Aug 23, 2007

Vapid, Uninspiring, Banal

David J. Trachtenberg, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, has some constructive criticism today of the main overt U.S. propaganda tool -- the Voice of America.

VOA's purpose goes beyond delivering the news with impartiality and objectivity. VOA's legislative charter requires it to "present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively." To do this, VOA should use its editorials to articulate and explain US foreign-policy decisions.

For nearly 40 years I have listened to America's official "voice" on shortwave radio. VOA editorials are also accessible on the VOA website. Unfortunately, they are mostly vapid, uninspiring news reports posing as editorial opinions "reflecting the views of the United States government." They fail to articulate the rationale and context that would help others understand US policies. ...

Colorless VOA editorials are commonplace. One cites an assistant secretary of State as saying the US "will not fully normalize relations with North Korea until there is 'full denuclearization' on the Korean peninsula." What this means or why the US insists upon it are questions that a foreigner seeking clarity about US policy might be forgiven for asking, but which the editorial does not address. Another VOA editorial on US policy toward Nigeria is nothing more than a news report quoting a State Department official's testimony before Congress.

VOA is no stranger to controversy – the latest involves a short-sighted cutback in worldwide broadcasts. However, the message is just as important as the messenger. And VOA's message is muffled, as if the US itself were merely a spectator in the global war of beliefs. Simply quoting American officials without providing a more robust context for their comments is insufficient to explain US foreign policy to global audiences. It is a detached, achromatic approach that risks conveying neutrality. But the US cannot afford to be neutral for the sake of appearing impartial. What is needed is a more forceful, clear, and compelling articulation of US policy.

VOA's editorial approach appears to be influenced by fear – fear that it may say something provocative, fear that it may seem heavy-handed, fear that its journalistic integrity and credibility may suffer, fear that it may be seen as a propaganda outlet for an administration that is increasingly disliked by the audiences it targets. In this regard, VOA is hurting its own cause, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors – the oversight body responsible for America's international broadcasts – should make fixing the banality of VOA's editorial content a top priority.

It is hilarious that Mr. Trachtenberg has been listening to this crap for "nearly 40 years", and is only now noticing the indisputable shortcomings of the service.

Even the most homesick Americans abroad usually tire of the VOA within a few days and switch to the BBC.

Mr. Trachtenberg might hold some kind of record here for tenacity.

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