Repoliticizing Voice of America

Repoliticizing Voice of America
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When Michael Pack takes over as the first politically-appointed CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, his first task will be to comprehend the bewildering array of international broadcasting entities under the USAGM. This includes two government agencies: Voice of America and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí), and four government funded corporations: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks (the Arabic-language Alhurra and Radio Sawa) and the anti-censorship Open Technology Fund. Within this structure are broadcasting outlets that straddle two entities, such as the Russian-language Current TV. All told, the entities distribute content in 61 languages.

When past that hurdle, Pack must then decide if he wants to maintain the journalistic independence of USAGM’s entities, or if he wants to move them towards advocacy of the administration’s policies.

Perhaps Pack will agree with the critics (mostly conservative) of U.S. international broadcasting who believe that it should promote the United States and its policies and lambaste America’s enemies. On the other hand, he told a Senate panel that he would be able to set his personal views aside to honor the traditional independence of the agency’s journalists. “Their [VOA’s] independence is the bedrock of the institution,” he said. “I guess it comes down to the need to say no when you get a call from somebody, a political person, telling a journalist what to do.” 

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So which way will he go? During my 32 years at VOA, I saw diplomats, public relations flacks and political appointees hired as senior managers. They looked around and noticed they were in a news organization. Accordingly, many of them went native and protected the autonomy of VOA’s newsroom even though they had no background as journalists. Maybe this has to do with the Washingtonian tendency to protect one’s turf against competing bureaucracies. On the other hand, officials with similar backgrounds were appointed to VOA management and proceeded to steer content to toe the administration line.

It was such pendulum swings between independent and directed journalism that hurt VOA’s long term credibility, leading to the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 and the creation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to give that independence permanent protection. “Permanent” turned out to be from 1994 to 2020, when, because of language tucked nonchalantly in the 2017 Defense Authorization Act, authority over U.S. international broadcasting, especially the power to hire entity heads, was transferred from the bipartisan board to the politically appointed CEO.

Before the “Camelot” period of 1994-2020, the election of a new president brought leadership changes throughout U.S. international broadcasting. We are now seeing something similar with the resignations of Amanda Bennett, director of VOA, Sandra Sugawara, her deputy, and Libby Liu, CEO of Open Technology Fund and previously president of Radio Free Asia. 

This is in contrast to the continuity of the BBC World Service even as U.K. governments changed hands. The resulting credibility may be the main reason BBC, with its smaller budget, had a larger audience than all the outlets of U.S. international broadcasting. 

This prompted me to write “Too Many Voices of America,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1989/90, advocating autonomy for U.S. international broadcasting. This article generated discussion and contributed to the creation of the president’s Task Force on U.S. Government International Broadcasting. Ultimately, the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 became law, creating the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose members had fixed and staggered terms. The BBG henceforth selected the VOA director, RFE/RL president and other entity heads.

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The debate about U.S. international broadcasting seems to borrow from two main theories of communication — not that Washington decision makers are familiar with communication theory. Most intuitive is the magic bullet, or hypodermic, theory of communication: saturate the audience with certain messages and their opinions will eventually fall into place.

By the 1940s, the bullet theory was falling out of favor among scholars. One of the newer approaches is “uses and gratifications.” Audiences are not passive recipients of mass media. They “tune in” to information (or entertainment) that suits their needs and desires. Throughout the world there are, or have been, audiences in need of antidotes to the one-sided news provided their state controlled domestic media. 

Independent journalism caters to these audience needs. Well and fully informed audiences are equipped to make their own decisions about current events. This is necessary for the formation and maintenance of democracies and to confound the schemes of authoritarians. It requires governments to provide the funding (because there is little commercial potential for international broadcasting in languages such as Hausa, Creole and Uighur), then step back from the newsrooms, avoiding the temptation to kibitz. 

U.S. international broadcasting may be reverting to the more simplistic bullet theory. This won’t satisfy potential audiences, but the messages will be pleasing to the White House and key members of Congress. Perhaps the funding will be uninterrupted and even increased. USAGM, a news organization that effectively reached the wider world, could be transitioning into one suited to an America that is withdrawing to its own little world. 

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