From VOA to Radio Free Europe, the US Needs a Single News Voice Abroad
To fight Russian and ISIS propaganda, Congress should merge the government’s diverse information services.
LONDON – Reporting a story last year on the views of the Crimea annexation among Russians and Ukrainians here, I staked out a newsstand at Charing Cross Station that stocked two free Russian-language weeklies.
A young bank worker grabbed one of each on her way by, and I stopped her.
“I think I would have voted to stay with Russia,” she said.
As if the KGB might be monitoring, she gave her name only as ‘Olga.’ She told me she had lived in London for nine years and was married to a Brit, but could not tell from the various Western and Russian news reports whether the Russian-run referendum was legitimate and whether the annexation was justified.
“It’s quite different the way the information is being presented here to what I hear from my family back home,” she said. “The way the West pictures Russia is that it was all very brutal and they didn’t have a right to be there. The story that I hear from back home is that Ukrainians are threatening Russians.”
This educated woman living in an open society thought the Russian version of events just might be true. Such is the power of Russia’s information machine.
Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to reaffirm and deepen the fragmentation of its global information operation. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., have reintroduced their bill to reorganize the way the United States speaks to the world through government-funded broadcasts. But the bill would perpetuate the waste, ambiguity and duplication of the current U.S. international broadcasting structure. And it does so when effective U.S. broadcasting is needed most -- in the midst of the confrontations with a newly provocative Russia, a China rising not entirely peacefully, and Islamic extremists with sophisticated social media campaigns.
Instead, to be more effective in the global competition of ideas, the U.S. should consolidate its international broadcasters into one entity with one mission.
Call it “The American News Network.” And make its mission to tell the truth about world events and U.S. policy, culture and values, and to include a broad range of comment and discussion on those subjects.
Today, Voice of America delivers worldwide radio and television broadcasts (and websites, mobile apps and social media outreach) in 47 languages. In addition, U.S. taxpayers fund Radio Free Europe, mainly for eastern and central European countries; Radio Liberty, for the former Soviet Republics; Radio and TV Marti, for Cuba; Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television for Middle East and Arab countries; and Radio Free Asia, reaching into North Korea, China, Tibet, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Some 20 of their foreign language broadcasts duplicate preexisting VOA services.
The overlapping web of broadcasters was created over several decades in response to World War II, the Cold War and other international crises, through a combination of well-meaning moves and pet projects promoted by bureaucrats, activists and members of Congress.
Royce, himself, was involved in weaving the web, as chief sponsor of the law that revived Radio Free Europe’s Afghan languages after 9-11, rather than bolstering VOA’s Afghan services, which already had more than 50 percent of the adult market.
The Royce-Engel United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015 reinforces divisions that leave the various broadcasters underfunded, pursuing different missions and competing with each other for audiences and congressional support.
It does have some improvements from their effort last year -- which passed the House but died in the Senate -- notably removing the requirement that VOA “promote” U.S. policy, which would have destroyed its credibility.
It’s time for a real reorganization, putting old motivations and turf wars behind us, conceptually and structurally, and making maximum use of taxpayer dollars.
No more duplication of language services. No more halting efforts at synergy across broadcasting stovepipes. No more murky, overlapping or oscillating missions.
The ANN would have one CEO, one central news operation, one network of news bureaus around the world. It would have the ability to make use of reporting and analytical expertise across the organization to cover breaking news, conduct enterprise reporting and analyze all sorts of issues.
Language services would have enough autonomy to serve their specific audiences, but also an obligation to cover the world and the United States, and access to global coverage by their colleagues to accomplish that.
A strong CEO would give the network what is lacking now – clear priorities, a coordinated approach to address them and the mechanisms to make sure that happens.
The Royce-Engel bill’s proposed structure could never provide that kind of dynamic leadership, installing two CEOs to preside over half a dozen semi-autonomous broadcasters with different missions and funding rules, and each with its own director.
Of course the American News Network would report on U.S. policies and their impact at home and around the world, and provide official explanations and independent analysis.
But it should not have a mandate to “promote” U.S. policy. Policy is transitory. Promoting policy is the job of the government’s vast public relations apparatus. If a broadcaster does that job, it becomes a propaganda mouthpiece – something America does not need and no one around the world wants to watch, hear, or read.
Telling the truth will promote U.S. interests in the long term without engaging in a fatuous effort to fight propaganda with propaganda. That must be the core tenet of U.S. international broadcasting.
As journalist, author and former Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Walter Isaacson said at VOA, in April, “If we report the truth, it’s going to help the forces not just of the United States, but of freedom and goodness around the world.”
On Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, I saw students hold radios high in the air so people could listen to VOA broadcasts. I saw handwritten transcripts of some of our programs posted on lamp posts. And I laughed when an excited group of students came up to me and asked if I was one of our well-known Mandarin broadcasters, Betty Tseu.
That can be the power of U.S. international broadcasting. Call it soft power if you must, but it makes a real difference, as Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi and many others have testified.
This is not a small proposal, nor is it made lightly. Hardly anyone has spent more years in international broadcasting than I have, nor has more pride in having signed off “VOA News” all these years. But it’s time to finally and cleanly break with the past.
Incremental change has not and will not do the job, nor will affirming old divisions through new legislation.
As Isaacson said of the U.S. international broadcasting structure, “I think you have to be pretty radical now in changing it.”
Congress should start with the resources of today’s U.S. government broadcasters and create a new network for a new century, a new generation, a new audience, and a new set of challenges.
Al Pessin has been a VOA reporter, editor and manager for 38 years. He is currently Europe Correspondent, and was Pentagon Correspondent from 2005-2011. Al was expelled from China for his Tiananmen coverage. The views expressed are his own.
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