Death Knell in Fine Print

by Alex Belida and Sonja Pace1

The United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (HR4490), passed July 28, 2014 on a voice vote in the House of Representatives, was born out of frustration and desperation – frustration over ways to counter foreign propaganda and desperation to streamline what has become an unwieldy, inefficient, poorly managed and less than effective international broadcast conglomerate.

However, if signed into law it will end the Voice of America as the world has known it for over seven decades -- as a trusted and reliable source of news.

The bill proposes some reforms in abolishing the current Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and creating two separate entities, one federal and one grantee, each with its own board and bureaucracy.

By combining the U.S.-funded grantee entities (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Network) into one newly created Freedom News Network, Congress seeks to streamline operations and save money.  

Combining the federal broadcast elements – the Voice of America and the offices of the International Broadcast Bureau - into a new U.S. International Communications Agency -- seems to have had another purpose, however, and that is to enhance the surrogate grantee broadcast effort, as the bill flatly says, and limit VOA’s full service mission by sharply constricting that mission.

The bill pays abundant lip service to journalistic quality and integrity and to ensuring credibility with the audience. But mandating that VOA’s reporting and programming exist solely to support and promote U.S. foreign policy will cause its audience to plummet and risks turning the flagship service into a government mouthpiece.

The narrow mandate spelled out for the Voice of America signals the death knell for this proud organization, which is the largest of all the BBG entities and among them maintains by far the largest audience share with 80 percent.

For over 70 years VOA has been a reliable source of international, regional, local and U.S. news and information and that is what its audience of over 160 million expects. They come to VOA as a global news organization with on-scene reporting, context and analysis.

The bill acknowledges VOA’s “valuable brand identity and international recognition,” but then mandates that VOA be reduced to reporting news about “the United States, its policies, its people, and the international developments that affect the United States.” VOA is also mandated to “produce news and related programming that is consistent with and supports the broad foreign policies of the United States.”

Under its current Charter, VOA already reports extensively about the United States, U.S. policies, institutions, politics, economics, society, arts and culture and does so on a daily basis.  However, if this bill becomes law, VOA’s role will be diminished to the point of potential irrelevance.  One can only assume this is what the bill’s supporters intend.

The clear winners, it seems, will be the non-federal grantee entities Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcast Network (MBN). Under the new Freedom News Network they will be given the global mandate for local and regional news and a clearly activist role with a mission that includes wording such as: “strengthen, help and promote.”

While the final bill does not spell it out specifically, there are clear hints of a future expansion of the Freedom News Network at the expense of VOA.  The bill states simply that “additional brands may be created as necessary,” – a covetous eye no doubt cast on VOA’s highly regarded Africa services, Persian Service, Latin America service and others. If that comes to pass, look for nothing less than VOA’s disappearance from the world’s airwaves, TV screens and mobile phone platforms and the inevitable job losses within VOA.

It’s understandable that political leaders want to counter the barrage of propaganda by foreign nations, especially Russia during this ongoing crisis over Ukraine. However, creating a “Freedom News Network” and turning the respected Voice of America into a government mouthpiece is not the way. Why not uphold the promise made to our audiences at the beginning of VOA in 1942 – “the news may be good or bad for us – we will tell you the truth.”  That is what honest journalism is about and it can be a potent weapon.  To do otherwise will not be in the best interests of the United States or the taxpayer. It will not be money well spent when in the end we no longer have a credible news organization that audiences trust and that leads by example to showcase the best of America through a truly free press.

The bill’s supporters are correct that the current BBG suffers from inherent structural flaws and must be reformed.  But let’s be honest, it also suffers from incompetence and mismanagement at senior levels and it suffers from a lack of interest by previous administrations and the current White House in making it more viable, effective and efficient.

Congress is right to demand reform but this bill now creates two rival Boards and two rival CEOs instead of one and still leaves room for incompetent federal managers to remain in place with their high grades in VOA and IBB.

It should never have come to this.  The Board and top leadership of VOA and the entities should have come up with a viable reform plan long ago.  But it seems the political will was woefully lacking.

There are other reform possibilities. Two drastic options would be to federalize all non-military U.S. international broadcasting or de-federalize all.  These two options would, no doubt, be controversial and perhaps also cumbersome and expensive. 

There is another option -- put all federal and grantee entities under one umbrella with one advisory board of governors, a CEO to oversee both and establish clearly defined roles. Everyone would be obligated to operate under a charter to do accurate, unbiased and comprehensive journalism. 

VOA, as the flagship organization, would provide international, regional, major local and U.S. news available to all entities. All VOA language services and surrogates would be reviewed and where there are overlaps, the one with the greatest audience share takes over; the other is disbanded or subsumed. Contrary to what some may say, audience share does and should matter if we are to make the best use of taxpayer money.  In areas where there is no overlap there would be clearly defined roles between what the grantee entity and what VOA does.  They would share, coordinate and complement each other, not compete.   That, in fact, is happening today much more than is commonly recognized (in Russian, Ukrainian, Persian, even Azerbaijani, with more cooperation on the horizon).  Splitting apart the organization, as the legislation mandates, would destroy this growing and welcome collaboration.

VOA would retain and expand its broadcasting to Africa and would resurrect a strong English programming service with a first class website to serve as U.S. broadcasting’s window to the world and which would include material from all elements of this new umbrella organization. VOA News and English could be combined to join forces and enhance VOA’s ability to produce more and better quality news, analysis and features about the United States – from politics, economics and science to social issues, education, arts, culture and lifestyle.

The outline above may seem an anathema to some and a “business as usual” approach to others, but if set up properly it is neither.

International broadcasting needs to stop wasting taxpayer money to appease those who want to push their own agendas; it needs to stop wasting money in allowing entity heads to bicker and maneuver for their own turf; it needs to replace or reassign top leaders who are incompetent or ineffective; it needs to provide sufficient staffing, administrative and technical systems and support to allow journalists to do their jobs and it needs to ensure accountability for quality and honest journalism by all. 

What’s needed is a comprehensive and rational approach that will serve the interests of our country and our audiences.  We hope the Senate, the Board and the Administration will now take the lead to make that happen. It can be done if the political will is there.


BBG "Reform"

A most excellent analysis. However, it misses Section 123 of the bill (as reported to the Senate: "Duties and Responsibilities of the Voice of America"), Subsec (1): "Producing accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and related programming that is consistent with and PROMOTES the broad foreign policies of the United States." (emphasis added). That is not journalism - it is PR. The bill furthers the ambiguity between journalism and promotion, which would allow policymakers wiggle room to try to dictate content. The bill's report language is well and good, but it does not have the force of law. Presidents have ignored report language of laws, citing the language of the legislation itself. What matters is the language of the bill. The report language is totally insufficient protection against interference.
VOA's international aspect is long-standing and consistent with its mandate. The bill would all but eliminate that. The bill takes it much further, to the point that VOA would apparently be barred from covering any foreign story unless there was a U.S. angle.
As to the "differing missions" of VOA and the surrogates, that is an arbitrary line grown out of history and bureaucratic competition. The fact is, both VOA and the surrogates have been covering the same territory for years. Despite denials to the contrary, there has been plenty of duplication, and much of it can be laid directly on the doorstep of Congress, which created the extra surrogates when VOA did not appear to be sufficiently pliable to political mores of the day.

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