The Voice of America is in danger of becoming the Voice of Authoritarianism.
What’s going on with the Voice of America? This post is in three parts. I’m going to start with some background and history on VOA, move on to the existential threat it faces in the era of Authoritarian America, and close with research on why it matters to our national psyche and soul.
My source for this is Wikipedia’s entry on Voice of America.
In 1939, the Federal Communications Commission set the following policy:
“A licensee of an international broadcast station shall render only an international broadcast service which will reflect the culture of this country and which will promote international goodwill, understanding and cooperation. Any program solely intended for, and directed to an audience in the continental United States does not meet the requirements for this service.”
For years, during WW II and the cold war, VOA pushed out information about the United States and what we stood for to countries around the entire globe.
By the end of the war, VOA had 39 transmitters and provided service in 40 languages. Programming was broadcast from production centers in New York and San Francisco, with more than 1,000 programs originating from New York. Programming consisted of music, news, commentary, and relays of U.S. domestic programming, in addition to specialized VOA programming.
About half of VOA’s services, including the Arabic service, were discontinued in 1945. In late 1945, VOA was transferred to the Department of State.
Control of VOA passed from the State Department to the U.S. Information Agency when the latter was established in 1953. to transmit worldwide, including to the countries behind the Iron Curtain and to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, VOA covered some of the era’s most important news, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon. During the Cuban missile crisis, VOA broadcast around-the-clock in Spanish.
In 1993, the Clinton administration advised cutting funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as it was felt post-Cold War information and influence was not needed in Europe. This plan was not well received, and he then proposed the compromise of the International Broadcasting Act. The Broadcasting Board of Governors was established and took control from the Board for International Broadcasters which previously oversaw funding for RFE/RL.
In 1994, President Clinton signed the International Broadcasting Act into law. This law established the International Broadcasting Bureau as a part of the U.S. Information Agency and created the Broadcasting Board of Governors with oversight authority. In 1998, the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act was signed into law and mandated that BBG become an independent federal agency as of October 1, 1999. This act also abolished the U.S.I.A. and merged most of its functions with those of the State Department.
The threat of a Voice of Authoritarianism
Politico.com published an update on the VOA’s status last month (Dec 12) in Trump to inherit state-run TV network with expanded reach, saying “A provision tucked into the defense bill guts the Voice of America board, stoking fears that Trump could wield a powerful propaganda arm.”
President-elect Donald Trump is about to inherit a newly empowered Voice of America that some officials fear could serve as an unfettered propaganda arm for the former reality TV star who has flirted for years with launching his own network.
Buried on page 1,404 of the National Defense Authorization Act that passed last week is a provision that would disband the bipartisan board of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent U.S. agency that includes Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.
The move — pushed by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce as a way to streamline the agency — concentrates control into a powerful CEO who is appointed by the president.
That change, combined with a 2013 legislative revision that allows the network to legally reach a U.S. audience, which was once banned, could pave the way for Trump-approved content created by the U.S. diplomacy arm, if he chooses to exploit the opportunity.
A Republican government official familiar with the agency’s work warned that abolishing the board will make it susceptible to the influence of Trump’s allies, including his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who ran Breitbart News before joining Trump’s campaign.
“There’s some fear among the folks here, that the firewall will get diminished and attacked and this could fall victim to propaganda,” the Republican official said. “They will hire the person they want, the current CEO does not stand a chance. This will pop up on Steve Bannon’s radar quickly. They are going to put a friendly person in that job.”
Because of the modification of the Smith-Mundt Act in 2013, the BBG can now broadcast in the U.S., too. But the influence on the domestic market could be even more subtle, the Republican official warned.
The changes to VOA governance and mission has indeed popped up on Bannon’s radar and there is no doubt that Trump will “exploit the opportunity”.
Rachel Maddow picked up the story yesterday evening and she explored the consequences of the 2013 and 2016 laws and the moves by the Trump administration to control VOA. Here’s the video from yesterday evening (Jan 25).
(If that embedded video does not work on your browser, try this link to Rachel’s video.)
It warrants repeating: “No President Has Ever Been Able To Use The Resources Of The U.S. Government To Have Broadcasting Resources” Like This, “But They’ve Done It Now”
Few is many and many is few
Dan Rather, appearing on The Rachel Maddow Show last night (Jan 25) noted that 2+2=4 is true but that 2+2=5 is not. However, more and more people are willing to say that 2+2=5 even when provably wrong. Here’s the relevant research on denying the reality of your own senses.
Washington Post researchers report This is what Trump voters said when asked to compare his inauguration crowd with Obama’s. I’ll try to make this brief and cover the principal results.
On the first full day of the Trump administration, White House press secretary Sean Spicer admonished the news media for reporting that the crowd that witnessed Trump’s inauguration was smaller than other recent inauguration crowds, claiming, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
What made this attempt by a Trump staffer to spread misinformation particularly egregious was the abundance of clear photographic evidence proving Spicer’s statements false. So how far are Trump supporters willing to go to accept his administration’s argument?
… we surveyed 1,388 American adults. We showed half of them a crowd picture from each inauguration (see below) and asked which was from Trump’s inauguration and which was from Obama’s.
For the other half, we asked a very simple question with one clearly correct answer: “Which photo has more people?”
For the question about which image went with which inauguration, 41 percent of Trump supporters gave the wrong answer; that’s significantly more than the wrong answers given by 8 percent of Clinton voters and 21 percent of those who did not vote.
But what’s even more noteworthy is that 15 percent of people who voted for Trump told us that more people were in the image on the left — the photo from Trump’s inauguration — than the picture on the right. We got that answer from only 2 percent of Clinton voters and 3 percent of nonvoters.
Even when the photographic evidence was directly in front of them and the question was straightforward, one in seven Trump supporters gave the clearly false answer.
There are two ways to explain this pattern. One is that the Trump supporters actually believe that a few is greater than many. Alternatively, these folks might be just using their answers to express support for Trump (and for his claims).
On one hand, some may find it reassuring to discover that at least some Trump supporters may not really believe the misinformation they express in surveys.
But that may not matter. The fact is that the Trump supporters are willing to say that few is more than many even when the factual evidence is right in front of them. The authors conclude:
… the Trump administration already accuses others of producing “fake news,” and instead offers its own (false) “alternative facts.” If a significant portion of Trump supporters are willing to champion obvious fabrications, challenging fabrications with facts will be difficult.
And now Trump has the means to turn VOA into a sound machine for his fabrications and “alternative facts.”