The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 15

service to counter Russian disinformation,
and opponents, who say the legislation
would turn VOA into an American propa-
ganda tool and discredit it.
The legislation, which recently passed
with bipartisan support, would revise
VOA’s mission statement to declare
explicitly that the outlet has a role in sup-
porting American public diplomacy and
the policies of the U.S. government.
Founded in 1942 as a part of the Office
of War Information, the Voice of America
was originally tasked with countering
Japanese and Nazi propaganda. In the
1950s, the broadcaster moved to the State
Department and then the U.S. Informa-
tion Agency, where it focused on counter-
ing communist propaganda and, later,
on broadcasting news to people living
under repressive regimes. Since 1999, the
federal agency.
In 1976 President Gerald Ford signed
legislation tasking VOA to serve as an
“accurate, objective and comprehen-
sive” source of news, as opposed to a
propaganda outlet. But Representative
Ed Royce, R-Calif., who chairs the House
Foreign Affairs Committee, alleges that
“While countries like Russia have been
working 24/7 on their information cam-
paigns, the VOA has abandoned its mis-
sion to effectively promote the policies of
the U.S., even though its charter is clear in
this regard.”
vice once run by Edward R. Murrow. “The
only thing VOA has left is its reputation,
built over decades, as a credible news
organization,” says one veteran journalist
at the service who asked not to be named.
“Changing our focus from straight news
to policy promotion will undercut any
efforts to keep or build our audience.”
Still, on rare occasions, that com-
mitment to independence has led to
controversial coverage. For instance, the
Heritage Foundation issued
in May charging that “The Persian News
Network of the Voice of America has been
documented to show anti-American bias,”
Although the potential changes to
VOA’s mission have gotten most of the
headlines, the restructuring of U.S.
international broadcasting may prove to
a U.S. International Communications
Agency, with a full-time chief executive
officer, to administer all U.S. government
news services.
USICA would replace the current
Broadcasting Board of Governors, a nine-
member board of part-time overseers that
has proved “practically defunct in terms
of its capacity to tell a message around
the world,” as then-Secretary of State Hill-
ary Rodham Clinton put it in 2013. The
proposal reflects longstanding frustration
frommembers of both parties with the
BBG, which has been accused of misman-
agement and drift.
The legislation would also consolidate
called the FreedomNews Network, so they
can share content and avoid duplicating
their efforts.
Walter Isaacson, a former BBG chair-
man who once headed CNN, sees the
legislation as a way to give VOA a dual
mission to clearly present American pol-
icy, as well as objective news. “Russia has
returned to its old Pravda-like disinforma-
tion tactics, China and the Arab nations
are creating sophisticated new broadcasts,
and Twitter and social networks are
changing the game,” Mr. Isaacson said.
“We need to respect Edward R. Murrow’s
legacy while realizing that even he would
be changing with the new technologies
and threats.”
But D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, a former
member of the Broadcasting Board of
Governors, called the legislation problem-
atic because, he said, it would fundamen-
tally change the way the service operates.
“The VOA has a pure journalistic mission,
and it always has,” Mr. Hirschberg said.
“It doesn’t do messaging or propaganda.
Any legislation that alters the journalistic
mission would be unfortunate.”
During a recent staff meeting, VOA
journalists angrily expressed their
concerns to managers, hinting at a mass
exodus if the legislation passes. Dan
Robinson, who worked at the service for
more than two decades before retiring
this year, says it could even endanger the
lives of journalists and broadcasters who
work abroad. “Do foreign governments
now start seeing journalists from VOA as
agents of U.S. policy, rather than as jour-
nalists?” he said. “That’s a real concern.”
But Helle C. Dale, a senior fellow for
public diplomacy at the Heritage Founda-
tion, insists that fear is absurd. “It’s not
like people don’t already know,” she said.
“It’s completely funded by the U.S. govern-
ment, and it’s called the Voice of America.
How does this legislation change this
The full House is expected to take up
the bill this summer; meanwhile, the Sen-
ate is working on similar legislation.
Steven Alan Honley,
Contributing Editor
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