Good Journalism Vs. Undermining Unsavory Regimes

Guest Post By Alex Belida

When I worked at VOA and spoke to visiting groups, I routinely stated, with pride, my opinion that it was one of the last bastions of  “pure journalism” in the U.S. and the world.

By that I meant the news stories written in VOA’s Central Newsroom avoided the diseases afflicting many media outlets in recent years: “snark”-enhanced writing, argument as a substitute for real reporting, and politically-or-ideologically-inspired selectivity in story and interview assignments.

In other words, the news products released by the Central Newsroom to the web and the language services at VOA met the standard of VOA’s Charter and were “accurate, objective and comprehensive.”

This is not to say that VOA news went uncriticised.  However most attacks, in my experience, reflected two recent societal diseases: the increased “stovepiping” in which audiences mainly read, watch or listen to entities that reflect their personal biases and disagree vehemently with all others, and, secondly, our increasingly polarized political environment.

It is that environment that has seen “political oversight” of U.S. International Broadcasting become “political inference” — something the Broadcasting Board of Governors is powerless to stop since their jobs as well as the USIB budget are dependent on Congressional approval.

It is for this reason that I have advocated removing USIB from government control and giving it a more solid, journalistic organizational structure.

But there is another good reason for journalistic primacy.  Let me cite two examples from the years I spent at RFE-RL before joing VOA.

I remember vividly a discussion with the editor from one of the language services there over the writing of a story in which RFE-RL’s Central Newsroom copy referred to “political dissidents” in a particular country.  The editor from the language service matter-of-factly told me his service always translated that as “members of the democratic opposition.”

In the other case, as the night supervising editor, I remember rushing out a news item on the arrest of a major Jewish dissident figure in another country.  I then called the duty editor of the service broadcasting to that country to alert him to the item.  He looked at a printout of the story, scowled, crumpled it and tossed it into a wastebasket, saying “Oh him, he’s a f–king criminal.”

I was astonished – until I realized this editor was of a generation that was largely anti-semitic.  Still, he was in charge and his decision meant the news about the dissident’s detention was not broadcast that night.

I could cite other examples from VOA and I’m sure there are similar stories from the other entities.

And therein lies one of the dirty little secrets of USIB: senior managers have no real clue, and perhaps little interest, about what is in fact being disseminated on the non-English airwaves and websites they control until and unless someone, somewhere blows the whistle.  Instead of focusing on content, managers spend most of their time dealing with process or technology or bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, in recent times, the “whistles” that have been blown, in my experience, have been less journalistically-inspired than politically-inspired by ideologically-oriented individuals or groups who have complained (often to members of Congress) about items that, for example, they consider “too soft” on governments they believe should be overthrown.

This has unfortunately led on occasion to good journalists paying a professional price for trying to live up to the Charter’s call for accurate, objective and comprehensive news reporting.

Anyone with any experience in international broadcasting should know this to be true: audiences don’t need to be told what to think. They can think for themselves.  And those media outlets that try to dictate thought soon lose their ability to attract mass audiences.

Kim Andrew Elliot, a veteran observer of USIB, put it this way in a recent item: “USIB will succeed if it provides the objective information that allows people in the audience to make up their own minds. It will fail if it manipulates content in an attempt to manipulate global public opinion, even if such manipulation is “in support of freedom and democracy.”” 

Let’s give good journalism a chance.  It is one of the best things we as a nation have offered and can still offer to the world.

In that sense, the departure of Walter Isaacson as Chairman of the BBG represents a serious loss at a time when the Board is considering a reorganization of USIB.  To the best of my memory, he was the only Board member who spoke consistently about the importance of good journalism.

It is why I believe we need a fresh debate on the purpose of USIB.  If the goal is not good journalism, but, as Ted Lipien suggested recently, undermining dictatorial regimes, then by all means let us shut down services no longer needed and give USIB to the CIA or the military’s PsyOps folks to operate.

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Alex Belida is a former correspondent and news executive who worked in U.S. International Broadcasting for 40 years.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors, do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.us, and are published here to further the discourse on activities that understand, inform, and influence.

7 Replies to “Good Journalism Vs. Undermining Unsavory Regimes”

  1. I’m afraid Alex Belida violated one of the “bastion of pure journalism” VOA rules when he wrote in an earlier comment that I resorted to using a “Gingrich-like hyperbole.” Alex revealed his political preferences, which is a big no-no for VOA reporters. I know that he’s no longer with VOA, but Gingrich may not know and if he wins the presidency and reads Alex’s post he might cut VOA’s budget next year. Not to mention that Romney and Obama might also be offended because Alex did not use their names in his comment. And, as we know, VOA reporters must always keep their stories politically balanced. I will try to remedy that by mentioning both Romney and Obama in my response without revealing whom I support. But I can offer a hint, my wife says that Gingrich may not get the women’s vote.
    Alex Belida also wrote: “I suspect this disenchantment with the Central Newsroom stemmed from occasions when it correctly declined to issue a news item based on unconfirmed and unconfirmable information of the flimsiest, single-source nature provided by a language service — service that was barred from using the infomation in a newscast without Central’s consent.”

    That’s quite an accusation without asking the other side for a rebuttal, or doing a survey, or providing any other proof. Another violation of VOA’s sacred journalistic rules.

    But let’s be serious.

    I want to assure Alex, with whom I worked at VOA and whose views I respect even though I don’t agree with some of them, that the lack of specialization and specialized knowledge in the VOA Central Newsroom was the biggest problem for VOA language services when they could not generate their own news content. 

    This is not a Gingrich-like hyperbole, more like a Obama-like or Romney-like understatement. (There you have a balance and all major political sides are mentioned as in VOA rule that all responsible viewpoints will be presented.)

    That’s how it was. As a former VOA reporter, Alex could have asked any VOA language service editor who would tell him the same thing. I did and all of them told me the same thing. Hell, I was one of them, so I should know. And in more than 30 years of working at VOA I was never accused of using “unconfirmed and unconfirmable information of the flimsiest, single-source nature provided by a language service.” I don’t think Alex is being fair to the great language service professionals at VOA. I would suggest to Alex to do a survey of VOA language service editors and their views about the Central Newsroom. Our only allies there were two or three editors who were educated in Europe and came from the dreaded East-Central European ethnic background. One of them became very offended by what Alex wrote earlier in this blog the ethnics, and I don’t blame him.

    Sure. Low budgets and not enough airtime were problems too. But from a journalistic perspective, VOA central news output was a disaster for VOA language services if you want a real Gingrich-like hyperbole. That’s why RFE/RL was beating VOA in audience ratings until some VOA language services started their own specialized and targeted news coverage during the Reagan years.  VOA Polish Service, which I managed at one time, eventually beat RFE in audience reach with less airtime, but I was always envious of what RFE was doing and we at VOA could not. VOA services can be successful given enough independence and resources. That is my response to Alex’s earlier comment to another post.

    Alex is also completely distorting my position on VOA and surrogate broadcasting. I am a strong supporter of BOTH for different reasons. Surrogate broadcasters were created because VOA failed to do its job in broadcasting to many countries. It failed to provide specialized and targeted news reporting the audience wanted. I was a listener in communist-ruled Poland to VOA, RFE, and BBC. I and most Poles preferred RFE by a long shot. Sorry Alex that RFE did such a great job undermining the communist regime in Poland. Frankly, I and most anti-communist Poles did not care too much how they did it. But I think they did it well and were not a disgrace to journalism. Far from it.

    This brings me to my point of how Alex distorts what I wrote about “undermining” dictators. I did not think that RFE’s journalism was defective. I thought it was better because RFE had better news, better information, better sources. It also had larger audiences than VOA until I took over VOA Polish broadcasts and even then RFE was better in news and information. We only managed to get eventually as many listeners as they had and slightly more because we became more like them and, being the Voice of America, we also had the authority and prestige that perhaps RFE did not. Having Reagan as president also helped. (Sorry, I may have revealed my political preference here.)

    In the early years, VOA simply couldn’t do what RFE was able to do. Now some VOA services can. But for some especially repressive and/or dangerous regimes that is not enough and a surrogate broadcaster is also needed. Good journalism undermines repressive regimes over time more effectively sometimes than the CIA or the military. It is safer and cheaper. It does it though specialized and comprehensive news coverage and commentary, not crude propaganda and CIA operations, as Alex implies. By the way, some of the CIA types that work at RFE in early years were far more sophisticated than Alex might think and some believed in protecting journalistic integrity as the best way of “undermining” communist regimes. 

    To summarize:

    Voice of America is great because it is voices of America — the first words of the first VOA broadcasts.

    Those VOA ethnic journalists have contributed more to the fall of communism in East Central Europe than anybody else. 

    The VOA central newsroom with the exception of a few editors and a few correspondents was a disaster (it is not a hyperbole) in terms of providing timely and comprehensive information that foreign audiences expected and should have gotten from VOA.

    The most successful VOA services are those with most surrogate-like content but with a clear American image.

    For the surrogates to be successful, they need more independence and less centralization and less globalization of news production. The BBG wants more centralization. It also wants to merge and limit the independence of the surrogates. That’s a recipe for disaster. 

    Surrogate broadcasters should not be mixed with VOA or VOA with surrogate broadcasters. If BBG wants to save money, it should look at surrogate broadcasting to countries that may no longer need surrogate broadcasting. Eliminate those and let VOA do its job. 

    Surrogate broadcasters should not even try to represent America. That is not their job. If they do that, they will fail.

    You can’t mix surrogate broadcasting with also trying to reflect America as in Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. You either are an independent surrogate broadcaster or you are not. Killing VOA Arabic programs was a disaster. Alhurra did broadcast statements from Holocaust deniers without any balancing material but so did NPR in one report at about the same time. So much for ethnic editors being the only reckless ones. And VOA central news editor who recently came to VOA from a “real” news organization approved and promoted  a report from North Korea, which was indeed filed by a language service reporter but which consisted mostly of North Korean propaganda. Poor journalism is universal, it knows no ethnic boundaries.

    This brings me again to Alex’s point that what VOA language services wanted was reckless and inaccurate reporting, I can only say that it is completely unfair. Careless journalists can be found in any news organization. I do not think there were more of them in VOA language services than in VOA central English services, which I managed at one time. I found many examples of superficial reporting lacking balance because VOA English writers and reporters lacked specialized knowledge and deep interest in regional and country-specific issues. Many were generalists, not specialists. Most did not speak foreign languages. 

    This may explain why I like surrogate broadcasters. But I like VOA even more if the BBG, instead of cutting VOA broadcasts and services, will let VOA do its job and not assume that a surrogate broadcaster can do it just as well as VOA. Let’s keep VOA and surrogate broadcasters separate. Let’s keep surrogate broadcasters completely independent but under good management. Let’s keep the surrogates broadcasting to countries where we really need them. If there is no surrogate broadcaster, VOA can easily assume some surrogate broadcasting functions. It can be done. But it cannot be done if the BBG pushes centralization, mergers, and globalization. You might as well then not have surrogate broadcasting. 

       

  2. Can we work constructively here on a practical plan for reforming USIB before the current Board and Congress move forward?
    Could you live with anything short of preserving the current system? Could you back a plan that, say, turns VOA into an English-only 24/7 R/TV/web operation, merges the VOA language services with the entities, (with appropriate job and benefit protections to all current VOA personnel who elect to move to, for example, RFE-RL), creates a new entity for Africa, keeps Congressional funding but overhauls the executive structure to ensure greater journalistic control and protection from political interference?

    Ideas for alternative structures welcome.

    But, as I said previously, let’s also come to agreement on the proper mission. I would propose a new Charter statement for all USIB that states quite simply:

    “U.S. International Broadcasters will serve as consistently reliable and authoritative sources of accurate, objective and comprehensive news in support of freedom of the press and the free flow of information worldwide.”

    Period.

    One more thing: no more editorials on VOA. The positions of the U.S. government are adequately conveyed in news stories. I know it’s a legislative requirement but let’s leave it out of any new bill. Please.

  3. Surrogacy and advocacy broadcasting have been thoroughly mixed in throughout the BBG structure, and that is a shame because when you come right down to it, people do not really distinguish between a RFE/RL, or a RFA, or know what the difference is between PNN and VOA, or that a Deewa Radio is actually part of VOA.
    A few years ago, on the R/TV Marti web site, one could read — and this was right on one the main pages — one of the most blatant examples of anti-Castro propaganda that could be found.  Truly vicious stuff, and it was written by the head of OCB, which of course is part of the presidentially-appointed BBG.    

    Did anyone suggest that this kind of blatantly propagandistic material had no place on the R/TV Marti site, even for an organization that was the leading edge (in the mid-1980’s) of the insertion of “pure” surrogacy into the mission of USIB?  We don’t know.  Was anyone ever taken to task for that?  Probably not.  

    Remember that RFE/RL for decades played the primary surrogate role in USIB, and was overseen by the old BIB, the Board for International Broadcasting and the forerunner of the BBG. R/TV Marti was created in the 1980’s and then fell under the BBG structure, and today its logo and those of other advocacy and surrogate broadcasting brands all dance around under the BBG logo.
    .  
    The story of USIB is full of various scandals involving advocacy broadcasting undertaken right under the noses of BBG and previous managers.  And the fact is that the U.S. government, through various administrations, has supported “propaganda creep.”  So has Congress.  Representative X or Congresswoman Y have a local ethnic constituency concerned about rights violations in their home country.  The answer?  Set up another broadcast outlet.  Look at the efforts last year of Brad Sherman (D-CA) to have the BBG begin broadcasts to Pakistan’s Sindh Province.

    Despite protestations by the BBG that there is separation, that for example a Radio Free Asia operates under the same basic principles contained in the VOA Charter, the fact is that anyone whose memory is sound remembers RFA was founded as a surrogate.  

    Like R/TV Marti, the purpose of RFA (created in the 1990’s and pushed by a group that included conservative think tankers and Vice President Joe Biden) when you come right down to it was to get people in their target countries pissed off enough to rise up and do something about their situation.  The objective was to spark an Asian Arab Spring.

    RFE/RL had CIA origins, with the Agency involved in its content and programming, and its funding, from the late 1940’s through 1971.  As for VOA, see the 1988 Columbia Journalism Review article that described alleged efforts by a Reagan-appointed USIA director to use VOA to, among other things, send coded messages to Solidarity supporters in Poland.  The existence of the VOA Charter didn’t prevent various administrations from trying to bend VOA into being more like RFE/RL

    Congress after Congress, administration after administration, president after president, have encouraged this.  And why not?  Since its creation, BBG has been there to say “Yessir!” — and stand up a new service directed at the latest hot spot.  

    Today, on the ground floor of the Cohen building, can be found Persian News Network. Bureaucratically it is part of VOA.  The association with VOA was designed to try to make sure that PNN played by the same kind of rules that VOA journalists always had in front of them in the Charter.  But PNN actually plays the very same surrogate role that a R/TV Marti or RFA does.

    Belida headed PNN for a while, and may have tried to bring as much of his Columbia Journalism School training and principles he learned working as a “non-entity” journalist for VOA.  I’m sure he has a number of bullet holes in his back from that experience. And yes — to this day can be seen examples of what he accurately observes are “good journalists paying a professional price for trying to live up to the [VOA] Charter’s call for accurate, objective and comprehensive news reporting.”

    In a response to another writer on his blog, Matt Armstrong appeared to take umbrage at the suggestion that USIB be more like the BBC.  But for all the BBC’s warts, it does not generally suffer from the image USIB still has today, which is as primarily a tool to promote and project U.S. government policy and interests.  

    But hey, that seems to be what the American people want for the $767 million in tax money they provide, for the most part unknowingly, to the BBG and oblivious of the many examples of mismanagement and employee abuse that have occurred since its creation.  If indeed this is the case, that as is so often heard from the few members of Congress who even pay attention anymore to USIB, taxpayer money should be doing the propagandist’s errand — then that’s what they will get.   

  4. I completely agree with Alex Belida that reporting the news “accurately, objectively and comprehensively” is US international broadcasting’s single most important function, a function that lends it the credibility it needs to be effective.During my second tour at VOA–1976-80–as deputy and acting director, I considered protecting the integrity of the newsroom my most important function. I was fortunate in having John Reihardt, the then-director of USIA. as my most important supporter. On two occasions, when i was called to the White House to defend specific broadcasts*, he accompanied me and told Zbig Brezhinsky and company that I was merely doing my job in accordance with the law (the VOA Charter). Furthermore, we had real support on the Hill at the time, as exemplified by the statement that Senator Charles Percy, then Chairman of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, made at a hearing when he said “Mr Tuch, if you let anyone inside the Government or outside the Government, here or abroad, interfere with the news broadcasts of the Voice of America, you are breaking the law.” So, to reiterate, the news operation is what makes or breaks U.S. international boradcasting.

    *On one occasion, I was called to the White House because we had had Paul Nitze appear on Press Conference USA to defend his opposition to the SALT II treaty; the other occasion was when Senator Paul Laxalt spoke on Press Conference USA against the Panama Canal Treaty.

  5. My friend Alex. I am speechless. What can I say? Those foreign-born ”journalists” have brought such a bad reputation to VOA, RFE and other USIB entities! Did we all — as editors and managers — have cases such as those that you mention, absolutely. And we dealt with them like any other reputable news organization would. It’s not fair, my friend, to cite a couple of examples, from one source only, YOU — to describe the coontributions, or lack of that the ”foreign born jouralists”, US citizens have made to USIB and to this country.Best regards my friend, from Frank Shkreli, one of those foreign born ”journalists” from Eastern Europe.

    1. My dear Frank,
      I have nothing but the utmost respect for most of the colleagues I worked with in language services at VOA and RFE-RL, especially yourself. And indeed I could cite examples from Central News, particularly cases of insensitivity to the needs of language services which I sought ceaselessly to combat! My point was not to condemn anyone who, as you put it, is a “foreign born journalist”. Instead it was to underscore the need for intensified journalistic controls and the elimination of political and ideological bias. I am sure you would agree this has become more difficult for dedicated managers/editors when those who would pervert the use of USIB broadcasts in pursuit of their own agendas all too quickly turn to their ideological pals outside of USIB, whether in certain media outlets or even Congress, and claim they are being persecuted or charge that the mission of USIB, as they view it, is being hampered. And management more often than not punishes the manager and not the culprit! If that was not clear, then I apologize for any perceived offense.

      1. Alex, first of all, you do not need to apologize to me. We are friends and will remaian so. I hope I did not upset you wth my comment, either. That was not my intention, in any case. But, I must admit that your piece did surprise me a little bit, beacuse I believe that, based on what I know of you and about you throughout the years, both at VOA headquarters and overseas as correspondent, in my book, and for whatever i’ts worth — you were at the top of VOA correspondents, both for content and for the excellent working relations with VOA European language services. I do fully agree and share your concerns about the political and ideological bias possibly influencing some VOA regional programming. I can tell you some instances of attempts –to do just that — from my many years as manager in the European and what used to be USSR divisions. So, you are right to raise the issue, and I thank you for it. Be well, my friend and hope to see you soon.
        Again, thank you for your continuing contributon to international broadcasting.
        Be well my friend and hope to see you soon, Frank

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