America doesn’t need varnished truth

“The news may be good.  The news may be bad.  We shall tell you the truth.”

Those words from the Voice of America’s first broadcast became its credo.  They were spoken in German in the months after Pearl Harbor, when the United States was under perhaps the greatest threat it has ever faced.

They still reflect the essential American approach to international broadcasting, which has enabled VOA to build substantial credibility and audience worldwide in spite of being an agency of the U.S. government.

Now, bills in both houses of congress threaten to end that.

They would require VOA to produce, in the words of the House bill, “news and related programming that is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.”

This is an approach borne out of insecurity.  It says the authors are not confident enough that the unvarnished truth will accrue to the benefit of the United States.  Therefore, they say, ‘let’s varnish it.’

The bill retains the current VOA Charter language, requiring “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” news, but only within the rubric of promoting U.S. foreign policy.

There are two main problems with this.  First, it is not consistent with American values.  VOA has always prided itself on showing the world what an objective American news organization is.  These bills would require it to be more like Russia Today, a state organ that Secretary of State John Kerry recently called a “propaganda bullhorn.”

America does not need one of those. 

And that kind of identification would make life significantly more dangerous for VOA reporters in the field.

The second problem is that no one wants to listen to such a radio station, or watch such television broadcasts or visit such a website.

Already, it is very difficult to get people to seek out foreign news sources.  Penetration for western broadcasts is seldom more than a few percent.  The goal is have influential people in that audience – officials, journalists, academics, community leaders and the like. 

Such people will not waste their time seeking out material designed to tout U.S. policy.  And the broader audience will recognize it for what it is – something they’re all too familiar with in their own societies.

Members of congress should think carefully about what kind of broadcaster they want to fund.  It should be one that operates in line with long-term American values, not transient American policies.

Pessin is the senior VOA foreign correspondent, currently based in London.  The views expressed are his own.

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