BBG Watch Guest Commentary
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Good journalism is always good public diplomacy
By Ted Lipien
Voice of America report from Paris fails to point out absence of top U.S. leaders.
As noted on this site, a text and video report by VOA English News from the Paris Solidarity March on Sunday failed to point out the glaring absence of any top U.S. government leaders or mention the ensuing controversy. If I were a VOA correspondent from the United States covering such an event, it would be the first thing I would have noticed and certainly report on it, if not in the lead sentence, then near the top. This public diplomacy blunder on the part of the United States should have been reported right away by VOA even if it could not be immediately explained.
It was noted in an earlier BBG Watch commentary, that the VOA report cried out for an explanation as to why President Obama, Vice President Biden or Secretary of State Kerry were not in Paris, but no explanation was provided in the initial VOA video and text report.
Late Sunday, VOA posted online a report on the controversy, but it was not VOA’s own news item. Instead, VOA posted a report from UK-based Reuters news agency.
On Monday, VOA finally had its own very short news report on the White House admitting it “erred in not sending a top official to attend a solidarity rally in France following last week’s terror attacks in Paris.”
Watch video of the Paris march by VOA’s Al Pessin:
The video report on the VOA site is from a VOA senior foreign correspondent, Al Pessin, who last summer published an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, “Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real,” in which he wrote something I agree with, at least in part:
AL PESSIN: “The VOA charter says, ‘The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world.’ The charter also says, ‘To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners.’ You can’t win respect and communicate if no one is listening, and people will stop listening if Congress transforms VOA into a Russian- or Chinese-style state broadcaster.”
I do not believe at all that members of Congress who voted unanimously for the bipartisan bill, H.R. 4490, which Mr. Pessin criticized in his op-ed, intended to turn VOA into a RT-like state broadcaster. But there has been some confusion what the VOA Charter means. Mr. Pessin argued in his op-ed, which reflected his own views, not VOA management’s views or those of the parent federal agency, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), that VOA has no direct role in U.S. public diplomacy as a tool of U.S. foreign policy.
I agree. VOA has no business actively promoting foreign policy of any particular U.S. administration, whether Democratic or Republican. It would indeed be in many cases counterproductive. VOA is, however, required to present U.S. policies “clearly and effectively,” and also “present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”
Policies of any U.S. administration may be misguided and poorly articulated in official public diplomacy pronouncements (think “Reset” with Russia and Cuba). These policies, some of which may lack the support of the clear majority of American people, may be later changed or reversed. That’s why the VOA Charter, which offers a longer vision for VOA, is such a crucial document for good journalism. An improved version of H.R. 4490 ought to be passed by the current Congress and signed by the President to ensure that management reforms are carried out at VOA and BBG. It would help the new BBG CEO, Andy Lack, to implement the necessary changes to restore high standards of news reporting. Good journalism is sufficient for, but not part of, good U.S. official public diplomacy as practiced by the State Department and the White House, not VOA.
The VOA Charter calls for a different role for VOA in public diplomacy than what some may imagine or fear. It requires first of all VOA to produce fact-based, hard-hitting and balanced journalism for the benefit of its audiences. VOA is also required to do this for the benefit of and on behalf of all political, ethnic, racial, social and cultural groups that make up the United States. VOA journalism amounts to U.S. taxpayer-paid public service of presenting to the world what can be verified and reported as true and reporting key opinions on current affairs: politics, economics, social and cultural issues. In that sense, it is public diplomacy abroad on behalf of free speech representing all Americans and their views — not public diplomacy of only a U.S. administration currently in power. But VOA is clearly required by the VOA Charter to report on U.S. policies and on any significant criticism or praise of these policies.
Noting the absence of any top U.S. officials at the Paris Solidarity March and perhaps seeking and quoting critical comments from American newsmakers and including them in the initial VOA report from Paris would have added to VOA’s credibility as a journalistic organization and would have served long term public diplomacy interests of the United States, making America better understood and making America’s image abroad perhaps slightly more positive in light of an official public diplomacy mishap. Even the White House admitted later that it had made a public diplomacy error.
It’s possible that an overburdened VOA correspondent had his report inappropriately shortened or changed in editing or posting online, which has happened before. But ignoring the issue of the low level of U.S. delegation in Paris in the initial VOA video and text reports as seen online was a journalistic or editing mistake, which I attribute to inadequate leadership at VOA Central News and poor management of the entire Voice of America during the last few years.
Ted Lipien, a former VOA acting associate director, is a founding member of the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org). He helped to launch our all-volunteer watch dog website.