taxes have been levied upon them to finance this war. Sacrifices, service, sorrow, and travail is our lot until we have finished the task of destroying the military power of the Axis which threatens all we hold dear. The American people are determined that nothing shall deter them from this task. They know who we are fighting, why we are fighting and for what we are fighting. They need no ministry of propaganda to censor press releases on domestic programs. They need no group of propagandists to preach state socialism at Government expense. I challenge any listener or protagonist of the Domestic Operations Branch to cite a single worthwhile contribution made to our armed forces or to our people on the home front by the character and context of the propaganda foisted upon us by pamphlets and publications printed and distributed at Government expense. Much of this work is an affront to our intelligence and our patriotism.
A free, untrammeled press is one of the most potent arms of a democracy. It is a tower of strength for a free people. We have a free press which can be relied upon to faithfully, accurately, and fairly report upon the doings of the Congress and the executive branch of the Government. The people can be relied upon to act intelligently when facts are fairly presented. Censorship of the press and colorization of the news on domestic policies by a centralized Government agency will blanket the fires of freedom burning on the hearthstones of our people. I repeat, America needs no Goebbels sitting in Washington to tell the American press what to publish or the American people why we are at war. America needs no Virginio Gayda sitting in Washington to hand out tinged news on domestic policies or to influence our thoughts and actions.