A small brushfire of criticism erupted recently over the Voice of America’s initial failure to report the story of NBC anchor Brian Williams’ admittedly false claims to have been in a helicopter that came under enemy fire in Iraq. (Williams’ disputed claims about his experiences covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans quickly added to the controversy.)
Although some VOA insiders reportedly defended the agency by saying the story was a “domestic” one or that the journalist was “unknown” to foreign audiences, that defense is neither accurate nor, in fact, relevant. On the contrary, the Williams story is a perfect example of what VOA should recognize as a teachable moment.
Like our national elections every two years, some stories offer great opportunities for VOA to fulfill the most important requirements of its charter: to cover the news comprehensively; to show who Americans are and what we believe in; and to show how a democratic society based on rights such as freedom of the press is supposed to work.
For example, mid-term and presidential elections give VOA a chance to report numerous news stories that show how our system works, how politicians must face voters and the consequences of their policies, and how a democracy responds peacefully to the will of the electorate. It’s clearly news, but it’s also instructive, and many international audiences follow the coverage for both reasons, because they can compare it to their own experiences at home.
The Williams story (and frankly, this could be said even if he was an unknown reporter in a small local market) is important because his false claims about events he witnessed as a reporter obviously conflicted with his responsibility to be truthful and credible as a journalist, which are essential requirements for maintaining trust in a free press.
And that’s why it was a teachable moment for VOA.
Ironically, Russia’s RT and China’s CCTV didn’t discount the news value of the Williams story. They covered it days before VOA did, which raised the risk that VOA’s omission could have been perceived by skeptics as a reluctance to cover embarrassing U.S. news, which would undermine VOA’s credibility.
Since the initial lapse, VOA has promptly covered the latest development of NBC suspending their controversial anchor for six months. But this story is clearly not over, and I hope VOA will report its final outcome in a way that conveys to foreign audiences both the importance of the news media telling the truth and being reliable – and the consequences when they are not.
David S. Jackson is a veteran journalist and former U.S. government official with extensive multimedia communications experience in domestic and international markets.
During his early career as a journalist, he worked at The Chicago Daily News, then spent 23 years as a correspondent and bureau chief for Time Magazine covering a wide range of stories in the U.S. and abroad. While at Time, Jackson served as Midwest Correspondent in Chicago, Justice Department and Supreme Court Correspondent in Washington, Houston Bureau Chief, Middle East Correspondent (Cairo), Seoul Bureau Chief, Hong Kong Correspondent, San Francisco Bureau Chief, and Senior Correspondent (Los Angeles). Read More