Journalists refuse to put out propaganda for Voice of America

Voice of America journalists who are fighting to maintain their editorial independence are now at odds not only with Congress, but also with their own union.
The union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1812, recently endorsed a bill that would change language in the charter for the 72-year-old news agency and require it to actively support American policy. That came as a surprise to some Voice of America employees, who said the legislation would make them mouthpieces for government policy. They want the union to withdraw its letter of support.
“A lot of us would welcome change and reform, but not at the cost of undermining V.O.A.’s journalistic credibility,” said Jim Malone, a senior national correspondent at the government-financed news agency who is not a member of the union.
In its letter, union leaders said the agency’s managers had lost sight of their mission and were trying to turn the “V.O.A. into something they envisioned as a global variant of CNN.”
“In the end, some of the currently entrenched senior management represent a far greater threat to V.O.A.’s journalistic independence, indeed to the very existence of the V.O.A.,” the union wrote.
The danger, said the union’s president, Tim Shamble, is that the government could withdraw its financial support if the agency continued its current course. The federation represents about 40 percent of all Voice of America workers and 11 percent of the journalists in the central news division.
Even journalists who are not members of the union, like Mr. Malone, are lining up against it. “Union leaders blundered by ignoring legitimate concerns that the bill would turn journalists into policy promoters,” he said.
The bill was approved in April by the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is sponsored by the panel’s chairman, Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California, and its ranking member, Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York. The full House is scheduled to vote on it after the Fourth of July recess. The Senate is working on a similar bill to overhaul the V.O.A. and four other government-financed broadcasters like Radio Free Europe.
The House bill would revise the language of the Voice of America charter to state explicitly that the agency has a role in supporting American “public diplomacy” and countering propaganda from countries like Russia and China. The charter, signed in 1976, now states that the “V.O.A. will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. V.O.A. news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.” But, it adds, “V.O.A. will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinions on these policies.”
Voice of America programs — more than 70 for television and 200 for radio — are broadcast in 45 languages, and it has affiliates around the world.
The issue has been building for some time, and the changes included in the bill are supported by some prominent journalists like Walter Isaacson, a former chairman of CNN and editor of Time magazine who once led the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, has said the board — which has jurisdiction over the V.O.A. and the other government-financed agencies — was dysfunctional. A recent audit found numerous problems with the board’s use of contractors along with $3.5 million in questionable costs. The agency’s budget is about $200 million annually.
The House bill would turn the board into an advisory body and create a position for a full-time chief executive to run the agency day to day.
Dozens of journalists at the news agency said that the legislation represented a threat to its existence, and that they were angry union leaders issued the endorsement without consulting members.
“I didn’t see anything that went out to members telling us that they were doing this,” said one union member who asked not to be quoted by name in criticizing the legislation because she did not have permission to speak on the record. “It gives the impression that we as journalists support this bill, and we do not.” She said she did not find out about the union’s support until the Foreign Affairs Committee posted the letter of support on its website.
Mr. Shamble denied that account. He said the decision to support the bill was made by the union’s executive committee after consulting members. The union also presented its positions at meetings, he said.
“Is it possible that people still didn’t know our position after all that?” Mr. Shamble asked. “I suppose, but I don’t know what else we could do.”
Mr. Shamble said he declined an invitation to address the matter before journalists in the newsroom because he did not want to discuss union business in front of the agency’s management. He said the union had fought to protect jobs and against efforts to rescind financing for the agency, adding that he shared concerns about some of the language in the bill.
“But I think we can work with Congress to tweak the language to fix this stuff,” he said. “The larger issue is reforming the V.O.A.”
Many journalists at the agency agree that changes are called for, and share frustrations about the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ lack of direction. But they disagree with the union that legislation is the way to fix the problems.
Carolyn Presutti, a Washington correspondent, said the fight was obscuring the larger issue: keeping Voice of America journalists from becoming agents of American policy.
“I didn’t come here to be a public relations person,” said Ms. Presutti, who is not a union member. “The idea that I have to support the positions of whoever is in the White House is not journalism. This is bigger than the union. We are fighting for our existence.”

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