BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This commentary is from an anonymous journalist who works at the Voice of America (VOA).
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Has The Voice of America Outlived Its Usefulness?
By Anonymous Journalist Currently with the Voice of America
An influential Hill aide was reported to have recently wondered aloud to former, now-retired VOA Senior White House Correspondent Dan Robinson “Has VOA outlived its usefulness?” It’s a sure bet that question is being asked by other Hill aides as well, and by their bosses in the House and Senate. VOA has done a terrible job justifying its existence to its funders, and for that its leaders should be fired. A leader can do no worse damage to an organization than to allow its very existence to be called into question. That alone is sufficient reason to show them the door.
It is doubtful the question would have even been raised had the agency performed better in employee morale surveys and leadership. Employee morale at VOA has for years been among the lowest of any federal agency, with no signs that it will improve — weak-hearted efforts to better morale by the agency’s hapless leaders notwithstanding. And its leaders are consistently ranked by its employees as among the worst-performing and the worst at communicating with their staff. Oh, the irony. They are in charge of communicating America’s story to the world.
These are the kinds of things – low morale, incompetent management, poor performance — that bring an agency onto the radar of a busy Congress. And, as we have seen, that is not a good thing; it can cause some members to ask whether the agency is more trouble than it is worth.
But what if morale was at least good, and the agency’s leaders were high-performing, forward-looking and engaged? Would that necessarily translate into a larger audience for the now-faded Voice? Is there a place for a government-funded news operation in a democracy? Is there an audience anymore for what VOA is producing — at least one that is large enough to justify the hundreds of millions of federal tax dollars the agency needs to operate every year? Has VOA outlived its usefulness? Can such an agency thrive in peacetime America or should we leave the export of American values to commercial networks and Hollywood?
It seems to me that in order to be an effective voice, or advocate, you have to be shameless, one-sided and absolutely convinced that you are right and the other side is wrong — or at least be a good enough actor so as to be able to persuade others that you are a true believer. Nuance is the enemy of this kind of communication, although that doesn’t mean stridency is the correct approach, either. You have to be ruthless, outrageous and willing to go against common decency and common sense in the hope that, although most of what you broadcast is seen by the consumer as hogwash, at least some of it will sink in.
Americans despise propaganda; the very word is offensive and usually uttered with a sneer. And spending tax dollars on a propaganda effort, even though it happens, is not something we want to be confronted with. But in order to be effective, a salesperson has to work not just to build up their side but destroy the other side. You can’t be an honest broker. And we perceive ourselves as gallant, as above the fray, as truth-tellers. RT, the Kremlin-owned international broadcaster, and CCTV, the Beijing-owned international broadcaster, are unabashed champions for their funders. They serve their masters, not the truth. In their presentations, not only is their side preferable and gallant and right, but Western nations are, at best, misguided, and probably evil. These two broadcasters embrace that theme wholeheartedly in a way VOA and other Western government-owned broadcasters simply cannot; their funders just wouldn’t allow it. We think we’re better than that. We recoil at the thought of spreading distortions or outright lies, or even giving a shaded or slanted perspective. We want our efforts to serve the truth, not the state.
With that in mind, it seems legitimate to ask if VOA, which was created to help win World War II, should continue to exist. It is clear that US international broadcasting is in desperate need of a re-boot; it has been poorly-managed for years. Its leaders are uninspired, bureaucratic, stuck in the 70s and wholly unqualified to take VOA into a new direction. But when all of the changes have taken place, new managers hired and morale improved, it is still not clear VOA will be able to justify to the American people and their representatives in Congress its $200 million annual funding.
Call me biased, but I think VOA should continue to broadcast. Certainly not with its current managers and in its current state of employee morale, but it should continue doing what it has been doing with a narrowed focus. VOA Director David Ensor said it better than I can in a column in which he asked, rhetorically, “why should the U.S. government fund a VOA when the world already has an American network in the form of CNN?” I encourage you to read that column, which has been heavily criticized by some for its lack of grounding in reality, in its entirety here: http://www.insidevoa.com/content/voa-in-2020/1959552.html Let me repeat again, a leader can do no worse damage to an organization than to allow its very existence to be called into question.
A reform bill recently approved by a unanimous voice vote in the House says VOA should get back to telling the world America’s story. That may be the only hope the agency has of maintaining its funding. Writing in Time recently, Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Jeff Shell said VOA’s mission is to “(serve) its audiences around the world while promoting the interests of the United States.” All journalists, particularly VOA journalists critical of the reform bill, rightly recoil at Shell’s use of the word “promote.” But they might take some comfort in knowing that just doing good journalism about the United States promotes the country’s interests. Still, leaders of the organization would do well to emphasize “good journalism” in their public statements and downplay their use of the word “promote.”
Critics of the bill have been concerned that the VOA Charter, which has guided the Agency since 1974, will be overridden by the reform legislation. But the Charter is incorporated into the bill, and no one should think that the American people would support the funding of a purely propagandistic organization; that goes against our values and our beliefs.
However, it is also true that VOA has always occupied a netherworld, neither fish nor fowl. Shell points out that it has always been a requirement that what the Agency broadcasts should “be consistent with broad U.S. foreign policy objectives. The BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. In the sense that informing international audiences with news that is consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive is beneficial to U.S. interests, yes — the BBG and its media do serve the state. However, by doing so through credible and balanced reporting, we serve both the state and the citizens of the world.” Such a statement would not be acceptable to journalists working at CNN or CBS or The Washington Post or The Times-Picayune. But then, those organizations aren’t funded by the government. VOA’s money comes with strings attached.
VOA should not consider itself another news agency; the world doesn’t need it and Congress has made it clear it will not spend federal tax dollars for such an operation. The Agency should only exist if it is to tell the world the good, the bad and the ugly about our country, including the effect of US policies in other countries — so this should not be taken as a call to close bureaus. But it seems likely that Congress will no longer support VOA journalists in other countries reporting on events in those countries for the consumption of audiences in those countries; that kind of reporting is going to be left to RFE/RL and other surrogates and to the wire services. And it probably should be.
When VOA reporters tell their audience about the United States, the journalism should be accurate, balanced and objective so as to be credible, and should not be presented as official US government policy; it should not pull punches when it comes to telling about our country’s challenges. As Shell noted in his column, if VOA and other US international broadcasters “were to engage in propaganda or false reporting, our audiences would simply tune us out and we would not be able to accomplish our mission. This is why we work to meet the highest standards of reporting and journalistic integrity.”
“VOA,” he noted, “airs all relevant facts and opinions on important news events and issues.”
But VOA cannot continue as a news agency to the world — AP, AFP, Reuters and others have that market cornered; we don’t need another wire service. VOA already subscribes to these wire services; it should use them to tell the international story and use its own independent, government-funded — but not government-controlled — journalists to tell the world the story of America.