03 November 2010

Firewall or Political Football?

(This is the third excerpt from my remarks to John Brown’s Georgetown University class.)

The Broadcasting Board of Governors is supposed to protect journalists at VOA from being buffeted by political interference by acting as a “firewall.” As a BBG factsheet states, “The firewall safeguards the ability of BBG entities to develop programming that reflects the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism, free of political interference.”

But what if a member of Congress, exercising legislative prerogatives, holds up the confirmation of the entire slate of nominees for a new Board? This actually happened – and the legislator in question was dissatisfied with the tenor of some VOA broadcasts.

Now this legislator would probably argue that his interest was motivated by the need for “Congressional oversight” of a government agency receiving government funding.
But it was viewed in some quarters as political interference. Here is some language supporting that perspective from a Congressional Report on U.S. International Broadcasting issued earlier this year:

“Congress originally established the Board (BBG) in the mid-1990’s to ensure our broadcasting operations were free from political pressures from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. After 15 years, however, it has become clear that the BBG, rather than functioning as a political “firewall,” has become a political “football” as Board membership nominations have become enmeshed and blocked due to partisan politics.”

The report specifically responded to one criticism made of certain U.S. international broadcast programs:

“Critics note that some BBG entities have allowed individuals opposed to U.S. policy to air their views without any rebuttal or balanced context. While allowing such vitriol to go uncontested is clearly poor journalism, such occurrences have been the rare exception, not the norm. Nonetheless, in order for the BBG to be credible to its audience and draw in not just those who already agree with U.S. policy, its networks must be permitted to present both sides of an argument.”

Fortunately, we have a new BBG Chairman, Walter Isaacson, who I believe, based on his early comments, is a staunch advocate of solid journalism and keeping VOA at arm’s length from politics.

(Next: the new BBG Chairman speaks out)

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