By David E. Hubler
Edge Staff Contributor
U.S. foreign policy extends far beyond the Foggy Bottom home of the State Department. Other federal agencies also contribute to the Department’s stated mission to “lead America’s foreign policy through diplomacy, advocacy, and assistance by advancing the interests of the American people, their safety and economic prosperity.”
Other federal agencies that contribute to that mission include USAID, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). This little known umbrella agency oversees Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the much better known Voice of America, among others. Together, USAGM networks communicate each week with more than 354 million people across the globe.
Eisenhower and Murrow
When I joined VOA as a World News Desk editor, the international radio broadcaster was under the aegis of the U.S. Information Agency, an independent entity created by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, whose leaders had included such notable journalists as Edward R. Murrow.
Murrow’s appointment by President John F. Kennedy in 1960 added legitimacy to the agency’s mission. USIA presided over U.S. government communications to over 150 populations internationally during the height of the Cold War.
To those who preferred short-hand, USIA — and especially the Voice of America — was our propaganda outfit. VOA was founded in 1942 to combat Nazi propaganda with accurate and unbiased news and information to occupied Europe. Following the war, VOA acted to counter the propaganda of the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies.
One man’s propaganda, the “dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumours, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion,” however, is another man’s truth.
The Need for Accuracy and Truth Were Paramount Objectives over Speed
From my earliest days in the VOA newsroom, the need for accuracy and truth were paramount objectives over speed. A two-source rule meant any breaking news story we were writing had to be confirmed by two independent media sources before we could put the story on the air in English and in translation to our 44 foreign-language services.
Such attention to detail was VOA’s cachet not only for its news broadcast but also for features and special programming. Writing in The Washington Post, media columnist Margaret Sullivan told of a conversation she had recently with former VOA director Sanford Unger about his visit to a small village in Bangladesh where he wore a lapel pin featuring a small microphone and the initials VOA.
“The villagers who saw it overflowed with appreciation,” he told Sullivan. “It was like I was a rock star or a Bollywood actor,” he said. The late jazz expert Willis Conover received the same “star treatment” whenever he went abroad to meet fans of his VOA Jazz Hour program.
VOA Respected, Admired, Envied
Former VOA chief Amanda Bennett, a prominent and well-respected journalist, told Sullivan: “Everywhere I traveled as director I was proud and amazed at how deeply VOA was respected, admired and envied around the world, especially for its freedom of speech.”
I saw this first-hand when I traveled aboard the VOA Voyager, a specially equipped traveling studio, to areas in the U.S. At a gas station stop the attendant knew of our mission even before we reached our next stop in Hannibal, Missouri. On arrival we were welcomed and hosted by the mayor and other city officials. In Hartford, Connecticut, one of our reporters was recognized on the street.
The worldwide fame of VOA — now folded into the U.S. Agency for Global Media — has also been instrumental in generating several unsuccessful attempts over the years to turn the international broadcaster into a mouthpiece for the current administration. This despite the long-established rule separating the news operation from management control and a congressional charter requiring us to report the news honestly and fairly.
VOA Under Siege
“Now the organization is under siege,” Sullivan wrote. She cited the USAGM director’s removal of the interim VOA chief and his replacement with a conservative former VOA director whose journalistic endeavors include writing a book that “argues that widespread acceptance of gay culture harms society.” The USAGM director also has refused to renew visas for VOA’s foreign journalists and called for an investigation into the reporting of VOA’s chief White House correspondent.
Bennett said what’s going on now “feels like taking a wrecking ball to an institution that has represented the most basic of American values for more than three-quarters of a century.”
With all of the critical tasks awaiting Joe Biden when he’s sworn in as the 46th President of the United States next month, it’s unlikely the VOA situation will be among them. But Sullivan says Biden has indicated that he’ll name a new VOA director and, as former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Biden has some appreciation for its work.”
As Unger told Sullivan, VOA can show the world what American-style journalism and values look like. “Democracy is worth preserving and promoting.”