Of the various ironies besetting U.S. foreign policy at the moment, one is both particularly acute and little recognized: even as the realization grows that the international image of the United States is in steep decline, the country's best instrument of public diplomacy, the Voice of America (VOA) broadcast service, is being systematically diminished.
In 63 years of operation, the VOA has been a widely respected brand name, symbolizing honest international radio journalism with an American twist. But now, its bureaus in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo have been closed, and those in Moscow and London reduced in size. VOA news broadcasts in standard American English, which ran 24 hours a day during the 1990s, have been cut by almost half. (In contrast, the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] has two round-the-clock streams.) In far-flung spots around the world, it is now easier to get government-funded radio news in English from Australia or New Zealand -- or even China, Germany, or various religious broadcasters -- than from the United States. Whereas the VOA's television programs have been expanded in some languages, such as Farsi, those in English have been substantially curtailed. Meanwhile, programming in Arabic and other critical languages is being replaced with commercial-style shows featuring pop music and brief news bulletins. Political interference in programming decisions, thought to be a thing of the past, has returned. Congressionally mandated editorials expressing the official views of the U.S. government, previously set apart, now blend into or trump objective news reports. Dispirited by the trend, some of the network's most senior and most widely respected correspondents have retired.
These developments are in part the unintended consequences of a reform enacted by Congress almost a decade ago. In the late 1990s, the quasi-independent U.S. Information Agency (USIA), long the home of the VOA, was folded into the State Department, with the noble goal of saving money and unifying the government's message overseas. But the restructuring placed the VOA under the ambit of