Robert E. Sherwood on avoiding election coverage bias at Voice of America
By Ted Lipien
I disagree with some of Donald Trump’s views, including his comments about Vladimir Putin, but I am appalled by what has become a highly partisan and biased Voice of America (VOA) coverage of Trump’s run for the White House. As VOA’s acting associate director at the end of my federal career in the mid-2000s, one of my duties was to oversee the VOA Central English Newsroom. I also had worked earlier as a reporter for a VOA language service, and sometimes for VOA English.
In those years, nearly everyone I had worked with knew that we had to leave our personal opinions at home and be as nonpartisan and objective in reporting on U.S. politics as humanly possible. Perhaps, a few VOA reporters who held strong political views — the Central Newsroom seemed to had been dominated by Democrats and East European foreign language services by Republicans — sometimes allowed their personal biases to show to a small degree. According to my observations, it happened mostly in central English output. But I remember that I and most of my colleagues were making every effort to remain absolutely neutral while still providing all pertinent information, opinions, and analysis, and trying hard not to be boring.
There has been a drastic change at VOA since then. These days, some VOA reporters don’t even bother to hide their political preferences, posting anti-Trump memes on their personal Facebook pages. It can be a Trump meme with a Nazi swastika which can be seen by anybody even on a personal Facebook page, while at work they translate anti-Trump campaign videos without offering next to them any countervailing content. The lack of direction and leadership is glaring.
The current Voice of America under the Broadcasting Board of Governors has become almost a free for all when it comes to U.S. political news coverage and quite a few other topics. I attribute it to a nearly complete lack of oversight by the BBG and an effective leadership vacuum at VOA that have lasted for years.
Sadly, these trends have intensified in recent months. While the new BBG CEO John Lansing appears to be a competent and honorable private sector manager, it seems to me that neither he nor the new VOA director Amanda Bennett has been told much about the history of U.S. international broadcasting as a public institution to fully understand its role and traditions. If they do, then as many in Congress have concluded, it is simply impossible even for two competent individuals without prior government service and foreign policy/public diplomacy experience to change the organization under its current dysfunctional structure. Having one CEO is not a solution, and neither is privatization of the Voice of America. Only Congress can offer a legislation to implement drastic reforms; but it has to be done right.
I don’t particularly blame new BBG leadership or newer VOA reporters because the VOA history they may have learned from the entrenched bureaucracy and one or two amateur historians writing about the organization is both incomplete and misleading. There is nepotism and hiring standards are considerably less strict than in the past. The BBG employs countless poorly vetted, exploited and unhappy contractors. Federal employees also feel mistreated. The BBG board has had far too many private sector managers as its members, some of whom have done business in countries like Russia and China and may be exposed to potential conflicts of interest. Focused on business solutions and technology rather than mission-oriented (not commercial) content and impact, they have not been fostering the original congressional purpose of U.S. international broadcasting organizations the way American taxpayers expect them to do.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Voice of America did not start out as a news organization devoted to telling the truth no matter what. It started out during World War II as a propaganda machine in the service of the White House and was guilty of incredible sins of disinformation, bias, censorship and coverup of Soviet crimes against humanity. It was dominated during the war by strongly partisan individuals and quite a few Soviet sympathizers. They did not believe Stalin could do anything wrong and wanted to protect America’s military ally in the war with Nazi Germany at any price, including freedom and independence of smaller nations. Not even the State Department approved of some of the misleading VOA propaganda.
Eventually, VOA paid the price for these sins. Its parent organization, the Office of War Information (OWI), was promptly dissolved after the war and VOA was put in the State Department to increase oversight for its broadcasts and personnel. A few wartime VOA broadcasters went to work for communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, not to prevent VOA from competing with private U.S. media, which was a minor consideration, but to ensure that pro-Soviet propaganda, partisan reporting, and hiring of foreign agents would not continue during the Cold War. Lawmakers also did not want such abuses to spread to U.S. domestic media through commercial sharing of Voice of America programs on American stations or in American newspaper articles. VOA was lucky not to lose its funding from the angry Congress altogether. Since VOA was still doing poorly against communism, Congress later made secret appropriations to establish Radio Free Europe, which did much better in this area, but not in U.S. public diplomacy, which remained VOA’s specialization in addition to news reporting.
Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America executives and journalists should keep these historical facts in mind if some of them happen to think that the 1976 VOA Charter is optional when it comes to showing personal biases and expressing personal opinions. In the era of the Internet, anti-Trump VOA coverage is easily available to nearly all American voters, including those who use foreign languages. Congress will not be happy if it turns out that VOA reporting is influencing U.S. elections. Subsequently, Bernie Sanders’s supporters joined Trump supporters in complaining about biased Voice of America reporting and commentaries. This can easily lead to eventual defunding of VOA.
Congress is already threatening privatization of the Voice of America, perhaps not realizing that it would make biased and partisan reporting by VOA even more likely, as VOA would become like the National Public Radio (NPR) but still remain, probably not for long, 100% taxpayer-funded. Keeping track of who works for VOA and represents America to the world would be nearly impossible if it were de-federalized. Hostile foreign governments would try hard to infiltrate such a private organization. Knowing what I know about the agency and its management, de-federalization of the Voice of America would be a complete disaster and a threat to U.S. security. By allowing partisanship, agency executives and a few (not all) journalists who practice it are threatening VOA’s future when it is still much needed abroad in countries where information is scarce or censored.
The founding father of the Voice of America, American playwright and President Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert E. Sherwood, was a highly partisan but brilliant individual who held strong liberal opinions and was an enthusiastic supporter and implementor of close coordination of Voice of America and Soviet propaganda during World War II. He issued propaganda directives to VOA and included in them some of the Soviet propaganda directives he tried hard to obtain in meetings with Soviet officials. But he was also politically savvy to understand that in order to push his ideological agenda, he had to at least pretend that the Voice of America was above domestic politics and remained nonpartisan in its reporting on U.S. presidential elections. This has been largely lost under the Broadcasting Board of Governors and VOA’s management team, even though the BBG board is bipartisan.
A statement on U.S. election coverage presumably written by Robert E. Sherwood was placed in The Congressional Record by John W. Murphy, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, on May 26, 1944. It is important to keep in mind that the wartime VOA was not exactly how Sherwood had described it in his statement. He was after all a great master of domestic and foreign public relations. But while contrary to official declarations, VOA employed many partisan individuals who engaged in pro-administration and pro-Soviet propaganda, some of his advice on how VOA should cover U.S. elections remains as valid today as it was then.
It’s quite clear that Robert E. Sherwood was above all a propagandist when he says that “[e]very attempt should be made to create the best possible impression of both candidates.” That certainly should not be VOA’s role, but the rest of his statement is worth paying attention to. His directives are preceded by another statement, which is not clearly attributed. It may have been delivered by the Office of War Information Director Elmer Davis and repeated by Congressman John W. Murphy.
STATEMENT POSSIBLY ORIGINATED BY AN OWI OFFICIAL:
“Inasmuch as the Office of War Information is primarily a news organization, the public may be interested in the policies which it is following in dealing with news of the Presidential campaign.”
“We are a war agency, staffed by members of both political parties or of no party, existing to serve a national interest which would not be served by any partisan misrepresentation or misinterpretation of the news.”
“These must be the objectives of an American war information agency, regardless of what administration may be in power; they will still be the objectives on January 21, 1945, no matter who may have been inaugurated as President the day before. Accordingly, we have followed and shall continue to follow the policy laid down in May 1943, with, my complete approval, by Robert E. Sherwood, Director of the Overseas Branch [which included Voice of America]. This declaration, which to my knowledge has never been published, is as follows:”
STATEMENT ATTRIBUTED TO ROBERT E. SHERWOOD:
“We should advertise and dramatize the fact of the campaign and the free election as a demonstration of American democracy is continuing freely in the midst of war. Every attempt should be made to create the best possible impression of both candidates, with absolute impartiality; for one or the other of them will become the President of the United States, and it will then be our duty to convince the world of his good faith, his statesmanship, and his wisdom in handling all the manifold problems of the war and beyond the war.”
“In accordance with that policy, and in pursuance of these objectives outlined in the foregoing, we conduct our foreign news service. It is as accurate and truthful as possible but its content is determined to some extent by the interest of foreign audiences, most of whom care little about the details of American politics. Generally speaking, what they want to know about the forthcoming election is simply this: Will whoever may be elected be determined to conduct the war to complete victory, and will the successful candidate and party be willing to cooperate with other nations in some form of collective effort to keep the peace hereafter?”
“Beyond that, much news of great importance to the American publics of little or no interest overseas. This is true of most purely domestic issues; though the self-governing nations of the British Commonwealth and such neutral democracies as Sweden and Switzerland have a good deal of interest in the workings of American democracy, and in such of our problems as happen to resemble problems of their own. In such cases our staff is under instruction to report the issues objectively, without partisanship or editorializing on either side. Otherwise we say little about domestic issues to foreign audiences.”
“We endeavor to maintain a general balance between Republican and Democratic statements that will give the world a fair impression of the principles of both sides, but we do not aim at a rigid mathematical equality;
we make as wide as possible a selection of quotations from political personalities of all parties, and we use whatever there may be in their statements that serves the purposes of a war agency promoting the national interest abroad.”
Disclosure: Ted Lipien is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch.