By David Jackson
The president’s 2013 budget proposal this week was big news in Washington, but for those who care about public diplomacy and international broadcasting, the most interesting parts involved the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio & TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks of Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees these organizations, has proposed some significant cuts in the overall budget, which is hardly surprising given the nation’s economic problems. But they’ve also proposed sweeping changes in the way they want the broadcasters to operate in the future.
Three aspects of the BBG’s proposal particularly caught my attention:
The first was the lack of recognition of VOA’s historical mission of informing international audiences about the U.S. and U.S. policies, or, put another way, telling them about who Americans are, and what we believe in. The BBG’s newly rewritten mission statement makes no reference to this role, which could well prompt members of Congress to question why they should spend scarce taxpayer dollars on simply supporting another international news service, even a reformed one. VOA was originally created to counter anti-American propaganda, among other reasons, and while many things have changed since those early days of World War II, the need to counter anti-American propaganda has, unfortunately, not. Unless there’s a central and acknowledged role in the BBG’s – and VOA’s – mission for providing accurate, balanced, and comprehensive information about the U.S. and our policies, then it undermines the BBG’s and VOA’s entire reason for being.
Second: The proposed reform of the VOA newsroom. The Board wants to radically change the way VOA’s central news operation does business. In my view, this is a reform that is long overdue. As a journalist who has spent a lot of time in newsrooms during my career, I remember my surprise when I learned how little original reporting was produced in VOA’s newsroom. Most of the employees spent their days rewriting wire service stories into broadcasting copy that was consistent with VOA’s Charter and editorial guidelines. The emphasis was heavily on accuracy and caution, and very little on speed or originality, which is why VOA’s language services now produce much of the agency’s best journalism. The Board has proposed that the newsroom focus on producing original content rather than rehashed wire service stories, which I believe will be critical to VOA’s ability to attract audiences in the international media markets in which it competes. I do have two concerns, however. The severe cuts requested by the Board will jeopardize the newsroom’s ability to produce the mission-critical content I described in my previous point. I also wonder if they have the skills in the current newsroom to produce original, timely content. But this is a reform that is essential.
Third: The proposed cuts to the broadcasting services disproportionately fall on VOA despite the fact that the Board’s reforms will rely more than ever on VOA to generate original content, and despite the fact that most of VOA’s broadcasts have historically reached bigger audiences than its sister services where those broadcasts overlap. When I was the VOA director and the Board said program cuts had to be made, I always urged them to make their decisions based on the relative costs per listener or viewer of VOA’s language broadcast versus the competing broadcast from either Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or Radio Free Asia (both of which overlapped to some extent with VOA’s language broadcasts). It would have been the most pragmatic way to make such decisions, and also the most easily defended, but politics always interceded in such decisions, and they never did.
I understand and support the Board’s goal of consolidating some elements of the broadcasters in order to reduce the wasteful duplication that has resulted from the creation of a half dozen independent and internally competing broadcasting entities over the years. But what I don’t understand is why they don’t follow this strategy to its logical conclusion and also reduce the number of brands. VOA has historically been the most recognized and respected brand in the entire BBG stable. It sometimes comes as a surprise to Americans (although not to many who have lived abroad) that VOA is well known and trusted by its international audiences. Yet time and again Board members have tried to pressure VOA management to launch programs under other names, thinking that might avoid the assumed taint of being associated with the U.S. government. The fact is, that association is not necessarily bad. VOA’s reputation, which has been painstakingly built over seven decades, is of a broadcaster who tells the truth about everything, including the U.S., and even when the news is unflattering. When we try to hide the association with VOA (or the U.S. government), that only prompts conspiracy theories that the CIA is behind the broadcasts. And in the end, they always figure out it’s coming from us anyway.
Bringing about major changes in international broadcasting isn’t easy, as I know from personal experience. But America’s international broadcasters have no other choice if they want to adapt to the growing competition abroad and the ways people consume information these days. To this end, the Board deserves praise for its willingness to tackle some big issues. But they cannot be fully successful unless they also are faithful to the original mission that the American people and their representatives in Congress have supported and expected for 70 years.
This article originally appeared at the Public Diplomacy Council’s website and is reposted here by permission.
David Jackson is a veteran journalist and former U.S. government official with extensive multimedia communications experience in domestic and international markets. Jackson was the 26th Director of the Voice of America, from 2002-2006.
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