Is it news, or is it propaganda?

Does an independent media have a role in public diplomacy?

A bipartisan bill in Congress, the U.S. International Communications Reform Act (HR 4490) is aimed at clarifying the mission of U.S. international media. (See “US losing ‘information war’ to Russia, China?” and “America doesn’t need varnished truth.”) With all due respect to Reps. Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), while the House bill would address some of the issues that have negatively impacted U.S. international broadcasting, it doesn’t go far enough in effecting real reform.

HR 4490 would engrave in stone a myth of recent years that the Voice of America (VOA) should focus primarily on news about the United States and international developments that affect it. That was not the initial concept when VOA was launched during World War II, broadcasting to war-torn Europe; nor was it part of the 1976 VOA Charter signed into law by President Gerald Ford that says VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news, will represent America, and will present U.S. policies along with responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. The mission then was clear to Congress and VOA.

Confusion only began after Congress began creating the “Freedom Radios” – Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (1950s), Radio Marti (1983), Radio Free Asia (1996), and Radio Sawa (2002).  VOA, as a part of the federal government, has always provided news and information about the target countries as well as the rest of the world; while the Freedom Radios, funded through grants rather than as federal entities, were intended to serve as surrogate broadcasters for specific countries that lack a free media. They had a narrower focus – but then talk began about public diplomacy and duplication of effort, and questions arose about where taxpayer dollars are best spent.

HR 4490, by mandating that VOA report on the U.S. and its perspectives and policies along with international news, while the separate grantee organizations provide local and regional news and information to those who may not otherwise have access to it, will be perpetuating the very duality and duplication it wants to reform. Both organizations would still be needed to broadcast to any single target area to provide a full range of news and information.

If Congress were setting up U.S. International Media from scratch in 2014, would it create multiple organizations with different missions, or would it create one media organization to be an honest broker of local and international news including explanation of U.S. policies for anyone living in areas where accurate and objective information is hard to obtain?  Wouldn’t one consolidated media branch be more cost-effective to manage, even with audience targets all over the world? 

Finally, there is the question of VOA’s role in the realm of public diplomacy. HR 4490 would have VOA “promote” U.S. foreign policy, removing a critical firewall of independence from official interference that VOA has enjoyed since President Ford signed the VOA Charter into law. Good journalism in the finest uniquely American tradition is objective; it presents relevant facts and responsible discussion so an informed citizenry can make its own decisions.

VOA’s strength is in focusing on parts of the world that commercial broadcasters tend to ignore (until they flare up), and in serving as a model of a free press for areas without a tradition of unbiased news coverage. One of America’s greatest strengths is in letting truth speak for itself. As William Harlan Hale told German listeners in 1942 in VOA’s first broadcast, “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.”  

By providing the truth about what's going on, good and bad, it builds U.S. credibility - and in that sense, VOA serves public diplomacy through journalism much more effectively than it could by directly promoting U.S. policy.  As the House considers HR 4490, and as the Senate develops its own version of the legislation to put U.S. International Media back on track, I hope they will keep these points in mind.

King is a program analyst within the International Broadcasting Bureau under the Broadcasting Board of Governors and spent more than 25 years as a journalist with the Voice of America. The views expressed are entirely her own.

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