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Dateline: VOA's 60th and the Charter - 2002-02-15


On February 24, the Voice of America begins a year-long celebration of our 60th anniversary as the United States government's broadcaster to the world, on radio and more recently on television and the Internet as well. For 43 of those years, VOA programming has been guided by a short, simple document, the Voice of America Charter. It sets forth our mission and warns those who would tamper with our journalistic integrity to keep their distance.

At 2:30 in the morning New York time on February 24, 1942, the words "Voice of America" were first broadcast. They were relayed from cramped Madison Avenue studios to three powerful shortwave transmitters, which beamed them into the heart of Nazi Germany:

"This is a voice from America," intoned announcer William Harlan Hale. "An America at war." "We shall speak to you about America and the war," he told the people of Europe. "The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth."

A noble standard. But whose truth, especially in a hot war, and, after victory in Europe and Japan, a cold one? The early VOA was an instrument of the nation's war effort. And for nine years afterward, it was an arm of the U.S. State Department, which promoted American foreign policy. VOA's rhetoric in those times of worldwide Communist aggression was not always dispassionate.

"The Iron Curtain, and behind it, a people to be kept in ignorance of the world outside its barriers, a people at the mercy of a propaganda machine pouring the equivalent of a thousand million dollars into the manufacture and circulation of The Big Lie," said one broadcast

Looking back years later, onetime VOA program director Barry Zorthian admitted that in those days, critics who dismissed the Voice of America as a propaganda tool itself had plenty of ammunition. "We, for awhile, had State Department officials stationed at the Voice, reviewing copy in terms of "policy." And the fight began to gather steam to make this an objective, comprehensive, accurate recital of the news of the world as seen from the United States."

In 1954, the Eisenhower Administration created a new information agency, and the Voice of America moved into this independent USIA. Even so, Barry Zorthian says, the drumbeat from VOA reporters and editors grew louder for some kind of protective document. ". . . a very, very important shield to prevent outside forces from unduly influencing the work of professional journalists. And that was absolutely critical to the reputation, the impact, the acceptability of the contents of the Voice of America overseas," he said.

VOA Director Henry Loomis invited the staff to draft such a document. In 1959 his deputy, Jack O'Brien, agreed to try to distill the stack of suggestions into something usable. "There were some beautiful words, some beautiful thoughts, but they were pretty long-winded." he said. "I went home, stayed up all night, and, about seven o'clock in the morning, came up with this document, which was really a boil-down of what many others had written."

That elegantly sparse raison d-etre, the VOA Charter, has remained almost unchanged to this day.

"The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the people of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners."

The first of three principles, dealing with VOA's core news values, is the most-quoted, and sometimes most severely tested, part of the Charter.

"VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA News will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive."

In 1962, in a visit to VOA's headquarters, which had moved to Washington, President John F. Kennedy underscored VOA's journalistic integrity. "You are obliged to tell our story in a truthful way, to tell it, as Oliver Cromwell said about his portrait, to paint us 'with all our blemishes and warts,' all those things about us that may not be immediately attractive," he said.

This was all well and good, even inspiring. But the Charter was still just sort of a wish list, posted on the wall. The nation was at war again, in Vietnam. Bernard Kamenske, a VOA writer who rose to the news chief's position, says government officials were pressuring VOA journalists to put a favorable spin on the progress of the war.

"And it made the role of the writer, and the role of the editor, much harder," he said. "You knew that your worldwide audience was depending on you for an accurate accounting of events, and that if you failed, that they would never trust you as a VOA again."

So Bernie Kamenske led what his friends call a "stealth mission" on Capitol Hill to convince lawmakers to make the VOA Charter the law of the land. The effort got bipartisan support. People as disparate as feminist Bella Abzug, a House Democrat, and Senator Charles Percy, a member of the governing Republican party, steered the effort.

"If the Nixon Administration had gotten by with distorting and aiming the Voice of America in the direction it wanted, in a partisanship way, even though it was not a truthful and whole story, then it would have been a precedent for other presidents to do so," Sen. Percy said.

The Charter passed easily, and on July 12, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 94-350.

Geoffrey Cowan, VOA's director from 1994 to 1996, says even Americans sometimes have a hard time believing the message of the Charter. "And that is that you can have an organization financed by the government, legally controlled by the government, ultimately run by somebody appointed by the president of the United States, and still be accurate, balanced, and comprehensive," he said.

It was law, but the Charter was by no means secure. When the International Broadcasting Act was adopted in 1994, creating a new board of governors for U.S. international broadcasting, the VOA Charter was nowhere to be found. Another furious campaign, this one not so stealthy, corrected the situation, and the Charter was law again within six months.

Current news director Andre de Nesnera says the Charter makes all the difference to VOA editors and correspondents. "They know it by heart," he said. "They live it and breathe it. Every journalist working for the Voice of America knows the Charter and abides by the Charter."

Two of its principles do not relate directly to news coverage. One instructs VOA to present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and then to discuss them. VOA broadcasts editorials, and some of its journalists worry that listeners have a hard time distinguishing reporting from opinion. But VOA Director Robert Reilly, who wrote and delivered VOA editorials and hosted a policy discussion program for many years before taking office, insists there's no confusion. He calls the editorial "our editorial page."

"And like an editorial page, it's clearly marked off from the news and feature part of our operation. It's announced as the official views of the U.S. government, and the short three-minute editorials, which are approved by the State Department, present those policies and views," he said.

Part two of the Charter instructs VOA to describe American life:

"VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions."

Director Reilly says VOA feature stories reflect the character of the nation, its friendliness, its decency, its diversity, and its religious faith. "There are so many views of American life that are reductionist; that we're just an overweight people wandering around malls and eating Big Macs. And the profundity and the seriousness of American life is overlooked," he said. "That's our job. We're not under the commercial constraints of other media to get the largest audience by showing in many ways the most unappealing parts of American life. We can tell the whole story and the whole truth."

To a person, current and former VOA managers and journalists agree that the VOA Charter is more than a scrap of paper yellowing on the wall. It's a living, working, 24 hour a day road map, guiding America's voice to the world.