How to Make the Voice of America Come Through Loud and Clear
The broadcaster’s purpose isn’t just to entertain, or even to inform. It’s to wage the battle of ideas.
By Robert Reilly
Feb. 17, 2017 in The Wall Street Journal
After Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, a Voice of America broadcast said that “now for the first time, the United States will have as president a former actor, a divorced man, and the son of an alcoholic.” When I handed this transcript to my boss, Charles Wick—the new director of the U.S. Information Agency, which then oversaw the broadcaster—he exploded with anger.
I wonder how President Trump would react if he saw the Robert De Niro video that Voice of America’s Ukrainian service posted online last October, adding subtitles and VOA’s logo. In the video, which was created by an initiative called Vote Your Future, Mr. De Niro unloads about Mr. Trump: “He’s so blatantly stupid; he’s a punk; he’s a dog; he’s a pig; he’s a con”—and so forth. No context was provided for this rant, and the Ukrainian service took it down after being criticized. One doesn’t have to be a Trump supporter to ask why a taxpayer-funded news service, whose job is to tell America’s story to the world, would do this.Voice of America began to lose its mission when the U.S. Information Agency was abolished in 1999. Instead it was placed under an eight-person, part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors. Having so many executives in charge created a lot of confusion, but to make matters worse, several governors had made their fortunes in media and sought to apply commercial criteria to the Voice of America.As a result, who listens became less important than how many listen or the content the VOA was broadcasting. Youth audiences became a primary target. In 2002, Voice of America’s Arabic service was eliminated altogether and replaced with a pop-music station, Radio Sawa—and in the middle of a war, no less. As Voice of America’s director at the time, I questioned the wisdom of this decision. The chairman of the board justified it by saying that “MTV brought down the Berlin Wall.”
What was the effect of this superficiality? A few years later, a Jordanian journalist named Jamal Nimri summed it up to me by saying: “Radio Sawa is fun, but it’s irrelevant.” Others were less charitable. In 2013, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena, and we need to get back into it.”
Thanks to the work of Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, there is a chance that the Voice of America can finally get back into the ideological arena. Last December, Congress passed Mr. Royce’s bill taking authority over the broadcaster away from the board of governors and returning it to the executive branch. Mr. Trump now has the authority to appoint, with Senate confirmation, a full-time CEO who will report to the president, just as cabinet secretaries do.
The first thing the Voice of America’s new leader will have to face is how seriously disoriented the broadcast has become. Walter Issacson, chairman of the Board of Governors from 2010-12, once said something all too typical: “We just want to get good news, reliable news, and credible information out.” Reliable news was always a part of American broadcasting, but the mission is more. When the Dalai Lama called Voice of America’s Tibetan service “the bread of the Tibetan people,” and when Aung San Suu Kyi called the Burmese service “the hope of the Burmese people,” they were not merely talking about “news.”
News is something commercial broadcasters can do well. Government broadcasting is needed when the U.S. wants to communicate a message to a key audience that would otherwise not hear it.
This is why the Voice of America was never envisaged in its charter as simply a news organization. Its duty was always to reveal the character of the American people and thereby the underlying principles of American life. It owes its listeners the truth of how free people live—and a corrective of the distorted images that our own popular culture sometimes creates, which help inflame anti-American sentiment. That is why news is not enough.
Equally important, the Voice of America is supposed to present and explain the policies of the U.S. government through what is effectively its “editorial page.” Such programming offers the most direct means to ensure that America’s friends and foes know what Washington is doing and why. Yet the broadcaster’s Policy Office staff, which produces the editorials, has been cut 50%. Symptomatically, in 2008 Jeffrey Trimble, the staff director of the board of governors at the time, said: “It is not in our mandate to influence.” If this is so, why bother? Why should the taxpayer keep funding Voice of America?
VOA’s job should be to advance the justice of the American cause while simultaneously undermining our opponents’. This was very successful during the Cold War. Why not implement a refashioned version of the strategy today?
Information warfare is being waged against the U.S. by Islamic State, China and Russia, among others. President Trump should nominate someone to lead the Voice of America who knows how to fight such wars—just as well as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis knows how to fight kinetic ones. Together, they could win.