The world needs news

The world needs news
© Greg Nash

Although discussion of fake news has prevailed lately, a more enduring problem is censorship and state control of news in many countries. Hundreds of millions of people in the world receive from their domestic media a version of news that emphasizes some topics, for example the achievements of the nation’s leader, while downplaying or purging mention of setbacks or opposition. 

Since before World War II, those seeking a more complete picture of news in their own countries and abroad have listened to foreign broadcasts as the remedy. Now they turn to satellite television and the internet, but their goal is largely the same.

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The United States government has broadcast to foreign audiences since the 1940s. The stations now under the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, renamed U.S. Agency for Global Media on August 22, are Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa, and Radio and TV Martí. Together they broadcast by radio and TV and publish on the web in 56 languages.

Better-informed audiences have the information needed to make up their own minds and bring about reforms and democratic institutions. Dictators, denied complete control of the information flow, are confounded in whatever domestic or international mischief they may be contemplating. 

International broadcasting attracts audiences if it is credible and independent, in reality and in perception. It will not take audiences long to detect if a foreign broadcast is involved in the same emphasize-this-downplay-that that characterizes their state-controlled domestic media.

The most certain way for international broadcasting to be independent of government control is for it to operate within the private sector. Unfortunately, there is little potential for profit in cross-border broadcasts in languages such as Kinyarwanda, Uyghur, and Creole.

A national government must therefore subsidize these broadcasting efforts. History shows that the funding government will find it difficult to resist also controlling the content — emphasize this, downplay that. Only a few uncommonly wise nations fund media efforts while also granting them journalistic autonomy.

U.S. international broadcasting is not immune to the forces of control. Voice of America was in roll-back-communism mode in the 1950s. In later years, its journalists nudged VOA to strengthen independent reporting, but successive politically appointed managers swung VOA like a pendulum, from news to advocacy. VOA’s credibility suffered by palpably changing its tone with every new administration. 

The International Broadcasting Act of 1994 addressed this problem by establishing the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors. The BBG was a nine-person bipartisan body with fixed and staggered terms. This board, and not the U.S. president, chooses the directors and president of VOA and the chiefs of other U.S. international broadcasting entities.

During most of the 24 years of the BBG, this arrangement actually worked. The broadcasters evidenced continuity of management and journalistic tone as administrations changed.

The BBG was criticized, however, for inefficiencies due largely to delays in nominating and approving members of the board. The BBG also had to make unpopular decisions, shifting language services and introducing newer media technologies to meet the times, disrupting careers along the way. 

A provision tucked into the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2017 has relegated to BBG to an advisory board. The BBG’s — now USAGM’s — CEO will henceforth be nominated by the president, with Senate consent. The politically appointed CEO assumes the board’s authority to name the directors and presidents of the broadcasting entities under the BBG.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE has nominated documentarian Michael Pack to be the CEO under this new regime. Pack could protect the journalistic integrity of the U.S. international broadcasting entities. He may push instead for more advocacy of Trump administration policies, more emphasize-this-downplay-that.

Eventually, there will be CEOs of both types. The pendulum will swing again. When the pendulum swings in the direction of advocacy, audiences will notice. Credibility will be lost and may take decades to recover.

In the meantime, the audience will turn to the BBC World Service, which will shoulder the daunting responsibility of being the only organization capable of delivering objective news reportage for global audiences. The BBC meets the key criteria including: 1) the ability to gather global news and news specific to its target countries, 2) output in multiple languages (BBC now has 40), and 3) journalistic independence.

The BBC is not perfect, but over the decades it has shown that a publicly funded organization can maintain journalistic independence. It should be the model for the revival of U.S. international broadcasting in the next administration.

Kim Andrew Elliott is a retired Voice of America audience research analyst.