BBG Watch Commentary

Washington Post TwitterWe do not disagree with the Washington Post editorial, “Voice of America needs to keep its objective voice,” because the editorial is largely balanced in its treatment of multiple issues, both mismanagement at the Voice of America (VOA) and the need for objective news reporting.

We have a few clarifications to the Washington Post editorial, but we are pleased that The Washington Post editorial writers also see the need for more precise language in defining VOA’s mission.

We are especially glad, however, that The Washington Post supports most of the management reforms proposed in the bipartisan Royce – Engel U.S. International Broadcasting Reform Legislation. This is after all the main purpose of this bill.

Some of the other editorials and op-eds on this issue lacked this kind of balance and accuracy, including an op-ed from a senior VOA correspondent who tried to present the Royce-Engel fully and unanimously (House Foreign Affairs Committee) bipartisan bill as a partisan bill, calling it “the Royce bill,” and also misquoted some key wording of the bill with regard to foreign policy.

The Washington Post editorial has the key facts right although it lacks some historical knowledge and does not fully and correctly explain some nuances and more minor issues.

WP: “The bill sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking Democrat Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.) would refocus VOA on reporting “United States and international news and information,” which might eliminate some of the overlap. It also would usefully reorganize the management of the surrogates, combining them into one non-federal entity called the Freedom News Network and creating an independent governing board similar to the one that directs the National Endowment for Democracy.”

We also strongly support this reform. Making grantee-surrogate broadcasters more independent from the inept, resources-voracious and unproductive Washington bureaucracy will make the surrogates far more effective. They are already much more effective than the particularly badly managed Voice of America, which needs reforms the most together with the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

The Washington Post editorial points to the need for reform, although its authors do not fully grasp that the greatest need for reform is not among the grantee-surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), but at the Voice of America and the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) powerful bureaucracy: the International Broadcasting Bureau which consumes 34% of the BBG’s budget without producing any programs.

WP: The five international broadcasters funded by the federal government have long suffered from poor organization, bad management and confused missions. Though spending $750 million a year, they lack the slickness of Al Jazeera or Russia Today — not to mention the latter’s single-minded and frequently mendacious retailing of the official line.

The Washington Post editorial rightly raises the question of public perceptions of Voice of America’s objectivity if some of the current language in the bill is not changed.

WP: However, the bill would define VOA as an instrument of U.S. “public diplomacy,” fold it into a new United States International Communications Agency and require programming that “is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.” Quarterly meetings would be required with the State Department undersecretary charged with directing public diplomacy. This mandate inevitably would conflict with VOA’s historic mission of producing “accurate, objective and comprehensive news”; how could stories about controversial subjects such as the Guantanamo Bay prison or National Security Agency spying be “objective” and supportive of U.S. policy? The result could be an exodus of VOA’s best journalists and a steep drop in its credibility with international audiences.

But the writers confuse to some degree support for current U.S. foreign policies with programming consistent “the broad foreign policies of the United States.” They seem to doubt that reporting negative news about U.S. foreign policy would be possible. It would still be possible, however, under the VOA Charter, since its key elements are incorporated into the bill.

Criticizing the U.S. government is not at all inconsistent with “the broad foreign policies of the United States.” It is entirely consistent in a democracy. This “broad foreign policies” formula has always been applied to the grantee-surrogate broadcasters such as RFE/RL. They were always free to report criticism of U.S. foreign policy, as did VOA under its Charter. It’s something that audiences expect and should get from both VOA and the surrogate U.S.-funded broadcasters.

The major current problem is mismanagement at VOA which causes it to fail to report at all on many significant U.S. foreign policy news and many other important news stories. Members of Congress tried to fix this problem with their bipartisan bill. They may have not gotten everything right, but the key reform provisions are right on target.

The Washington Post editorial writers may not have known that historically VOA was much more part of the U.S. public diplomacy establishment when it had been part of the former United States Information Agency (USIA) than the new bill proposes with the establishment of a much weaker United States International Communications Agency. They also do not seem to know that even now some VOA foreign correspondents still have limited U.S. Foreign Service assignments and that in the past many Foreign Service Officers from USIA and the State Department occupied key management positions at VOA.

The new bill does not propose such drastic provisions. But even when they existed under USIA, VOA was still able to protect its journalistic independence to a significant degree, specially after the VOA Charter was passed into law in 1976, and was still able to attract top journalistic talent — far better than under its current management. We are quite certain that VOA will have no problem attracting highly qualified journalists if its employee-hostile management is replaced and reformed under the Royce-Engel bill.

But we agree with The Washington Post that international public perceptions matter. A minor change in the wording in the bill could solve the objectivity perception problem without undermining the bill’s main purpose: a complete and much needed reform of U.S. international media outreach, especially the Voice of America.

Perhaps then, VOA Director would not embark on a European trip after being told by staff that VOA can no longer produce news to fill its programs. Perhaps then, more of the money currently used for foreign travel by VOA and IBB executives and their numerous other perks can be used to cover such U.S. news as today’s visit of Vice President Joe Biden and a bipartisan congressional delegation to Ukraine, which was barely mentioned by the Voice of America and completely ignored in a video report from Kyiv.

In fact, if VOA Director David Ensor and his deputy Steve Redisch did a better job of managing and respected the VOA Charter, the whole controversy with redefining VOA’s mission might not have arisen, although some kind of legislative change would still be necessary to reform the structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, especially its International Broadcasting Bureau.

IBB executives, some of whom have already been moved aside, as well as some top VOA managers who are still in charge, are responsible for most of the current problems with U.S. international media outreach. The bill, if passed by Congress and signed by the President, might lead to their departure, which would be good for the currently dismal employee morale and the currently largely “defunct” mission effectiveness of the Voice of America.

Like BBG Watch, the American Federation of Government Employees, AFGE Local 1812, which represents the BBG’s federal workforce, supports the management reforms proposed in the bipartisan Royce-Engel bill with only some reservations with regard to the bill’s wording about VOA’s precise mission. We believe that these reservations can be easily addressed by Congress.

READ MORE: Voice of America needs to keep its objective voice, The Washington Post Editorial, June 7, 2014