Don’t Gut America’s Voice and Turn It into Propaganda
The United States’ international broadcasters work because they produce real journalism, not government spin. That could change — just in time for Trump.
It’s often the little things that lead up to the big moments. At present, there’s legislation that’s about to head to President Obama for signature that qualifies as one of those moments.
The subject is arcane, and the issue looks harmless at first blush. Embedded in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is language aimed at streamlining the bureaucracy of the United States’ government-funded international media outlets. And why not? From the Islamic State to Russia to China to Iran, our authoritarian adversaries have become exceptionally adept at advancing their agendas through pliant media outlets, propaganda, and disinformation.
The United States has foreign outlets, too. But don’t be fooled by their old-fashioned names (like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty). These outfits, once feted for their success in penetrating the veil of the Iron Curtain, have evolved over last two decades to become modern, tech-savvy global media organizations. But they have been consistently hamstrung by bad governance. The presidentially appointed body that governs them, called the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), is comprised of experienced and often gifted individuals, but frequently operated as a dysfunctional mess.
The proposed fix, the result of a hodgepodge compromise between the Hill, the White House, and some BBG officials, is to replace the part-time BBG with a full-time CEO who would have full authority to run the show. The simplicity and likely efficiency of the new arrangement fits the pro-business zeitgeist of the new administration — except for one thing. The key to the success of U.S. broadcasting has always been its professional reporting in alignment with democratic values. For the sake of their credibility and journalistic integrity, the outlets have kept an arm’s length distance from the U.S. government. It’s a tricky balancing act, to be sure. But the premise has always been that accuracy, honesty, truthfulness, and reliability — not parroting the U.S. line — will win in the end. Wisely, Voice of America’s edict has always been that “The news may be good. The news may be bad… We shall tell you the truth.”
When I was president at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, our Afghan staff sometimes asked if they should report about mistakes committed by the United States or NATO, such as strikes that claimed civilian victims as “collateral damage.” My answer was always that reporting on such incidents was their obligation as journalists. This was information Afghans wanted and needed to know, and failing to provide the coverage would put our credibility in question. It certainly didn’t make for good propaganda.
The soon-to-be-vanquished BBG was never there for oversight alone. As a bipartisan body with four Democratic and four Republican members, plus a representative of the secretary of state, it has always played the crucial function of a firewall, safeguarding the outlets’ editorial independence from the whims of its funder, the U.S. government. This was how the networks won trust with their foreign audiences — but this independence is on the way out.
“Unbelievably, and contrary to decades of thoughtful and comprehensive bipartisan analysis,” says John Lindburg, for a decades a senior legal adviser to U.S. broadcasters, “reform language in NDAA would obliterate the conditions necessary for credible and successful broadcasting for networks like RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia.”
Indeed. Without adequate checks and balances, a CEO appointed by the government would have endless trouble resisting the temptation (and pressure) to adjust the editorial line to the official U.S. position — and this in the best of times. In times like these, with the rise of post-truth “news,” a new commander-in-chief who is prone to play loose with facts, and a chief strategist who built the Breitbart media juggernaut, the result of the current reforms could be disastrous.
As president and CEO of RFE/RL from 2007 to 2011, I saw countless times how important it was to get the facts right and to maintain credibility with our audiences. In my travel to Central Asia, I heard suspicions that we were “CIA media.” But despite the skepticism, many people remained devoted to our broadcasts because — in sharp contrast to their own undemocratic governments and state-controlled media — time and again, we stuck with the truth. Whether reporting on a bus drivers’ strike in Iran or on women’s health issues in Afghanistan, news and information funded by the American taxpayer has always supported pluralism, tolerance, the rule of law, and civil society, winning friends and influencing millions of people along the way.
In 2009, I traveled to Baku to meet with Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliev, to protest his government’s harassment of our journalists. The Azerbaijani president’s opening gambit was that he simply could not understand why he, a strategic partner of the United States, should have to endure critical opinion about his rule. The American ambassador who accompanied me to the meeting was brilliant in explaining that we Americans actually care about both: We want a strategic partnership for reasons of energy and security, and we want our partners to respect human rights and democracy. Supporting democratic culture and creating goodwill toward the United States is, by any definition, a national interest.
It’s also a great deal. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s budget of roughly $100 million reaches audiences in 28 languages, from the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East. As a point of reference, the United States is currently spending over $100 million for each of hundreds of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in production. The soft power of our broadcasting costs peanuts.
Given that President Obama is virtually certain to sign the NDAA into law, Congress will have to change the new arrangement at first opportunity. As it is currently envisioned, the new CEO will have free rein to hire and fire network heads and set guidelines for programming. As a former CEO myself, I’m rather fond of executive power. But I also know that, even with the best intentions, we all have blind spots. And there’s no way a single CEO can provide the same “firewall” function as the bipartisan BBG, making it all too likely that the outlets’ agenda will be influenced by political considerations. No matter how well-intentioned, the government’s attempts to control the content would destroy goodwill and credibility that has taken decades to build up. If the old firewall between the outlets and the government is to disappear, a new one must be created.
In the meantime, Congress needs to be alert to the ill-intentioned. For whatever his merits and mandate, our incoming president has shown little appreciation for responsible, fact-based journalism. Donald Trump has surrounded himself with people who might feel equally at home in Vladimir Putin’s manipulative and duplicitous Kremlin as they do in the White House. Are these the people we want running our international media?
So, here’s a message to the president-elect: If it’s a bargain, if the brand is strong, and if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Our adversaries’ half-truths may sometimes look successful, but that does not mean we want to emulate them. American foreign broadcasting must continue to reflect the American values of free speech, openness to criticism, and tolerance of divergent opinions. That is why our democratic system is better, and in the long run, that is why it will win.
Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images