There has been much discussion in recent months about improving U.S. public diplomacy. Officials, analysts and commentators routinely talk about “the battle of ideas” or “the struggle for hearts and minds” or “information warfare.”
Often the Voice of America gets dragged into these discussions in a way that leaves us a little uncomfortable. Just this week, writing in the Wall Street Journal Asia, two State Department officials triggered such disquiet with an item headlined “Information Warfare Matters.”
The article by Christian Whiton and Kristofer Harrison, expressing their personal opinions, argues the U.S. government needs to create a new agency to manage what they call the “nonviolent practice of political warfare” – specifically to confront jihadist ideology.
And here is where they got our attention. They believe, as they put it, that “U.S. government-supported broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, should be adapted to this mission.”
The problem with this proposal is the same we have had with many others in the past: they are based on the premise that VOA is some sort of U.S. government mouthpiece.
So let us repeat a few observations. First, it is true that VOA is financed by the US government. But look at VOA’s Journalistic Code. The Code says specifically: “VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government.”
Similarly, the notion that any government agency can tell VOA what to say is false. As the VOA Charter says, “VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society…”
Yes, VOA offers news about the United States and US government policies. But so do other international broadcasters. Why? The answer is obvious: the United States is a global power with global interests that no responsible news organization, American or non-American, can ignore. Our research also shows many of our audiences want to hear about American culture, life, history, youth and more.
But our emphasis will always remain on offering reliable and authoritative news --- that is, credible news. If our audience perceives we are more interested in pursuing a political or ideological agenda and not playing it straight in our reporting or in our selection of news items, we will lose our credibility. And soon thereafter we will lose the audience itself.