Guy W. Farmer: Our dysfunctional international radio/TV stations
I’ve written a couple of recent columns about mismanagement in our Washington, D.C.-based federal bureaucracy and today I’ll offer another egregious example of federal mismanagement. It’s called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and it spends more than 700 million taxpayer dollars per year to operate the Voice of America (VOA) and several other international radio and TV stations. We’re not getting our money’s worth, and I’ll tell you why.
Presumably, our government operates international radio and TV stations in order to report the news and support, defend and explain U.S. foreign policy objectives. But some of BBG’s broadcasting professionals think their mission is to entertain foreign audiences, and the agency’s byzantine management structure is so convoluted that many of those government broadcasters do whatever they want to do with little oversight or supervision by those who pay the bills.
Our best known international broadcaster, the Voice of America, produces 200 radio and TV programs in 45 languages with a budget of approximately $200 million per year. Both the VOA and BBG have come under congressional fire lately, however, for failing to tailor their programs to U.S. foreign policy objectives.
For example, the new Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel, the former editor of Time magazine, recently took the Kremlin’s TV network, Russia Television (RT), to task for broadcasting anti-American “propaganda” and criticized Moscow for cancelling the Voice of America’s reciprocal permit to broadcast to Russian audiences. The VOA failed to cover the story.
Shortly thereafter, as Foreign Policy magazine reported, “A pair of powerful lawmakers in the House of Representatives agreed on major legislation to overhaul the Voice of America and other government-funded broadcasting outlets. The new legislation . . . would settle a long-running dispute within the federal government about whether VOA should function as a neutral news organization rather than a messaging tool of Washington.”
That was already a contentious issue when I supervised VOA’s Spanish-language broadcasting to Latin America in the late 1970s, but it shouldn’t be that difficult to resolve because the 1976 Voice of America Charter, which has the force of law, directs VOA broadcasters to report the news AND support U.S. foreign policy objectives.
In the words of the Charter, the VOA will: (1) “serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative news source,” (2) “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions,” and (3) “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.” I think that’s a crystal clear mission statement.
Some of the broadcasters who worked for me at the Voice considered themselves to be “independent journalists,” and shied away from the Charter’s foreign policy objective even though they received government paychecks. “I don’t do politics,” one of them told me. He changed his mind, however, after I threatened to suspend him.
That kind of thinking led two influential congressmen, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), and the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Elliot Engel of New York, to introduce bipartisan legislation that would reform the BBG and the VOA. ”It’s time for broad reforms,” Royce said. “Now, more than ever, U.S. international broadcasts must be effective.”
In her farewell speech as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said the “dysfunctional” BBG was “practically defunct” as she called for reform of our international broadcasters. According to Foreign Policy, several congressmen joined the anti-BBG chorus by asking why our government “is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on news outlets without a more explicit pro-American editorial focus.” Good question.
America’s Voice and other taxpayer-funded broadcasters should adhere to the venerable VOA Charter by covering the news and presenting U.S. foreign policies clearly and effectively.
Guy W. Farmer worked at VOA during the period 1977-79.