Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Charter for the Ages

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Friday, July 15th 2016
It was a sweltering July afternoon forty years ago, when those of us in the VOA’s Central Newroom got a call from a VOA stand-in White House correspondent that President Gerald Ford had just signed a 1977 budget bill into law.
That act, Public Law 94-350, had a four paragraph passage tacked on at its conclusion.   It made the VOA Charter the law of the land.
Its prologue:  “The long range interests of the United States are served by communicating with the peoples of the world by radio.  To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners.”
And how was that to be done?  The three following operative paragraphs crystallize the mission succinctly:
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 opinions on these policies.
The drafter of the Charter way back in 1959, then brand new VOA Deputy Director Jack O’Brien, was instructed by Director Henry Loomis to take a number of draft Charters written by various VOA managers and transform them into a single coherent document.  
“And boy, they were a stack of papers at least eight or ten inches deep”, O’Brien recalled, “some beautiful words and beautiful thoughts, but pretty long-winded.”  The seasoned USIA foreign service officer went home after a day of studying the stack, stayed up all night, and about seven o’clock the next morning, came up with the four-paragraph synthesis.
Director Loomis was pleased, and the document was passed up the chain of command through the director of USIA to the White House for final approval by President Eisenhower as a directive.  Loomis and O’Brien felt that the Charter must be relevant to America’s Voice for years to come, and there was no reference in it of the prime U.S. policy emphasis, the Cold War, at the time.  That, it turned out, lent the document enduring value after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 --- and beyond.   But one important additional step became necessary.  Because of the heavy hand of policy interpreters of the directive in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Charter often seemed honored more in the breach than the observance.
“The cutting edge of the facts, accurate and balanced, are our North Star,” in the words of VOA journalists at the time.  One of them, VOA’s legendary Newsroom chief, Bernard (Bernie) H. Kamenske, worked quietly on his own time to persuade funders in Congress to consider ways of transforming the Charter --- a Presidential directive --- into the law of the land.  Conveying the facts to a curious world, the good and bad news, was the foundation of success of a flagship U.S. government network that grew to become a window on the world to millions around the globe.
The Charter was as American as apple pie. It was a gift to generations of curious listeners, viewers and on-line users seeking to know what’s going on in their own neighborhoods as well as the world.  The document is an asset and shield, as well, to those generations of VOA stalwarts who gathered the news and information, wrote the dispatches, and moved far beyond radio to multimedia platforms:  TV, on line channels, and eventually, an incredible array of digital services available in milliseconds to curious seekers of the facts everywhere.
The technicians at the former Bethany shortwave relay station north of Cincinnati, Ohio, said it best as they established a VOA Museum in the early 21st century.  Their motto: “Tell the truth, and let the world decide.”
There’s no substitute for striving to “tell it as it is.”   In testimony to the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors recently, Public Diplomacy Council President Adam Clayton Powell III put it this way:  “To state the obvious, not everything is true.  Some things are provably false.  Not everything is equivalent.  Some things are repulsive to humanity.  (Orlando, Dallas and Nice spring quickly to mind).  Your challenge and your opportunity,” Powell concluded, “is to state this clearly and forcefully, every day, every hour.”
There’s another vital element to Charter-driven journalism as well.  More than a thousand VOA reports chronicled the dreaded  Ebola plague in 2014 and 2015, accompanied by joint use of public service announcements on prevention by VOA and the BBC World Service.  Thousands of lives likely were saved.
In the words of the Voice’s brand new director Amanda Bennett, commenting on the 40th anniversary of the Charter July 12:  “The VOA Charter has never been more important than it is today.  The world needs a reliable and authoritative source of news and information, which is what the VOA Charter intends us to be.  It also states that we are to represent all Americans, not just a single aspect of American society.  We are tasked with telling the truth and to tell it from all sides.  That is a free press; that’s a fair press.   That’s the Voice of America.”

Alan L. Heil Jr. is a former deputy director of VOA, and was director of its News and Current Affairs department when the Charter was signed into law in 1976.  He is author of Voice of America: A History, Columbia University Press, New York, 2003-2006, 538 pages.

Author: Alan Heil

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