Thoughts about CBS Evening News going to VOA’s Steve Herman for Bangkok bombing coverage

This was originally published as an exclusive to email subscribers on August 18. It appears here following requests to forward that email and that I post it here. It remains my personal opinion.

Last night’s CBS Evening News threw to VOA’s Steve Herman to provide on-the-scene coverage of the Bangkok bombing. VOA’s video coverage of the site was broadcast by CBS with the text ‘Voice of America’ visible on the screen (a text bug, rather than VOA’s normal graphic bug). This was not a copy from the VOA website (or more precisely, the BBG affiliate system used by some 2,800 news media users around the globe where broadcast quality / HD content is available for worldwide) as CBS threw to Steve Herman by name, and Steve concluded the story by throwing it back – by name – to the CBS anchor. 

In practical terms, this is possible because of the revision to the Smith-Mundt Act a few years ago. Previous to that, CBS could have grabbed the VOA video online, but not the broadcast quality video, and the hand off would not have happened. But in reality, CBS would not have used VOA. There was no sanction for ‘violating’ Smith-Mundt and the ‘prohibition’ inserted into the legislation by Senator Fulbright in 1972, converting the then de facto block on domestic distribution into a de jure prevention, was only on availability, not use, thus if a party was at fault, it would have been VOA and not CBS. However, the law was changed and CBS, and any other U.S. media may use the content at will, and the VOA and the other operations of the BBG may speak work domestic media. The non-compete clause (from 1948) in the legislation remains.

There is professional and high quality content produced at VOA, and Steve Herman’s reporting is but one example. Steve is VOA’s Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and is one of our many reporters who can operate in a foreign language and in English. VOA’s language services have highly competent reporters that are competent in their vernacular but not in English (this is true across the enterprise, e.g. RFE/RL, RFA, etc). This issue, plus operational and technical challenges internal to VOA and across the BBG, means much of the VOA’s, and BBG’s in general, great reporting is unavailable in English. For most of this century, VOA was told English language broadcasting was unimportant and it should be dropped, a clear failure to recognize the importance of English to audiences around the globe. The result is today the U.S. is the only major country without a major English news capability. The necessary changes are already underway.

One of the differences that VOA (and RFE/RL, RFA, MBN, etc) bring to the news media business is our reporters live and work in these dangerous places. They do not parachute in. In addition to our many, many reporters around the world, we have a few thousand stringers we rely on as well, as any news organization does. However, because of our environments, we tend to develop deeper relationships with them, and equip them, as they are operating in areas with limited infrastructure, and limited availability to communications and recording (voice & video) devices.

NYT and others already frequently include RFE, VOA, and especially RFA reporting from and about denied spaces, but this has not been the case in terms of TV & video. Hopefully CBS’s use is not a one off but opens the door to further use. In the past, I had discussions with a major NPR affiliate about using VOA reporters in the field for radio pieces, instead of BBC, but they were resistant, citing the not yet revised Smith-Mundt.

Is CBS’s use a good thing? Yes. Beyond the highlighting of the professional journalism produced by VOA (especially in light of continuing criticism that intentionally focuses on the past rather than present, or dismisses structural and cultural friction some of the same critics helped ossify), it utilizes a disused avenue for Americans to access foreign affairs. As U.S. commercial media has retreated from abroad, parachuting in when desired, VOA etc are on the ground, living and working in the places that are important to U.S. international relations. Beyond ISIS and Russia, there is China and SE Asia, Africa, and South America that our people have deep knowledge of and access to. It is possible the commercial media will use the free resource of VOA as the stigma goes away. If they do, that’s great. If that causes U.S. commercial media to step up and redevelop their capacity, that’s even better.

The challenge for VOA as it rebuilds, and hopefully expands, its English service is keeping focus on a global English audience and not get distracted to service an American English audience. The difference is unpacking the stories, changing the assumptions of what the audiences knows (or thinks they know), and what are the salient, not salacious, points the global English audience needs, and likely doesn’t get from elsewhere.

Hooray for the changes to the Smith-Mundt Act, and hooray for the recognition of Steve Herman and VOA.

See the CBS Evening News coverage here:

This is my personal opinion and does not reflect that of the BBG or the U.S. Government. It has not been reviewed by or previewed or cleared by anyone but myself.