The Voice of America and U.S. Public Diplomacy
By Michael Williams
Those with an interest in US government information efforts abroad will at least have heard of the Voice of America and anyone that has held a position in government that touches on an information programs aimed at foreign audiences has likely known of its efforts though there are likely fewer still that understand the mission of VoA.
I am a child of the Cold War. My parents have told me that if not for the Berlin Crisis I would have been born in Hawaii where my father was to be assigned before having his orders changed diverting he and my mother to Germany in 1961. The three years they spent there are largely remembered through the trips taken to places throughout Europe and the subsequent reaction of Europeans to the death of JFK. I was apparently well taken care of by a German housekeeper and nanny while all this was going on. During a later assignment in the 1970s to a Bavarian kaserne, I graduated from a small American high school. During both periods, it was clear to everyone – German, American, and Soviet – that the stationing of US forces and their families along the border separating East and West was a message of resolve and commitment that no matter the number of Soviet Tank Armies awaiting an order to attack, we would not be cowed and we would not let the countries that had pulled themselves from the ashes of World War II be cowed by an authoritarian government bent on suppressing freedom among the peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Even then, as a teenager, I knew of the Voice of America and that it was a beacon of light that undermined a cruel dictatorship with its every broadcast into the Eastern Bloc. Even if it only created uncertainty in the mind of listeners in the Soviet bloc, it was achieving its mission.
It has been more than 30 years since the fall of the “curtain.” It’s been about as long since we saw the first stirrings of the internet and its effect on the flow of information for decision-making. In the mid-1980s, I was very unhappily assigned to a Cold War bunker along the Maryland/Pennsylvania border that fit the definition of ‘Strangelovian.’ Tied to national command authority decision-making, it was among the first to receive “e-mail” in the form of dedicated servers and devices in which “those Pentagon people” could send us instant messages and (shudder) expect a timely reply. We had no idea.
Fast forward another 10 years, and the world wide web is already re-making the distribution of information. Fast-forward another 10 years from that (mid-2000s) and the internet is reaching the entire populated world and remaking the landscape of human decision-making. When I landed in Afghanistan in early 2002, already we could see the impact of satellite TV on a population starved for information. Within a few years, and the advent of mobile devices having a web browser, there was no population on Earth that could not be drowned in information and thousands of sources.
What does this all have to do with VoA? VoA has been a constant fixture in all of this. VoA has its roots in countering axis propaganda in WWII but it continued after the war to provide a source to populations in countries where there was little in the way of news and information. Notably, its mission has remained precisely as it was when its charter was laid down in 1960 (and made into law in 1976):
In 1960, USIA Director George Allen endorsed the VOA Charter that had been drafted by VOA staff members between 1958 and 1959 to put in writing a formal statement of principles that would govern VOA broadcasts. The Charter said in part that:
(1) VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.
(2) VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
(3) VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.
For more on VoA’s history, see here: https://www.insidevoa.com/a/3794247.html
Voice of American has played a prominent role in telling America’s story around the world and particularly in those places where information was tightly controlled by those wishing to limit the influence of western democracies. It can and should be proud of that role. VoA played an active role in countering disinformation and insisting on the truth – a truth that was disseminated to audiences not used to hearing anything other than a government-approved message.
That brings us to today.
On April 10, 2020, the VoA was attacked by the White House and accused of speaking “for America’s adversaries – not its citizens.” (see https://www.whitehouse.gov/articles/amid-a-pandemic-voice-of-america-spends-your-money-to-promote-foreign-propaganda/). The posting in question was actually a re-tweet of an AP article – in English – on the VoA’s twitter account.
And now, I must hand the ‘microphone’ over to the expert on all things Public Diplomacy: Matt Armstrong. Matt posted on his blog https://mountainrunner.us extensive comments on this instance and the history of VoA. See his posts here and here. Both are worth studying and I’ve no need to recount all the points he made. The most important issue is what is VoA doing to advance American ideas and principles abroad in an era of information overload? To what audiences are they focusing their efforts? What objectives has the administration assigned to VoA? How do they interact with the rest of the U.S. government in achieving these objectives?
While working in the Pentagon, I will admit that we did coordinate with VoA in specific instances where we wanted to be sure that DoD information efforts did not overlap with those of VoA or, worse, conflict with a VoA effort against a specific audience. I found that those charged with governance at the time were very forthcoming and willing to help. Today, like then, the problems can be found much higher up and outside VoA’s management (though that too has its issues). Here’s Matt Armstrong again:
The Voice of America is an international news operation funded by the US government. While the employees work for the government, what VOA’s reporters cover and write is insulated from influence from the executive and legislative branches. However, VOA’s broader aims, often expressed through audience selection generally expressed as a combination of language and geography, are dictated by the executive branch with the overarching goal of supporting US foreign policy.
Let me highlight: “…VoA’s broader aims,……are dictated by the executive branch with the overarching goal of supporting US foreign policy.”
VoA, as it has in the past, can be an important voice in many places around the world where news media sources may not be as numerous or as diligent in reporting current events and calling the news ‘like it sees it.’ Matt points out other issues with VoA governance including why they might re-tweet a commercial news source which was the source of the White House criticism (and why they probably shouldn’t echo a commercial news feed), the lack of confirmed leadership in the hierarchy overseeing the service, congressional ignorance and indifference, and, finally, that the current administration hasn’t provided the sort of guidance upon which VoA can build its programming to achieve its mission of supporting “US foreign policy.”
I can recall hearing the VoA’s Balkan service while working out in the gyms on US bases in Bosnia and Kosovo. It was a respected news source and the local employees liked listening. Obviously, VoA must adapt to the information environment that exists, but more importantly if we are to have a VoA it must reflect the values embodied in US foreign policy. To combat mis- and dis-information in populations ruled by authoritarian governments around the world is a full-time effort; just as importantly we must transmit US values and those ideas which support our policies. Giving that direction to our tools of public diplomacy is the job of our national leaders.