Sanford J Ungar. Foreign Affairs. Volume 84, Issue 3. May/June 2005.
Of the various ironies besetting U.S. foreign policy at the moment, one is both particularly acute and little recognized: even as the realization grows that the international image of the United States is in steep decline, the country’s best instrument of public diplomacy, the Voice of America (VOA) broadcast service, is being systematically diminished.
In 63 years of operation, the VOA has been a widely respected brand name, symbolizing honest international radio journalism with an American twist. But now, its bureaus in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo have been closed, and those in Moscow and London reduced in size. VOA news broadcasts in standard American English, which ran 24 hours a day during the 1990s, have been cut by almost half. (In contrast, the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] has two round-the-clock streams.) In far-flung spots around the world, it is now easier to get government-funded radio news in English from Australia or New Zealand—or even China, Germany, or various religious broadcasters—than from the United States. Whereas the VOA’s television programs have been expanded in some languages, such as Farsi, those in English have been substantially curtailed. Meanwhile, programming in Arabic and other critical languages is being replaced with commercial-style shows featuring pop music and brief news bulletins. Political interference in programming decisions, thought to be a thing of the past, has returned. Congressionally mandated editorials expressing the official views of the U.S. government, previously set apart, now blend into or trump objective news reports. Dispirited by the trend, some of the network’s most senior and most widely respected correspondents have retired.
These developments are in part the unintended consequences of a reform enacted by Congress almost a decade ago. In the late 1990s, the quasi-independent U.S. Information Agency (USIA), long the home of the VOA, was folded into the State Department, with the noble goal of saving money and unifying the government’s message overseas. But the restructuring placed the VOA under the ambit of the new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which also took over the rest of the U.S. government’s international broadcasting effort. From the outset, the BBG struggled to establish its authority. Comprising four political appointees from each party, plus the secretary of state, it has often initiated change just to show that it is in charge. Convinced that the VOA is an unwieldy bureaucracy, the BBG has taken key shortwave frequencies away from the network, weakening the most effective tool the United States has ever had for telling its story to the world. Meanwhile, the vacuum created by these measures is being filled by other broadcasters and bloggers, many of them overtly hostile to the United States.
Tuning In, Tuning Out
As a government agency with a journalistic mission, the VOA has always been a somewhat peculiar institution. Launched in New York soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was created to counter propaganda from the Axis powers. Still, its first words, broadcast in German on February 25, 1942, made a grand commitment to honesty: “Daily, at this time, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.”
The VOA did tell the truth, mostly, during World War II. And when the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 authorized the “dissemination abroad of information about the United States, its people, and its policies” by the government, the VOA became a legitimate part of the effort. But like government-produced pamphlets and films about the United States, its radio programs were barred from being broadcast at home, for fear that they might be used by whatever administration was in power to influence the domestic public. (Commercial broadcasters, then gaining strength, also feared government-funded competition.) In time, it took fierce bureaucratic infighting and Radio Moscow’s virulent attacks on the West in the late 1940s to guarantee the VOA’s survival. Through Russian and other foreign-language services, the VOA was used to denounce Soviet expansionism in Europe.
The early Cold War years were a tumultuous time for the VOA, as for so many other government bureaucracies. An in-house stylebook from 1953 warned starkly, “We are not in the business to amuse, entertain or simply inform our listeners. … The United States is in the midst of a struggle for the mind of mankind.” Some staff members took the prescription to heart, favoring shrill broadcasts to match those coming out of the Soviet Union. But even they were not tough enough for the staffers who leaked information to Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) during the early 1950s. McCarthy’s hearings on alleged subversion in government allowed disgruntled VOA employees to claim that the service’s broadcasts were soft on communism and that its shortwave transmitters were being placed in remote locations to keep its programs from reaching a maximum audience.
After barely surviving McCarthy’s assaults and other government investigations, in 1953 the VOA was incorporated into the USIA and soon moved from New York to Washington. For a time, the change helped insulate the service from ideological battles, and the VOA’s awkward coalition of idealistic career diplomats and young, independent-minded journalists committed themselves to building its credibility as a news organization. The late 1950s and early 1960s were a period of expansion and creativity. President John F. Kennedy famously said on its 20th anniversary, “The Voice of America … carries a heavy responsibility. … It must explain to a curious and suspicious world what we are. It must tell them of our basic beliefs.” Edward R. Murrow, then the director of the USIA, declared, “To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable, we must be truthful.”
Soon, however, the Vietnam War presented the VOA with another test: President Lyndon Johnson tried to deploy what he often called “my own radio” to counteract the private media’s unrelenting criticism of his foreign policy.
In response to the threat of political influence and partisan manipulation, in 1976 an unlikely bipartisan measure outlining an official charter for the network was tacked onto an appropriations bill. The charter declared, among other things, that the “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news”; that “VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive”; and that the network will “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.” Once the charter took effect, efforts by U.S. embassies to interfere with VOA broadcasts declined, and the network’s credibility and audience grew dramatically.
In the 1980s, the VOA’s budget, scope, and repertoire of languages—and therefore its impact—expanded steadily, reinforcing what John Chancellor, its director under President Kennedy, had once called its “ramshackle excellence.” In many hotspots, VOA correspondents drew praise from their colleagues, American or not, for their courage and competence. Although some of its foreign-language services—most notably, the Russian one—were occasionally plagued by migr politics, the VOA stood alongside the BBC as one of the few worldwide vehicles for trustworthy information. Its coverage of crises such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre won respect worldwide. Even today, it is still common to encounter people in central and eastern Europe who remember huddling as teenagers in darkened rooms to listen to VOA news on shortwave radios or who found VOA jazz programs an inspiration for independent thinking and creativity. (For decades, the jazz presenter Willis Conover was thought to be the second-best-known American in the world, after whoever happened to be the U.S. president at the time.) Throughout much of Asia and Africa, a generation of young people learned to speak “American” by listening to the VOA’s slow, limited-vocabulary “Special English” broadcasts, which often served as teaching tools for Peace Corps volunteers.
The War of the Worlds
When the BBG was created in the mid-1990s, in preparation for the VOA’s removal from the USIA, one of its goals was to build a so-called firewall between the U.S. government’s radio services and its foreign policy agencies, ostensibly to protect those outlets from the sort of political interference that had intermittently plagued the VOA. But some members of the BBG were major political contributors who had hoped to become ambassadors and took the assignment to the board as a consolation prize. Others had their own political agendas. Together they led a chaotic effort to restructure U.S. international broadcasting—sometimes with poor results.
Relying on the International Broadcasting Act of 1994, the BBG launched an annual review of the VOA’s foreign-language services. After conducting audience research and its own assessment of U.S. foreign policy goals and conditions abroad, the BBG began to rank the relevance of the more than 60 languages broadcast by the U.S. government’s various networks. Some of the board’s resulting recommendations were constructive, including a call for reducing broadcast hours and redundant services in Polish, Hungarian, Czech, and other languages in countries that have been developing independent broadcast sectors of their own. But other conclusions were misguided: English should no longer be a “priority one” language for American broadcasts, the BBG said, and programs in Thai and Turkish, for example, should be eliminated altogether. The problem occurred partly because the BBG’s recommendations were generally grounded in listener surveys, the reliability of which varies greatly depending on when, where, and under what circumstances they are conducted and by what methodology.
Ironically, some initiatives, such as the attempt to kill the Thai and Turkish services, were successfully foiled by the State Department. Others, however, were not. The BBG’s most controversial move to date was its decision in 2002 to phase out the VOA’s Arabic service. The service had long been criticized for being dominated by speakers of classical or Egyptian Arabic and for failing to provide specially tailored broadcasts in local dialects that would appeal to different subregions in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf. Norman Pattiz—a Democratic appointee to the board who made his fortune as chief executive of Westwood One, the largest U.S. commercial radio operation—persuaded his colleagues to let him run a subcommittee on the Middle East. Pattiz insisted that U.S. broadcasts to the region should target the masses on the “Arab street,” rather than the elites in government ministries and universities who had been the VOA’s main Arabic listeners for decades. With funds originally intended for the VOA, Pattiz launched Radio Sawa (sawa is Arabic for “coming together”), a 24-hour-a-day channel that features popular Western and Arabic music with just a few minutes of news every hour and is broadcast primarily to Arab countries with pro-Western governments. In 2004, the BBG spent another $62 million of its federal appropriations to create an Arabic-language television network called al Hurra (“the free one”) as an alternative to the popular al Jazeera satellite network based in Qatar. Al Hurra, which principally targets audiences in Iraq and Kuwait, focuses heavily on events related to the transformation of Iraq under U.S. occupation. Similarly, to broadcast in Iran the BBG has established Radio Farda, which uses the commercial-style approach of Radio Sawa to compete with the Farsi service of the VOA. The latter is not expected to survive.
These initiatives, none of which is carried out under the VOA name or staffed with government employees, have been the subject of fierce debate. Although Pattiz claims great success for al Hurra, a survey by Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has found that it has a minimal audience and enjoys little credibility. Edward Djerejian, a retired diplomat who led a well-publicized study of U.S. public diplomacy needs in 2003, argues that the $62 million spent on al Hurra would have been better used purchasing “quality American content” for indigenous Arab satellite networks. (Djerejian also suggests that the BBG is skewing surveys to make Radio Sawa look more successful than it really is.) Rami Khouri, the executive editor of The Daily Star in Beirut, has accused the U.S. government of “a fatal combination of political blindness and cultural misperception,” calling the creation of al Hurra and Radio Sawa “an entertaining, expensive, and irrelevant hoax.” Undaunted, the BBG has now announced the launch of a separate Arabic-language television channel for Europe, one more part of its strategy to support the war on terrorism in the post-September 11 world.
Meanwhile, 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. Editors have repeatedly been asked to develop “positive stories” emphasizing U.S. successes in Iraq, rather than report car bombings and terrorist attacks, and they were instructed to remove from the VOA Web site photographs of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, even though they were already widely available elsewhere. On several occasions since 2002, VOA management has objected to stories quoting Democratic politicians or newspaper editorials critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. In July 2004, Jackson demoted and reassigned the VOA’s news director, Andre de Nesnera, a veteran correspondent, purportedly as part of a move to bolster the role of a television production unit recently incorporated into the VOA. Colleagues insisted, however, that de Nesnera was being punished for refusing to make the daily news report more overtly sympathetic to President George W. Bush. Yet when nearly half of the VOA’s staff of 1,000 signed a petition protesting this and other changes—a gesture that received much attention in the outside media—the relevant committees in Congress asked only the BBG about the legitimacy of the complaints. The employee rebellion, dismissed as a mere nuisance organized by pesky, spoiled bureaucrats, was quickly squelched, dashing any residual hope that the BBG could in fact serve as a firewall against political interference.
Falling On Deaf Ears
Unfortunately, the VOA is unlikely to get much support from anyone else in Washington. For all the admiration it enjoys overseas, the network has virtually no constituency inside the United States. The prohibition on its broadcasting at home has guaranteed that few, if any, members of Congress have ever heard a VOA program (even though they are now available at www.voanews.com). Most are unaware that VOA headquarters, complete with giant rooftop satellite dishes, sit a few blocks away from the principal office building of the House of Representatives. Votes on appropriations for the network are rarely noticed, let alone tracked, and they never affect a member of Congress’ prospects for reelection.
A few influential members of both houses have, in fact, made a particular effort to cut funding for the VOA, which they insist is an expensive relic of the Cold War. Oblivious to irony, some prefer to bolster Radio Liberty (RL), Radio Free Europe (RFE), and Radio Free Asia (RFA), stations created to report domestic news in countries where, because of communism, no independent national broadcasters could. The distinction between these networks and the VOA may seem subtle to the casual observer, but it is real: whereas the VOA was intended as an international news source, RL and RFE were established by the CIA during the Cold War to counter communist propaganda in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, respectively, and RFA, the brainchild of Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), was launched in 1996 to do the same in Asia. (None of these networks receives funding from the intelligence budget today, and none is officially part of the U.S. government, allowing them greater flexibility than the VOA has in hiring and firing staff.) Capitol Hill has even greater affection for the anti-Fidel Castro stations Radio Mart and TV Mart, even though Radio Mart is believed to have fewer listeners in Cuba than the Spanish service of the VOA and TV Mart has almost no audience, except at the American Interests Section in Havana and on a few Latin American cable channels. The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which coordinates programming for the two stations, is the rare recipient of “no-year money,” federal funds it can hold over indefinitely, and it usually gets more such funding than it can spend. (The Bush administration’s budget for fiscal year 2006 includes a request for $10 million to acquire and operate an airborne transmitter that could supposedly evade Cuban jamming of TV Mart’s signal.)
Some might argue that as a government-funded network, the VOA should be expected always to portray U.S. policies as righteous and successful; they might even claim that, in the right hands, such propaganda could help defuse anti-Americanism abroad. But experience demonstrates that the VOA is most appreciated and effective when it functions as a model U.S.-style news organization that presents a balanced view of domestic and international events, setting an example for how independent journalism can strengthen democracy. After all, these are the values that the network’s charter sought to enshrine, and they are no less important today than before. Many still believe that the VOA delivered its finest performances in the midst of severe crises such as the Watergate scandal and the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, when it gave full and balanced accounts of the news.
The network still has a critical role to play in introducing American values to the rest of the world. It is no coincidence that in recent years some of the VOA’s largest audiences have been in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Tanzania—countries where the local media simply cannot be trusted to offer an accurate representation of what is happening domestically or around the world. It also is telling that, like the Soviets a few decades ago, the governments of Iran and North Korea now spend considerable effort trying to jam VOA broadcasts. Ironically, by taking English off some of the clearest shortwave frequencies, the BBG has rendered a certain amount of jamming unnecessary.
Some members of Congress have suggested that the VOA’s job might best be left to the free market and cable services such as Fox and CNN, which have extensive networks of correspondents. But it is impossible to imagine these commercial operations mounting the effort and shouldering the expense necessary to provide, for both the radio and the Internet, in-depth international news in Burmese, Hausa, Macedonian, Swahili, or others of the 44 languages in which the VOA currently broadcasts. With an annual budget of approximately $150 million, almost 100 million listeners worldwide every week, and increasing penetration in difficult regions thanks to both FM signals and shortwave frequencies, the VOA is still an astonishing bargain for the U.S. taxpayer.
When the U.S. government hopes to open up channels of information in countries facing political or social crises, such as Indonesia or Zimbabwe, it first turns to the VOA to add broadcast hours. If those programs succeed in breaking through domestic barriers to the free flow of information, it is because they carry the VOA label and greater credibility than political speeches or flat declarations of U.S. policy. President Bush seems to be getting the point. In his budget message to Congress in February, he said, “Rarely has the need for a sustained effort to ensure foreign understanding for our country and society been so clearly evident.” As he suggests, without a strong and secure Voice of America, reporting the news fully and fairly in its own language and in others, the United States is fated to face more incomprehension in the international community.