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Big Brother, by Thomas Cizauskas

The Fate of VOA in the Balance

Feb 6, 2017

by

These are both good and bad times for the news media, including the Voice of America, which is marking its 75th anniversary this month.

Good, because there is much vital information to report to global as well as domestic audiences regarding the new Trump administration.

But bad, because the President has described journalists as among “the most dishonest human beings on earth” and has proclaimed he has “a running war with the media.” Adding to the negative outlook, his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, former head of the rightwing Breitbart News website, has said “the media has zero integrity, zero intelligence” and should “keep its mouth shut.”

Steve Coll, Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, writing in the New Yorker, suggests this could presage a “permanent campaign, energized by televised rallies and daily tweets.”

Presidential criticism of the media is not new, and Coll notes that journalists are accustomed to being attacked, adding that “the administration’s insults have served only to motivate many of them.”

But he goes on to say the administration campaign “may be more effective in intimidating civil servants.” And here is where VOA could find itself in deep trouble—as its senior managers and staff members are, in fact, government employees.


VOA is probably not a high priority for the new administration, but inevitably it will fall under scrutiny.

Already there have been suggestions that the Trump Administration might seek to turn VOA into a “Trump TV” financed by taxpayers. Politico reported there were fears VOA could become “an unfettered propaganda arm for the former reality TV star who has flirted for years with launching his own network.”

This speculation was triggered by legislation, approved last year and signed by former President Obama, that will place control of VOA and the other arms of U.S. international broadcasting into the hands of a presidentially-appointed CEO. Under the measure, the bi-partisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which previously had oversight authority and was supposed to act as a “firewall” to prevent political interference with VOA programming, is to be disbanded.

The Board was not entirely successful in warding off all political threats. But without it, what is to happen, especially in the current highly-charged anti-media atmosphere?

Back in 2005, when I oversaw VOA’s Central Newsroom, similar concerns arose when a former VOA Director began what I can charitably describe as second-guessing many of the reports we issued and sources we quoted. I wrote a warning to the staff:

“There is nothing more corrosive to the integrity and morale of a news operation than doubt,” including doubt about whether to do certain stories, or about whether to quote certain individuals. 

At the time, I said I hoped no one was succumbing to such doubts.

“You are all professional journalists,” I wrote, “ You all know how to produce news material that, as our (VOA) Charter and (Journalistic) Code demand, is reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective and comprehensive. You know the difference between balanced reporting and one-sided pandering…We will not allow anyone’s partisan agenda, real or perceived, to interfere with our reporting…”

Lately, however, some staff may have given lethal ammunition to critics of VOA’s journalistic independence, playing into the hands of the new administration. The BBG Watch website, an unofficial site run by former and current VOA journalists, has documented a series of cases in which staffers have used personal social media accounts to criticize the President. BBG Watch has also identified a number of actual VOA programs and web postings of a similar nature.

Such conduct runs against the Conflict of Interest principles for VOA employees and violates the VOA Journalistic Code, which says staff should “recognize that their conduct both on and off the job can reflect on the work of the Voice of America community.”

VOA is probably not a high priority for the new administration, but inevitably it will fall under scrutiny. Yes, the president could name a CEO to overhaul the organization who might possibly try to convert it into a propaganda mouthpiece. Employees could try to resist. While they might receive some editorial support from journalism organizations and the mainstream American news media, they could face dismissal, replacement or other repercussions. And in the end, the President could simply label VOA ineffective and shut it down as a cost-saving measure.

I was initially skeptical about the alarmist reports concerning VOA's future. But with a president who touts "America First" and a Republican majority in Congress unwilling to defy the White House, I am no longer so sanguine. Anything is possible.

Photo by Thomas Cizauskas I CC 2.0

 

COMMENTS

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7 COMMENT(S)

VOA

Thank You Alex for this insight. One of my best neutral sources of news is the VOA website, and I urge others to check it out for a daily briefing!

Why VOA's future is uncertain

Alex, your description of what occurred in 2005 is not “charitable”; it’s misleading. Here’s a more accurate description of what happened: As VOA’s director from 2002 to late 2006, I had to frequently remind the newsroom managers of their obligation to follow their own Charter, which requires them to cover the news objectively, comprehensively, and in a balanced way. This was not a political threat. If it was, the bipartisan Board of Broadcasting Governors would not have given me their full support, as they did. This was about journalism standards.

The irony now is that if VOA’s newsroom had spent less time over the years fretting about imaginary political threats and more time fulfilling the requirements of their Charter, VOA would not be facing an existential threat today from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress—a threat that arose long before the recent presidential election.

Political Interference Was Real

The political threats were not imaginary. Another former VOA Director, Sanford Ungar, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2006: “Employees in the VOA's battered newsroom have tried to fend off directives from VOA director David Jackson and other political appointees, who have suggested that the network report more favorably on the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq and the Middle East and more deliberately try to enhance the United States' reputation around the world.”

Speaking of ‘lack of balance’...

Anonymous fails to mention that Foreign Affairs also ran my point-by-point rebuttal of the false claims in that article, and the bipartisan members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors also dismissed the claims as baseless.

Claiming “political interference” is an old tactic in Washington at the first sight of reform, because it always gets attention. But it didn’t work this time because the Board knew better, and because VOA’s need for reform was well-known on both sides of the aisle.

The news may be good, the news may be bad. We'll tell the truth.

Everytime there are exchanges pitting charges of interference against demands for balance, I am reminded that the problem centers on VOA’s Charter and how it is used by various people to buttress their assertions. Make no mistake about it: the Charter itself is fine. Differing interpretations of the document cause problems. And since there is no official independent adjudicator available to settle disputes, the final voice is usually that of the person in charge of VOA. And since those individuals are in essence political choices, subject to political pressure from Congress, his or her decisions will always be subject to political interpretations. The new legislation taking control of U.S. International Broadcasting from a bipartisan Board of Governors and placing it in the hands of a single, Presidentially-nominated CEO will not change that; in fact, it may make matters worse. A better solution might be something I’ve advocated in the past: have a board of advisors made up of the deans of leading journalism schools and the managing editors of major news outlets recommend appointments to the post of VOA Director (and the CEO of USIB). And give the holders of those posts, once confirmed, guaranteed five-year terms, renewable one time. This certainly wouldn’t stop all criticism. But in my opinion, VOA journalists might feel on safer ground.

Breitbart Targets BBG, VOA Chiefs

Just FYI, the Public Diplomacy Council has tweeted a link to a 2/18 Breitbart item titled “Top 10 Holdover Obama Bureaucrats President Trump Can Fire or Remove Today.” Number 3 on the list is John Lansing, CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Number 4 is Amanda Bennett, the VOA Director. The Breitbart item suggested they are among bureaucrats “actively engaged in sabotaging President Trump’s agenda."

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