Op-Ed: I’m not afraid of Voice of America news in the US, but . . . | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published July 15, 2013 by Digital Journal

Washington – I am not afraid of taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) news in the United States, but I’m afraid of government officials who may interfere with the news and mistreat journalists.

I am not afraid of Voice of America news being available on radio, TV and Internet in the United States. As a proud former VOA multimedia broadcaster and later manager in charge of many of its programs, including VOA English News, I have a deep appreciation for their value in closed societies. This applies to both friends and enemies who are curious about the United States and what might be happening to them in their own countries. Before immigrating to the United States, I was an avid VOA listener in communist-ruled Poland. I still check VOA news websites everyday and I’m sorry to say that I am less and less impressed by what I see. 

While I welcome the repeal of the Smith-Mundt restriction on the distribution of VOA news in the United States, I am at the same time concerned, however, what those in charge of these programs are doing and might do in the future. Extreme caution is required when government officials are granted new powers. This is especially true if they can directly influence public opinion, not just by having a say how the news may be written, but also deciding how it is distributed and to whom. 

As John Hudson correctly points out in his his post, “U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News To Americans,” The CableForeign Policy, July 14, 2013, U.S. government officials have been known to go after journalists they don’t like and some have tampered with the news. They might be tempted to do it again.

Legally, Voice of America news content is protected from U.S. government interference by the VOA Charter, a law passed by Congress and signed by President Ford in 1976.

Since I had left U.S. government service in 2006, I have witnessed not so much deliberate tempering with the news at the Voice of America but a steady decline of quality news reporting, deteriorating employee morale and attempts by officials to hide a management crisis from American taxpayers who pay their salaries, from their oversight board, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and from Congress. 

I have also seen VOA officials attacking journalists who are critical of their performance as managers. There have been not too subtle attempts in the public relations sphere (not in the VOA news but largely through press releases) to deceive taxpayers and Congress with incomplete and misleading government information. 

Since Voice of America news content can now be legally distributed in the United States by these officials, they will need much more additional public and Congressional scrutiny. Unfortunately, the new law does not provide for it. 

I had argued that while VOA news should be always available to any institution or person who wants it, abroad or in the United States, government officials should not be allowed to actively market VOA programs to Americans or to use any taxpayers’ money for that purpose. Advertising and marketing of such programs by government officials in the United States should not be allowed, even if the money for it would come from user fees.

It is also important to know that the old law did not make it illegal for Americans or American media to use, distribute and rebroadcast VOA programs if they could get them on their own. For many years, almost all of these programs were already available to everyone online and some broadcasters were even able to download them from satellite. 

What the old and now repealed law did was to prohibit government officials from actively or passively assisting American citizens and American media in obtaining these programs. These restrictions have now been lifted.

Generally speaking, I have no problem with the concept of anyone going to VOA and asking for assistance in getting a specific program if for some reason they can’t get it online. My concern is that government officials in charge of VOA, who have made a terrible mess of the organization–which, by the way, prompted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to say that it was “defunct“–will now use this opportunity to further weaken production of news programs for foreign audiences and will focus instead on the U.S. market.

The irony is that the same officials who are so eager to distribute news in the United States have nearly ruined news reporting at VOA, especially news reporting for English-speaking audiences worldwide. Many of the top news on the VOA English website are not originated anymore by VOA reporters but are simply reposted from Reuters. 

Not surprisingly, when the number of Facebook “Likes,” Tweets, Google+ are added for the top seven VOA news, that social media engagement number is often less than a hundred on any given day, while Al Jazeera, BBC and Russia Today can get tens of thousands for their English-language news content. 

I have been told that VOA editors are often unable to send reporters to cover important news stories, even in Washington, DC. VOA did not provide original coverage of the anti-government protests in Turkey in early June and for a number of days did not produce original reports on the San Francisco plane crash. Al Jazeera and Russia Today offered original reports in English and received for these two stories alone hundreds of thousands of Facebook “Likes” and YouTube views to barely a few hundred for VOA.

VOA can be minutes, hours, sometimes days behind Al Jazeera and Russia Today in original and in-depth reporting on White House press briefings, U.S. presidential statements, and other stories, both domestic and international. Americans might be gravely disappointed by what VOA can now offer them in terms of English news. 

Some of VOA language services are also understaffed and under a constant threat of being cut by the ever growing management. I sincerely hope VOA news coverage will improve, but I’m afraid that it has been paralyzed by its own bureaucracy and higher-level officials in the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).

As Voice of America news reporting and programs were being cut, the bureaucracy kept growing. Until now, officials in charge of it claimed that social media engagement was of paramount importance and required tremendous investments, which in turn required cuts in actual broadcasts, language services and programming positions to pay for this new technology. Management presented it as a solution to all problems. 

But as the latest findings on disastrous social media engagement performance were publicized by a watchdog blog, BBG Watch, these officials are now reportedly saying that social media is not after all a good indicator of successful news and program distribution. 

It is this kind of bureaucratic dishonesty from government officials that Americans need to worry about. Since, unlike NPR and PBS, all of Voice of America news production, 100%, is paid for by American taxpayers, we have the right to exercise even greater scrutiny over how these government bureaucrats manage public funds, what kind of programs they produce, and how they communicate with U.S. public and U.S. media. 

Wider distribution of VOA news in the United States will be good if it generates greater public monitoring and evaluation of the news content paid for by American taxpayers. 

But what Americans need to keep in mind is that in principle government officials cannot be trusted. They, therefore, must be closely watched, especially if they are in charge of distributing news, at home or abroad. 

That job technically belongs to Congress and members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors. But the board no longer has a quorum. It currently lists only one Republican member, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, and three Democratic members (one of them is Secretary of State John Kerry, the other are Susan McCue and Michael Meehan). 

All sitting BBG members are excellent public servants, which could not be said about some of the former board members, but even the current ones — especially without a quorum and ability to vote — find it exceedingly difficult to control the bureaucracy. 

Bureaucrats can’t do anything about Secretary of State John Kerry (he is an ex officio member), but they want the other three members replaced, especially Victor Ashe who has annoyed them to no end with his insistence on good management, transparency and saving taxpayers’ money. They may have persuaded the White House to replace Ashe. But his proposed replacement, former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, is still awaiting Senate confirmation. 

It just so happens that another Republican nominee to the BBG who is also awaiting Senate confirmation, Matt Armstrong, was a strong advocate for the repeal of the Smith-Mundt restriction on domestic distribution of VOA news. He became an expert on the old law, lobbied for its repeal and argues that VOA news is not government propaganda and can serve well domestic communities. 

I agree with Matt Armstrong on that point as long as VOA journalists can remain independent in their reporting, but also as long as they can work under good management. 

The latter has not been the case at the Voice of America. There is something fundamentally wrong with how VOA and IBB management treats journalists if the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) shows survey after survey that employee morale at VOA is always at the very bottom when compared with other federal agencies of similar size.

These kinds of findings make me worried about giving these government officials extra power to distribute news in the United States without additional scrutiny. They have a habit of lashing out against their critics, including journalists who work at VOA, and those on the outside.

The author of the Foreign Policy article probably did not know about a recent attack by the Voice of America Public Relations Office on professional reputation of a former VOA senior correspondent, Gary Thomas, who wrote a critical article, “Mission impossible: Is government broadcasting irrelevant?,” about VOA, IBB and BBG for Columbia Journalism Review. 

VOA officials accused Mr. Thomas of bias, inaccuracies and malice. I am told that BBG members were not consulted and were appalled by the attack on a journalist and a former VOA correspondent. I’m also told that BBG members are deeply concerned by this kind of hostile management style at Voice of America and want to put a stop to it. Victor Ashe has apologized to Mr. Thomas and to Columbia Journalism Review for the way VOA management treated his inquiry.

The additional irony is that Voice of America is supposed to champion freedom of the press abroad. VOA management refused to answer Mr. Thomas’ questions and then accused him of getting facts wrong, but still without specifying what those facts were. 

There was also an unsuccessful attempt by VOA to ban an independent American reporter, Matthew Russell Lee, from covering the United Nations as an accredited correspondent. Lee reportedly annoyed a VOA official. With such government officials in charge of Voice of America, U.S. taxpayers have a good reason to worry if the same officials will also be in charge of distributing news to Americans. 

The same VOA Public Relations Office also attacked my professional reputation for publishing a critical op-ed in The Washington Times, “VOA harms Putin opposition in Russia,” in early 2012. 

My crime was to expose findings of a study paid for by American taxpayers and commissioned by officials in charge of the agency that includes VOA. The author of the study, an independent Russian scholar of new media, concluded that the VOA Russian website had a “pro-Putin bias.” He recommended important improvements, some of which were adopted after BBG members became aware of the study through The Washington Times article.

In both cases, however, the VOA Public Relations Office said that a journalist who criticized the management of the Voice of America and the agency in charge of it was biased and got his facts wrong. They tried to downplay the findings of the study commissioned by the management itself.

If the lifting of the Smith-Mundt restrictions on domestic distribution of VOA programs can expose more Americans to VOA programs, I am all for it. I do not necessarily believe that domestic distribution will have a major impact in the U.S., but it can have a negative impact if resources are diverted from producing news for foreign audiences and wasted on the bureaucracy. 

Voice of America content has already been available online to all Americans for a long time. It was not illegal for Americans to use it. The former law made it illegal for government officials to market it to Americans. That is an important distinction. 

All said and done, I’m not at all opposed to the already legislatively accomplished lifting the previous Smith-Mundt restriction, and I don’t believe that VOA news is government propaganda Americans need to be afraid of.

But someone needs to keep a sharp eye on officials in charge of distributing this news material in the United States. They have developed a reputation for downplaying and mishandling news reporting and for going after their critics.

I trust Voice of America journalists, but I don’t trust some of those in charge of VOA. This is just a warning, but American public and Congress need to pay a close attention to how Voice of America news operation is managed by those in charge and demand from them full transparency and accountability. Otherwise, things can and will go wrong.

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