IntroductionRecently, there has been a great deal of debate, and no small amount of axe grinding, regarding the mission and effectiveness of US international broadcasting under the Broadcasting Board of Governors. This debate has now been brought to a head with the passage in the House of Representatives of the boldly named US International Communications Reform Act of 2014, HR 4490, which would create a new structure for US international broadcasting and attempts to create a division of responsibility between the VOA and the multiple surrogate services such as Radio Free Asia, which have proliferated since the end of the Cold War. The authors of the legislation take the view that efficiency is better served by consolidating all of the surrogate services together under a new board, and then turning VOA, with its own separate board, into a specialized service, a kind of super Washington news bureau, reporting only on the United States news, interests and policies. By doing so, HR 4490 would seriously weaken VOA as a broadcaster and as an instrument of foreign policy.
This article is the first of two that will focus on the role and mission of US international broadcasting, and will make that case that each service serves important foreign policy objectives in important, yet distinct ways. As HR 4490 correctly finds, both services need to be better managed, resources need to be reallocated, and the actual news gathering and reporting strengthened for the effective projection of US interest and prestige. Unfortunately, the Bill misses its mark. This first article will focus on the Voice of America.
"For fifteen years now the Voice of America has been bringing to people everywhere the facts about world events, and America's policy in relation to these events." President Dwight Eisenhower, February 25, 1957
The Legacy of VOA
VOA has historically had a global mission that serves the national interest independent of the existence of any tactical surrogate service. In fact, it was always assumed that, ideally, a surrogate service would eventually accomplish its mission, working itself out of business as countries moved toward democracy, as they did in Eastern Europe. It was never a choice of VOA or Radio Liberty broadcasting to the USSR and Russia, for example, it was always VOA and Radio Liberty. Both were important instruments of US foreign policy, and both were, and in the case of Russia, still are needed.
In 1942, VOA’s initial broadcast began with the pledge, “The news may be good or bad for us, we will always tell you the truth.” This statement set the precedent that VOA would counter disinformation with straight reporting of the facts. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed NSDD 45, in which he emphasized the importance of international broadcasting as an important component of his muscular foreign policy. President Reagan went on to direct that the “VOA should take steps to strengthen existing mechanisms for relating program content to current US foreign and national security policy objectives, while ensuring the integrity of news broadcasting … in accordance with its legislative charter.” The charter, of course, refers to the VOA Charter signed into law in 1976.
It is within that context that VOA operated with success through the end of the Cold War. VOA had a comprehensive news reporting mandate that required it to be truthful and balanced in its reporting, VOA was to produce programming that explored and explained American culture and institutions, and it had a policy mandate which could take many forms, but was intended clearly articulate America’s policies and interests. By effectively carrying out these program elements, VOA was supporting US national security interests. And, cumbersome though the different requirements might appear, it worked through the end of the Cold War in a kind of equilibrium between the Presidentially appointed VOA Director, the USIA Director and national security and foreign policy elements of the Administration.
With the establishment of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and the dissolution of USIA, though, much has changed. But the real and potential importance of VOA to support US national security interests is no less now than then. But VOA’s mission does need to be restated and reasserted for the 21st century.
The VOA Mission
In a world of multiple media outlets and wide access to external information sources (though not always guaranteed) what is the mission of the Voice of America?
First, as HR 4490 correctly states, the VOA should literally be THE Voice of America. VOA should report on America and its place in the world. It should feature stories on the American people American institutions and culture. It should explore the American democracy in all its triumphs as well as its shortcomings. People striving for freedom take heart in knowing that the democratic ideal is aspirational, and that it requires constant work to maintain and expand it. The VOA should be an honest recorder of the American experience.
The VOA should also clearly report American foreign policy and its formulation. There are a number of ways that VOA can carry out this aspect of its mission, but VOA should never leave a doubt in the audience’s mind what American policy is once such a policy is articulated. The first and most effective way to present and explain American policy is through in-depth coverage of news from the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department and other official policy arms. Accurate news reporting of important American policy developments should be given priority in VOA broadcasts. Policy also can be explicated by interviews with key policy makers and spokespersons. And, in keeping with the VOA Charter, policy needs to be put into the context of the debate surrounding a particular policy position, and allow for responsible dissenting voices to be fairly presented. Respect for opposing views is a critical element in any working democracy, and in America’s divided government today there are few policies that enjoy unanimous support.
Of utmost importance, the Voice of America should be a comprehensive and credible reporter of global news. The proliferation of media available generally to the public through multiple channels has not led to a concomitant improvement in the quality of the news reporting. The VOA should cover and report on important events wherever they occur. Its audience expects it to be a full-service news source. Ignoring news that does not directly link to the United States will lead to loss of audience and credibility and will project to the world the sense that if news does not directly affect Americans, it’s not important. The VOA provides a critical service by being comprehensive and authoritative in covering global news and reporting local and regional news of importance to foreign audiences. People throughout the world first want to news that is important to them. By providing it, VOA builds important bridges and audience.
Who is the Audience?
Public diplomacy is simply an effort to advance US national interests by reaching out to the broader public. It is based upon the American principle that just government is derived from the people – people and their opinions matter. The VOA is and always was a part of this effort. The VOA should strive to reach as large an audience as possible within the resources that it has available. Often, communications with our allies or nations non-aligned in a crisis is as important as reaching our foes. Its target audience is anyone who has an interest in America and the desire to obtain news from an America news source, and especially influentials. That audience can be drawn from every segment of society. Public diplomacy is arguably as important in democratic countries where public opinion can move governments as it is in repressive ones. HR 4490 completely misses this important point, and would direct broadcasts only at information-denied societies unless an exception were granted.
Since English is the language of America, it should be the first language of the Voice of America. Throughout the world there are English speakers, and many more who desire to learn English. This has to be VOA’s first worldwide language service.
Beyond that, VOA should broadcast in the major languages of the world, and in those languages whose speakers the United States has a particular need or desire to reach. Obviously, resource constraints will require choices. The goal is to reach the greatest number of people with the greatest need and of the most critical importance to the United States.
Reaching the Audience
The VOA must be able to reach its intended audiences. During his Presidency, Ronald Reagan proposed a massive modernization of VOA’s infrastructure, with particular emphasis on shortwave broadcasting and satellite television service. In the end, close to $1 billion was appropriated to this purpose. But the media environment has radically changed. To its credit, the VOA was the first international broadcaster to utilize the Internet to reach audiences. But it has since moved too slowly in adapting to a new media environment.
The VOA has to use every medium available in order to effectively carry out its worldwide mission. Not every medium is available everywhere. Different media require different styles and personnel skills. Just as television is more than ‘radio with pictures,’ the Web and social media also have their own characteristics that require specialized editorial and production skills. VOA should be organized to allow each medium to reach its full potential rather than simply shifting financial and personnel resources to the next new thing or making it a collateral duty. New media tends to be a resource hog, but it necessary if you are going to go where the audience is.
VOA management needs to bear in mind that in a major crisis, the means to reach an audience can be quickly reduced to a few. Domestic disasters can provide a lesson: electricity fails, cell phones become bricks, and often the only remaining means of reaching people is through old- fashioned radio. A report by the US Army likened Hurricane Katrina to a WMD attack in its impact on communications infrastructure. Having a reserve capacity of radio transmitters, AM, FM and shortwave may prove important in an international crisis. With regard to shortwave, VOA should discuss with other international broadcasters, particularly BBC, whether sharing transmission facilities may make sense to maintain a surge capacity if needed while reducing infrastructure costs to each. VOA should cooperate with the DOD on maintaining a mobile radio transmitter reserve.
To paraphrase President Eisenhower, organization cannot overcome bad leadership. Still, it is clear that the current management structure of the BBG and the IBB needs to be changed. It was flawed from the beginning, and became especially unworkable after the breakup of the USIA.
Baring the unlikely reinstitution of USIA, The VOA needs to be an independent government agency with a Presidentially appointed/ Senate-confirmed head of Agency. That individual should have full executive authority over the VOA appropriation, and should participate as an active member of the foreign affairs structure. As in the past, this Presidential appointee would bear the responsibility for balancing policy with the requirement for honest news reporting. I have seen VOA Directors handle this responsibility in the past with great integrity, and it can be done again in the future. And, let’s drop the pretentious ‘CEO’ title that has been proposed. If ‘Director’ is good enough for the FBI, it should also be for VOA.
VOA would benefit from an appointed advisory board, whose responsibilities would consist of helping insure that the terms of the Charter are being satisfied, and reporting on the effectiveness of VOA operations.
Structure and Resource Allocation
The new VOA needs to have a much flatter organization. From the beginning, the BBG and IBB have allowed an expansion of overhead positions and bureaucratic superstructure at the expense of carrying out VOA’s actual mission. Those resources need to be redirected into news operations. This will require a restructuring of VOA. To be effective in the field, the VOA needs substantially more teeth, and substantially less tail. Importantly, the language services, where some of the finest reporting has always originated, need to be enhanced and given a greater editorial role. They will benefit from the flatter organizational structure, one that can be more quickly responsive to international events. VOA needs to be faster and more agile and can be by eliminating bureaucratic layers, while still maintaining the highest editorial quality.
The VOA has had an illustrious past. It has been on the front lines of America’s wars since 1942, both hot and cold, and has performed honorably. Its faults arise from bureaucratic bungling, loss of focus on mission and poor resource allocation. It has also been undercut by a false sense of competition with the surrogate broadcasters, important in their own right.
In this world of instant communication VOA is needed perhaps more than ever. Disinformation has grown at least as fast as truthful information. While there is no dearth of media output in the world, the singular commitment to authoritative, objective and balanced reporting on the United States, its policies and world events is a commodity in short supply. This is no time for retreat.
HR 4490 is a step backward. The Bill makes important findings, but reaches the wrong solution. If and when the Senate takes this up more work will have to be done to craft legislation that fully restores American international broadcasting as a powerful voice in support of American leadership and our national interests throughout world. The VOA is a valuable instrument of American public diplomacy. It sorely needs a rededication to its mission.
Joe Bruns joined VOA in 1986. He was named Deputy Director of VOA during the George H. W. Bush administration, and served as acting Director of VOA for the first 14 months of the Clinton Administration. Bruns also worked in USIA’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. He recently retired from WETA after fifteen years in public broadcasting.