Voice of America (VOA) has been targeted for fine tuning by Congress, beginning with a bill that was passed recently by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. If approved by both houses of Congress, the new law would change the role of the 72 year old government owned and operated broadcasting network by mandating it to counter the “disinformation” efforts of foreign governments aimed at discrediting the U.S., usually among their own countrymen. This marks the first time since President Gerald Ford signed a bill into law in 1976 explicitly restricting the VOA to serve as a “consistently reliable and authoritative source of news,” that Congress has felt the need to refine the definition of the agency’s mission. The redefinition, however, might be the death knell for any pretense of objectivity for the broadcaster.
The problem for VOA is that no one believes them. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, VOA and sister stations Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network are – and have always been – mouthpieces for U.S. policies. That opinion is reinforced by the fact that VOA was originally part of the Office of War Information (OWI), which was the official censor for public information during World War II. In that capacity, the OWI was responsible for deciding which news items could be published and which could not, but it was also responsible for crafting the messages that went out to 100 million people living under German domination during the Second World War through the VOA broadcasts.
During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services, now better known as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), used the Voice of America airwaves to communicate with deep cover operatives behind enemy lines, using coded messages that were slipped into the regular news broadcasts. After World War II, when the Cold War began in earnest, the CIA used both Voice of America and Radio Free Europe to communicate with operatives behind the Iron Curtain.
Under the terms of the bill that will be coming up for consideration by the full House later this year, the four federally funded broadcasting operations will be merged into a single operation to be called “The Freedom News Network,” marking the first time any of the four operations has been burdened with the title of a “news” organization.
Unnamed reporters claiming to work for the Voice of America are concerned that their credibility will be damaged by the merger of VOA with the other, more explicitly partisan broadcasting operations, but the real question is whether VOA has ever had any credibility at all, or if the continued funding of the websites and broadcasting functions of the merged agencies has more to do with credulity than credibility. By merging VOA with Radio Free Europe, the bill just sent to the House merges Voice of America with what was once a CIA funded and managed operation…but the U.S. government’s broadcasting operations did not stop at passive information dissemination, according to a copyrighted 1977 article by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame.
According to Bernstein’s expose, more than 400 senior working journalists have been suborned by the CIA into working for the agency while engaged in reportorial activities, and the Voice of America is specifically mentioned as one of those organizations. The tasks assigned to these unpaid operatives included information gathering, covert surveillance, photographic surveillance, communications and logistics. In some cases, CIA field agents were given journalistic cover stories and were actually posted to reporting assignments in other countries, where some went so far as to write articles to substantiate their cover stories, which were then published by the news organizations providing the cover. To make matters even more confusing, some journalists crossed the line repeatedly, alternating between the roles of secret agent and reporter, although – in the real world of espionage activities – most “spies” are actually foreign nationals recruited overseas to spy on their own countries.
The conceit that pushing a bill through Congress would have any effect upon the worldwide perception of Voice of America as a biased and therefore discredited news source is undermined by the US Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (also known as the Smith –Mundt Act) which specifically barred the VOA from broadcasting its programming directly to the American people until July of 2013. The express purpose of that prohibition was to prevent the party in power from using VOA to broadcast slanted news stories to the American people, an restriction that has been thwarted by live webcasts of VOA news reports that are available on the agency’s website. The new bill was not crafted specifically to replace the now expired Smith-Mundt Act, but it accomplishes the same purpose by specifically barring the government agency from broadcasting news programs to the United States.
VOA may or may not be biased but, whether or not its credibility is in doubt, its effectiveness is. Although Voice of America had its heyday back when the justly legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow (pictured above) was at the helm there, no one in mainstream journalism today considers any of the four government-funded news outlets a “trusted news source,” at least in part because the organizations in question lack the resources to support a world-wide news gathering operation. VOA has a budget of $196 million in 2013, down from $206.5 million in 2010. The organization has 1,121 employees around the world for an organization that broadcasts around the clock in 43 languages.
In a Voice of America news broadcast monitored today, the stories covered in the news summary were exactly the same as the top international stories that were then trending on Google News at the same time, creating the impression that VOA’s news readers might just be reading stories directly from Google News when they go on the air.
In an ironic twist, however, Voice of America has suddenly become more relevant again while on the verge of being revamped, in part because Ukraine appears to be stumbling into a cold war of its own with the former Soviet Union, as ethnic Russians attempt to carve up the country. The English-language Ukrainian newspaper Kyiv Post is currently posting a link to an article on the Voice of America website about the recent violence following the Ukrainian elections, but the article on the VOA website contains no original reporting. Instead, the unsigned report is based on wire service content from Reuters and Associated Press. This raises questions about whether the U.S. government needs to spend almost $200 million a year to fund a broadcaster that is merely rewriting articles from the wire services.
In the final analysis, however, the decades-long struggle for control over what the government run broadcaster reports might just be beating a dead horse. Far more people around the world are getting their information from Twitter, Facebook, and other websites than the 123 million people VOA claims as its listeners. While accuracy of those Tweets and Facebook posts may be open to question, their impartiality is assured because no one really controls the content on those sites. The Voice may be targeted for that fine tuning by the Congress, but it may not matter very much if no one else is paying attention.
By Alan M. Milner, US News Editor