Don't let America lose its Voice around the world

March 23, 2006|By ED WARNER

The enemy media fire hard and fast, said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a recent speech, and we must return the fire just as fast. As an example, he cites the extensive coverage of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Why not respond, he asks, by reporting on the mass graves of Saddam Hussein's victims - torture answering torture, as it were. And non-journalists may have to paid to do the job. It is a kind of shock and awe of the media, a crucial part of the war on terror.

The Voice of America, to be sure, does not do this, and therein lies the problem. Dismissed as old-fashioned, stodgy and slow-moving, it is slated for drastic cuts by the supervising Broadcast Board of Governors.

Broadcasts in their own language to Turkey, Greece and Thailand, among others, are to be cut in 2007. Also on the chopping block is, surprisingly enough, English. The world's pre-eminent language is not really needed, says the board, because it can be heard elsewhere.

That is true, but will it be in the best of hands?

While VOA opts out, China, Russia and the Arabic station Al-Jazeera are cranking up global English radio and TV broadcasts. They will convey America to the world instead of the voiceless Voice of America. Is this in the national interest?

There's not much dispute that VOA over the years has been in the national interest. Just ask listeners around the world what they think of the Voice. Their response is overwhelmingly positive, and that includes those who once lived under communism. Many say VOA helped sustain them during this time of travail and then contributed to their liberation.

It did this by not pummeling them with propaganda.

There is a mistaken assumption that because it is government radio, VOA skews the news. Both its charter and tradition prevent that. Its mission is to report America in the round, to explain and offer debate on a broad range of U. S. policies. It carries more news of events abroad than other American media do. All this is done in a sober and balanced fashion. What it may lack sometimes in brilliance, it makes up in reliability.

Since, comparatively speaking, it costs so little, what's the problem? Many say it is political. Every administration in Washington tries to nudge VOA this way or that way politically, but the pressure exerted by the current administration is said to be unprecedented.

In the journal Foreign Affairs, former VOA Director Sanford J. Ungar, now president of Goucher College, has provided a long list of examples of political interference with VOA scripts, and staffers can add plenty of their own.

This interference is not unique to VOA. It reflects what has happened at the Pentagon and the CIA, where dissenters have been demoted, reassigned, fired or otherwise silenced.

When members of VOA's respected Arabic service protested its abolition in favor of more frothy - and far more expensive - broadcasts (Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra TV), they were visited by security personnel warning them not to contribute to "negative publicity" about the agency.

If this seems an abridgment of freedom of the press, it is accompanied by secrecy of operations that is new to the Voice. Gone are the daily staff meetings at which ideas could be exchanged. Management is aloof and impenetrable. The staff is not consulted on its fate, while the governing board meets behind closed doors and then springs its surprises.

Still, the staff has not been silenced. The year before last, it sent a protesting petition, signed by nearly half of VOA, to Congress, and it regularly solicits help where it can. More to the point, it continues to do its job regardless of the pressures.

Kenneth R. Timmerman, a leading neoconservative, is not altogether happy with VOA, but he cites its "tremendous talent" in an article for FrontPageMagazine.com and urges strengthening and expanding VOA.

Mr. Timmerman does regret that VOA is prevented by its charter from subverting unpleasant foreign governments. True enough. But wait: If the Voice is broadcasting the breadth and variety of America to the rest of the world over the years, perhaps that is most subversive of all.

Crises come and go, but alas, anti-Americanism seems now to be a permanent feature of the global scene. Who better to address it than VOA? And Congress, to make the Voice whole again.

Ed Warner is a recently retired broadcaster-editor of Voice of America. His e-mail is egw24@hotmail.com.

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