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JUST THE FACTS
David S. Jackson
Sanford Ungar's allegation of politicization at the Voice of America (VOA) ("Pitch Imperfect," May/June 2005) is filled with errors and unsupportable accusations. He charges, for example, that employees have "tried to fend off directives from VOA director David Jackson and other political appointees, who have suggested that the network report more favorably on the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq and the Middle East." This is simply not true. Anyone who watches, listens to, or reads the VOA's reporting can see that our balanced, objective, and comprehensive reporting fully lives up to our congressionally approved charter. If I had made such demands, it would be easy to prove. The reason Ungar cites no supporting memos or statements is that there are none.
Ungar goes on to say that editors "have repeatedly been asked to develop 'positive stories' emphasizing U.S. success stories in Iraq, rather than report car bombings and terrorist attacks." Again, not true. What I have done with regard to our Iraq coverage is the same thing most editors with correspondents in Iraq have done: pushed our people to go beyond the wire-service stories to tell our audiences what else is going on in Iraq. As a result, our coverage has included the daily bombings as well as -- not instead of -- more in-depth, enterprising stories.
Ungar also charges that VOA editors were "instructed to remove from the VOA Web site photographs of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison." That is also not true. Here are the facts: after two weeks of the VOA's covering that story and posting (and broadcasting) the photos that were being leaked, I became concerned about the effect of such sexual content on intended listeners, viewers, or readers whose cultures are even more sensitive than ours to such material. I issued the following guidelines: all of the photos we had used would remain on our Web sites, and those photos could be used in future broadcasts and Web postings as needed, but no new photos should be broadcast or posted on-line unless cleared in advance. As it turned out, many other news organizations issued similar guidelines at about the same time, all apparently motivated by similar concerns.
Ungar goes on to charge that "VOA management has objected to stories quoting Democratic politicians or newspaper editorials critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy." This is an outrageous falsehood. As Ungar well knows, the Board of Broadcasting Governors that oversees the VOA is equally divided between Democratic and Republican presidential appointees. It would be a violation of both their responsibilities and mine to allow such political meddling. As a journalist with 30 years of experience in the private sector (including 23 years with Time magazine), I would not engage in such actions, and they would not allow it.
Finally, Ungar writes that the former newsroom director was "punished for refusing to make the daily news report more overtly sympathetic to" President George W. Bush. This charge is also not true and is unsupportable by the facts.
DAVID S. JACKSON is Director of the Voice of America.
THE REAL DEAL
Kenneth Y. Tomlinson
I have worked in four administrations, and this is the first time there has been no attempt from the White House, the National Security Council, or the State Department to interfere with the programming broadcast by our professional journalists.
As for VOA director David Jackson, his lengthy career as a Time magazine foreign correspondent speaks for itself -- and dwarfs the credentials of his critics. I have yet to see any case in which his news decisions were dictated by anything other than professionalism.
As much as I respect Sanford Ungar, he should deal with specific case histories as opposed to general and unsubstantiated charges.
Al Hurra television and Radio Sawa have been tremendous successes. Professional audience research conducted by respected polling concerns in the region put the combined audience for Radio Sawa and al Hurra at more than 30 million people, a strong majority of whom consider the news credible. But it seems to be that the more the stations succeed, the more hard-core critics who doubted and dismissed them from the beginning ignore the evidence of their success.
KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON is Chair of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors.
In his recent article about the VOA, Ungar makes a reference to Radio Free Asia (RFA) that might be construed negatively. In its nine years of operation, RFA has steadfastly followed the principles of good journalism. Its central purpose is to broadcast news and information about its target countries that is blocked by government censorship or the denial of free expression.
At first, Asian and some American news organizations were skeptical about RFA's intentions. But now RFA stories are regularly cited and treated as though RFA were a wire service similar to the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse. RFA knows that credibility depends on strict adherence to good, factual, fair journalism.
Ungar's brief reference to RFA could leave the impression that it is the recipient of lavish appropriations from Congress. That is certainly not the case, and its barely adequate funding is spent wisely. Just ask the Chinese listeners who regularly thank RFA for informing them about news events in their own country.
RICHARD RICHTER is President of Radio Free Asia.
FAIR AND BALANCED?
Ungar's factual account of the severe cuts in the VOA's news and information programs in English and other languages should not be ignored by those concerned about America's image abroad. Nor should the VOA's reputation for credibility, earned over six decades of broadcasting to overseas audiences, be dismissed by those engaged in public diplomacy, as it has been by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and by the VOA's management in its attempt to skew the news.
Sadly, the demeaning of the VOA is continuing. The latest move is a plan to close the central newsroom during the overnight shift (midnight to 7 a.m.) and outsource the shift's news-writing jobs to freelancers among British, Australian, and American expatriates in Hong Kong, who then would electronically transmit the material back to an editor in Washington.
PHILOMENA JUREY was the Voice of America's White House correspondent during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations.
I have never questioned David Jackson's credentials as a journalist, only his judgment and the politicized manner in which he is directing the VOA. Many of his colleagues there have the impression that he fears he will lose his job if he is not sufficiently responsive to pressures to make its coverage consistently favorable to the Bush administration and its policies. After reading his letter, I have to believe he is either disingenuous or surprisingly unaware of the impact his repeated interventions have had on this fine journalistic institution and its beleaguered staff.
At his request and that of Kenneth Tomlinson, I will cite a few of the many available examples that are widely known and resented:
On November 14, 2002, just two months after becoming director, Jackson sharply criticized the VOA news division for a story quoting then Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.Dak.), who charged that the Bush administration's war on terrorism had failed.
In August 2003, he chastised the news division for not reporting on a document, apparently passed to him by the National Security Council but carrying no attribution, detailing administration successes in Iraq 100 days after the invasion.
On November 17, 2003, Jackson objected to a report that $9 million had been spent on the security and 5,000 policemen deployed for President Bush's visit to London, saying VOA listeners had no interest in such details.
During an escalation of pressure in January 2004, he ordered the news division to stop reporting from Baghdad on car bombings and terror attacks, urging that it instead do "positive stories" emphasizing U.S. successes in Iraq. (Eventually, after being resisted by editors, this order was rescinded.) In a series of internal e-mails during January and February of that year, Jackson systematically passed along memos from the White House and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad reporting, for example, that the Iraqi postal service had resumed operation and would issue stamps without Saddam Hussein's picture, that cell-phone service was being introduced in Iraq, and that thousands of Iraqi teachers were being trained to return to the classroom. "This story offers so many angles," he wrote glowingly in the e-mail about cell-phone service. Jackson insisted that these press releases from the CPA did not require independent verification by VOA reporters on the ground in Iraq.
In April 2004, he ordered the news division to produce a story critical of Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who was traveling with ousted Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide between Africa and Jamaica. The same month Jackson suggested minimizing the well-documented relationship between the Bush administration and the Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi after U.S. forces raided his headquarters and confiscated documents; Jackson specifically protested a story that described Chalabi as "a favorite of the Pentagon."
In May 2004, he objected to a story on the VOA's central news file that quoted a New York Times editorial critical of the Bush administration.
After the Indian Ocean tsunami at the end of 2004, Jackson passed along a State Department press release about U.S. aid efforts, with the note, "Please make sure we include this in all our coverage." Beginning on the day of President Bush's second inauguration, the sharply reduced VOA English-language service was ordered to conduct daily interviews with officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development, featuring the agency's work around the world, especially in Iraq.
And so it goes. On April 22 of this year, in a meeting with the VOA division directors, Jackson ordered that the U.S. government's position be included "in all stories" in all languages on any issue, warning that if this did not happen, the number of broadcast editorials reflecting U.S. policy would have to be increased. Five days later, his deputy, Ted Iliff, sent out an e-mail complaining that "we continue to see stories that fail to report the U.S. position in correspondent reports. ... Be sure that for any story you produce, it includes a reference to U.S. policy or reaction as necessary for the story."
I am pleased to have Tomlinson's respect, and the feeling has long been mutual. That is why I gladly agreed to meet with him when he was first named chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and he sought my advice on the VOA. (His recent ideological moves at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where he holds another federal appointment as chair, do give me pause, however.) One interesting implication of his letter is that there was political interference with the VOA during the Reagan administration, when Tomlinson served briefly as director. There was no such interference from the Clinton administration during my two years as director; I would have resigned immediately if there had been. Indeed, at the time, I sent a VOA correspondent into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan on the recommendation of the news director and over the strong objections of the State Department.
Perhaps the best way to clarify the issue of political interference in editorial decisions at the VOA today would be to invite a neutral party -- perhaps the State Department's inspector general -- to interview members of the rank-and-file VOA staff privately, in an environment free of intimidation, to track their experiences and impressions.
Regarding Radio Sawa and al Hurra television, Tomlinson and the Broadcasting Board of Governors continue to play games about the size and nature of the audience. The surveys they have done measure whether people have listened or watched at all, not whether they prefer these services to other available stations or channels. The latest analysis of the problem with these commercial-style Arabic-language programs, conducted by the veteran U.S. diplomat William A. Rugh, appears in the spring 2005 issue of Transnational Broadcasting Studies. As Rugh points out, "VOA Arabic appealed to many age groups and types of listeners, including policy makers and influential professionals, while Radio Sawa only aims at youth and is only of interest to them." VOA Arabic needs to be brought back.
Richard Richter, a very distinguished broadcast journalist indeed, is reading into my article something that was not intended. Although there has been some unnecessary duplication with the VOA, I agree that RFA has done a creditable job, often breaking important stories that have enhanced its reputation.
Finally, Philomena Jurey's concern for the future of the VOA is characteristic of the many able journalists who have spent their careers there. Hopefully, their voices will not be ignored.