Voice of America needs English

Posted: Sep 03, 2007 12:00 AM

If you're like most Americans you probably don't spend much time thinking about Voice of America (VOA), our country's international broadcasting arm. But you should, for at least three reasons. First, it is responsible for presenting the policies of the United States to the world. Second, you pay for it. Third, the organization currently faces significant challenges relating to its content and oversight.

According to its 1976 charter VOA has a three-fold purpose: to serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news; to represent America by presenting a balanced and objective projection of significant American thought and institutions; and to present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively.

In recent times, VOA has failed to meet all three of these objectives. Consider the case of Mullah Mohammad Omar. On September 21, 2001, just ten days after the 9/11 attacks, VOA intended to air excerpts of an interview with the Taliban leader. After various State Department officials objected, VOA pulled the program. This proved to be a temporary flirtation with wisdom, however, as four days later VOA changed course and ran the interview. Here's a sample of what Mullah Mohammad Omar had to say on American airwaves:

America controls the governments of the Islamic countries. The people ask to follow Islam, but the governments do not listen because they are in the grips of the United States. If someone follows the path of Islam, the government arrests him, tortures him or kills him. This is the doing of America. If it stops supporting those governments and lets the people deal with them, then such things won't happen. America has created the evil that is attacking it."

Or consider the broadcasts of VOA-Persian, a network whose reach includes Iran. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), writing in a letter to President Bush in February 2007, detailed various ways in which VOA-Persian distorts or opposes U.S. policies—and in some cases gives voice to America's enemies. For example, Coburn noted that after the president's State of the Union address a VOA-Persian anchor—that is, a person whose salary is paid by American taxpayers—said that "America opposes the president." Coburn goes on to say that the anchor offered the comment without a poll or "any other [factual] basis." Coburn also said that he discovered that VOA-Persian "gave a significant amount of airtime to guests and content that undermine U.S. policy on Iran, often even supporting the propaganda of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Is the war against Islamic radicalism really not difficult enough that we need to serve as a de facto marketing firm for our enemies?

Like all non-military U.S. public diplomacy broadcasting, VOA falls under the purview of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The Board was originally formed to insulate VOA from direct political influence so that it could pursue neutrality in its programming. But just like everything else in Washington, the Board consists of political appointees and so political motivations inevitably impact VOA. This is an unavoidable problem, one that the government must navigate by creating a system that distributes power between the Board and VOA and provides for proper oversight of the entire operation.

Sounds easy enough, right?

Well, the problem is that the Board cannot properly oversee VOA because— get this—the agency does not produce English transcripts of its broadcasts. Let me say that another way: The agency tasked with overseeing the broadcasts that American taxpayers pay to create cannot do its job because the broadcasts aren't translated into our native language. Is this not akin to asking the I.R.S. to monitor the tax system using 1040s written in hieroglyphics?

If sunshine is the best disinfectant, then common sense is often the best antidote for what ails various Washington agencies. Accordingly, VOA should begin translating a significant number of its broadcasts into English immediately. It's just common sense. Doing so will not only allow the Board to exercise proper oversight over the VOA; it will also enable an army of journalists and bloggers to examine the content of VOA broadcasts. Knowing that the critical gaze of the American taxpayer is upon them cannot help but make VOA decision-makers clean up their act—something that's long overdue.