27 May 2008

Abolish the VOA?

Just the other day we received an anonymous email from someone who responded to our recent post on Walter Lippmann by pointing out Lippmann had written an article published in the Los Angeles Times in late April 1953 that was headlined “The Voice of America Should be Abolished.” We guess the unspoken question of the emailer was, “How can you hail Lippmann if he wanted to shut you down?”

Our resourceful library managed to locate a copy of this 55-year-old work. It was written about the time Congress was considering (and eventually approving) the creation of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA).

Lippmann did in fact argue VOA should be abolished. But his view was shaped by his perception of what American political figures were pushing for in U.S. information policy in 1953 at the height of the Cold War.

Lippmann wrote, “The people overseas should have available to them substantially the same news that we have available to us.” He went on, “In principle, the foreigner should not be asked to listen to the U.S. government speaking. He should be able to overhear what the American people are hearing. He will then have the same protection against being made the victim of propaganda that we have --- namely, the right in our free society to challenge the validity of a news report and to criticize the handling of it.”

And he concluded, “This is the only way, and it is the best way, to create confidence abroad in the integrity of the information that we offer them.”

Lippmann was not the only journalist commenting on America’s international information policy at the time. We found this summary:

“…The Washington Post… said ‘Psychological warfare, in addition to being contrary to the American way of doing things, is antithetical to the American way of life.’ Columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote ‘Democracy cannot be peddled like soap flakes.’”

That quote is from: “From OWI to USIA: The Jackson Committee's Search for the Real 'Voice' of America” Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter 2002; American Journalism. USIA was the parent agency of the Voice of America until USIA was shut down in 1999 and its functions, minus VOA, were taken over by the State Department. As the study cited above notes:

“USIA's birth was in response to the threat of global communist expansion. It was an attempt to win the battle for hearts and minds, one waged with words and not bullets... [But] the battle against international communism was just one of a number of factors that led to the birth of USIA. There were also concerns within government bureaucracy, the Congress, the press and the public relations profession over the scope and direction of American overseas information programs. While some felt the U.S. should match communist propaganda with its own variety, there were others who felt that American ideas and virtues needed no embellishment.”

Those tensions still exist to an extent. The Blogosphere is filled with posts on “winning hearts and minds.” (Typical is this blog, for example, and others linked to it.)

But the mission of VOA is not in doubt in 2008. The VOA Charter, signed into law in 1976, with its commitment to reliable and authoritative news, objectivity and a multiplicity of views, makes clear the decision-makers came down on the side of “no embellishment” needed.

21 May 2008

Journalism Moments: The Comments of a Leading US Political Reporter on Campaign ‘08

Dan Balz is a journalist at The Washington Post newspaper, where he has served as a correspondent covering US politics since 1978. This week he delivered an address at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York on the current Presidential election campaign and news coverage of the contest. The following are excerpts from his speech:

“This election is not only the most exciting but also the most consequential in a generation. It may be the most important since 1968, when a country convulsed by an unpopular war, experienced a traumatic election year that included two assassinations. That election marked the beginning of a conservative era that has lasted almost four decades. Certainly it is the most important election since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency and engineered a radical break from the policies of the New Deal and the Great Society that had governed American since the Great Depression.

“This election reminds us of something that has too often been ignored: That Washington matters. That government matters. Most of all, that who wins the White House matters. As we have seen over the past eight years, the choice of a president affects the way America projects its power around the world and how the world sees us. It affects who gets health care and at what price. It affects who gets taxed and at what rates. It affects the distribution of wealth in a society where income inequality continues to grow. It affects how we educate children and how we care for older Americans. It affects what this nation does to combat global climate change and therefore the world your children and your grandchildren will inherit.”

While stating that he has enjoyed every minute of his career as journalist reporting on politics, Mr. Balz did express some concerns about today’s political coverage:

“My first concern is that we talk more and more about less and less. We seize on trivial developments rather than big ideas. We obsess over process and but not over policy…We spend too much time speculating about the future and not enough examining and understanding the present and the past. We write for one another and talk too much to one another. In other words, we are in danger of reducing to an insider’s game the most important set of decisions people are making about the future of our country.

“My second concern is that we do less reporting than we used to do. We engage in non-stop commentary, sometimes without the information to make the discussion informative. Harold Ross of the New Yorker told Janet Flanner when he sent her off to Paris in the 1920s: “Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what they think.” That is still useful advice for anyone covering politics in 2008. Political reporting should begin with reporting.

“These are legitimate issues for all of us to debate about the state of journalism, but I am not pessimistic. Not with the story we are witnessing. As I said at the beginning, this election represents an awakening, not only among the millions and millions of people who have turned out to vote this year; for those in the news business, it has been a reawakening to the central role that journalism plays in the advancement of democracy. None of us should be pessimistic about journalism itself. In whatever form and however it is delivered, the work of journalists remains crucial to a healthy and functioning democracy.”

Readers interested in following VOA’s coverage of Campaign ’08 can go to our main website’s special election page and to our VOA Election Blog.

13 May 2008

What’s In A Country’s Name?

Once there was Ceylon. Now it’s Sri Lanka. Once there was Upper Volta. Now it’s Burkina Faso. The list of such national name changes goes on and on. Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Siam to Thailand. Some countries take a long route to establishing their identities: Belgian Congo to Republic of Congo, then Democratic Republic of Congo to Zaire and now back to Democratic Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the neighboring Republic of Congo, which was why the two countries were also referred to in the past as Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa.)

We bring this up because of the current media divisions over what to call that Southeast Asian country just devastated by a massive cyclone. In English, VOA calls it Burma, as does the BBC along with the London Times, the Washington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, Time and Newsweek.

On the other hand, the Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Economist, Reuters, the French news agency AFP, the Japanese news agency Kyodo and National (US) Public Radio (NPR) call the same country Myanmar.

Oposition activists and exiles appear to favor Burma, largely because the country’s military rulers made the switch to Myanmar after seizing power in 1988.

The U.S. government uses Burma intentionally. According to the State Department’s background notes on what it refers to as the “Union of Burma”: “Although the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council or military junta) changed the name of the country to ‘Myanmar,’ the democratically elected but never convened Parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition continues to use the name ‘Burma.’ Due to consistent support for the democratically elected leaders, the U.S. Government likewise uses 'Burma.'”

But what do Burmese themselves use? After all, in English, we call Germany “Germany” even though Germans call it “Deutschland”; similarly, in English, we call it “China” but the Chinese call it “Zhongguo”, or Middle Kingdom.

Well, according to VOA’s East Asia and Pacific Division, the way “Burma” is said in Burmese is “Myanmar” and that is how VOA’s Burmese Service says it. So maybe it’s not such a big issue after all.

Curiously, we haven’t received any emails on this topic of Burma vs. Myanmar. We have, however, been inundated with messages about another name dispute: Macedonia vs. FYROM (or the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

One man, referring to an item by VOA's David Gollust, wrote us to complain about the State Department which, he charged, "for its own political reasons call the FYROM as 'Macedonia'. The FYROM is a Slavic country with a Slavic language and has no connection at all with ancient Macedonia. Macedonia’s history is part of Greek history as Macedonia with its own particular aspects was nevertheless Greek the same way as people in Crete are Cretans but are and feel Greek. The efforts of the Administration of the FYROM and its brainwashing of its people to steal another nation’s heritage must be one of the biggest of its kind in history. It is acceptable for a country to decide to call itself whatever it wants as long as it does not offend another country’s historical and cultural heritage.”

For the record, Gollust, VOA’s skilled veteran diplomatic correspondent, wrote in that piece: “After its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia became a U.N. member under the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM. That was at the insistence of Greece, which contends the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim on its northern province of the same name. The United States in 2004 announced it would henceforth refer to the Skopje government as the Republic of Macedonia, the name it prefers.”

But other email writers complained about the reference in the Gollust item to the “Skopje government.” One man wrote that: “I emphatically refute the use of the term Government of Skopje in your article when referring to the government… USA has recognized the Republic of Macedonia by its constitutional name hence there is no justifiable reason to deviate from that name.”

Actually no disrespect is intended. Journalists looking for an alternative to repeating the name of a country may from time to time in a story couple the name of that country’s capital with the word “government” to produce phrases like “the Khartoum government” instead of Sudan. (See this story by Gollust.)

The same goes for “the Skopje government.” It’s a stylistic choice, not a political one, and, as we have noted before, we try never to make journalistic decisions on the basis of politics.

08 May 2008

Journalism Moments: “Shame the Devil” (Remembering Walter Lippmann)

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) has been described as the most influential American journalist of the 20th century. He was a newspaper columnist and an author. One of his books, published in 1920, was “Liberty and the News.” In it, he addressed issues related to journalistic credibility.

Here are some sample quotes worth noting:

“…the most destructive form of untruth is... propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news… For when a people can no longer confidently repair 'to the best foundations for their information,' then anyone's guess and anyone's rumor, each man's hope and each man's whim becomes the basis of government… Incompetence and aimlessness, corruption and disloyalty, panic and ultimate disaster, must come to any people which is denied an assured access to the facts.”

“In so far as those who purvey the news make of their own beliefs a higher law than truth, they are attacking the foundations of our constitutional system. There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”

“The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information.”

Why bring this up? While we receive a lot of praise, hardly a day goes by when here at VOA we don’t also receive an email or a call or a letter in which someone challenges our credibility for not doing something they would prefer that we do.

Here’s an example. We received an email this week from a man who disapproved of a recent story we did marking the fifth anniversary of President Bush’s “mission accomplished” speech about combat operations in Iraq. The emailer said:

“Have you ever thought about reporting some balanced news? You always want to print negative stories. (S)ay something good about (the U.S.)… rather than printing all the negative articles your news station prints.”

Others have written recently suggesting that rather than report news even-handedly about countries like Iran whose governments are considered hostile to the U.S., we should focus only on news that counters what those regimes may be saying. Such critics suggest that by not doing so, VOA is somehow unpatriotic and not worthy of continued taxpayer support.

Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion. But consider this: back in the old days when there was a Soviet Union, Radio Moscow was the world’s largest international broadcaster. Yet, as historians have noted, its audience was far smaller than major western broadcasters like VOA and the BBC.

Why? It’s no surprise. Radio Moscow broadcast propaganda.

VOA hasn’t and won’t. And because of that, our credibility will remain high among our audiences internationally. Independent research shows those audiences consistently rate what they hear and see from us as “trustworthy” or “very trustworthy.”

We want to keep it that way.

05 May 2008

German and Jazz

Our colleagues at VOANews.com recently received an email from a gentleman in Germany who went to our website and clicked on the Europe section of our world map. He couldn’t find any programming in German.

“Pressing that button I understand that about 100 million German speaking people in Europe do have no value and weight and are unworthy to listen to VOA in their language,” he wrote, asking why smaller countries, including Albania, Bosnia and Croatia are, in his words, “privileged to listen VOA in their language?”

He then says: “For me it’s absolutely incomprehensible that VOA ignores German…”

As you know, VOA went on the air for the first time on February 24, 1942 and the first broadcast was in German. You can read more about that and actually listen to an excerpt of the initial show by clicking here.

But it’s true. We no longer broadcast in German. How does VOA decide what languages to broadcast in and which languages to drop and which to start? We turned to our Public Affairs office and asked them. Here is what they wrote:

“VOA currently broadcasts in 45 languages to a weekly audience of approximately 115 million people. Our mission is to provide programming to regions of the world where there is a lack of trustworthy news and information. The majority of our audiences live in areas where independent and free media have not fully developed, or in countries where governments maintain control over the media. VOA concentrates its efforts on these areas to provide accurate, objective, and comprehensive news reports and information.

“Germany, as well as other countries in Europe, has free and independent media. News and information is readily available on television, radio, and the Internet. In such a situation, our broadcasts are no longer needed.

“VOA does add languages as well. The most recent example is the addition of Somali in February of 2007.

“The world is constantly changing, but what is constant is that VOA continues to fulfill its mission of providing news and information to those who need it most.”


VOANews.com also received an email from a listener who wrote about happy years spent listening to jazz master Willis Conover on VOA. The listener said, “I am dismayed to discover that jazz on the VOA internet is virtually non existent.”

It’s true that Willis Conover is missed. His program was on the air for nearly 40 years until Willis died in May of 1996. He was 75 years old and never lost his enthusiasm for Jazz.
VOA ran some repeats of Jazz Hour after Willis died. We did it as a tribute to the man and his many contributions to the world of music. We now have a new Jazz show called Jazz America hosted by Russ Davis. It is heard weekends on our satellite music network as part of VOA Music Mix, a service that is placed on local affiliates around the world, and on shortwave, Medium Wave, and FM, as part of VOA News Now. The program can also be accessed on the Internet at 0500 UTC on Saturday and 1300 UTC on Sunday. Russ features all kinds of Jazz -- old and new -- along with weekly interviews of prominent and up-and-coming Jazz figures.

01 May 2008

World Press Freedom Day is May 3rd

Freedom House has issued its annual report on global press freedom ahead of World Press Freedom Day. The current edition of the survey, Freedom of the Press 2008, highlights the sixth straight year of deterioration in the level of press freedom worldwide, with what Freedom House calls “particularly worrisome trends evident in the former Soviet Union, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.”

(For the record, Freedom House, according to its mission statement, "is an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world. Freedom is possible only in democratic political systems in which the governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed.")

It should come as no surprise to anyone that we at VOA support press freedom and the freedom of expression. We note it was President John F. Kennedy who said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Our news often reaches into countries whose governments try to control the media. We agree with President Ronald Reagan who likened this activity to providing people with life-sustaining air: “Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.”

What do we get out of this? For the answer to that, we have only to recall the words of one of this country’s founding fathers, James Madison. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

It doesn’t matter whether the information we transmit reaches audiences by TV, radio, the Internet, cellphone or other means.

“What matters to the quality of democracy is the quality of independent, honest, accurate, journalism, not the means by which it is distributed. Communication is what is fundamental.”

Those words were spoken not by former President or a founding father but a current-day news executive: Michael Oreskes, Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune.

Speaking last year at the Online News Association convention in Toronto, Canada, he reminded his audience of what it is all reporters and editors should be doing if they aspire to quality journalism:

“We are the independent observers of the world, who go places our audiences can’t go, dig where our audiences can’t dig, study and interpret what our audiences do not have time to study and interpret. And we do all this with no agenda other than to help our audiences understand the world.”

It sounds altruistic. But, interestingly, there might be a pay-off.

As Oreskes noted in his address, a scholar at the London School of Economics has actually charted the relationship between journalism and democracy. For example, as press freedom goes up, so does national income per person. Similarly, as press freedom goes up, corruption goes down. In short, countries with a free press are better off.

One other thought: in recent years, we have seen a trend, usually attributed to survey results, in which many news organizations, including some VOA services, increasingly “localize” their news content, often at the expense of news from elsewhere in the world.

But as Editor Oreskes notes, the distinction between “domestic” and “international” news is now more blurred than at any time in the past. There are links between almost everything everywhere. Just consider the current global food and fuel crises, not to mention environmental problems.

Only by telling audiences what is happening in other parts of the planet, and explaining why, can we truly fulfill our responsibility to help them understand what may be happening right in their own backyards.

(For background on World Press Freedom Day, go here.)