Congress needs to clarify mission and oversight of Voice of America
President Trump’s attack on the Voice of America, calling its content anti-American, has led to polarized battle lines that are common now on national issues. Trump supporters say the U.S. needs an unabashedly pro-American voice to rally world publics to its side. VOA backers say Trump is trampling on the network’s legally protected editorial independence.
Trump has grossly mischaracterized the value of VOA. It and the four other U.S. government-supported networks have an aggregate audience of 350 million people per week in some 60 languages. Their reliable reporting serves daily to enhance the image and credibility of the United States. Most recently, they have set new audience records by delivering accurate coronavirus information to fight the flood of disinformation worldwide.
Genuine policy questions do exist around the broadcasters. Some elements of their mission have been disputed since the end of World War II, leading to repeated power struggles, reorganizations and legislative battles.
This continuing debate — complicated by fears that Trump wants to make the broadcasters into his personal cheerleaders — has led to the two-year delay in confirming Trump nominee Michael Pack as CEO of the networks’ parent federal agency, the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
The debate has centered around whether the job of the five networks — VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle Eastern Broadcasting Networks and Radio-TV Martí — is fundamentally to be an objective source of news, or an instrument to advance U.S. policy.
The International Broadcasting Act, the law that governs the networks, orders them to be both. It expects the networks to generate “news which is consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive,” and also to produce content consistent with America’s “broad foreign policy objectives.”
USAGM’s management has tended not to see a contradiction in these missions. In its publications, it speaks of bringing “fact-based, accurate journalism to populations worldwide” and also of serving “United States national security and foreign policy.”
In principle, the missions should be compatible. Honest news reporting should boost respect for the United States, let the values of democracy and human rights show through and — since democratic states are less likely to start wars — advance national security.
However, there are two critical issues.
The first is the line between supporting the “broad objectives” of U.S. policy, on one hand, and on the other defending the day-to-day statements of the president and other officials.
Congress should clarify in the International Broadcasting Act this important distinction. It should make clear that while the networks should support the United States’ principles overall, they should not be a day-to-day tool of White House or State Department persuasion. Their job is not to endorse or promote every government decision or presidential comment.
The second issue is about objectivity, always a fraught topic in journalism. In the case of the coronavirus, for instance, should the broadcasters make a point of spotlighting U.S. public and private contributions to the worldwide fight against the disease? (These contributions remain substantial despite Trump’s suspension of payments to the World Health Organization.)
Or would it be “unobjective” to highlight U.S. contributions above those of other countries?
In my view, it is not unobjective to make a point of combating false impressions about the United States. So long as the broadcasters stick to the facts, they have a duty as taxpayer-supported entities to make sure America gets credit where due.
Congress should also reverse two decisions it made in in 2016 that undermine the independence and credibility of U.S. international broadcasting. One decision was to grant sweeping powers to the USAGM CEO to hire and fire the heads of all the networks. A Senate proposal last year called for USAGM to be overseen by a board of foreign affairs and journalism specialists who would have to approve the hiring and dismissal of network heads. These experts could also help translate Congress’s (hopefully clarified) mission statement for the networks into clear editorial principles, stand guard over the networks’ ethics and independently assess the quality of their work.
Congress should also reverse its 2016 decision to give the CEO equal authority over all five networks, as if they were identical entities. Only VOA and Radio-TV Martí are staffed by government employees. The three other networks are private companies, operating on grants awarded through USAGM.
This difference is critical: The “grantees” do not intend to be voices of the United States, but of democratically minded people in the countries they serve. By declaring in 2016 that the CEO can “direct” the grantees’ operations, Congress drove a truck through that distinction. It not only blurred their mission but harnessed to a federal bureaucracy companies that benefit from the efficiencies and flexibility of private organizations.
Congress should rule swiftly one way or another on the Pack nomination, but also seize the opportunity to further define and protect the broadcasters’ mission. This will help guarantee the networks’ efficiency and editorial credibility — irrespective of who becomes CEO now and in the future.
Thomas Kent, a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, was president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty until 2018. Formerly he was standards editor and international editor of The Associated Press, and an AP bureau chief and correspondent in Moscow, Tehran, Brussels and Sydney. He teaches about information ethics and the geopolitics of news at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Follow him on Twitter @tjrkent.