by The Federalist
Let’s take a moment to review the VOA Charter:
“The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought 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.”
Gerald R Ford
President of the United States
Signed: July 12, 1976
Public Law 94-350
There you have it: the keys to mission success for US international broadcasting, which — in addition to radio — is now also using satellite television, Internet, and digital phone technology to deliver programs to its intended audiences abroad.
On the other hand, the BBG has its own mission statement:
“To inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”
They are not the same. Thus, there are questions:
What does the BBG statement mean? How is the BBG going to go about its mission statement?
And more pointedly, what is the intended outcome? What constitutes “support?”
If you asked individual members of the BBG to write down what its mission statement means, it wouldn’t be surprising if you came up with as many different explanations as there are BBG members.
In controlled societies where the American interpretation of “freedom and democracy” doesn’t exist, what is to be accomplished?
There’s a word missing from the BBG’s “new” mission statement:
For example, how does the BBG explain US actions juxtaposed to the concepts of “freedom and democracy?” How does the BBG intend to explain how the world’s greatest democracy reaches agreements with non-democratic regimes, such as the agreement to base drone aircraft in Ethiopia? How does the BBG explain its agreement with the Ethiopian government to censor Ethiopian dissidents from Amharic or other VOA Horn of Africa Service programs?
How does the BBG explain that after years of US and Allied intervention and sacrifice to free Afghanistan from the stranglehold of the Taliban, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, says that Afghanistan would join Pakistan in a war with the United States?
Since it isn’t expressly stated, would we trust the BBG to explain any issue of consequence, in detail?
The intended trajectory of the BBG’s “new” mission statement appears to be to dummy down detailed news content. Indeed, we hear that a term of art making its way around the VOA Newsroom is that the agency is going to take a “holistic” approach to news. What is that? It makes it sound as if the BBG is a repository for some kind of New Age mumbo-jumbo.
As part of this trajectory, the agency seems to intend that US international broadcasting is going to be reduced to nothing more than a social media, chit-chat website. Is that what the BBG is talking about when it says it is going to “connect” people?
This is why, as Secretary of State Clinton says, “We are losing the information war.” At the end of the day, the BBG isn’t doing the things required to maintain US credibility around the world. To all appearances, it is going down the pathway of sound-bite superficiality.
The VOA Charter is a clear articulation of what constitutes the purpose and intent of US international broadcasting, what we need to communicate to world audiences.
Here is a truism about “freedom and democracy:” these are high maintenance concepts and processes. They require constant attention. Otherwise, there can be grave consequences. The consequences can be social, economic and political. One need only pick up an American newspaper and read the variety of issues confronting American society or the democratic societies in Western Europe. You get the picture quickly of what can happen when the vigilance that freedom and democracy requires goes lax.
“Freedom and democracy” aren’t out-of-the-box, ready to work constructs. They require a plan. In the American Experience, the plan would include the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. How transferable are these foundation principles to societies with no history of these principles in their own historical record and experiences?
And at every step, even in the most ideal circumstances, there are obstacles and unforeseen events that test the strength of these processes.
What the BBG’s “new” mission statement does is to trivialize the complexities and come up with a superficial approach to those complexities.
When the rubber meets the road, another ultimate truism is that freedom is not free. It can come at great cost. Add up the number of American wars over three centuries and the beginning of a fourth (from the 18th through the present 21st centuries). We are presently in the beginning observances of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. This war was and remains a defining moment in the American Experience. How is this signal event explained in the context of the BBG’s mission statement?
Consider also the various economic cycles experienced in this country, including the Great Depression and various recession cycles. How does the BBG intend to explain that free market societies, this comes as part of the package of “freedom and democracy.”
Also consider the civil rights movement and other protest movements, including the present “Occupy Wall Street.”
What the VOA Charter does is present a comprehensive definition and plan as to what US international broadcasting is supposed to do. The BBG’s “new” mission statement does neither. It is elusive and ambiguous. By deviating from the charter and attempting to substitute its own mission statement, the BBG undermines mission effectiveness of US international broadcasting. It substantially narrows the mission to one expected outcome: freedom and democracy. If this outcome is unachievable, in its effect, the BBG will have failed and thus have no mission. It is already far along in this catastrophe in Russia, the Arab and Muslim world and as it intends, in China.
“Freedom and democracy” are often used as buzz words to elicit a response or manipulate public opinion. Of late, it is often thrown around by individuals or organizations caught up in political unrest as a way of attempting to legitimize or garner support for events that have no certain outcome.
The BBG is playing the same game. In its case, the intended audience is the US Congress. Who isn’t “in support of freedom and democracy?” It is an optimum use of a phrase intended to optimize the BBG ability to get increased funding.
For this reason, members of the Congress should be wary. The record of the BBG leaves a lot to be desired, in Russia, the Middle East and if carried out, in China. Instead of giving the BBG a free pass, members of Congress need to be asking tough questions and getting factual responses. If those responses aren’t forthcoming from the BBG (and its penchant for oxymoronic phrases and other mumbo-jumbo), it should seek out answers from third parties independent of the BBG who are subject matter proficient on US international broadcasting.
Things have changed. American taxpayers do not like to be used as ATM machines involving programs they don’t understand, don’t see as important in their daily lives and are symbolic of government waste. That is today’s environment and it is an environment that needs to be communicated clearly and unequivocally to the BBG and its IBB handlers.
Not long into the unrest in Egypt that toppled the Mubarak government, Senator John Kerry opined that, “It is too early to do a victory lap for freedom and democracy in the Middle East.” The senator is correct. The BBG needs to heed these words, get itself out of its self-inflicted fog and get down to the real business of US international broadcasting as embodied in the VOA Charter.
November 1, 2011