What is the Mission of U.S. International Broadcasting?

Saturday, April 26th 2014

Russian troops are threatening the sovereignty of a bordering country while its anxious neighbors look West for support... Chinese bellicosity is prompting similar concerns from its neighbors... Iran’s nuclear ambitions are raising fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East….

At a time when our government needs all the tools of national influence and diplomacy that we have to let people around the world know what's at stake, and where the U.S. government stands in these crises, our best public diplomacy tool – U.S. international broadcasting and online media – is wrestling with its own challenges.

In recent weeks, there has been a growing debate about the proper roles of the Voice of America (VOA) and its fellow government-supported broadcasters Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio & TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks of Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV. Columnist Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post that it’s time to “rethink the funding and governance” of the broadcasters, while former Reagan Administration Soviet affairs advisor John Lenczowksi charged in The Wall Street Journal that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the broadcasters, “has greatly diminished America's capacity to fight the Putin propaganda machine.” Lenczowski was even more critical at a Heritage Foundation panel discussion last week, where he called the BBG “dysfunctional” and in need of “an entire overhaul.”

While all this has been going on, BBGWatch.com, a public blog site which frequently airs grievances from current and former employees, has been launching daily broadsides against senior managers at VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau, an internal supporting agency.

Some of the issues that have been raised are not new: Funding (there’s never been enough to do everything); shortwave radio, and what role it should play (some veteran employees still regard television as a new-fangled extravagance); and news coverage decisions.

These are all important issues, and the BBG has recently installed an interim management team to oversee internal operations while it weighs additional changes. But as it does so, the BBG will also have to confront a key question that underlies all of U.S. international broadcasting:

What should its mission be in a world where technological changes and skilled competition from Russia, China, and others have so dramatically changed the way people get their news, the speed with which they get it, and the wide range of information sources they now have to choose from?

There used to be a general consensus on that mission, and it went like this: VOA told “America's story," and provided news, feature stories, and information about the U.S. and our culture, while the other, "surrogate" broadcasters focused on local and regional news and information of interest to their target audiences, so they could act as a local broadcaster would if there was freedom of the press in those countries.

Over the years, however, those distinctions have become blurred as VOA and its fellow international broadcasters all now generally provide U.S. news and information as well as local and regional news. They have to if they want to be competitive in their target markets.

The bigger problem is that everyone now has his own idea of what the mission is, and that goes to the heart of what these organizations decide to cover every day.

Should they focus on breaking news and speed of delivery, or analysis and context? Should their coverage decisions be dictated by national strategic goals, or by what research says their audiences want? Should they aim for specific audience segments like the young, urbanites, or elites, or just try to attract the largest audiences they can get?

Only Congress and the Board can provide this guidance, but others have offered a range of views. Some critics like Lenczowski say the broadcasters should be more closely tied to national policy by making them accountable to a government agency such as the National Security Council. On the other side are critics who say that VOA, at least, shouldn’t have anything to do with public diplomacy, that it should simply be an independent news organization like CNN.

Complicating the discussion are two additional factors. First: Congress is not going to be eager to provide taxpayer dollars for a government agency that simply wants to be another CNN. And second: Any changes that cause the broadcasters to be seen as propaganda outlets for the government will cause them to lose their credibility as well as their audiences.

In practice, there is a lot of room between being a propaganda outlet and being a CNN. Every day, for example, there are stories that the U.S.-supported international broadcasters should cover because they can inform a target audience about an issue that they are either uninformed or misinformed about. And every day there are feature stories that VOA can (and does) do that counter anti-American propaganda and show our society as one that provides, for example, opportunities for upward mobility and freedom of speech and religion. None of these examples could be fairly called propaganda, and all of them can be done in a journalistically balanced way. Yet none of them could be called part of CNN's mission.

Clearly the BBG is facing some tough issues. But at a time when true propaganda from organizations such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and China's CCTV has gotten both more professional and more pervasive around the world, the U.S. needs a strong global voice with a clear mission.

We have that strong voice in our U.S. international broadcasting media. What we need now is a consensus on what those voices should be saying. 

13 people have commented on this article so far

David S. Jackson

David Jackson is a veteran journalist and former U.S. government official with extensive multimedia communications experience in domestic and international markets.

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Author: David S Jackson

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Forgot something

Nicely written and informative article. But you forgot a key cancer at VOA. No matter what policy comes from up on high, you have 43 language services in that building. They are fiefdoms. The service chiefs and their subordinates refuse to change simply because they don't have to. The AFGE has made it nearly impossible to fire do-nothing dinosaurs whom, as you mentioned, still see television as a newfangled extravagance. Couple that with spineless, vision less upper managers and you've got, well, VOA.

What is the Mission of U.S. International Broadcasting?

This is a very timely comment.

The West is faced with the most virulent disinformation campaign since the fall of the Soviet Union. It is clearly directed from Moscow and we seem to have forgotten how to counter such information aggression. Russian active measures are underway not only in Ukraine, but throughout the region. We need a robust U.S. government international broadcasting response as part of USG strategy.

At the same time, the BBG is in serious need of reform. As David Jackson correctly notes, the American people don't provide tax dollars to BBG in order to duplicate or compete with CNN.

U.S. government international broadcasting must be a central part of America's public diplomacy, and it cannot operate successfully at arm's length from the Department of State.

U.S. International Broadcasting

The House of Representatives is reportedly in the process of legislating a new mission for VOA, thereby depriving the USG of a valuable and effective foreign policy tool. For more than 50 years, and throughout the Cold War, VOA has been a respected and popular source of world news, and its reputation for credibility, reliability and objectivity have been an important foreign policy asset. Its support from Congress and every administration culminated in its Charter that was written into Public Law 94-350 in 1976.

Beyond its news broadcasts, the Charter states that "VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively and will also present responsible discussion and opinion on these policies."

Beyond radio and television, VOA now also has at its disposal the new Internet information media that can make it more effective than ever, given its support from the current Administration and Congress.

I believe that in this time of troubles VOA is more important than ever as a valuable and effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy and needs the support of the Dept. of State, public organizations such as the Public Diplomacy Council, and individuals, such as former VOA directors, knowledgeable and influential on the subject.

What is the Mission...

Thanks for both of these comments.

For the record: When I was expanding VOA's television production, the language services were the most enthusiastic about the change, and they were quickly rewarded with significantly larger audiences. That was nearly eight years ago, so there are obviously newer communication tools that should be part of the mix. But the main point is, we need to constantly adapt if we want to be seen, heard, or read in today's international media environment. Change isn't an option; it's a requirement.

VOA - A Personal Observation

When it comes to the Voice of America, I am a true believer. I became a believer while service in Moscow as Press and Cultural Attache in the late 1950s. I learned to appreciate what VOA was doing for the lives of thinking Soviet citizens, hungering for information from the free world. I was responsible for monitoring VOA: its Russian language broadcasts were thoroughly jammed while VOA English could be heard most of the time. People told me what they did to overcome jamming.

Without being prompted, Soviet citizens, recognizing me as an American, told me how much VOA meant to them in their daily lives. Not only well-know dissidents like Andrei Sakharov or Lev Kopolev, but many Russians I met on trains, in the theater or in far-off Central Asian cities volunteered what VOA did for their morale and their life. And, of course, Willis Conover's universally loved VOA music programs were a constant morale booster. It was a true revelation for me to realize how important VOA broadcasts were in the lives of many Soviet citizens. I was in constant contact with VOA which was so important in assisting me in my public diplomacy responsibilities at the embassy. (This was, of course, also true for Radio Liberty at that time.)

VOA also proved to have tactical value. When the Soviets violated the nuclear test ban treaty in 1962, Ed Murrow, then USIA's director, ordered the massing of VOA transmitters to blast the Soviet Union for endangering the world.

And it was the U.S. Congress that supported VOA's world-wide reach and independence. On one occasion, as Acting VOA director, I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1976. Its chairman, Senator Charles Percy, admonished me that if I permitted anyone, inside or outside the government, to interfere with VOA's news broadcasts, I was violating the law.

On two occasions the White House criticized VOA for allegedly broadcasting criticisms of American foreign policy. I was called to the White House by the National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to explain why VOA invited Senator Paul Laxalt to broadcast his opposition to the Panama Canal Treaty legislation; and on the second occasion, why we had Paul Nitze, the then-head of the Committee for the Present Danger, on Press Conference USA to voice his criticism of Salt II, another Administration initiative. In both cases, USIA director John Reinhard who had accompanied me to the meeting, said "Mr. Tuch was merely obeying the law" which stated that "VOA will present the policies of the United States. and will also present responsible discussion and opinions on these policies."

I believe that VOA's two separate functions, to provide credible, reliable and accurate news broadcasts, and to present the policies of the U.S. were a tremendous asset in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War years. I believe they are equally so now when the U.S. is facing issues in areas where information is not freely available. I am saddened that VOA has been diminished during the past few years by reduction in language services, technical and financial resources just when it is most needed.


Using VOA for Foreign Policy

I was struck by Tom's mention that "When the Soviets violated the nuclear test ban treaty in 1962, Ed Murrow, then USIA's director, ordered the massing of VOA transmitters to blast the Soviet Union for endangering the world." I am willing to bet that no one today would think of asking VOA to do such a thing. My conversations with people at State, including the majority of public diplomacy officers, indicate they do not think about BBG assets as something they can employ for foreign policy purposes. You won't see a strategy paper or action plan that says, "Let's ask VOA to mass their transmitters..."

Using VOA for Foreign Policy

Yep. Times have changed. Frankly, I don't know what I would have done in Moscow if I hadn't had VOA as my most important asset--often my only asset. I wish we could somehow persuade the Dept. (and the Congress) to realize what an important asset VOA could be today with its various communication media. Sometimes historical experience does have contemporary value. Cheers, Tom

Personal Observations on VOA

I enjoyed reading Tom's observations and Brian's comment. They reminded me of my own experiences in the USSR.

In my days at the embassy (1978-81), VOA was an important element of our efforts to reach out to Russian audiences. When traveling, we regularly lugged shortwave radios to conduct hearability tests for VOA in the hinterlands. I was on one such jaunt to Tajikistan when I learned, on VOA Russian, that Marshal Tito had died.

As a program officer in the US embassy, I regularly spread VOA English and Russian Service program schedules around my contacts at the USA-Canada Institute, IMEMO, the Academy of Sciences, the Journal of Foreign Literature, Moscow State University, and elsewhere. I came to understand that this was really a pro-forma exercise, since specialists in those institutions were well aware of the broadcast schedules.

I also had the honor and privilege to accompany the great Willis Conover during a trip he made to Moscow and Leningrad in 1980 or 81, where a leading "non-official" Russian jazz musician told a stunned Conover, "Willis, for me you are a god!" That almost made Willis drop his drink! Held on to his cigarette, though.

During my stints as a USIA exhibit staffer in 1975-76, I regularly heard from exhibit visitors how much they valued VOA and Radio Liberty. These comments were made at a time when they could still carry some risk of official retaliation, especially in such places as Tashkent, Minsk, and Zaporozhye, where local party and security officials were keen to demonstrate ideological purity and vigilance to Moscow.

As an aside, I should add that many of my Moscow pals, who included a fair number of political and cultural dissidents, listened to VOA precisely because it was an official "organ" of the United States government. That status was one reason the broadcasts were credible.

Earlier, I was a student at Leningrad State University when the last Arab-Israeli war broke out. Once again, the primary news source for everybody in our international student dormitory was VOA Russian or English, and it was there that I came to appreciate how smart Russians were in terms of assessing Soviet media coverage of such events, and contrasting it (usually unfavorably, but with great humor) with VOA and RL.

Those days are behind us, of course, and the world has changed dramatically. The question before us now is how VOA and other US broadcasters are meeting new challenges.


Personal Observations on VOA (cont.)

Let me cite just one example of VOA's value to a "PAO" in Moscow in the late '50s:

The first American delegation of composers, Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Peter Mennin and Ulysses Kay, were coming to the Soviet Union under the recently signed US-USSR Cultural Agreement in the fall of 1958. The Soviets certainly did not publicize their presence in any medium.

I asked VOA to publicize their visit--who they were, why they were in the Soviet Union, their schedule in the UUR, etc. so that interested Soviets would know who and where they were and could be in contact with them. VOA was my only way to have the delegation meet any Soviet citizens. Tom

Playing the "Propaganda" Card

Is it automatically "propaganda" if the U. S. Government's tax-payer-funded, civilian, international broadcasting supports American foreign policy?

That's the question that The Hill newspaper raises in an article published today and written by Julian Hattem.

In a fit of irony, The Hill's primary source to raise this question is Russia Today.  "The Kremlin-funded Russia Today, which is itself the subject of criticism for its Moscow-friendly stance, wrote that the new bill calls “into question how much editorial independence Voice of America (VOA) will have left.”

Actually, Hattem never identifies a source or quotes anyone by name (other than Russia Today) who believes that linking American government broadcasting to American national interests would result in propaganda.

The article as a whole makes a pretty strong case for the legislation now under consideration, quoting many reasons for reform of BBG and bringing U.S. government broadcasting back into the public diplomacy fold. 

It's worth reading the whole article carefully.


The Mission...

As the accounts above show, VOA has long benefited from the support it got from State’s hard-working envoys. I used to hear amazing stories about how our diplomats would sometimes hand-carry audio tapes to remote stations deep in the jungle so their audiences could get VOA’s radio broadcasts. Fortunately, we have better ways of delivering content now. But these comments also reinforce the need to clarify just what VOA’s mission should be today.

I just want to see some good

I just want to see some good and honest work from the US broadcasting services. They should emphasize on honestly rather than money

Proposed Legislation: BBG Reform or Propaganda?

This issue isn't about "propaganda."

The VOA Charter clearly directs the Voice to report the news AND analyze and comment on policy issues, which VOA "journalists" have never accepted. During my time at the Voice, however, thanks mostly to legendary News Director Bernie Kamenske, there was a wall between the VOA Newsroom and the rest of the organization, and that should be maintained.

Someone noted that VOA staffers receive paychecks from Uncle Sam. My bottom-line question: Why should American taxpayers support a radio station, or stations, that don't support, defend and explain U.S. foreign policy? If the USG radios don't carry out that mission, we should just turn the whole thing over to CNN and/or Fox News.

The argument over "propaganda" is a waste of time. Congressmen Royce and Engel are about 98% right on this one. If their legislation passes Congress, it would serve to renew the VOA Charter, which has withstood the test of time.

As for BBG "management" of USG radio and TV, I regret using the words "BBG" and "management" in the same sentence.

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