News They Can Use

Martha Bayles

Current Issue

In late 2016, an amendment was quietly inserted into the National Defense Authorization Act that would have a devastating effect on the U.S. government's globe-spanning system of foreign-language media. The provision — spearheaded by Ed Royce, then a U.S. representative of California and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — did not appear to raise any objections from congressional Democrats, either because they didn't understand the likely consequences or because they were still reeling from the results of the 2016 election. Neither the press nor the public took much notice.

Royce's amendment abolished the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a nine-member bipartisan body that governed a system of five media networks, each with its own distinctive history and culture. Two of those networks — Voice of America (VOA, founded in 1942) and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (founded in 1985) — are federal entities. The other three — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (founded in 1950), Radio Free Asia (founded in 1996), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (founded in 2004) — are non-profit "grantees" that receive federal funds but are, or have been until very recently, governed by independent bipartisan boards. A fourth grantee, the Open Technology Fund, was set up in 2012 to support citizen efforts to counteract digital censorship, propaganda, and surveillance in authoritarian countries. According to the International Broadcasting Act of 1994, the overriding purpose of this system is "to promote the right of freedom of opinion and expression...in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

The BBG suffered from several structural flaws, but none that justified abolishing it and granting a single individual, especially a political appointee, unlimited discretionary authority in its place. Yet that is what Royce and his allies did. Renaming the system the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), they placed it under the direct command of a plenipotentiary CEO who, despite being confirmed by the Senate, is by law appointed by, and answerable to, the president alone.

At almost any other time, such drastic reform would have triggered an outcry. But the move received little attention, in part because President Trump waited 17 months before nominating Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker, to this new position, and another two years before asking the Senate to confirm him.

During those three and a half years, people throughout USAGM wondered and worried about what sort of leader Pack would be. The answer came right after his June 2020 confirmation, when he abruptly fired every grantee board member, grantee president, and USAGM senior manager who had not already resigned. He then filled the grantee boards with Trump loyalists and made himself chair of them all.

Pack also refused to extend J-1 visas for foreign nationals working for VOA in Washington. For many observers, this crossed a red line. Pack was not just firing reputable Americans likely to land on their feet; he was delivering foreign journalists who had dedicated themselves to furthering America's bedrock principles into the hands of regimes intent upon destroying those principles. At minimum, these men and women would be unable to find work when they returned home. Some would suffer threats, harassment, and violence against themselves and their families. Others would face possible arrest, imprisonment, or death.

Pack's actions met with resistance. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provided legal assistance to VOA employees facing deportation. Members of Congress sent letters of concern. The House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoenaed Pack to appear at a hearing on September 24, which he declined to do. Pack's moves were also challenged in federal district court, first by the fired grantee board members and second by a group of suspended VOA senior managers. On November 20, this second suit resulted in a series of preliminary injunctions that prohibit Pack from making personnel decisions, communicating directly with editors and journalists to influence content, and investigating alleged editorial lapses or breaches of journalistic ethics.

It took eight decades to build up the trust and credibility that the U.S. system of foreign-language media enjoyed until about six months ago. Though the recent court decision provides some relief, it has not prevented Pack from terminating additional employees and appointing a pro-Trump polemicist to the position of VOA director. The system's integrity has taken a beating under Pack — one sufficient to cause much rejoicing among the world's authoritarians.

None of this had to happen. The BBG may have been prone to frequent, often frustrating partisan deadlocks over policy, but those deadlocks conferred certain benefits. Most notably, they functioned as a de facto firewall between the networks and any nakedly partisan attempt to dictate content. And though the Royce amendment did not remove the de jure firewall embedded in the 1994 act, which directs any political body overseeing the system to "respect the professional independence and integrity of...its broadcasting services, and grantees," Pack himself overturned a firewall-reinforcing administrative rule put in place just before he took office.

Turning America's foreign-language media system into a dictatorship is a bad idea no matter who sits in the Oval Office. The first step toward repairing the damage is not to replace Michael Pack with, say, Edward R. Murrow; it's to enact new legislation that will reduce the powers of the CEO, restore the firewall, and reinforce the system's other checks and balances. But to do so, we need to improve our understanding of how the USAGM system does and does not work. And in the long run, we need to bring our current ideal of journalism back down to earth — and our current practice of it up from the gutter.

THE BIRTH OF SURROGATE NEWS

Of the five networks that make up USAGM, the oldest and best known is VOA. Unlike the other four, each of which has a regional focus, VOA runs services throughout the world. It also has not one, but three distinct missions, distilled over long practice into a carefully worded charter signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1976:

  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 opinion on these policies.

The wording of the first mission is non-committal with regard to how much of VOA's reporting should be devoted to news about America, news about the world, or news about the particular countries it serves. Over the years, this non-committal language has allowed both VOA and the grantees to provide high-quality, responsible coverage of events within their target countries. This type of reporting is called "surrogate news," as it consists in reporting news about Country X in the language of Country X to people inside Country X as a substitute — or "surrogate" — for what the media in Country X would cover if they were not censored or otherwise compromised.

Surrogate news grew out of the information wars of the 20th century. The story begins with the British effort to persuade America to enter World War I. To that end, the former British ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, issued a famous piece of propaganda in 1915. The "Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages" contained lurid accounts of German troops criminally attacking Belgian and French women and children. It turned out later that these stories were either fabricated or largely exaggerated. But according to another British official, Lord Bryce's report "swept America" and, together with equally lurid and fabricated Hollywood films, played a significant role in America's entry into the war.

The U.K. and U.S. governments came to regret this blatant disinformation 20 years later. In a famous speech at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, Joseph Goebbels told 700,000 Nazi Party supporters that a key reason for Germany's 1918 defeat was "the stories that were spread throughout the world at the beginning of the war about German soldiers chopping off children's hands and crucifying women." No longer, Goebbels assured the crowd, would Germany be "a defenseless victim of this campaign of calumny." Further cause for regret came shortly afterward, when the first reports of real Nazi atrocities circulating in Europe were met with incredulity — many people assumed that they, too, were fabricated.

The 1930s brought the new medium of radio, which Stalin and Hitler immediately seized upon as a way to spread propaganda into other countries. London followed suit, launching a German-language broadcast in 1938. But Washington held back, in large part because of the American aversion to state-owned media. When America finally did enter the fray, it was not to spread disinformation. In February 1942, the first U.S. broadcast into Nazi Germany began with these words: "We bring you voices from America. Today, and daily from now on, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good for us. The news may be bad. But we shall tell you the truth." The phrase "voice from America" stuck, and VOA was born.

By "truth," that first VOA broadcast did not refer to some transcendent understanding of ultimate reality. Rather, it referred to the modest toil of reporting events in a way that does not erase, exaggerate, or distort them in service of an ideological narrative. Both the British and the American governments did plenty of lying and spying during World War II and the Cold War. But when it came to broadcasting by radio to large overseas populations, they took the high road of refusing to spread blatant falsehoods. This relatively truthful way of countering aggressive Nazi and Soviet lies was often criticized as asymmetrical. Yet in the long run, it prevailed.

In Britain, the proud legacy of those years belongs exclusively to the BBC World Service, still the most widely respected foreign-language media organization in the world. In America, the same legacy has two claimants: VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

RFE/RL was created during the tense interlude between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. In 1946, the U.S. occupation authority in Berlin set up a German service called "Radio in the American Sector" to push back against Soviet propaganda. When that service attracted thousands of listeners in the Soviet sector, the German staff requested a more powerful transmitter to reach all of East Germany. The Americans agreed, and the success of the service provided a model for the creation of RFE/RL in 1950. Soon RFE was offering surrogate news in every corner of communist-ruled Europe while RL did the same in the Soviet Union. Both outlets were heavily subvented by the CIA, but that fact was kept secret; as far as the American public was concerned, "the radios" were a private initiative whose well-equipped headquarters in Munich was funded by contributions from patriotic citizens.

When RFE/RL's CIA backing was exposed in 1967, the network was made into a congressionally funded non-profit — the first of the USAGM grantees — and continued to operate for the duration of the Cold War. The debate over RFE/RL's post-Cold War future was resolved in the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton accepted the invitation of Václav Havel, president of the newly constituted Czech Republic, to move the operation to Prague and, in an ironic flourish, take up residence in the former Communist parliament building atop Wenceslas Square. In 2009, RFE/RL moved to a new building in Prague with state-of-the-art technology. Today, its 27 language services reach 23 countries, including Russia and most of the former Soviet republics as well as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Its best work sets the standard for surrogate news.

THE CASE OF CAMBODIA

After the traumas of U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War and the domestic genocide committed in the 1970s by the fanatical Khmer Rouge, it took several years for Cambodia to draft a constitution acceptable to all sides. When adopted in 1993, the final document guaranteed free and regular elections, universal suffrage, the secret ballot, and the right to organize political parties. But those guarantees have never been upheld by Hun Sen, who has served as prime minister since 1985.

Today, Cambodia is a sham democracy in thrall to the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping. It is also a kleptocracy, where the few enrich themselves by impoverishing the many. The most glaring example is the seizure of land, ostensibly for legitimate-sounding purposes but in blatant disregard of fundamental human rights. Eighty-five percent of Cambodians are subsistence farmers, cultivating plots that have been in their families for generations. In part because the Khmer Rouge destroyed most of the country's property records, it has proven easy for corrupt moneyed interests to drive these farmers off their land — more than 770,000 of them in recent years — without compensation or redress.

It was possible to carry out surrogate-news reporting within Cambodia until very recently. Indeed, when I visited the country in 2015, both VOA and Radio Free Asia (RFA) were present. I arrived wondering if the two services were duplicating each other's efforts, but it soon became clear that they were complementing each other. VOA, which had been in Cambodia continuously since 1962, was devoting two-thirds of its programming to news about America and the world, as well as feature stories about health, technology, and (an audience favorite) the Cambodian diaspora in America. The other third was devoted to Cambodian news, including reporting on the ruling party and the opposition. These proportions were in keeping with the VOA charter. But given the repressive nature of the Hun Sen regime, VOA was sometimes faulted for being too deferential, as it had to soft-pedal its coverage to gain access to government sources.

That was where RFA came in. Present in Cambodia since 1997, RFA had more than a dozen reporters in the field in 2015, filing hard-hitting stories about land grabs, labor conflicts, illegal logging of valuable hardwoods, environmentally perilous dam projects, and other abuses Hun Sen and his cronies were committing across the country. When I interviewed Kek Galabru, the founder of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, she made the point forcefully: "Others get intimidated, but not RFA. RFA is first-choice radio for Cambodians."

Both RFE/RL and RFA were founded long before the digital age, so the word "radio" can be misleading. Today, all five USAGM networks are highly adept at using whatever media platforms — radio, television, satellite, digital — best connect them with a given audience. In fact, because they serve some of the most remote and restricted places on earth, these networks are often more adept at using such platforms than America's commercial outlets, which rarely venture beyond the lucrative markets favored by advertisers and almost never broadcast in languages other than English and Spanish.

In 2015, RFA was still reaching rural villagers in Cambodia through shortwave radio and urban dwellers through a stubbornly independent FM station called Beehive Radio. Yet radio was already losing ground to other media platforms — especially among younger people who, along with their peers in other poor countries, were leapfrogging over landlines and laptops and going directly to mobile devices. Hun Sen learned this the hard way during the 2013 election, when his order to cut off VOA and RFA radio broadcasts was circumvented by a new generation following both networks on Facebook and Twitter. When Hun Sen was implausibly declared the winner, tens of thousands of ordinary Cambodians — not just city dwellers, but also people from the endangered countryside — protested in the streets of Phnom Penh.

Having learned his lesson, Hun Sen spent the next several years gearing up for a Beijing-style crackdown, complete with harsh new restrictions on opposition parties, labor unions, human-rights groups, NGOs, and independent media. When the crackdown came in September 2017, RFA was forced to close its bureau in Phnom Penh. Two RFA journalists were detained on trumped-up charges such as "illegally collecting information for a foreign source." In Cambodia's election the following year, Hun Sen's party "won" by a landslide. Meanwhile, the journalists are still under investigation and face restrictions on their movement, awaiting the ever-receding possibility of a trial likely to result in lengthy prison sentences.

It would be nice to be able to say that Facebook, Twitter, and other digital media have been keeping hope alive. But as noted in a 2019 Freedom House report, "[w]hat was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation." In several small countries, including Cambodia, the report found "three distinct forms of digital election interference," including:

informational measures, in which online discussions are surreptitiously manipulated in favor of the government or particular parties; technical measures, which are used to restrict access to news sources, communication tools, and in some cases the entire internet; and legal measures, which authorities apply to punish regime opponents and chill political expression.

After Hun Sen's crackdown, the single remaining spark of hope is the courage and persistence of exiled Cambodian journalists still working for VOA and RFA. How cruel, then, to see this spark threatened — not by Hun Sen's henchmen, but by a U.S. government official claiming to be a champion of freedom and democracy.

DEBASED PRACTICE, LOFTY IDEAL

All five networks in the USAGM system have resisted Michael Pack's diktats, but they have not done so in unison. Indeed, the complementarity between VOA and RFA I witnessed in Cambodia is rare. More common is intense, sometimes bitter rivalry, especially between VOA and the grantees.

One reason for this rivalry is competition for scarce resources. In the words of a producer familiar with both sides, the system "is like a family raising its children to fight over table scraps." A more important reason is the ambition of each network to claim legitimacy as a respected news organization — and to shift the stigma of being a "government mouthpiece" onto the others. Americans have long distrusted state-owned media and, in the early days, this sentiment fostered a certain defensiveness among Americans working for VOA and RFE/RL. But over time, it also fostered a commitment to journalism that is, in the language of the VOA charter, "consistently reliable," "authoritative," "accurate, objective, and comprehensive."

This commitment is central to surrogate news, which requires large numbers of native speakers — whether émigrés or dissidents — who have the linguistic, cultural, and political skills needed to engage the audience. But native speakers are often so vehemently opposed to the repressive regimes in their homelands that they are willing to broadcast anything, even deceptive propaganda, if they think it will help overthrow those regimes. It thus requires a strenuous effort on the part of their American colleagues to convince native speakers that the best way to fight lies is with good journalism. In the past, it was possible to make this case by pointing to the everyday practices of private-sector news outlets in America. Today, these outlets have declined to the point where it is hard to imagine any émigré or dissident reporter being edified by their incessant mudslinging and virtue signaling.

It is tempting to blame this decline on social-media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, whose business models involve offering free services to users, harvesting users' data, selling that data to whomever will buy it (regardless of whether those buyers are advertisers or hostile foreign powers), and using the information they glean to refine their ability to stoke the audience's negative emotions. But blaming social media is too easy; the decline began half a century ago when, in the wake of the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s, the traditional standards of good journalism in America underwent a sea change.

In the early days of the republic, papers like the Federalist Gazette of the United-States and the Republican National Gazette were fiercely partisan, their editors being on the payroll of politicians and the emergent political parties. The invention of the telegraph and high-speed rotary press in the 1840s turned newspapers into a mass medium offering relatively impartial news to any citizen with a penny to spend. Newspapers in those days committed many excesses, but over time, they developed a set of down-to-earth, workaday standards that gave them the freedom to report fairly and accurately on the high and mighty — and, when necessary, hold them accountable.

It helped that newspapers had a business model that allowed their less-than-profitable news sections to be cross-funded by advertising and subscription revenue grounded in more popular features like sports, gossip, crime, and fashion. A similar pattern occurred with the commercial broadcast networks: They cross-funded their prestigious but less-than-profitable news programs with earnings from their larger and more lucrative entertainment divisions. This model worked so well and for so long that Americans came to take it for granted.

This similarity masks an important disparity between the independence of newspapers and that of broadcast media. Unlike their counterparts in the rest of the world, America's broadcast networks began life not as government entities, but as privately owned companies. Yet because of their presumed power and reach, they were soon placed under the oversight of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), founded in 1934. In keeping with the constitutional prohibition of prior restraint, the FCC exerts its authority by attaching certain requirements to the issuance of broadcast licenses and revoking the license of any station found in violation.

A key FCC rule is a ban on profanity, famously flouted by comedian and countercultural icon George Carlin in his "Seven Dirty Words" monologue. In 1973, a CBS executive and member of the group Morality in the Media heard the monologue while driving with his teenage son and filed a complaint with the FCC. After a drawn-out legal battle, the Supreme Court upheld the profanity rule in 1978. But while Carlin lost the battle, he won the war. It may still be illegal to curse on the free-to-air broadcast networks, but that island of propriety is barely noticeable in the sea of profanity sloshing through the rest of the media.

The next step toward decline was taken by the political right. Since 1949, the FCC had enforced a rule known as the Fairness Doctrine, which required all licensed stations to "devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance" and to facilitate "the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements." That rule was abolished by the FCC under President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Officially, the reason was that the growing number of cable-subscription outlets would achieve the same diversity of viewpoints through competition. Unofficially, the hope was for a corrective to the perceived blue-state bias of the major networks. It was no accident that Rush Limbaugh's career took off the following year.

Another FCC constraint — this time on media ownership — was lifted in the 1990s. In 1992, when Clinton was elected president, there were strict limits on how many radio and television stations a given company could own in one market. By the end of his term in 1996, that number had risen dramatically, and the cap on nationwide ownership had been eliminated. It might seem contradictory to repeal the Fairness Doctrine on the grounds that free-market competition would foster a diversity of viewpoints and then to follow that up by facilitating the dominance of a few giant companies less than a decade later, but amid the euphoria of the immediate post-Cold War years, any action claiming to liberate media from the heavy hand of government was popular with the public.

Today that euphoria is gone, and the media space that once served as an imperfect but mostly civil public forum has split into enemy camps pandering to the prejudices, fears, and anger of a polarized and ill-informed public, all while claiming to uphold the highest standards of journalism. These claims have become quite grandiose. The official motto of the New York Times is still "All the News That's Fit to Print," but the paper ramped it up in a recent brand campaign to "The Truth Is Worth It." The freshly minted motto of the Washington Post, "Democracy Dies in Darkness," implies strongly that the Post is what provides the light.

The grandiosity of these claims reminds us that the older workaday standards of mid-20th-century journalism have been replaced by a loftier ideal: that of the journalist as an anointed secular prophet, speaking truth to power and enjoying a degree of independence far beyond that of most real-life reporters. This Watergate ideal sees the journalist as autonomous, free, and beholden to no earthly power — especially no corporate or government entity.

The Watergate ideal dates back to the heyday of the nation's most prestigious news-media outlets reporting on and interpreting such epoch-making developments as the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, and of course, the Watergate scandal. With regard to the latter, Richard Nixon lamented in a 1974 interview that without the news media's relentless pursuit of the story, Watergate "would have been a blip." That same year, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward published All the President's Men, a best-selling book that was made into a 1976 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. It became one of that year's highest-grossing movies.

Boosted by scores of Hollywood films and taken up as a cause by hundreds of NGOs, the Watergate ideal soon spread to the rest of the world, where it proved genuinely inspiring — especially to young people living under repressive regimes. But it also dealt a bitter blow to America's government-supported foreign-language media.

THE THREE MISSIONS OF VOA — AND USAGM

The more firmly the Watergate ideal took hold among private-sector journalists in America, the more inclined they were to belittle VOA and the grantees. It has become customary to refer to them as "propaganda outlets" and to describe them in a way that is vague, inaccurate, and uncurious. To cite some recent evidence, a 2013 article in the Columbia Journalism Review reported that VOA was mentioned 188 times in major U.S. print media between 2011 and 2012, compared with 2,000 references to CNN in the New York Times alone. And among the few mentions of VOA, only 15% referred to its content.

VOA's reputation improved under Amanda Bennett, a celebrated journalist and editor who led the network from 2016 to 2020, when she resigned rather than be fired by Michael Pack. Bennett worked hard to convince her peers in the Washington press corps of VOA's journalistic integrity — she even hired a few reporters who had left the increasingly shrill commercial networks. One of these, Greta Van Susteren, joined VOA after 14 years at Fox News and six months at MSNBC, commenting on Twitter: "Something is not quite right when to be successful in politics and media you have to be polarizing."

Bennett also defended VOA's record of surrogate news. A proposal frequently put forward by critics of the system calls for a division of labor whereby the grantees would do surrogate reporting and VOA would be confined to the three missions stated in its charter. This proposal is not as straightforward as it sounds, because it interprets the non-committal language of VOA's first mission to mean VOA should report only about America and the world, not about any of the countries where it operates. In other words, the prestige of surrogate reporting, according to critics, should belong to the grantees, while VOA should be relegated to "telling America's story."

Bennett forcefully reminded these critics that, having been created to provide surrogate news to Nazi Germany, VOA has continued to provide such news around the world, from China in the 1980s to sub-Saharan Africa today. Based on my field observations of VOA's Hausa service in northern Nigeria and its Indonesian service; RFE/RL's Russian, Balkan, and Moldovan services; the Middle East Broadcasting Networks' Arabic services; RFA's Mandarin, Cantonese, Tibetan, and Uyghur services; and the Khmer services of both VOA and RFA, I can attest that these services juggle all three missions every day. Furthermore, the audiences for their live call-in shows and interactive websites do not distinguish between the missions. As one RFA host commented, "[w]e get all kinds of questions about all kinds of topics, so we must be ready to answer." To call for a tidy division of labor is to hark back to the days when the system's only platform was the one-way radio broadcast.

Does this mean that VOA is justified in neglecting the second and third missions in its charter? Not at all. The second mission — to share an understanding of "significant American thought and institutions" — used to be part of VOA's programming, in parallel with the libraries, speaker tours, cultural programs, and educational exchanges carried out by the State Department and, until 1999, the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). But that type of programming has mostly disappeared, leaving a vacuum filled, for good and ill, by Hollywood blockbusters and other commercial entertainment.

Even more glaring is VOA's neglect of its third mission — to "present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively" alongside "responsible discussions and opinion." This mission is often referred to as "public diplomacy," but because that term historically referred to the whole range of activities conducted by USIA, a more accurate term is "policy advocacy." There was a time when policy advocacy was understood to be an inescapable part of any government's communication with the world; all that mattered was how effectively it was carried out. At its best, policy advocacy means showing up, listening carefully to a particular audience, and responding to audience members' questions in their own language. It does not mean bloviating in English about the greatness of America.

From the beginning, it was also understood that policy advocacy must be separated from VOA's other two missions — especially its news-reporting mission — by a thick firewall. Unfortunately, VOA's version of a firewall, devised under President Jimmy Carter, involves an office physically removed from the VOA newsroom in which a cadre of VOA journalists, under the direction of political appointees, crank out "editorials" stating the U.S. government's position on various issues.

This arrangement, still in place today, has never worked. The journalists resent having to write the editorials and, depending on the political winds, the editorials themselves veer between bland and polemical. David Ensor, another prominent journalist who served as VOA director before Bennett, had a better idea: hire an editor to run "a commentary and opinion page" featuring "brief summaries and links to opinion pieces from American news outlets across the political spectrum." In a report for the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, Ensor defended this idea: "State-funded media need to separate news from opinion, if anything, even more rigorously than other media...but there is nothing wrong with curating and presenting the opinion of others, if it is done well and clearly labelled."

Yet this idea remains untested. When Bennett took the helm, she and then-CEO John Lansing worked on a similar plan to curate not newspaper editorials, but statements of opinion from U.S. government agencies such as State, Agriculture, Commerce, and Treasury. That plan was not realized for two reasons. First, the VOA employee tasked with executing the plan was fired for misuse of funds. Second, Bennett resigned in anticipation of Pack's taking office. Predictably, Pack's bluster has not removed the taint of propaganda from legitimate policy advocacy, leaving VOA's third and most neglected mission less palatable than ever to American journalists striving to live up to the Watergate ideal.[correction appended] 

Strikingly, the most seasoned and respected reporters I have met overseas reject the Watergate ideal in favor of the more modest, down-to-earth standards that preceded it. Talking with these men and women over the years, I have come to appreciate their realism. One of the best articulations of it came from a broadcast journalist in Jakarta who agreed to share her opinion of VOA's Indonesian service which, at the time, was carried on hundreds of privately owned TV and radio channels across the archipelago. A national celebrity, this woman told me that after several years of putting up with "business pressures to be sensationalistic," she had quit when the new owner, a politician, added "political pressures to observe biases and favor pet causes." Sighing, she reminded me of something that American journalists — and Americans in general — seem to have forgotten: "There will always be pressures. But that's okay as long as you can be 60% independent."

Most Americans would balk at 60% independence, which makes sense in a country that has always respected press freedom. But this does not mean we should follow the Watergate ideal and demand 200% — a standard that cloaks a fair amount of self-delusion.

Whether red-state or blue-state oriented, today's media outlets have strayed far from any recognizable journalistic standards. The hard truth is, there is no place on earth where the Watergate ideal can be realized. Serious journalism can never be autonomous because, despite its vital importance to democratic governance, it almost never makes enough money to be self-supporting. And it cannot "speak truth to power" unless, on some level, it enjoys the support and protection of a power that is willing to listen. America needs to relearn this lesson and share it with the world, in as many languages as possible.

Correction appended: The text originally indicated that Bennett returned to the old editorial system. We regret the error.[return to text]

Martha Bayles is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Her most recent book is Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad (Yale, 2014). She teaches humanities at Boston College.


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