The American Interest

Journalism Dies in Darkness

U.S. media is often clueless about foreign-language journalism funded by its own government. That is a topic worth shining some light on.

Former Visiting Fellow
An advertisement for Radio Free Europe from the 1950s.
An advertisement for Radio Free Europe from the 1950s.

“Throughout the world, CNN has a powerful voice portraying the United States in an unfair and false way. Something has to be done, including the possibility of the United States starting our own Worldwide Network to show the World the way we really are, GREAT!”

So tweeted President Trump on November 26, when his gripe du jour was with Jim Acosta, the CNN showboat who rammed the POTUS showboat during a White House press conference on November 7. The story provoked a ripple of outrage among the yakking heads and online pundits in the commercial news media, whose relationship to Trump is similar to that of an addict to his drug: The addict knows the drug is bad for him, but he just can’t get enough of it. The difference, of course, is that the addict has to pay for his drug, while the yakking heads and pundits get paid for being hooked on Trump.

Two days later, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by a veteran newspaper editor and former head of investigative reporting for Bloomberg News, Amanda Bennett. Beginning on a sardonic note, Bennett lauds Trump for his “brilliant” idea, then points out that the same idea occurred to FDR in 1942, the year the Voice of America sent its first German-language radio broadcast into Nazi Germany. She then extols VOA as America’s real “worldwide network,” currently broadcasting in 46 languages to 60 countries, and using radio, TV, and digital platforms to reach 275.2 million people, 85 percent of whom “say they trust us.”

If you are wondering why a prominent private-sector journalist would leap to the defense of a foreign-language media outlet funded by the US government, the answer is simple: Bennett is the director of VOA. Other prominent journalists have held that office, from John Chancellor in the 1960s to David Ensor in the 2010s, and they, too, have been VOA’s champions. But they are the exceptions. Throughout VOA’s history, the domestic news media have variously condemned it as a propaganda outlet, attacked it for saying unflattering things about America, dismissed it as a relic of the past—and most often, reported about it in ways that are vague, inaccurate, and stunningly uncurious.

According to a 2013 "article":… in the Columbia Journalism Review, VOA was mentioned 188 times in the major US print media between 2011 and 2012, compared with 2,000 references to CNN in the New York Times alone. Among the few mentions of VOA, only 15 percent referred to it as a legitimate news organization.

Two days after Trump’s November 26 tweet, Politico ran a "squib":… about “Trump’s tense relationship with the press,” in which VOA is described as “an international radio broadcast source.” A five-minute Google search would have shown how outdated that description is. VOA’s English and foreign-language content is delivered by every conceivable media platform, from short-wave, FM, and medium-wave radio to cable and satellite TV; its streaming audio and video are carried by some 3,000 overseas affiliates; and its Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages have a robust following in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where struggling local reporters are being courted and compromised by the "rapidly growing Chinese presence":…. But Politico did no such search. As I say, domestic US reporting on VOA can be stunningly uncurious.

Uncurious and unfortunate, because the real work of VOA and its sibling networks (see below) is done by foreign nationals on the ground, whose “surrogate” reporting about corruption and abuse of power requires a lot more courage than interrupting an American president or resisting an intern trying to take away a microphone. By aspiring to be good journalists in the American mold, these Russian, Balkan, Moldovan, Uzbek, Turkmen, Afghan, Pakistani, Iranian, Iraqi, Yemeni, Syrian, Nigerian, Somali, Indonesian, Tibetan, Uighur, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Cuban, Venezuelan, and other local reporters risk more than a White House press pass. They "risk, and occassionally lose":, livelihood, liberty, loved ones, life itself.

Why, then, do America’s proud journalists do such a dismal job of covering VOA and the larger foreign-language media system of which it is a part?

The most salient reason is an abiding distrust of government-funded media. In 1948, when Congress passed the first legislation authorizing the State Department to engage in anti-Soviet information activities, there was considerable alarm at the prospect of “government propaganda” being circulated at home, so Congress included a strict prohibition on the domestic distribution of any materials produced by the participating agencies, including VOA.1 That provision was eliminated in 2012, almost 20 years after the Internet rendered it moot by allowing anyone with an online connection to access VOA programs.2

A second reason is the lack of a clear and consistent brand. This problem dates back to 1942, when VOA began its first radio transmissions into Nazi Germany. Unlike similar efforts by other nations, VOA was not a scaled-up version of an existing domestic broadcaster. The obvious contrast is with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which "facilitated": those initial VOA transmissions. The BBC’s domestic radio service was founded in 1922, its Empire Service ten years later. The Empire Service became the Overseas Service during the war, then the World Service in 1965. But it never ceased to be the BBC.

VOA’s global profile never developed a similar clarity and consistency, because it has been complicated by the piecemeal addition of four sibling networks, each with its own distinctive history and identity. As a guide to the perplexed, here are four thumbnail sketches:

Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) was founded in 1949 with covert funding by the CIA. Based in Munich, the purpose of RFE/RL was similar to that of VOA but with a harder edge. During the Cold War, RFE focused on Central and Eastern Europe, RL on the USSR. In 1972 the CIA ceased its funding, and two years later the combined RFE/RL became a formally private company directly funded by Congress. After the Cold War RFE/RL moved to Prague on the invitation of Vaclev Havel, and today focuses on the Russian Federation, Southern Europe, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan.

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) was formed in 1983, and its radio channel, Radio Martí, sent its first broadcast in 1985, on the 83rd anniversary of the pre-Castro Republic of Cuba. For convoluted political reasons, OCB was established not as a Congressional grantee, like RFE/RL, but as a federal agency, like VOA. In 1990 OCB launched TV Martí. Despite much criticism, OCB is still the best funded network in the system, largely because of the support it receives from politically influential Cuban Americans.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) was launched in 1996 with more support from human rights groups than from the business community, whose main concern was to maintain good relations with Beijing. This situation persists, as RFA feels the ripples from increased tensions between the Trump administration and Xi Jinping’s China, and has a small but significant audience speaking nine different languages in seven countries.

The Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) was created shortly after the attacks of 9/11, with the goal of penetrating the transnational Arabic media market, which thanks to satellite technology spans the entire region, from Mauritania to Oman. MBN operates Radio Sawa, focused on pop music and programming for youth; and Al-Hurra TV, a 24/7 news channel giving the “American perspective.” At present MBN is undergoing a makeover under the leadership of former US diplomat Alberto Fernandez. But it remains to be seen whether this will make it more competitive in a media landscape that is overcrowded, deeply fragmented, and dangerously polarized.

Even more perplexing than this patchwork bureaucracy is the dysfunction of its governing body. Between 1994 and 2017, VOA and its siblings were overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a group of nine part-time political appointees, who despite their accomplishments in business and their professions often lacked the skills necessary for the job. Several had executive experience in commercial media, which might appear useful but was actually not, owing to the huge difference between running a for-profit media company in a familiar cultural environment and overseeing a far-flung, linguistically diverse media organization whose audiences are of no interest to advertisers.

After 23 years of floundering, the BBG board was abolished in the final days of the Obama administration, and direct operational control of the system was assigned to a newly empowered CEO appointed by, and answerable to, the president.3 Clearly, this was done in expectation of a Clinton presidency. Under Trump, the office of the newly empowered CEO does not yet have an occupant. And it may never have one, because on December 3 of this year "a new bill":… was approved by the House Committee on Foreign Relations that would roll back the powers of that office and restore oversight to the advisory board that was created at the same time—but which also does not yet have members.

This battle of the bureaucratic vapors took another turn in August, when John Lansing (the Obama appointee still serving as CEO under the old rules) announced a name change. Instead of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the system will now be called the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). As Lansing explained, the new name is intended to correct the stereotype of VOA and its sibling networks as antiquated radio channels. It is also shorter and easier to pronounce than “Broadcasting Board of Governors.”

The only trouble is, this is Washington, land of acronyms. Did no one consider that “USAGM” is actually longer and harder to pronounce than “BBG”? After a few days of wondering how to pronounce it, I finally settled on “you sag ‘em.” But to speakers of American English, that sounds pretty dumb. And to speakers of British English (of whom there are quite a few in the world), it borders on profanity.

These are the stories that get covered in the media, and they are sufficiently eye-glazing that they attract very few eyeballs. And when the media ignore something, the politicians are likely to do the same. There has been almost no coverage of the growing persecution of USAGM journalists around the world, or of the rather drastic budget cuts that make those journalists more vulnerable to corruption and compromise. As the Washington Post likes to say when congratulating itself on its brave coverage of Trump, “democracy dies in darkness.” So does journalism, including foreign-language journalism supported by the government. And that is a topic worth shining some light on.