U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA) falsely told its international audiences in a homepage headline and in a confusing article that because of mass shootings and terrorist attacks Americans live in a “State of Fear.”
Anyone who has seen American city streets, brightly decorated shopping malls, churches, synagogues and mosques this 2015 Jewish and Christian holiday season knows perfectly well that Americans are not living in a state of fear. Life in the United States continues normally after the terrorist shootings in California. Americans are not panicking despite a few opportunistic politicians and partisan media trying to exploit the tragedy.
The unattributed Voice of America commentary makes a case for America being in a “State of Fear” by using selective quotes from a few U.S. media outlets and by quoting a few obscure “experts” all of whom agree with the premise of the article. A countervailing U.S. viewpoint is missing.
The article is neither a balanced nor a comprehensive projection of significant American thought. It is not even a balanced presentation of U.S. media reports and opinions. There is no mention of any criticism of President Obama’s handling of the terrorist threat or an attempt to present arguments to defend it.
By presenting a false argument for America being in a “State of Fear,” the Voice of America simply gives aid and comfort to the enemy, in this case Islamic State terrorists.
If it were true that America is indeed gripped by fear, then VOA would have a journalistic duty to report it. But the article is not an accurate reflection of American attitudes as a nation or an accurate reflection of a daily reality of life in the United States. Posting such one-sided and misleading Voice of America opinion articles is not how U.S. taxpayers want their money to be spent (approximately $200 million annually for VOA, $740 million for BBG including VOA).
What’s worse, this VOA article, produced at U.S. taxpayers’ expense, harms America’s national security interests. Even Voice of America journalists are not sure who wrote this completely unattributed material and on whose behalf. International audiences have no other option but to assume that this is an official U.S. statement offered by the Voice of America.
In this article, VOA is misleading the world and indirectly supporting ISIS propaganda by presenting a false image of the United States to people abroad who may not know how Americans are reacting to terrorism and violence as a nation.
The Voice of America is in a dysfunctional state. It has no permanent director and lacks leadership. A few VOA Newsroom reporters recently objected to any suggestions that they should “counter violent extremism,” claiming that such efforts would undermine their journalistic objectivity. Some of these Voice of America reporters have fewer than 300 followers on Twitter. Considering that ISIS fanatics generate thousands of social media posts and get thousands of replies daily, it is doubtful that anyone within the U.S. government would bother to ask these VOA reporters to counter terrorism or President Putin’s propaganda.
Even though the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency overseeing VOA, was described in 2013 as “practically defunct” by the then Secretary of State and BBG board member Hillary Clinton, those currently in charge of the agency resist a bipartisan effort led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) to break up the BBG bureaucracy and to make it more manageable by splitting it into two smaller organizations. The Voice of America, the most mismanaged of the BBG entities, which also include more effective Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), would get its own separate oversight board. VOA badly needs it.
The Voice of America still enjoys some appeal in various countries as a semi-official voice of the American people and the U.S government. Even if the writer of the VOA article was able to find some supportive quotes for his/her thesis in some U.S. media, this does not mean that what the article suggests to a mostly unsuspecting audience is a balanced and comprehensive projection of the truth. U.S. media may want Americans to be in a “State of Fear” to increase their audiences and revenues. ISIS wants it for other reasons. VOA’s job is to explain this.
Americans may have gotten used to sensational reporting and views expressed on U.S. television, but they know what their life is like. International audiences which rely on the Voice of America for the most part do not. The Voice of America is paid for by American taxpayers to present an accurate and balanced picture of America abroad. They expect more from VOA writers who draw hefty government salaries than they do from their own sensationalist domestic media.
VOA has an important duty to get it right, especially when terrorists and their propaganda are involved. Countering terrorist propaganda does not require propaganda. It requires VOA recognizing propaganda and presenting the truth. ISIS could easily use this VOA editorial for its own propaganda purposes to try to prove that they are winning and achieving their goals by killing innocent civilians in the United States and creating a “State of Fear.” All they have to do is to point to this article and its headline on the Voice of America news homepage. The writer of the VOA article probably has no clue how much damage such material could do. There is no one to tell him or her how to practice objective, fact-based journalism and how to interpret the VOA Charter (U.S. Public Law 94-350). It says: “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society.”
The Voice of America should not make life easier for ISIS. Shame on Voice of America and shame on the Broadcasting Board of Governors for allowing such unattributed and questionable, one-sided articles to be posted and for resisting much needed structural reforms.
These reforms in H.R. 2323 bill are supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives. All members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the bill earlier this year. If passed by the Senate and signed by the President, it would improve the Voice of America and other U.S. media outreach abroad and would give the Broadcasting Board of Governors much needed adult supervision. Without it, the Voice of America is likely to continue to harm America’s image abroad and undermine U.S. security with irresponsible, one-sided, personal views of its anonymous, unsupervised and unaccountable editorial writers.
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was in charge of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity trade union’s struggle for democracy and later developed live VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia. He was also in charge of placing VOA and RFE/RL programs on stations in Russia, Central Asia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now involved with a number of media freedom NGOs.