VOA Vows Independence As Trump Calls For 'Worldwide Network' VOA covers the U.S., warts and all. But is that enough for the president? VOA's director tells NPR it's protected by law, and if it's told to change, she'll respond, "Thank you for your input."
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Voice Of America Vows Independence, As Trump Calls For 'Worldwide Network'

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Voice Of America Vows Independence, As Trump Calls For 'Worldwide Network'

Voice Of America Vows Independence, As Trump Calls For 'Worldwide Network'

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump often rails against U.S. news, media and specific reporters, even. Last week he tweeted, there should be, as he put it, quote, "a worldwide network to show the world the way we really are - great," exclamation point. Turns out there is such a worldwide network. It is run by the U.S. government, and it's called the Voice of America. But the broadcasts don't always paint America in a positive light. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The VOA was created during World War II by President Roosevelt to broadcast behind enemy lines what its current director, Amanda Bennett, says was the truthful news about the war as opposed to Nazi propaganda. She says, over the years, the mission hasn't really changed that much.

AMANDA BENNETT: Our job is to do two things. One is to tell America's story objectively to places that can't see it otherwise. And the other one is to bring objective news and information to places that have no other access to it. So we say that in a large part of the world, we are the free press.

NAYLOR: So she says it's critical VOA not spread propaganda but tell the truth about America, warts and all.

BENNETT: Good stories, bad stories, hard issues, you know, fun issues. We're trying to give a complete picture so that people can see who we really are.

NAYLOR: For instance, the top story on the VOA's website last week was about GM's decision to close several of its factories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sixteen-hundred workers about to lose their jobs. Building automobiles at this 6.2-million-square-foot facility...

NAYLOR: Former VOA director David Ensor, a one-time NPR correspondent, says he'd noticed that audience numbers jumped when VOA told some what he calls not so pleasant truths about the U.S., whether it was the protests in Ferguson, Mo., or the Abu Ghraib scandal.

DAVID ENSOR: When foreigners hear an American broadcaster who's funded by the United States talking honestly about our problems as a country, it impresses them. It builds credibility for Voice of America, and that builds audience and impact.

NAYLOR: Some 275 million people around the world listen to the VOA in 47 different languages, which Ensor says distinguishes it from networks such as CNN International.

ENSOR: What Voice of America does is it broadcasts in Hausa and Farsi, and Russian and Chinese, and Korean, the languages of the countries that we're trying to reach where it is our feeling people don't have enough access to honest information.

NAYLOR: VOA is overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media. CEO John Lansing says it's independent from the government by law.

JOHN LANSING: The most important thing to understand about our independence from the federal government is that it's mandated by law, that it's written into the legislation that founded the Voice of America and our other entities, that there will be no interference in the editorial judgment of these networks.

NAYLOR: But James Glassman, a predecessor of Lansing's, says VOA has what he calls an independence problem and should be better integrated into U.S. foreign policy.

JAMES GLASSMAN: It has to abide by the basic rules of journalism of truth telling and transparency. But it needs to actually achieve things for U.S. foreign policy and national security, and that's really not the way it's structured now.

NAYLOR: Trump's nomination of Michael Pack, who's produced documentaries with Steve Bannon, to lead USAGM has raised concerns about political interference by the administration in VOA's operations. But if that were to happen, Bennett says, she has an answer.

BENNETT: Is this news or not? And if it's not then it's, thank you for your input.

NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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