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Much ado about news

Much ado about news
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“If I was a foreign spy, this is the agency I would target," said an unnamed official of the U.S. Agency for Global Media to a conservative website. USAGM is the parent agency of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other U.S. international broadcasting entities. 

As others have made the case, foreign actors have sought to infiltrate and influence other countries, particularly the U.S., under the blanket of journalism. A report released by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) revealed that during a period spanning 10 years, USAGM had not fully vetted journalists and other personnel, potentially leaving America vulnerable to security threats from those with nefarious intentions. 

Considering a number of VOA broadcasters are from authoritarian nations that are not necessarily allied with the U.S., it’s not particularly shocking that some adversarial nations might attempt to use the cover of this outlet to gain an advantage. 

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In its report, OPM cited deficiencies in security investigations at USAGM involving its incoming and existing employees. USAGM publicly released OPM’s report on Aug. 4, and on Aug. 12, Michael Pack, the Trump-appointed and new CEO of USAGM, placed six senior officials of his agency on administrative leave, with their security clearances revoked. Those dismissed include the chief financial officer and general counsel. This bureaucratic purge was part of a security investigation into alleged failures on the part of previous USAGM management that, in Pack's words, "pose a threat to U.S. national security."

It's enough to take one's breath away. All this talk about security clearances, access to classified documents and national security can’t be helpful to the credibility of USAGM journalists, giving the impression that they are involved in top secret conferences with the Department of State, National Security Council, the CIA, the Department of Defense and other agencies, to formulate the ideal spin to the news that is distributed to gullible audiences abroad.

In an Aug. 27 podcast interview with the very conservative website The Federalist, Pack said “To be a journalist is a great cover for a spy,” although he admitted there is no evidence any USAGM employee is a foreign spy. This interview prompted 14 VOA journalists to send a letter of protest to VOA acting director Elez Biberaj, in which they noted “there has not been a single demonstrable case of any individual working for VOA as the USAGM CEO puts it ‘posing as a spy.’” They also protested “the firing of contract journalists, with no valid reason, by canceling their visas.”

Delusions of foreign policy intrigue notwithstanding, USAGM is an organization of five news outlets. Here is how it works: People in many countries need news about their countries and the rest of the world that is more comprehensive and reliable than the news they get from their own state-controlled domestic media. It is in the interest of the United States that these people have the information they need to form their own opinions. This is necessary to the formation and maintenance of democracies and to confound dictators in their intentions to commit mischief.

Such a news service in the 62 languages of the USAGM entities is not provided by private U.S. media because there is no profit potential. It is therefore necessary for the U.S. government to provide the funding. But — and this is the hard part — the government must then give these news organizations the independence to do journalism, or they will not achieve the credibility required to attract audiences. This formula has worked for BBC World Service, the most successful international broadcaster.

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What sort of “threat to national security” can journalists be? The most likely plot would be that a regime plant an operative to be recruited as a journalist at a USAGM entity to write stories favorable to that regime. He or she has to have some experience in news, even if it’s for a state outlet. The new hire might be assigned to cover the U.S. soybean harvest, eventually working up to international topics, like Brexit. Only after several months of competent writing could the journalist delve into the current events of the target country.

And throughout the process, there would be an editor, whose job is to spot any bias that the operative might attempt. What if the editor is the operative? It would take years to reach that position — a lengthy process for results that would be less than a treasure trove for information warfare. But if it does happen, there is also a program review process at least once a year for each language service, in which they look for bias and violations of journalistic standards.

While foreign affairs agencies produce documents that are generally not available to the public, the USAGM entities produce news and features that are placed online for all to see. It is, after all, broadcasting. Observers, pundits, scholars, detractors and, most important, the audience can look at all this output and state any objections.

Reporters at the USAGM entities shouldn’t have access to classified documents. As far as I can determine, they don’t, except when they get hold of the same leaks available to private media. Access to classified material should be limited to a very small number of administrators who are involved in tasks such as placing relay facilities overseas. To enhance security, senior non-journalist personnel, along with their padlocked file cabinets, can be placed in a separate building.

Then let the USAGM newsrooms get on with the business of reporting news.

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