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Is Voice of America's Mission of Objectivity In Danger?

VOA
Voice of America is the largest U.S. international broadcaster, producing digital, TV and radio content in 47 languages which is distributed to affiliate stations around the world. Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

Back in April 2020, the Trump White House attacked Voice of America, accusing it in an official statement of amplifying what it described as Chinese propaganda about the COVID-19 pandemic, and complaining that "VOA too often speaks for America's adversaries — not its citizens." After Trump appointee Michael Pack assumed his role as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA, National Public Radio and the Washington Post reported that visas held by numerous foreign nationals who work as journalists for VOA's foreign-language programs and newscasts have not been renewed, which could compel many of them eventually to have to leave the U.S.

In a statement in June, Pack announced that VOA would begin restoring editorials presenting the U.S. government's official positions to greater prominence.

The turmoil has led the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other critics to raise concerns about whether the Trump Administration will try to politicize VOA, which since its inception in the 1940s has built a reputation for being a source of unbiased news that provided a contrast to the government-controlled media in countries it reaches.

If you're an American who didn't grow up in a foreign country listening to VOA's broadcasts, you may not be aware that the U.S. government is even in the broadcasting business, let alone that it's a sprawling global network with a $200 million annual budget, which provides news and information in more than 40 different languages to an estimated audience of 280 million people. In addition to radio broadcasts, VOA produces content for television and the internet, and can be accessed these days on smartphones.

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History of Voice of America

VOA's roots date back to the dark early days of World War II, when it was devised by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to counter Nazi propaganda, according to "Voice of America: A History," an account of the network's past written by Alan L. Heil, Jr., a journalist who spent 36 years with the organization. VOA started out in February 1942 with a 15-minute broadcast in German, which was relayed to occupied Europe via a transmitter in London, and programs in French and Italian soon followed.

VOA quickly developed an audience, in part because its broadcasts made a point of presenting what actually was happening in the war, even if the news wasn't favorable to the U.S. That made it essential listening for people in occupied Europe who were starved for information that wasn't run through Nazi filters. "You in America cannot imagine how even a few minutes of news from America, heard by a Frenchman, is spread around," one former listener wrote to Heil in 1991, as detailed in his book. "An hour after it is heard, thousands know the Truth."

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The Mission of VOA After WWII

After the Axis defeat in 1945, VOA shifted to a different mission.

"By the end of World War II, the U.S. government had a network of short and medium wave transmitters which allow us to talk about what's happening in the free world," explains Edward Rhodes, a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and an expert in foreign and national security policy. "As we cruised into the Cold War, there was a realization that this allows us to tell the world the truth about what was happening in the U.S.A. and in the West, and the truth about what was happening in their own countries."

"The truth was a very powerful weapon," Rhodes continues. "This was not going to be propaganda, because we don't have to tell lies. The Soviet government, in contrast, had to tell lies about wheat production and how wonderful life was."

Sometimes that meant covering subjects that were uncomfortable at home, such as the 1960s Civil Rights struggle. In August 1963, for example, VOA provided the world with extensive coverage of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, according to Heil's book.

VOA
The headquarters of Voice of America in Washington, D.C.
Sarah Stierch/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

But in addition to the news, VOA has provided cultural programming, including music that helped convey the diversity, openness and freedom of American culture, Rhodes says. "It gave people a taste of what a free society was like."

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'To Counter Propaganda with Truthful, Objective Reporting'

In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, VOA continued to reach into parts of the world such as the Middle East. Rhodes, for example, has appeared on several recent occasions as a guest to talk about U.S. politics and policy on a broadcast where his answers are translated into the Kurdish language.

"But the mission – to counter propaganda with truthful, objective reporting – has never changed," David Jones, deputy managing editor of VOA's News Center, says via email. "VOA staff understand that their reports will not be believed if the agency is seen as a mouthpiece for the U.S. government or any political party or faction. When audiences hear us report on America's failures, they are more likely to believe us when we tell them about its successes."

That reflects the values in the VOA charter passed by Congress and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976, which specifies that VOA must present news that's not only accurate, but depicts "a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions."

But now, as this Washington Post editorial details, critics worry that mission might change, and that VOA might become another state-controlled broadcasting service, too similar to the ones for which it's been an alternative.

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