But the former VOA chief argues that we can do a better job of getting our message out against ISIL, Russia and others.
By David Ensor, November 23, 2015 politico.com
After Paris, how should we respond to the nihilistic, murderous Islamic State? Bombs and intelligence work are needed, but they do not address the underlying issues. Last week Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he would like to reform the Voice of America to promote “core Judeo-Christian, Western values that we and our allies share.” Speaking at Regent University, a Christian institution in Virginia Beach, Kasich said the U.S. should create a VOA better able to engage in the “war of ideas” against ISIS, which would be “breathing life into something that’s kind of become dormant.”
As the recently departed Director of VOA, I like the idea of an upgrade, but Kasich is wrong about a few things. He’s wrong to suggest VOA should promote Western religious values—a stance that would only cost it credibility—even though he is absolutely right that a reinvigorated Voice of America could be a powerful weapon in the war of ideas. VOA has already left a mark on history, playing a not insignificant role in the peaceful demise of the Soviet Empire. With the digital communications revolution now making it easier to engage global audiences, and a new model of partnership with television and radio stations showing great promise, VOA can and should do much more.
VOA is also hardly “dormant,” as Kasich suggests: It is alive and well. Because the United States is one of the relatively few nations on earth not to have a state broadcaster on the air domestically, few Americans—and few of their elected representatives—realize that VOA is in fact one of the world’s largest, most influential media organizations. In a report released just last week, VOA’s parent agency, the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, released its latest global audience figures showing that over the past four years VOA’s audience has grown 40 percent to almost 188 million people per week, on everything from shortwave radio to satellite TV, from smartphone apps to social media.
The biggest increases in 2015 are in Mexico and Nigeria. A quarter of Iranians watch VOA satellite TV at least once a week, even though it is illegal. There is substantial growth in China, Russia and across Africa. Successful partnerships with numerous stations in Ukraine have been launched in the wake of the Russian seizure of Crimea. In Kurdish Iraq, VOA has partnered with NRT, a local TV broadcaster, to offer audiences world class coverage of the fight against ISIL, from the frontlines in Syria and Iraq, as well as from Paris, Washington and other capitals.
Why do so many people watch, read or listen to VOA? One reason: because they trust it.
Back in 1976, President Gerald Ford signed into law the “VOA Charter” mandating that the broadcaster keep the original promise made on its first broadcast in German back in 1942: “The news may be good for us, the news may be bad. But we will tell you the truth.” The 1976 law was passed after the Nixon White House sought to limit what VOA could say about the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Thanks to the VOA Charter, the broadcaster has built credibility with audiences over the years with honest, balanced coverage, even when the news about America was not positive: the Abu Ghraib scandal, the revelations of Edward Snowden about NSA surveillance, the protests over a police killing of a young black man in Ferguson have all been covered fully by VOA. Each time, that coverage serves as a civics lesson in how a free country addresses its challenges. It says more about us as a people than on-air lectures about “Judeo-Christian, Western values” ever could.
VOA should never engage in this form of “messaging.” Honest journalism requires the goals of objectivity and balance, but—and this is key—the best journalists are not truly “neutral.” They have values that undergird their reporting; the belief in freedom, truthfulness, justice and humaneness. Fulfilling the promise of these values requires them to assume that “not everything is equivalent; some things are repulsive to humanity,” in the words of the current President of the Public Diplomacy Council, Adam Clayton Powell III, himself a former executive at NPR and CBS News.
“Seizing neighboring countries territory by force is not just another ideology,” Powell said. “Shooting down civilian airliners … is not just a point of view. Mass enslavement of women and girls by ISIS is not just another way of exercising power. … These are, by any objective standard, practices which civilized people everywhere can and do condemn. These are, by any objective standard, practices that the best journalism can and should expose.”
Thus, without preaching—but simply by transmitting honest reporting to the world—the Voice of America can help to engage in the war of ideas that many American officials believe we are losing, whether it is to ISIL, which continues to draw disaffected Arab youth into its ranks, or to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where Americans and the West seem to be even less popular than they were during the Cold War. With the right ideas and resources, VOA could be a more powerful and influential voice.
To empower VOA and its sister networks in the global war of ideas, I offer four recommendations:
· The U.S. should work with its allies to launch an internationally supported Russian language television station based in Kyiv, Vilnius or Riga offering soap operas and live sports coverage, along with news programming from VOA and other western broadcasters. Coverage should be segmented and presented in clips on YouTube and similar sites, so as to reach into Putin’s heavily censored Russia.
· Leveraging VOA’s existing “Weishi” programming to China, a 24/7 satellite TV news channel in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan, should be launched. This should be augmented by a substantial infusion of funds for more of the internet circumvention software that already allows millions of Chinese netizens to evade the “great firewall” and access Western news reporting on topics that Beijing wants to censor.
· The affiliate model—which VOA now uses to collaborate with stations around the world like NRT in Kurdish Iraq, Channels TV in Nigeria, and TV Azteca Mexico—should be tried more aggressively in the Arab world. The U.S. currently relies on VOA’s sister network MBN’s al Hurrah satellite news channel which has struggled in a crowded marketplace to compete directly with Al Jazeera and other regional Arabic news networks. Instead, key stations in the region should be offered coverage from Washington and around the world by Arabic-speaking reporters: live shots, segments—whatever they want for their programs—so that American reporters can become part of the news coverage and the conversation with their audiences.
· VOA should launch mobile apps in all of its 45-plus languages. The mobile device will come increasingly to dominate all other platforms for delivering news and information. VOA’s new “Dandalin” Facebook application in Nigeria is pulling millions of new young fans to VOA news, sports and information about America, even as its shortwave radio audiences decline.
While VOA should not proselytize for Christian or Jewish values, Governor Kasich is right to focus attention on “soft power”—the power of persuasion. Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard, the man who coined the term back in 1990, says “in this confused, complex, multipolar world, the limits of hard power—the use of force, threats, sanctions or payments—are becoming more obvious.” With a stronger approach and additional resources, America’s Voice—and the underlying universal human values in its journalism—could influence many more people around the world, through the most effective export this country can offer: the truth.