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