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President Gerald Ford

The VOA Charter is a Good Mission Statement. So Why Has It So Often Been Ignored?

Nov 2, 2015

by

The Voice of America's Charter lies at the heart of VOA’s mission. Using language that’s as simple as it is ambitious, the Charter was designed to govern everything done by VOA, America’s oldest and largest government broadcaster. Its guidelines, signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, are succinct:

“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 discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)”

Sounds pretty clear. And except for the reference to radio, it’s as relevant today as it was nearly four decades ago. Yet a key element of the Charter has been so frequently ignored over the years that some members of Congress want to drastically reduce VOA’s mission, if not pull the plug entirely on it.

How did VOA get into this mess?

First, some context: A draft law that has circulated in Congress proposing a major overhaul of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and its broadcasters, especially VOA, has so far retained the VOA Charter. But there is a yawning gap between how VOA’s defenders (mostly its current and former employees) and her critics interpret the requirements of the Charter’s third pillar.

The critics say that VOA has failed to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively,” as the Charter requires, and needs to be overseen by a policy-oriented body such as the State Department so the government can be sure that foreign audiences looking for accurate reporting and descriptions of U.S. policy can find it on VOA.

Their proposed remedy is a new one, but the problem, unfortunately, is not. Critics have complained for years about VOA broadcasts which failed to provide a description of U.S. policy, or balance, or a rebuttal to criticism of U.S. policy when necessary.

My personal experience may shed some light on why this part of the Charter came to be ignored in the newsroom. Not long after my appointment as the VOA director (2002-2006), I noticed a number of VOA stories about important international issues that failed to report what the U.S. position was on the issue, either through a quote from a U.S. government official or a description of past U.S. policy. This wasn’t optional information, or something uniquely required of VOA; this was the kind of information that should be – and was – routinely included in the stories written by news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Their stories wouldn’t have been complete without such information. Yet it was missing from VOA’s accounts.

When I asked a top newsroom editor why weren’t U.S. officials quoted, or at least the U.S. position described in these stories, her answer surprised me.

“That’s what the editorials are for,” she replied.


Like most government-funded broadcasters, VOA is facing an uncertain future because of factors that are outside its control, such as budget constraints and censorship by anti-democratic leaders in countries like Russia and China. But VOA’s future is also uncertain because of its own shortcomings.

“The editorials” she referred to were a broadcasting requirement that Congress had imposed on VOA years earlier, to ensure that it had a reliable platform for the government’s views. But the editorials, which were written by a unit of government employees who were not connected with VOA or its editorial operations, were unpopular with just about everyone, from the State department officers who had to vet them, to VOA’s broadcasters, and most of VOA’s audiences. Often stiff and didactic, the editorials were separated from the newscasts by both time and format, to ensure that listeners didn’t confuse the newscasts, which were supposed to be objective, with the editorials, which were clearly opinionated. But that separation also made them easier for listeners to miss or to ignore them, and our research showed that many listeners did just that.

Of course, the editorials were never meant to replace the basic elements that should be included in any story, whether it was by a VOA journalist or one from the private sector. But the editor’s belief that they somehow absolved the newsroom from reporting the U.S. position on issues revealed a serious misreading of the Charter.

Today, despite numerous personnel changes over the years, critics are still complaining about stories in which VOA has failed to live up to the requirements of the Charter. Wall Street Journal op-ed writer Sohrab Ahmari recently noted, for example, that a VOA English-language story on the Iran nuclear agreement did not quote any domestic U.S. critics of the deal, and two weeks ago, VOA aired an hour-long forum examining the threat from ISIS terrorists, and how they use social media, but did not include any U.S. government officials on its panel.

Like most government-funded broadcasters, VOA is facing an uncertain future because of factors that are outside its control, such as budget constraints and censorship by anti-democratic leaders in countries like Russia and China.

But VOA’s future is also uncertain because of its own shortcomings. Both secretaries of State in the Obama administration have been critical of the BBG, and members of Congress from both parties have made it clear they expect the BBG and its multimedia broadcasters to play a constructive role in the nation’s public diplomacy efforts.

VOA can still do that, but only if it fulfills all elements of its Charter, a document that clearly lays out the broad range of coverage that Congress expects. Just as importantly, VOA’s journalists need to understand that while the Charter gave them the editorial freedom they need to do their job, it did not give them the freedom to ignore their Charter.

Photo by Karl Schumacher / Public Domain

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11 COMMENT(S)

Rise and Fall of the Voice of America

While as a seven-plus year veteran of VOA's editorial writing staff I agree with much of what Mr. Jackson says here, I think he's being a bit hard on those tasked specifically with fulfilling the third part of the VOA charter. Given the pervasive attitude by the vast majority in the Cohen Building that explaining and promoting the policies of the government that pays them somehow diminishes them as journalists, it's remarkable that the editorials get written and broadcast at all. The writers have repeatedly reached out to the news room and language services for regional topics of editorial interest, but except for the African and Creole services, these efforts are rebuffed. Editorial play is no longer included in the program review process, signalling that management doesn't care if the editorials are broadcast or not. And when VOA adopted the Pangea computer system for its various web sites four or five years ago, senior news management used the technical shift as an excuse to drop the editorials broadcast in translation and whose scripts and radio clips had been regularly posted on the sites.

Meanwhile, an already small staff has been cut by half in recent years, but its work extended to producing U.S. policy video spots (also largely ignored by VOA) and responsibility for producing public service announcements requested by the State Department and White House for broadcast in crisis situations such as the Haitian earthquake and West African Ebola epidemic. Sadly, the PSAs too are largely rejected by VOA as too policy-oriented and political.

When actual audiences are questioned about VOA's editorials and PSAs, however, many listeners have said that one of the reasons they tune in is to learn what the U.S. government thinks about events in their nation.

All that said, VOA's use -- or non-use -- of U.S. government policy pronouncements and the editorials that explain and promote them is part of a much larger systemic problem of a government-run news organization. VOA was created at a time when its work was needed and unique. That time has passed and it has been living on its historical reputation ever since. Like the Pushmepullyou character in the Doctor Doolittle stories, it is trying to exist as both government agency and independent news organization, at least so far as to continue to receive millions in federal revenue each year. Sad to say, this conflict has created a situation where it does neither very well.

Upholding the Charter is Everyone's Responsibility

Thanks for your comment, Winston. Let me start by saying that every journalist at VOA should be fulfilling the third part of the VOA Charter – along with the first and second parts too. This isn’t a responsibility that was meant to be just shuffled off to the editorial (policy) office. President Ford and the congress gave VOA’s journalists that Charter guaranteeing them editorial freedom in exchange for them fulfilling all three requirements of the Charter, not just the ones they liked best.

Secondly, lest readers get the wrong impression from your description, the Charter does not require VOA’s journalists to “promote” U.S. policies, but to “present” them. (“Promoting” is what the editorials do.) The job of VOA’s journalists is to report – objectively, journalistically – what those policies are in the context of the news, so the audiences know where the U.S. government stands on the issues important to them. By offering balanced and timely reporting on presidential speeches and press conferences, policy announcements, congressional debates, elections, and discussions and debates on policy by both citizens and politicians, VOA shows how our democracy works. And yes, Winston, you’re right that in a world filled with anti-American propaganda (arguably as bad today as when VOA was created), some people do seek out those editorials to find out what U.S. policy is.

The squabble over “promote” vs. “present” is an old and contentious one, but I have always believed that if VOA does a better job of reporting what U.S. policy is – in a journalistic context – and presenting “responsible discussions and opinion” on those policies, as the Charter requires, then it will go a long way toward heading off those who think VOA should “promote” those policies in its news coverage, which would contradict the part of the Charter requiring VOA to be objective.

Lack of range & ambition in VOA English programming

From a listener’s perspective, a major problem with VOA’s worldwide English radio broadcasts nowadays is that years of cutbacks have left VOA English with effectively only one weekday programme – a 22 minute news and current affairs show called “International Edition” which includes background reports from VOA correspondents, and is updated 4 or 5 times a day. The rest of the 24 hour broadcast cycle is now made up of multiple repeats of “International Edition”, Special English shows for English-learners, some heavily regionalised programmes for listeners in Africa, and 7 or 8 hours of filler music programming from the “VOA1 –The Hits” music network. With such limited programming, it is hard for VOA to fulfil its charter obligations.

I would like to see VOA English at least attempt to re-create some of the types of programming it broadcast in the 1980s for example, when its daily line up was far more ambitious, and fulfilled a wider remit than today. Some programmes from back then that come to mind include:

- “The Magazine Show”, a daily 30 minute Americana programme (or its various successors – “Stateside”, “Main Street” etc). Incredibly, VOA English today has no Americana-type programme at all, the most recent attempt, the weekly 30 minute “American Cafe” was axed several months ago and not replaced;

- “Focus” – a daily 20 minute documentary which allowed a detailed examination of a single subject in the news, including the kind of in-depth interviews with policy makers, academics and analysts that VOA simply can’t provide now because it no longer has a vehicle to do so. “Focus” made a return in a shorter 10 minute format in the 2000’s – but then disappeared again. VOA radio no longer broadcasts any documentaries at all – there are just rare sporadic ones on the VOA website, usually several months apart;

- “World Report” – a daily live hour-long round up of the day’s news for listeners in Europe, Africa and the Middle East (and its companion programme earlier in the day “Asia Report”); having more than 22 minutes to cover the day’s news allowed for more in-depth coverage, including daily reports from the VOA correspondents in Washington covering the White House, Capitol Hill, and State/Defence Department beats, ensuring the perspectives emanating from those places was covered – but always in an honest, journalistic way. VOA no longer attempts to provide any hour-long news programming today.

- On weekends – “Critics Choice” a 20 minute show rounding up American arts and cultural developments (or its successor in the 2000’s “Kaleidoscope”), and “Studio One”, a 30 minute documentary geared towards covering American culture or history. Today, VOA has no arts/culture programmes at all.

The range and ambition of VOA English programming is drastically reduced from that offered in the past, particularly in my view the types of programmes that related to the second paragraph of the VOA Charter “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”. An increase in funding and in ambition for VOA English is hugely overdue.

English should be prominent on VOA

Cutbacks in VOA's English programming have unfortunately been going on for a long time. The BBG made major reductions after 9-11, during my years there, to free up funds for more broadcasting to Moslem countries, and the trend has been downhill ever since. I used to believe that if VOA could get the funding, it should host a 24/7 global radio broadcast in English since, after all, English is our national language, and audiences around the world would expect to hear English programming on VOA. But VOA never got the money to do that, and now that radio has fallen in popularity to television and the Internet, I doubt it ever will.

David is spot on regarding

David is spot on regarding English. For most of the century, English at VOA has been starved and cut. Beyond that English is the language of the United States, and that several generations of non-English speakers learned from English (not just from Special English), English is the language of media around the world. Beyond being the lingua franca, it reaches the 'elites' whose native tongue is a language VOA broadcasts in, as well as the people who are not served by VOA's nearly four dozen language services. That was all forgotten or ignored. It should also be changing in the very near future.

By the way, this discussion is a fascinating representing of the power of modern communications. David is in Prague (although perhaps you're not as you're writing this). I am in London. We are talking about a DC-based operation on a website hosted by a Los Angeles-based school. That's cool.

The Charter is Not a Mission Statement

David,
I largely agree with you. Your anecdote of the 'top newsroom editor' is dismaying and yet not surprising. Both you and Mr. Wood get to the heart of the matter, which is Why VOA?

First, the Charter (note the capitalization) is enshrined in law as 'principles.' It is not, nor can it be, a mission statement. But the Charter is silent on why the VOA exists and its purpose. The Charter describes how it will accomplish something but not what that something is, why it is important, or who should be reached and why. In other words, it says nothing about VOA's mission. The over reliance on the Charter -- i.e. the repeated citation of it -- without context confuses rather than focuses the value of VOA to U.S. foreign policy.

Second, the absence of a mission statement naturally fuels Mr. Wood's observation of the tension of having, and inside of, a government news organization. Partly because the Charter has been invoked without context, the shorthand of 'building understanding of America' is confused with State Department's public diplomacy mission of the same. But the Charter actually doesn't speak to this tactic. Item 2 - 'VOA will represent America, not any single segment...' - is about VOA being nonpartisan and being inclusive of American society, its people, and its organizations.

Third, it has been forgotten that VOA is also a 'surrogate', which the Charter accepts but does not convey. The purpose of VOA has historically been, and continues to be, the 'foreign domestic media' for audiences under served by media. Translating news into the local language is not enough. VOA tells the story with the audience in mind, unpacked and describing the elements that matter most to that audience. Arguably, the rise in the autonomy of the language services has made this more pronounced.

As you rightly point out, David, the VOA does not need to 'promote' the U.S. policies, nor should it. It does, however, give voice to those policies by not just translating them into local languages (which State's legations can do as well) but providing context and discussion around them.

However, the improper invocation of the Charter, confusion over what it means to 'create understanding of the United States' (and this tactic is different, with a different end state, than State's), among other reasons, have led to a proponency that VOA should become America.gov, or a lot like it, or even a direct counter to RT.

In other words, the absence of an actual mission statement and holding out the Charter as a 'mission statement' has confused the actual mission of VOA, the understanding of VOA's role and purpose, and even what 'accurate, objective, and comprehensive' news actually is. (Hint: the latter is actionable and verifiable news for the target audience. It is not 'to make the AP better.')

It's not VOA's official mission statement, but it should be.

Matt, you are of course right that the VOA Charter is not technically its mission statement. But it's my contention that it should be, because I believe it does what a good mission statement should do: Describe – in simple, unambiguous guidelines --  what VOA should do, how it should do it, and why.

Specifically, the Charter begins by declaring what would serve the nation’s interests (“communicating directly with the peoples of the world”), and then says that VOA can provide that service by delivering a product (news) that will have value to (win “respect” of) the rest of the world because of its high quality (“accurate, objective, and comprehensive”).

At the same time, the Charter describes how VOA will provide a service to the United States by telling the rest of the world about who Americans are, what we believe in, and how our democracy works.

For a journalist, that's enough to work with as a mission statement.

In retrospect, I think those folks who wrote the Charter did a pretty good job of weighing the nation’s interests and the world’s, and then giving VOA a mission on behalf of the United States that could be conducted in a journalistically responsible way.

No, the Charter is not a Mission Statement

A mission statement communicates a purpose of an organization. A proper mission statement will describe how the organization is different and (hopefully) unique. The Charter, as a set of principles but held out as a mission statement, confuses the former and obfuscates the latter. The public affairs podiums of the State Department (Secretary of State, public affairs in DC, legations abroad, etc), the bully pulpit of the President (and his press secretary), the Secretary of Defense and Combatant Commanders, etc all "communicat[e] directly with the peoples of the world". CNN, BBC, AFP, the former USINFO.state.gov / America.gov / (now) ShareAmerica.gov all deliver news. CNN, BBC, AFP, AP, NYTimes, the formerly-named International Herald Tribune, and so on (without getting political or qualitative) produce quality news for foreign markets.

Tell the world about "who Americans are, what we believe in, and how our democracy works" is squarely in the lane of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (including IIP and ECA), near or in the lane of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights (including the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor).

In other words, holding the Charter out as a "mission statement" is a disservice to VOA. The Charter does not, in fact, discriminate on what makes VOA important, special, and necessary. It does not impart on the reader — the journalist or the manager, the authorizer or the appropriator, the policy maker or the pundit — why VOA exists, how VOA is different from every other news agency, government or private, on the planet, or who VOA’s target audience is.

The makers of the Charter knew the difference. Recall the Charter signed into law by Ford was substantively written about twenty years earlier. And that earlier product reflected the intended post-war framework for the service that became official known as VOA. It appears clear to me that there was never an intent to make the Charter a mission statement. The Charter has always co-existed with other “principles” found in the establishing authorization, and highlighted by Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, one of the most important of which is that VOA (and now the whole of BBG) will reduce activities in markets where private dissemination is found to be adequate, and that VOA will maximize its use of private agencies in the target markets. The latter drives not just purchased and co-produced content, but the affiliate model that VOA has adopted.

Tactics don’t make a strategy or define a purpose. Operating principles do not define a role.

From the CPD Blog Manager

A comment from Guy Farmer, Chief of VOA's Spanish Branch from 1977-79: "David Jackson has it exactly right, and Winston Wood's comment is shocking. A big part of the ongoing problem is VOA journalists who ignore the "third rail" of the VOA Charter, which requires the Voice to "present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively," a perfectly legitimate and necessary objective for a government (i.e taxpayer-funded) radio station. Why is this so hard for some journalists and politicians to understand? If VOA isn't presenting our policies clearly and effectively, they should just turn the whole thing over to PBS or the commercial broadcasting networks. Cheers! Guy"

The VOA Charter is a Good Mission Statement

David Jackson's definitive introductory statement to the effect that the VOA Charter lies at the heart of the VOA mission was the operative imperative at VOA during the late 1970s--after the VOA Charter had been written into law in 1976. The integrity and independence of VOA news broadcasts, however, had to be protected by VOA management almost daily against objections and criticisms from various sources. In support of management was Senator Charles Percy's (the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), statement that VOA news broadcasts could not be interfered with by anyone inside or outside the government.

At the same time, VOA's policy office was responsible for writing VOA editorials and commentaries in accordance with the VOA Charter's provision that "the VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and will also present responsible discussion and opinions on these policies." The policy office staff was in constant contact with the Department of State for guidance and comment. Their output also received frequent criticism from various sources inside and outside the government (including on two occasions the White House) and had to be dealt with by VOA management.

My point is that there may be a terrific Charter and an operative public law, but they have to be believed in, protected and enforced by those who manage VOA vis-a-vis the Administration, the Congress and the general public. Of course, having the support of the Senate and several members of the House helped at the time.

Hans N. Tuch (VOA 1957-58. 1976-80)

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