Voice of America – Losing The Information War: Wishful Thinking Versus Reality
By The Federalist
A new addition to the narrative regarding the future of US Government international broadcasting is presented by Mollie King, a senior analyst with the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and a former longstanding Voice of America (VOA) employee. Ms. King’s comments come by way of an op-ed piece on The Hill’s “Congress Blog,” titled “Is it news, or is it propaganda?” (July 22, 2014).
In commenting about legislation passed unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HR 4490), Ms. King asserts, “…while the House bill would address some of the issues that have negatively impacted U.S. international broadcasting, it doesn’t go far enough in effecting real reform.”
To some people, the bill not going far enough in effecting real reform means not shutting down VOA completely.
On the other hand, if our reading of Ms. King’s commentary is correct, the argument being made is that US Government international broadcasting should be organized completely under the Voice of America, implying that the grantee broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) should be done away with.
Ms. King’s vision of “reform” is not going to happen for a variety of reasons, many of them delineated in the Findings and Declarations contained in the bill.
Contrary to Ms. King’s overview, the bill is a comprehensive effort to reform US Government international broadcasting, driven by an agency that has demonstrated itself to be dysfunctional and defunct.
US Government international broadcasting has been made a mess, in large measure by actions at the top echelons of the agency, including the BBG, the IBB and senior VOA officials.
Congress cannot leave the agency in its current paradigm and in the hands of people who have orchestrated the fiasco. Members of Congress and their staffs know that a serious remedial effort is required.
Ms. King contends that there is “confusion” in US Government international broadcasting because of the “duality” between VOA and the grantees. It’s a favorite argument inside the Cohen Building.
US Government international broadcasting is comprised of legacy institutions. They have constituencies. They have histories. The legislation attempts to maintain these entities, improve their performance and deal with underlying issues that impede their effectiveness.
Understandably, US Government international broadcasting is structured to address different circumstances: VOA has the broad, overarching world view while the grantees have a much tighter regional and country specific focus.
In addition to having all of US Government international broadcasting subsumed under VOA, Ms. King and others have attempted to narrow the focus of the legislation to one issue. The argument is concentrated on the subject of news content versus what opponents label as “propaganda.”
The Congress has made clear that the model favored by opponents to the legislation – the agency as a news-only outlet – is not going to happen. It is non-negotiable.
HR 4490 targets what Congress sees as a failure on the part of VOA in carrying out the VOA Charter in its entirety, especially provisions 2 and 3. These provisions call for (a) a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions and (b) presenting the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and responsible discussions and opinions on these policies.
We put the same questions to Ms. King as we have to others:
- How does the VOA carry out its obligations under provisions 2 and 3 of the VOA Charter?
- What are specific examples in current VOA programming these provisions of the Charter call for?
Another issue opponents to the legislation struggle to rationalize – or choose to ignore – is widespread mismanagement. This is not only in the broadcast mission but also includes matters of operational mismanagement and questionable spending of its fiscal resources. The opponents do not want to see the causes and effects.
Once again, a reading of the Findings and Declarations of HR 4490 are important to understand the full scope of the cumulative effects of agency mismanagement – which senior agency officials are either unwilling and/or incapable of correcting. Mismanagement of the agency’s mission is of the kind that compounds itself with the passage of time.
While action on the House bill and a similar one in the Senate are being processed, it is important to pay close attention to what the agency is doing in the meantime:
- At the top of the list is the agency’s unilateral abandoning – without notice – a sizeable portion of its international radio broadcasts and audiences.
- The agency is almost completely silent in countries like China, Iran and Russia – never a good thing even in the best of circumstances.
- Internet interdiction of agency programs is very successful in these countries and elsewhere, particularly when countries exchange, expand and improve upon interdiction technologies.
In so many words, the agency – with particular regard to the VOA – is doing a masterful job of putting itself out of business.
In effect, the agency doesn’t have a good grip on the first provision of the Charter: to be a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. As we have noted previously, a large part of the agency’s credibility comes from what its audiences attach to it broadcasts and program content.
No audience ultimate equates with no credibility.
And further, the vacuum created by terminated broadcasts are likely to be filled with other broadcasts, some outwardly hostile toward the United States.
Last but not least, senior agency officials have come out publicly in opposition to the legislation. It would be one thing if the legislation were not warranted. To the contrary, it is supremely warranted.
In short, what these officials are doing is holding the national and public interest hostage to an odious status quo.
We have come to the conclusion that the top priority these officials have is not the agency’s mission but preservation of their self-interest:
- The situation calls for strict standards of oversight and accountability.
- The situation calls for the elimination of those elements within the agency that are an impediment to mission success.
Provisions for oversight and accountability are manifest in HR 4490 and it has the news-only-outlet advocates harrumphing, trying to divert attention away from how badly the agency has imploded as a Federal agency.
Agency officials are not entitled to a free pass and bear full responsibility for what is to come.
We have long maintained that the IBB has intended to take the agency out of the business of international broadcasting. Its actions speak brazenly and loudly in this regard.
Perpetuating business as usual seriously undermines US national and public interests and wastes much needed public funds.
This is completely unacceptable with the track record the agency has established over the last ten years.
The legislation of HR 4490 is very necessary. It should be passed by the Congress and signed by the president.
Absent the legislation, VOA fails to serve its intended purpose and is on the fast track to the final chapter in its history. Just call it, “The Oblivion Express.”