BBG Watch Commentary

LAT LogoAl Pessin, a senior VOA foreign correspondent currently based in London, has written another op-ed in opposition to the bipartisan bill designed to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), including the Voice of America (VOA).

Op-Ed Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real, By Al Pessin, The Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2014. Al Pessin is the senior VOA foreign correspondent, currently based in London. The views expressed are his own.

We provide a link to Mr. Pessin’s op-ed in The Los Angeles Times, but for the sake of accuracy and balance, we would like to point out a few things.

Mr. Pessin fails to mention that the bill he describes as the “Royce bill” is in fact a fully bipartisan bill sponsored not just by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) but also by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and 13 other cosponsors, both Democrats and Republicans who are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Royce is the Committee’s Chairman and Rep. Eliot its Ranking Democratic Member. The bill was approved unanimously by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a bipartisan action.

Since the VOA Charter calls for “balanced” news, we thought it is important to point out on on this issue Mr. Pessin’s op-ed is not balanced. Mr. Pessin’s op-ed is in fact somewhat misleading with its frequent references just to Rep. Royce and the “Royce bill.”

It is in reality the “Royce-Engel” bill. It has full bipartisan support with not a single opposing vote in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It is also largely an administrative reform bill, not a bill designed to limit journalistic independence of VOA correspondents, as Mr. Pessin implies.

Mr. Pessin is also quite wrong that the bill would put VOA correspondents in danger. On the contrary. If anything, a closer association with the U.S. government makes VOA correspondents safer in many countries, not that the bill makes this association any closer than it has been historically. This association was historically much closer than the current bill calls for in the future. It was much closer when Mr. Pessin was reporting from Beijing in 1989.

Voice of America correspondents have always been safer abroad thanks to their perceived link with the U.S. government. That has always been the case. Even governments hostile to the United States are reluctant to take adverse actions against VOA correspondents knowing that they would have to deal with the U.S. government if they did.

That’s why VOA correspondents are safer abroad than Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV) correspondents. Their association with the U.S. government is far weaker than in the case of VOA, and yet they are targets of most attacks and reprisals, much more frequently than VOA correspondents.

Mr. Pessin also should have known that during the Cold War, Voice of America correspondents, then clearly linked with the U.S. government, could sometimes travel in relative safety behind the Iron Curtain, while it was always impossible to travel to Eastern Europe for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty correspondents until about 1989. They would have risked almost certain arrest even if they could receive a visa, which they could not receive in almost all cases. Such are historical and current facts.

On this point, Mr. Pessin is not providing Los Angeles Times readers with accurate information, perhaps because he lacks this historical knowledge.

In general, any correspondent whose salary is paid by U.S. taxpayers cannot be completely safe abroad, whether he works for VOA, RFA, MBN, or Radio and TV Marti, but a closer U.S. government association in the case of VOA correspondents makes them safer in most cases, not less safe. Mr. Pessin should know that even if this bill does not pass, VOA correspondents will always be linked with the U.S. government, which pays their salaries. They are and will always be at risk.

What is particularly disturbing in Mr. Pessin’s op-ed is that he accuses members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, of wanting to commit crimes of propaganda that they specifically denied they want to commit in any shape or form.

Mr. Pessin writes:

VOA ENGLISH CORRESPONDENT AL PESSIN: “we sling mud with the Russian, Chinese and Al Qaeda media, we’ll just get dirty.

The Royce bill (sic) maintains some of the original VOA charter language, requiring “accurate, objective and comprehensive” news, but only in the service of U.S. foreign policy. The two are not compatible. Imagine if U.S. policy had been to downplay Tiananmen to protect relations with China!

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) specifically denied that the bill is designed in any way to limit VOA’s journalistic independence.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): “Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.”

As a believer in the VOA Charter’s requirement of balance, Mr. Pessin should have noted this statement by Rep. Engel.

Mr. Pessin also misinterprets the bill’s wording. The bill does not say that VOA news must be presented “only in the service of U.S. foreign policy.”

What the bill actually says is that all of U.S. international broadcasting, not just VOA programming, should “Be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.” That has always been the case, even for surrogate broadcasters such as RFE/RL and RFA, and it is quite different from broadcasting “only in the service of U.S. foreign policy,” as Mr. Pessin inaccurately wrote. As a VOA correspondent, he should have read the bill. HERE IS A LINK.

The bill also says that all U.S. international broadcasting should “Be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism while remaining consistent with and supportive of the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.”

Being supportive of the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States is a far cry from supporting specific U.S. foreign policies. Historically, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty were always supportive of the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States, such as freedom and democracy, while being free to engage in criticism of specific U.S. foreign policies. The bill changes nothing. In fact, H.R. 4490 has numerous guarantees of VOA’s journalistic freedom and incorporates major elements of the VOA Charter, which VOA executives have been ignoring for many years.

Mr. Pessin also appears to insult the intelligence of members of Congress and many Voice of America journalists who had worked during the Cold War when VOA was still part of the United States Information Agency (USIA) when he writes:

VOA ENGLISH CORRESPONDENT AL PESSIN: “When I tell people here in Ukraine that I’m from Golos Ameriki, they often smile and stop to talk. Many remember VOA from the bad old days, when we were one of their few sources of straight news.

If we want them to tune in today, in a much more competitive media environment, we need to give them broadcasts that honor their commitment to our shared values rather than insult their intelligence.”

The Voice of America, once it received its Charter in 1976, was extremely successful under USIA, far more successful than it is now. Hillary Clinton described all U.S. international broadcasting, including VOA, as being now “defunct” in its ability to engage foreign audiences.

The Royce-Engel bill does not even go as far as reestablishing USIA. There is absolutely no historical or any current real basis for Mr. Pessin to conclude that members of Congress who want to reform a defunct organization would want to propagandize to foreign audiences and to insult intelligence of the Voice of America audience.

Our suggestion to Mr. Pessin is that he should read the bill. Perhaps he would discover significant elements in the bill that would reform a completely dysfunctional management at the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) that has allowed the VOA Newsroom to be decimated while greatly expanding the number of highly-paid bureaucratic jobs.

Under the current management, VOA consistently fails to report on major U.S. news while posting maps showing Crimea to be part of Russia, posting a fake interview with an anti-Putin opposition leader designed to discredit him, mistranslating a comment by a former U.S. Secretary of Defense that was then used by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine against the United States, retweeting Russia’s RT posts as legitimate news, producing dozens of reports on the British royal family while ignoring significant statements by Vice President Biden and Secretary Kerry on Ukraine, and creating a zombie video for audiences in Pakistan with an Uncle Sam character (the United States) as a blood-thirsty zombie.

In our view, the current management and the management structure are by far the greatest threat to journalistic independence of VOA journalists and VOA’s very existence. H.R. 4490 is designed to fix this problem. Mr. Pessin makes only a brief reference to the bill’s real administrative and bureaucratic reform purpose.

It is also important to point out that Mr. Pessin does not speak on behalf of all VOA employees, most of whom appear to be supportive of management reforms and the reform legislation, although they, like us, may want to see some edits in the bill’s wording.

An editorial from the union representing federal employees of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which includes the Voice of America (VOA), says that “after hearing the opinions of many VOA broadcasters including the language services and carefully examining the proposed legislation, the Executive Board of AFGE Local 1812 does share some concerns but believes that the Bill, with a few changes, should be enacted.”

The BBG/VOA employee union also made these comments:

The VOA Charter has been pretty much ignored by those in charge these past dozen years or so. The Voice of America is not a commercial broadcaster. It is financed by U.S. taxpayers who through Congress mandated that:

1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.

Over the past 12 years or so, VOA, under the directives of Agency management, gradually stepped back from fulfilling this first mandate, as it padded its website with Reuters and AP stories, ignoring important statements by U.S. leaders including the President and the Secretary of State, concentrating on frothy stories from the entertainment world and failing to report on multiple critically important international events, to the point where it has much catching up to do to regain its credibility as a source of news to other parts of the globe.

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thoughts and institutions.

Over the past 12 years or so, VOA stopped fulfilling this second mandate as Americana stories were avoided like the plague. Language services were transformed into essentially surrogate broadcasters, with some services on some days not even mentioning any U.S. news, much less U.S. “thoughts and institutions.”

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.

Over the past 12 years or so, VOA stopped fulfilling this third mandate. Some language services simply refused to carry editorials. The English-language newsroom began ignoring statements from top U.S. officials, including the White House, Congress, and the State Department; such information became anathema. Audiences desiring to know about such things turned to Al-Jazeera, the BBC or even Xinhua or Russia Today to find out, in a manner suiting the presenters’ agenda, what the U.S. Secretary of State had said, or hear the statements of the President of the United States on global issues of importance.

In place of the VOA Charter, those in charge concocted a confusing new mission for the Broadcasting Board of Governors: “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy”. The result of this nebulous, touchy-feely goal was that programming suffered and audiences began to dwindle.

In the end, some of the currently entrenched senior management represent a far greater threat to VOA’s journalistic independence, indeed to the very existence of the VOA, by abandoning the Charter and trying to turn VOA into something they envisioned as a global variant of CNN. The U.S. taxpayers and Congress are not providing funding for just another news service. That is why there are three parts to the VOA Charter.

We support the passage of this Bill. However, specific wording should be included that ensures that the news product remains objective and accurate in its presentation, even as it covers news and issues affecting and concerning the United States, including political issues and policies. By doing so, the VOA will serve as an example of the American value of a free press.

VOA should be directly presenting U.S. Government policies and positions and promoting American ideals, but only when these are clearly identified as such. The status quo that avoids some Charter responsibilities is more dangerous to the existence of the VOA than the enactment of this Bill.

It’s time to return the VOA to its original mission of providing unbiased and accurate news, presenting U.S. foreign policy with responsible discussion of such, and bringing the enduring story of America and American ideals to the world. For most of the past 70 years, it was a noble mission. And it worked.

The Los Angeles Times readers would benefit from comparing Mr. Pessin’s op-ed with comments from the employee union representing many of Mr. Pessin’s Voice of America colleagues.