A Guest Commentary
BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from Paul Westpheling, Former General Vice-President of AFGE Local 1812, former member of the Union Executive Board, a member in good standing of the union who retired from Voice of America (VOA) in 2013 after a 25+ year career as an English radio broadcaster. Views expressed are only those of the authors and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.
We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.
It has been gut-wrenching for those of us who have given most of our working life to VOA to watch the back and forth over the Royce-Engel legislation. Your leadership is urgently required. I hope what I’ve heard from many different quarters isn’t true … that you just don’t care.
HR 4490 would change VOA’s mission and charter by making it an overt tool of public diplomacy under the direction of the State Department instead of remaining an objective, unbiased and trusted source of news and information as it has been since the VOA Charter was passed by Congress and signed by President Ford in 1976.
The opposition clings to the somewhat naïve view that to defeat HR 4490 would be a victory for journalistic purity of purpose by keeping VOA out of the policy promoting business. That is faulty logic and everyone in VOA knows that. For years VOA has presented editorials, which are policy statements from the government, so a component of public diplomacy is already in place.
I would like to begin by emphasizing two words: substantive content. The best way to attract an international audience that believes in what the United States stands for is to be credible, believable and trustworthy. Ask any parent about diplomatic approaches to their children. Editorials outline policy … the VOA Charter attracts a following. An audience won’t listen just to hear policy.
The current structure has been broken for many years and is need of a complete overhaul. Replacing the current structure is the best approach, but HR 4490 is a poorly written substitute.
Mr. President, the BBG Board of Governors is indeed dysfunctional. There is certainly no shortage of possible explanations, but here’s food for thought. The part-time board meets once a month or even less frequently. Some members spend the time and energy to do their homework, but not all. That has left the foxes in charge of the chicken coop.
For the most part, the nine-member part-time Board can’t agree on how to give directions to the nearest water cooler, leaving BBG senior staff to provide advice, and that’s the real problem. Staff does what it pleases, knowing nobody can force them to do otherwise. One of those senior managers has said over the years he hates broadcasting VOA in English. June 30th, VOA English shortwave radio stopped, except to Africa. He has said he hates broadcasting using shortwave and look what has happened to that dependable legacy medium.
The BBG senior staff will claim – and indeed they have claimed for years – what they do has the approval of the board. But one recent board member told me: “If a decision was made that I thought ill-advised, it would have been a cold day in hell before I could have it vetted much less overturned. They (the senior staff) always presented tons of paperwork substantiating their proposals. We didn’t have time to read the material so it was approved, oftentimes with little scrutiny. Senior staff just didn’t like some of us meddling in their domain.”
If a member of the BBG Board had trouble getting anything done and the senior staff could cook the books at will, why would the senior BBG and IBB staff listen to the Board knowing they wouldn’t be disciplined, much less replaced? A better snake oil sales staff can’t be found anywhere on earth.
The entire structure of International Broadcasting can be fixed by appointing a strong CEO to run U.S. International Broadcasting.
Congress is at least trying and soon will consider the ill-conceived plan to change this institution. However it is you, Mr. President, who needs to become more involved. Given the political climate these days, I realize it will be difficult to do. But spreading truth, not peppered with overt propaganda, is a must if VOA is to win hearts and minds. Actually I should say win back hearts and minds. The world used to tune-in VOA, but now once-loyal listeners are flocking to the BBC and Al Jazeera … places where people now get what is perceived to be unbiased information.
Simply put, Mr. President, you need to say to the world, “I have your back.”
Nobody likes propaganda, at least not those yearning to be free. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia and Radio and TV Marti do surrogate broadcasting. But remember, all of them combined have only 30 percent of the audience for U.S. International Broadcasting. It is indeed puzzling why VOA gets only 30 percent of the funding. VOA needs more resources and support for its mission, and protection from those who would take the VOA brand and ruin it by making it an arm of the State Department. It also needs strong leadership and support from you.
Also remember: countries with sinister ideological agendas are spending untold billions on their own propaganda games. Propaganda is certainly not substantive content.
Fix what’s broken in the management structure but please don’t change the Charter or VOA by making it an arm of the State Department.
Paul Westpheling, Former General Vice-President of AFGE Local 1812, former member of the Union Executive Board, a member in good standing of the union who retired from Voice of America (VOA) in 2013 after a 25+ year career as an English radio broadcaster.