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Radio static: The controversy at the Voice Of America

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 23, 2002

The Voice of America charter calls for its broadcasts to not only be a "consistently reliable and authoritative" news source for its listeners but to also "present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively." Edward R. Murrow, the noted CBS news broadcaster, who became head of VOA's parent agency, the United States Information Agency, used to insist: "To be persuasive, we must be credible."

USIA no longer exists, having been replaced by a Broadcasting Board of Governors that is even now dominated by Clinton holdovers.

The unfortunate and unfair departure of Bob Reilly as the VOA's director demonstrates why it is time for the Congress and the Administration to reexamine the so-called reforms of the United States' international broadcasting operations that were instituted during the administration of President Clinton.

The problem has its origins in an effort to streamline the United States' international broadcasting operations in the post-Cold War era. During the Reagan and Bush years, the director of the Voice of America was a presidential appointee who required approval from the United States Senate, which ensured that the person holding the position had the power to implement the vision of his administration.

However, the end of the Cold War led to a push to reduce the size and scope of the VOA and other international broadcasting operations of the Federal government. A Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was created, giving the commissioners wide authority over the various broadcast entities such as the VOA. Now, the director is at the mercy of the board, and it remains a board dominated by Clinton-Gore holdovers because the Democrat-controlled Senate has refused to provide timely consideration to Bush appointments.

The nine board members take it upon themselves to poke their nose wherever they feel like, making it "Management by the Marx Brothers" in their haphazard, anything goes style, although the results are no laughing matter. The board, does what it likes, having made it difficult for Reilly to set a firm agenda for VOA and for the Bush Administration to have its wishes respected. When President Bush came into office, the Democratic director of VOA remained in office at first, later to be replaced by a career interim director.

Writing in The New York Times on September 20th, columnist William Safire charged in a column titled "Equal Time for Hitler" that the United States government needed to put forward a stronger message to the Middle East. But the leadership needed to do that was not present because, as Safire noted, the BBG chairman was nothing more than an "amiable" political appointee who had raised money for Al Gore and was overdue to be replaced. "The Voice of America leadership is even more vacant," he added.

Safire wrote that soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, an interview with a leader of "Egypt's largest Islamist group" was broadcast by VOA without identifying that his group had killed 58 foreign tourists and 4 Egyptians four yeas ago.

The VOA news director conceded that the terrorist should have been identified but maintained interviews with terrorists would continue to be done to ensure balance. [Even though the VOA charter says its mission is to present "responsible discussions and opinion" on United States policies.]

Then, soon after Safire's column appeared, the VOA aired, over the objections of the State Department, an interview with Mullah Mohammad Omar, a Taliban leader. New York Times writer Felicity Barringer noted in an October 8, 2001 article that anti-Taliban emigres viewed the VOA's Pashto-language broadcasts to be "the Voice of the Taliban." (Pashto is spoken in Central Afghanistan.)

After spending years writing editorials and producing VOA programs, Bob Reilly became the new director of VOA, intent on balancing the demands for journalistic objectivity with putting America's best foot forward. There was no more "equal time or Hitler."

I have known Bob Reilly for many years, and I know him to be a fine gentleman and conscientious public official. He has a background in the conservative cause, having served as President of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which promotes the works of conservatism's leading thinkers. Reilly had worked at the United States Information Agency and in the White House Office of Public Liaison handling foreign policy and national security issues in the early 1980s.

Reilly wrote in The Washington Times on January 28th: "One of our key responsibilities is to promote and provide the free flow of information by broadcasting comprehensive, objective, and balanced news." However, Reilly argued that an equally important mission of VOA is to "reveal the character of the American people" in that we can live in a democratic-republic and discipline ourselves to use our freedom wisely. Reilly raised questions about the image -- a false one -- that many foreigners receive of the United States from pop culture.

Also important, said Reilly, is that the VOA use what amounts to an audio "editorial page" to explain U.S. policies clearly for friends and enemies alike to understand. The board constantly countermanded Reilly's objectives and those of the Bush Administration, even deciding to practically shut down broadcasting in Latin America without consulting Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, who argued it was important to maintain a U.S. presence on the airwaves there.

A consolidation plan promoted by the BBG brought matters to a head. The VOA can broadcast into countries that would shut out Radio Free Asia because its programming actively attempts to undermine the government. By lumping the programming together, the BBG would have created diplomatic problems.

But that's not all, folks. For a powerful member of the BBG is Norman Pattiz, the founder and chairman of Westwood One Broadcasting, who views pop entertainers (recording `artists' is simply not an appropriate term ) such as Britney Spears and Eminem as potential cultural warriors who can convert Arab youth to the post-modern American Way providing that they perform well in focus group tests. Pattiz was either exhibiting sheer naivete or, more likely, avaricious opportunism when he made the astonishing assertion in a New Yorker profile that "it was MTV that brought down the Berlin Wall."

Pattiz spearheaded an initiative called "Radio Sawa" to provide MTV-style programming in Arab countries. Pattiz even had placed former associates of his at Westwood One to advise VOA on programming, raising the question whether there would be a conflict of interest should Westwood One ever decide to start their own rock broadcasts in the countries where Radio Sawa broadcast.

Reilly did not disagree with the idea of experimenting with some rock programming, but he absolutely disagrees with the idea that VOA should become the MTV of the United States government. And any social issue conservative should likewise be outraged at this mindless idea. Many Middle Eastern Muslims hate the United States because of the perceived hegemony of its pop culture.

Events came to a head when the newly installed, Bush-appointed chairman of the BBG, Ken Tomlinson, asked for Bob Reilly's resignation. He received it. But it does not say much for the Administration or Tomlinson that they did not stick up for their own director, but simply bent to the will of this Clinton-dominated board. Bob Reilly was selected and vetted by the Bush White House. Then, the Clinton-dominated Board forces him to resign and hires a replacement who was neither vetted nor nominated by the White House.

For the first time in VOA's 60 year history, the President of the United States did not select the VOA director. Is it any wonder that our public diplomacy in the Middle East is failing to send a clear message to the region when this holdover board can hijack the Bush Administration's message and appointees, replacing it with the programs and personnel that they favor?

I was among the first to sign a letter addressed to Karl Rove expressing the opposition of conservatives to the BBG's decision to fire Bob Reilly. We also register our unwillingness to have the BBG transform VOA broadcasting into a "music, entertainment, and news" format in which the values of Madonna displace those of Murrow. There is talk in Congress about slashing VOA funding unless satisfactory explanations are given as to why the BBG actively worked to thwart Bob Reilly from carrying out the Bush Administration's agenda and then fired him.

It's bad enough that a committed journalist like Bob Reilly was considered to be the management problem when it is the board. It's even worse that this board that does not reflect Administration policy. And if Mr. Pattiz, as he admitted to The New Yorker, thinks that the "religious extremists" in the Middle East will not like his ideas for programming, then I've got news for him. He's aroused the enmity of many 'responsible' social conservatives in the United States too and he has only started to hear from us.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation in Washington.

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