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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
Commentary

Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real

BY AL PESSIN
Los Angeles Times

Published:

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When a Chinese official ordered me out of the country, he accused me of “fomenting counter-revolutionary rebellion” and “illegal news gathering.”

I particularly liked that last charge.

That was 25 years ago, in the aftermath of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese government was angry that my news reports were reaching its people with the real story of what had happened: the killing of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unarmed civilians when troops cleared the square, ending weeks of massive, nationwide pro-democracy protests.

I worked for Voice of America, then as now. Sadly, Congress is considering a bill that would destroy its “real story” reporting.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., calls for a “recalibration” of VOA’s mission, requiring it to produce news that is “consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States.” The bill says this would give VOA “greater mission focus.”

In fact, it would make it impossible for VOA to fulfill its mission.

The VOA charter says, “The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world.” The charter also says, “To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners.” You can’t win respect and communicate if no one is listening, and people will stop listening if Congress transforms VOA into a Russian- or Chinese-style state broadcaster.

Royce has said the United States is losing to such foreign media in “the latest battle in the information war playing out across the globe.”

But in the 72 years since VOA first went on the air — in German, to Nazi-occupied Europe — our broadcasts have proved we can win that war without walking in lock-step with U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, we have demonstrated that is the only way to win the information war. Those who made, and continue to make, their broadcasts a foreign policy tool have consistently lost.

Telling the straight story is the American way. “The Straight Story” used to be one of VOA’s advertising slogans.

Using taxpayers’ money for objective broadcasts is the ultimate expression of confidence that people around the world will recognize the value of the United States — not because we as a nation tell them how right we are but because Americans respect them enough to let them decide for themselves.

That is the way a government-run international broadcaster can stand out from the crowd of propagandists and attract a broad, high-quality audience. If we sling mud with the Russian, Chinese and al-Qaida media, we’ll just get dirty.

The Royce bill maintains some of the original VOA charter language, requiring “accurate, objective and comprehensive” news, but only in the service of U.S. foreign policy. The two are not compatible. Imagine if U.S. policy had been to downplay Tiananmen to protect relations with China!

VOA is news broadcast by American journalists from an American perspective. But if our staff must ensure that every story supports U.S. foreign policy, we will no longer be able to tell the straight story.

And when our audience sees the change, it will seek its news elsewhere. Our listeners and viewers know state-run media all too well. They’ve come to us because they’re looking for something different.

News outlets, including Russia Today television and the ITAR/TASS news agency, have already highlighted the proposed VOA change. Without even becoming law, the bill has potentially created doubt among listeners and viewers and made VOA correspondents in the field look like agents of U.S. policy. That makes our work significantly more dangerous than it already is.

The Royce bill also contains an extensive reorganization of U.S. international broadcasting, which includes Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and many newer entities that provide supplementary broadcasts to Iran, Afghanistan, Arabic-speaking countries, East Asia, Cuba and other areas. VOA is the flagship, broadcasting worldwide in 46 languages via radio, television, the Internet and mobile devices to a weekly audience estimated at 164 million.

There is broad agreement that some reorganization is in order, and I won’t attempt to dissect that part of the bill here. But what VOA really needs are more resources to cover the news, deliver programs and train staff. Instead, over many years Congress has subjected us to “death by a thousand cuts,” and nothing in the Royce bill would change that.

As members of Congress consider the bill this summer, they would do well to recognize the quintessential American principles on which VOA has built its reputation and audience. It should strengthen this truly American voice, rather than try to remake it into something fundamentally not American.

Al Pessin is the senior VOA foreign correspondent, currently based in London. The views expressed are his own.

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