An evil genie is out of the bottle again. America’s adversaries – Russia, Iran and its proxies, and the Islamic State among them -- are resorting to bald propaganda, malign narratives, and disinformation to confuse and influence global opinion.
Who are America’s first responders? On the air every day, alert to every falsehood, it is the international broadcasters funded by the American people – the flagship Voice of America and four regional networks (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, and Radio and Television Marti).
The Public Diplomacy Council has organized many forums on broadcasting. Our members -- retired specialists in public diplomacy at the Department of State, the U.S. Information Agency, and the Voice of America; former public diplomacy principals in several administrations; and university faculty -- have been impressed by the zeal and commitment of the networks’ journalists to tell the truth, no matter how spare their resources.
Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives -- all recognize, however, that U.S. international broadcasting is unwell. Disputes over the best means to reach audiences – short wave, medium wave, radio or television, agreements with local networks, or the internet – kept the networks off balance. Mandates to broadcast in this or that language hampered strategizing. Fortunately, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is now energized and has been addressing the “dysfunction” head-on. But more needs to be done.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs under Representative Ed Royce (R-Calif.) continues to examine how broadcasting may be reinvigorated, reorganized, and reformed. If we were writing a broadcasting plan on a clean sheet of paper, no one would design the current jury rig. Two networks are directly funded, three are “grantees.” Four are “surrogates.” Forms of governance vary. As a result, vested interests, turf defenses, and rivalries impair a common effort. America can’t afford these frictions.
The solution? There should be one Board and one CEO for all the networks. As the media environment changes, as the networks shift from short wave to other means, management needs flexibility. A single full-time CEO can manage operations, best coordinate priorities for both VOA and the regional networks, and encourage collaboration on programming. The Broadcasting Board of Governors could then properly focus on strategy and the allocation of resources.
The work of the Voice of America has long been based on its Charter. Based on the founding principles of VOA as declared by the House and Senate in 1946, 1947, and 1948, the Charter was initiated in its present form as an executive order during the Eisenhower administration. It was reaffirmed as law by the Congress in 1976, 1994 and 1998. “VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive,” it states, and “VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”
Many Council members can testify that this principle gives the Voice something more than reach -- credibility. Any new legislation must incorporate the Charter
Some of the networks’ journalists have been wary that their reporting might be misshapen or tainted by association with U.S. public diplomacy. So long as the VOA Charter remains in the law, these concerns are misplaced. Non-directive consultations between the networks and foreign policy principals – cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and public diplomacy officers -- would strengthen broadcasting and diplomacy both.
A bill passed by the House last year provided that VOA would broadcast “news on the United States, its policies, and international developments that affect the United States.” The four regional networks would broadcast local and regional news. These “lanes” are too rigid.
The reach of each USG network varies by region, footprint, antenna locations, signal strength, jamming and internet blocking, partnership agreements, and language. Many listeners cannot access both the Voice and a regional network.
What listeners want, moreover, is U.S. news, international news, and local news – all the news. If its content is restricted to reports reflecting America and U.S. policies, VOA will forfeit millions of followers at a single stroke.
Yes, broadcasting reform is long overdue, but it needs to be done right.
Accurate news refutes propaganda and disinformation. When USG-funded media provide honest and credible news to foreign audiences, they strengthen democracy, human rights, and free media. They advance America’s foreign policy goals. Thomas Jefferson didn’t own an iPad, but he was onto something when he said, “Let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Bishop is a retired Foreign Service public diplomacy officer and past president of the Public Diplomacy Council.