BBG Watch Commentary

An analysis by FAIR of the New York Times article about the Voice of America (VOA) and VOA’s oversight agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), includes some good points, but also fails to grasp many of the complexities of the current state of U.S. international media outreach. FAIR, which describes itself as a “progressive” national media watch group working for fairness and accuracy in reporting, itself seems to fall for and promote in its short analysis what we believe to be the entirely false equivalence between the Voice of America and Russian state media.

Russia’s RT practices mostly disinformation and propaganda mixed with some legitimate news. RT does not engage in what most U.S. experts would call traditional Western public diplomacy, which usually does not resort to outright deception and lies.

In our view, VOA does not currently engage in much public diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. administration, although we have noticed more of one-sided reporting and pro-administration commentaries in recent months. VOA is definitely badly managed and often fails to report quickly and fully on U.S. foreign policy, which it is required to do under its VOA Charter.

It is not clear to what extent either the White House or the Congress want VOA to “make its news more propagandistic,” as the FAIR analysis claims. The Congress definitely wants VOA and the agency to be more effective and better managed. Presumably the White House and the State Department also want better management and less bureaucratic waste.

Some administration officials may also want VOA to play a more active role in support of President Obama’s foreign policy, but to our knowledge no member of the current administration made a public statement asking for it.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate presumably would not want VOA to support a foreign policy for which there in no national consensus and bipartisan support. But both Republicans and Democrats would probably agree that VOA’s mission and the mission of BBG’s surrogate broadcasters should be consistent with long-term U.S. policy objectives, such as belief in democratic institutions and broadly defined human rights.

The bipartisan legislation, H.R. 4490, which was passed last year by the House of Representatives but never acted upon by the U.S. Senate, appeared to want to assign more of a public diplomacy role in support of U.S. foreign policy to VOA while charging the BBG’s surrogate broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) with “countering propaganda,” but not necessarily with propaganda of their own.

None of these distinctions were made sufficiently clear in the H.R. 4490 bill. For example, it is doubtful that Republican lawmakers would want VOA to promote rapprochement with Cuba and Iran, which many of them oppose.

Therefore, any connection between journalism and foreign policy is far more nuanced and complex than FAIR and New York Times articles managed to present. The H.R. 4490 was focused in any case largely on management reforms. The legislation may be reintroduced this year with a slightly revised language.

FAIR analysis criticizes the New York Times report for not explaining the difference between “propaganda” and “public diplomacy, but the FAIR article does not explain it either. The author oversimplifies the issue by stating that propaganda appears to be what “they” do while the latter is what “we” do.

FAIR: In other words, they’re insisting that VOA make its news more propagandistic. And the New York Times refers consistently to this goal throughout the article as “countering propaganda.”
When you have arguably the US’s most prestigious for-profit media outlet describing government propaganda as “efforts to counter propaganda,” it’s pretty clear that the nation’s demand for propaganda is going to be met–whether by the public or the private sector.

READ MORE: They Have ‘Propaganda,’ US Has ‘Public Diplomacy’–and a Servile Private Sector — FAIR. We also recommend reading the comments posted by FAIR readers.

VOA already has a Charter, which represents a good compromise between a completely independent journalism, which rarely exists when corporate or government sponsors are involved, and taxpayer-funded fact-based and objective journalism with a clear public purpose. What the Congress and the administration should do is to make sure that journalism is protected while at the same time carrying out major management reforms.

Many members of Congress believe that the best way to achieve this is by separating the Voice of America from the surrogate broadcasters. Some members of the administration seem to favor more centralization of control and management. This, in our view would lead to even more dysfunction by denying VOA and surrogate broadcasters their distinctive roles and facilitating further growth of the Washington bureaucracy.