Changes at Voice of America

Kenneth Tomlinson, Board Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is being accused of politicizing Voice of America and other federal-funded broadcast entities. Some VOA staff charge that Tomlinson is attempting to influence news coverage there.

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CPB Chair Kenneth Tomlinson is much in the news lately, mostly to do with his monitoring of PBS and NPR News programs and his outspoken opinion that the programs lack balance. Tomlinson's critics charge that his actions constitute political interference with independent journalism. He rejects that claim. Now similar charges have surfaced in another context. Kenneth Tomlinson also serves as the chairman of the Broadcast Board of Governors, another presidentially appointed board that oversees the Voice of America. Some current and former VOA staffers say that political pressure has surfaced there as well. NPR's David Folkenflik has the story.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: This is a voice speaking from America.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

These were the first words transmitted by the Voice of America to Nazi-occupied Europe. They were broadcast in 1942 at the outset of America's involvement in the Second World War.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man: Daily at this time we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth.

FOLKENFLIK: Funded by the US government, VOA broadcasts news and cultural programming to more than 100 million people worldwide, though never within the US. Its mission is to provide accurate information as well as the example of how a free press can work in a democracy. But some journalists with links to VOA say its independence has been compromised and there's a push to make coverage more favorable to the Bush administration.

Since 2002, Ken Tomlinson has overseen the VOA as the chairman of the Broadcast Board of Governors. Tomlinson says to some extent, pressures have emerged under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Mr. KENNETH TOMLINSON (Chairman, Broadcast Board of Governors): It's just a natural tension between policy-makers and journalists.

FOLKENFLIK: But Tomlinson says he and the rest of the Broadcast Board have fought to make sure the VOA does remain independent. And he says the Bush administration has remained hands-off.

Mr. TOMLINSON: It's our job simply to make sure the influence is not undue.

FOLKENFLIK: Nonetheless, NPR has interviewed some current and former journalists at VOA who say its news coverage has come under pressures from Tomlinson and the executives who report to him.

Ms. MYRNA WHITWORTH: Ken Tomlinson's mark is very much on what is now going on at the Voice of America.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Myrna Whitworth. She was a longtime VOA program director who served as acting VOA director three different times.

Ms. WHITWORTH: The board is really directing how the Voice of America is run today.

FOLKENFLIK: The current VOA employees interviewed for this story would not be quoted on the record. They said they feared job retaliation. But Tim Shamble says morale is low among many journalists at VOA. He's head of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents hundreds of VOA staffers. And he says this is what he's been told by some journalists there.

Mr. TIM SHAMBLE (American Federation of Government Employees): The news would be focused on good news coming out of Iraq. The would not deal with, you know, any bad news about the war. They felt pressured to produce news that was positive.

FOLKENFLIK: Much of the pressure, according to staffers interviewed for this story, comes from the VOA's director, David Jackson. Jackson worked for Time magazine as a correspondent for more than 20 years before retiring in early 2001. He then worked on a Pentagon Web site after the 9/11 attacks. Jackson was appointed by Tomlinson and the board to lead VOA in 2003. Jackson says his role at the Defense Department allowed him to serve his country. Jackson says he's returned to his journalistic roots at VOA, functioning as an editor, not a bureaucrat.

NPR obtained e-mail sent by Jackson to journalists in early 2004. In at least three separate cases, the VOA director urged coverage of stories, positive news stories about Iraq. On January 12th, Jackson wrote, quote, "Postal Service back on its feet and a new stamp without SH"--meaning Saddam Hussein. "Sounds like good radio and good TV pieces for us." Jackson added, "Please send me copies of the stories when done." The VOA director attached his message to an e-mailed news release from the Office of Global Communications at the White House. Here's how the story sounded a few days later.

Unidentified Woman: There has been some rare upbeat news over the past week. New currency notes are now in full circulation in hopes of building confidence in the economy. And Iraq's postal system is slowly getting back up and running.

FOLKENFLIK: On January 15th, the introduction of cell phone service in Iraq caught Jackson's eye. In February 2004, it was the graduation of 11,000 Iraqi secondary school teachers. And, as the e-mails show, both were inspired by press releases put out by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US military-led group running Iraq at the time. Asked about the e-mail directives, here's what Jackson says.

Mr. DAVID JACKSON (Director, Voice of America): Many other journalists use those story ideas, too. You know, a good journalist is going to take story ideas from wherever they come from.

FOLKENFLIK: The Associated Press did write an article about the return of mail service in Iraq. A database search found no such coverage in The New York Times or The Washington Post. Some current and former VOA staffers say Jackson has told journalists to soft-pedal news of car bombings in Iraq. Jackson says car bombings there have become routine and that the VOA can pick up those stories from the wire services.

But some directives applied to stories far from Iraq, like the tsunami relief efforts of other countries. Ted Iliff is the VOA's director of central news under Jackson. He sent an e-mail to news correspondents chiding them for stories that, as he put it, `failed to report the US position.' Iliff continued, `Whatever the case, be sure that for any story you produce, it includes a reference to US policy or reaction as necessary for the story.'

Sanford Ungar says that approach gives a heavy-handed prominence to official policy.

Mr. SANFORD UNGAR (President, Goucher College): That's not journalism. That's not the way it's done. And however innocuous you try to make it sound, it comes across as propaganda.

FOLKENFLIK: Ungar's currently president of Goucher College in Baltimore, but he was director of the Voice of America for more than two years starting in 1999. And he says the directives from Jackson and Iliff violate the spirit of the VOA's charter.

Mr. UNGAR: They are asking the journalists at the Voice of America to act like press agents of the administration. And that's not the purpose of the Voice of America.

FOLKENFLIK: Ungar made similar criticisms this summer in Foreign Affairs magazine. He drew a sharp response from Jackson and Tomlinson. Jackson says not every single story needs to refer to US policy, but Jackson says he's been trying to overcome a hostility among some VOA journalists to presenting the American side of the news.

Mr. JACKSON: Some of the managers in the newsroom had an attitude that, by presenting US policy, they were somehow compromising their independence.

FOLKENFLIK: Jackson says he's just following the same kind of journalistic principles that served him well at Time magazine.

Mr. JACKSON: Our mission has always been to be a reliable, objective, comprehensive source of news and information. We are independent journalists here, even though the employees here are government employees.

FOLKENFLIK: Ken Tomlinson as well defends the journalistic integrity of the agency he oversees.

Mr. TOMLINSON: Newton Minow, great Kennedy administration head of SEC, said something I have on my wall over there. `There's no inconsistency in reporting the news accurately while also advocating America's values.'

FOLKENFLIK: His critics, however, claim Tomlinson and his pick as VOA's director, David Jackson, have failed to strike that balance appropriately.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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