|| VOA stands for Voice of America. It has an office in Washington DC where it assesses world events and news, translates it into over 50 languages, and transmits it to the rest of the world. VOA’s job is to summarize the news and provide its own analysis, and as such it is liable to produce a bias, just as any private media organization contains an editorial bias. But what happens when the bias runs contrary to its goals?
VOA was started with a grand purpose. Here’s what they recall about its origins from the website: VOA began in response to the need of peoples in closed and war-torn societies for a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. The first VOA broadcast originated from New York City on February 24, 1942, just 79 days after the United States entered World War II. Speaking in German, announcer William Harlan Hale told his listeners, "Here speaks a voice from America. Every day at this time we will bring you the news of the war. The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth."
After WWII, it took on a new mission, to provide news to people in a Cold War climate. At its worst, VOA and its sister, RFE were airing of Soviet spokesmen up until it was reformed in 1981. In the hands of the Reagan administration, it was actively used to support resistance movements and organize protests within the Eastern Bloc and was a key element to the Cold War Victory that has gone largely unrecognized by American historians, until Peter Schweitzer documented its role in Reagan’s War.
But VOA has since lost sight of its objectives and reneged on its leadership role, which is to communicate and reach out to oppressed people around the world. One of the reasons for this is that it gives equal time to opposing points of view. This, according to VOA’s charter:
“Whenever VOA reports a charge or accusation made by an individual or a group against another, or presents one side of a controversial issue, a response and/or balancing information will be included in the first use of a news item or feature containing that material. If the balancing information cannot be obtained by the program deadline, or the subject of the charge declines to comment, that will be made clear in VOA's account, and the balancing material will be broadcast as soon as it is available.”
How nice, it sounds so gentlemanly, like fencing with one hand behind your back. The champions of freedom would expect that given equal time, their position will prevail because it is a winning argument. Accounting for equal time sounds like a tactic that gives us the moral high ground as well, which will also help us win over the undecided. It is righteous. It’s the best way to go.
Let’s see where civil competition gets us in a vicious fight for the dominant place in national hegemony.
Right now, Iranian reformer and university professor Hashem Aghajari is on death row in Iran for blasphemy. He told his students that they need not blindly listen to the clerics – they can think for themselves. For this he was sentenced to hang. His students began protesting, and the protests have grown. There are indications the ruling may be overturned, but tensions are high. Will Iran crack down on the student protesters?
This is a fight between the people of Iran. Neither side wants America involved. Both sides of the debate are well known to Iran, but America agrees with one side – freedom of speech, the right to demonstrate, openness. So would it make sense for America to bring BOTH sides of the debate to its airwaves?
Let’s say a cleric from Egypt comes on the air for an hour and explains why Iran is more pious than America, listing reasons such as the willingness to try and execute heretics and blasphemers, its support of Palestine, and its respect of the sovereignty of all Arab nations. Following that, in accordance with VOA’s charter, VOA would have to answer this charge. It would have to argue that perhaps America is in some way more pious than Iran, and defend its unpopular foreign policy in terms of respecting the sovereignty of other nations.
It’s unlikely that an Arab reading an American written response to this argument would be worth listening to for Iranians. It might even insult a lot of Iranians. It’s a bad strategy, one that would allow Anti-American spokesmen to choose the terms of debate by discussing topics of their choice. They, not VOA, have the right to decline to address VOA’s arguments. They have the initiative. Remember VOA’s charter? “If the balancing information cannot be obtained by the program deadline, or the subject of the charge declines to comment, that will be made clear in VOA's account.”
How often do you suspect America declines to comment? Woefully infrequently, which is unexpectedly unfortunate.
If Americans attack the validity of anti-blasphemy laws, America will be seen as trying to impose its hypocritical, immoral views upon the pious people of Iran. To argue this point would be to walk right into a trap. Many writers of VOA are not savvy enough to avoid this trap, for a variety of reasons that cannot be remedied immediately. So what needs to change is the “equal time with terrorists” clause.
What VOA can and should say to Iranians is that in America, people have the right to demonstrate, and criticize their President. They have the right to be heard. And that sometimes their leaders listen, and sometimes they don’t. But when VOA is being called “Voice of the Taliban” you know that the wrong message is being aired.
In many closed societies, public demonstrations of dissent are illegal and put down by force. The big secret is that dictators fear free and open criticism because it is the first and last stage of their decline. To a dictator, a public protest is tantamount to being held at the point of a gun. They respond in kind.
Would-be protesters are thus threatened with death if they speak out against the tyranny they are subjected to. Many times, this is enough to keep them silent. Voices of dissent must come from somewhere else. Hence, VOA.
This isn’t just about the Middle East. But many think that people of the Middle East are justified for hating us. It’s just not true. The problem is, leaders of the Middle East have a big stake in demonizing the US.
They sponsor an unmitigated stream of news topics like “American Imperialist Infidels.” And “The Elders of Zion” and then they claim that Bush is in league with the Zionists. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they sponsor extremist Islamic scholars who teach hate. They do it to distract attention from their own failed leadership. Unlike America, there’s no media balance whatsoever in these nations.
The media has convinced many that America is “unilateral,” “belligerent” and “arrogant”. But it is kept in check by a free press, which strives for balance and champions truth before substance – because most American people lose interest in lies and trash. The media here is not beholden to government, and this sets it apart from the state run media in the countries VOA is supposed to target.
VOA has never won a propaganda campaign with mixed messages. While the need for sensitivity to a nation’s internal issues is paramount, VOA’s content cannot carry water for anti-American values.
VOA has lost its purpose. It does not realize that it can’t win arguments when the enemy decides on the boundaries of the discourse. And it is truly sad because the stakes are so high. The people of the Middle East, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and yes, even China could gain much if they were properly supported and informed by VOA. Knowledge is power; VOA is empowerment for the people.
Dictators use lies and rhetoric, they mischaracterize history and slander the US. VOA must combat those lies. But it’s difficult to combat a lie that you yourself repeat.
In warfare, you take the battle to them. If you let the enemy choose the where, when, and how the war will be fought, you will lose. That’s why America has lost the propaganda war with the Middle East. People are too busy arguing over who is pious, who is the infidel, and who gets the blame for the evil in the world.
The point of VOA is not to pit one nation’s piety against another, but to intensify the desire for free speech and the right to demonstrate. It should also bolster nationalism. National pride is the only way for the people of war torn countries to overthrow their dictators and build a better land for their descendants. VOA should be careful to do more than distinguish between a love of country and love of dictator – it should present these loves as diametrically opposed. VOA should get people to love their country, and give them hope for change – and turn this into the motivation to rally and demonstrate for better leadership, leadership that they deserve.
VOA should argue from this point of view. It should point out that the lack of dissenting thought is what justifies VOA’s presence on the airwaves. It should not allow spokesmen that do not acknowledge this to speak on its programs. Instead, all spokesmen ought to come from the perspective that says “You need to hear the real truth, the one that your country is keeping away from you.”
A postmodern education will give you a real pessimistic view of “the truth.”
Right? Truth? What truth? According to the postmodernists, there is no truth. However, you can get gradations of truth, and you can try to inform or try to misinform. So let’s make something real clear:
A nation that controls the media directly, and silences political opponents with laws, abductions and torture cannot be trusted. Egypt. Syria. Lebanon. Saudi Arabia. Iran. Iraq. North Korea. Cuba. There are many countries engaged in this practice. America sets itself apart from them, and condemns their regimes.
These are not nations America should treat with kid gloves. Until VOA can compete with this monopolization of thought, it has no business undermining its own arguments. VOA should present a message to the people within the context of this argument:
“People of -this country-. We are aware of your ongoing crisis, and we are here to tell you why you are impoverished, and why you are in fear. Your totalitarian leadership is misleading you. It is trying to deceive you. It has lied and slandered America in your media today, and this is the rest of the story…”
Is this too strong a sentiment? Of course not! The people there are well aware that they are being lied to and propagandized! They just don’t know in what ways or to what extent! How can they make informed decisions with only half of the information? Propaganda is the key reason VOA exists, it should speak within the context of its mission. VOA has the power to peacefully destabilize rulers of nations that are suffering from too much stability. VOA should present the view that freedom indeed works.
By failing to foster openness overseas, VOA has abandoned oppressed people around the world and opened the US up to criticism and terrorism. Americans must stand their ground, in defense of freedom, justice, and truth, for therein is the source of America’s success, and the answer to the threats that face us.
The information age is changing the world. Oppression and domination of many by few is being laid bare us to see, and it is ugly. For some reason, we have agreed to pay dictators, their smooth talking ambassadors and UN kleptocrats in cash and turn the other way when they abuse human rights. Why do we accept their brazen inhumanity?
This nonsense has got to stop.
President Bush and his cabinet would like to see an end to tyrannical oppression in the 21st Century. We as a nation need to follow his lead in condemning Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein. We should use our power to do the people of these nations a favor and rid them of their irresponsible, brutal and illegitimate rogue leaders. We should also speak out against Communist China, theocratic Iran, and dogmatically Wahabbist Saudi Arabia.
It is not for our own glory or sense of righteousness that we do this. We are burdened with the moral responsibility to aid our fellow man. America, the leader of the free world, has been saddled with the duty of leading this change. We cannot shirk our duty. The Voice of America must first be clear on objective, and then it must be heard.
Let the dictators know that their days are numbered.
God Bless America.