Voice-Over America

The story of Kenneth Tomlinson's efforts to impose his right-tilting version of “balance” on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has incited national controversy. But while that tale is well-known, Tomlinson's malign influence on another respected media institution, the Voice of America (VOA), has received far less attention.

What's happened at the VOA -- which the longtime Karl Rove ally Tomlinson oversees as chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) -- has done considerable damage to the value and credibility of international broadcasting. According to interviews with current and former VOA staffers and e-mails obtained by The American Prospect, under Tomlinson's watch, VOA administrators have pressed the agency's journalists to report pro–White House spin and too often directed them to downplay hard-hitting news in favor of puffery.

In June, for example, when the VOA's experienced TV general assignment reporter proposed an exclusive story covering the trial of a malaria vaccine in Kenya by doctors from Walter Reed Hospital, the network's administrators urged her to cover a joint anti-terrorism exercise in Senegal instead -- even though the VOA's Pentagon radio correspondent was already assigned to do the piece. Malaria kills 3 million Africans every year, even more than the number killed by AIDS, and 80 percent are children. Yet the VOA's acting news director, Ted Iliff, decided that the Walter Reed story would be too costly and was “not compelling” enough to send a reporter overseas. The correspondent was instructed to do the terrorism story -- despite the Pentagon correspondent's warning that she wouldn't get the visuals needed for good television, which turned out to be accurate.

So why was the VOA correspondent sent on a pointless and expensive trip to Senegal? A supervisor told her that David Jackson, the VOA director handpicked by Tomlinson, wanted “to make a good impression on the Pentagon,” VOA sources say.

Morale at the VOA has plummeted, with management reportedly censoring critical stories and pushing material that will please the White House and the Pentagon. Says a former high-level staffer, “What's happening at the CPB [under Tomlinson] has already happened at the VOA -- and it's been done by the same people.” According to Sanford Ungar, who directed the agency from 1999 to 2001, “The vast majority of people in the VOA newsroom believe there is political pressure of the sort that there hasn't been in decades.”

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The Voice of America is one of seven international broadcasting organizations overseen by Tomlinson, who was appointed chairman of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors in August 2002. A former executive editor of The Reader's Digest, he was also appointed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2000 and selected as the CPB's chairman by President Bush in 2003. He will leave that post in September, but his troubled management of international broadcasting will continue.

Contrary to the mistaken assumption of some in Congress and the media, the purpose of the VOA is not to spread propaganda for the U.S. government (that remains the province of FOX News). The 63-year-old agency is supposed to win respect for American values and appeal to its overseas audience -- numbering around 100 million -- by offering a model of honest and credible journalism.

At today's VOA, however, staffers are instructed to avoid original, candid reporting about violence in Iraq in favor of more uplifting news. Current and former staffers say that management demands “positive stories” about the war, while discouraging more realistic ones that might conflict with administration policy.

In his down-home Virginia drawl, the amiable Tomlinson denies imposing any political agenda at the CPB or the BBG. “People like Jim Lehrer would never let that happen,” he told me in a recent interview, praising Lehrer's NewsHour as a model broadcast. Pointing to his background as a VOA director during the Reagan years, when he claims to have resisted political pressures, Tomlinson says, “If I did see any [political interference], I'd be doing something about it.”

Yet critics say he's encouraging politicization with the approval of a board that was meant to prevent such meddling. “What was supposed to be a firewall to protect broadcasters,” says Ungar, “has become a vehicle for political interference.”

Other former and current VOA staffers charge that Tomlinson's own bias is all too obvious. Among the few willing to speak publicly about the agency's troubling direction is retired VOA deputy director Alan Heil Jr., author of the definitive Voice of America: A History. Of the agency's journalists, Heil says, “The most valued asset they had was their credibility, but now there's gross interference in their journalistic integrity.”

Heil says that he has observed a level of daily interference in editorial decisions under Jackson that hasn't existed since the early and mid-'50s. Complaints about political slanting have been detailed in a recent stinging article and letter in Foreign Affairs magazine written by Ungar, as well as in internal e-mails obtained by the Prospect and extensive interviews with current and former VOA journalists.

Jackson dismisses the critics as “people who think editing is censorship.” While he defends the agency's practices as sound journalism, however, it is clear that the warping of the VOA's integrity has deprived overseas audiences of credible news stories. The agency's propaganda slant has resulted in such Pravda-style embarrassments as this recent headline on the VOA Web site: “U.S. Supports Democratic Aspirations of All People in the Middle East.”

In a letter widely circulated within the VOA offices near Capitol Hill, video reporter Carolyn Weaver upbraided Jackson: “There is no doubt that many staff members at VOA believe that news and features have been politicized on your orders, whether explicit or indirect, and that you were carrying out the wishes of the White House and Ken Tomlinson … .”

Tomlinson and Jackson deny conferring about specific stories or taking orders from White House officials, although there is no doubt that Jackson is following the board's wishes. His approach to coverage of the Iraq War has been particularly controversial within the agency, where he stands accused of cutting real war coverage to push good-news gush.

In an e-mail obtained by the Prospect, Jackson urged coverage of expanded cell-phone service in Iraq. “This story offers so many angles,” he wrote. “CELL PHONE SERVICE COMES TO IRAQ. Improvements in telephone service are helping Iraq reintegrate into the international community and paving the way for the new economy … . Source: Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad.” He sent similar messages promoting coverage of improved postal service and teacher training, passing out releases from the White House or the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Jackson says he merely suggested worthwhile story ideas, just as he sends along ideas from The Washington Post or National Pubic Radio. “Nobody accuses me of having an NPR agenda,” he says.

His critics also point to Jackson's insistence on a dubious story about Salman Pak, a reputed terrorist training camp near Baghdad. Prior to the March 2003 invasion and for weeks afterward, some military officials believed the site was linked to al-Qaeda, providing much-needed justification for the war. By May 2003, however, when Jackson began pressing the VOA TV unit for coverage, The New Yorker and others had discredited the story.

“Nobody believed it except the Rush Limbaugh wing, but Jackson kept hounding radio and television people to cover it,” recalls a VOA staffer. Editors sought to wave Jackson off the story, according to agency sources, but he kept demanding that the story be pursued -- even after U.S. military officials in Baghdad no longer claimed any link, and the VOA's reporter on the ground had explained that the al-Qaeda connection was “bullshit.”

To placate Jackson, a VOA reporter managed to find a man on the street who said he worked there as a maintenance man, and who then drove him out to the abandoned camp, claiming to have seen terrorist activities. The reporter reluctantly prepared a script and video story featuring only this one unidentified source, filmed in shadows, but it was deemed “crap” by editors who saw it back in Washington, a source says. But the story wasn't killed until even Jackson's alleged in-house “censor,” Gary Thatcher, agreed that it wasn't worth airing.

Jackson claims he was unaware of the skepticism in VOA and the media about Salman Pak. When he finally learned the story didn't check out, “that was the end of it.”

Yet the VOA under Tomlinson's chosen director, Jackson, does not show an equal determination to cover stories that are at odds with U.S. policy. For instance, in April, a VOA TV reporter got initial approval to look at the rising importance of the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon as a legitimate political force in the wake of the turmoil following the assassination of a former prime minister. The thoughtful piece (the scripts have been obtained by The American Prospect) -- was ultimately killed because it included an interview with Hezbollah's press spokesman in Beirut, even though it also included a clip of President Bush denouncing Hezbollah as a terrorist group. It was first delayed for lacking “balance,” then finally killed for being “too old.” The real reason? “Don't give a microphone to terrorists,” as one VOA staffer puts it.

Jackson simply dismisses the quality of the journalism: “The story wasn't ready for prime time,” even though other editors believed it deserved airing, sources say.

The spurious demand for “balance” affects domestic political coverage, too. Before last year's primary season even began, VOA sources say, political correspondents were urged to avoid “Bush-bashing” interviews when covering Democratic events and to seek out Republican responses, including quoting from local editorials if necessary.

Such incidents have created an atmosphere of self-censorship and partisan pressure, according to Tim Shamble, president of the VOA local in the American Federation of Government Employees. “Reporters are under the impression that they should produce news favorable to the administration and the Iraq War,” he says. Democratic board members have become so concerned, according to BBG sources, that they've pushed the board for an outside review to determine, in part, whether the VOA is complying with its charter

* * *

Under Tomlinson, the VOA has been undermined in other ways. The agency has cut back 24-hour English-language broadcasting by nearly half to save money, thus depriving the world's educated population of American news in the leading international language. Meanwhile, nearly $70 million that the BBG spends annually on ambitious new Arabic-language services -- formerly provided in some degree by the VOA itself -- has largely been wasted on an “embarrassment,” according to Middle East experts such as former Ambassador William Rugh.

As a result of the political meddling and wrongheaded decisions under Tomlinson's board, Heil argues that the nation's flagship broadcast network is being stripped of influence, reach, and credibility. The VOA historian warns, “America is jamming itself.”

Art Levine is a Washington Monthly contributing editor who has also written for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and other national publications.

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