The Question of how Voice of America foreign correspondents do their work - more as journalists or as goverments employees - touches one of the capital's more sensitive nerves.It is widely accepted that the Voice should be vigorous and professional and credible in a journalistic sense, but there is no denying that the VOA correspondents, as goverment employees and as members of one or another American ambassador's country team, have an official aspect, too. Should a VOA correspondent interview - and thereby lend an official imprimatur to - the leader of an insurgency unrecognized by the United States? That sort of question panel composed mostly of professional journalists was set up to take a look.
The panel, headed by Chalmers Robert, determined that a sensible compromise could be struck between the journalistic and diplomatic requirements that weigh on the 15 VOA foreign correspondents. Its recommendations were pretty much accepted by the Voice, which has now issued State Department-approved guidelines 1) cutting the correspondents' special ties (access to classified material, PX priviledges, etc.) to American embassies but 2) providing for prior policy approval "in covering any story which can reasonably be deemed sensitive." The guidelines will not remove all ambiguity and friction. But if the correspondents and diplomats approach each other with tact, the new arrangements should work well enough.
The chemistry of foreign radio listenership is imperfectly understood. No doubt formal changes in the status of VOA correspondents do not immediately affect whether, say, a Ghanian farmer or a Pakistani intellectual tunes in to VOA or trusts its broadcasts. The overall image of the United States is probably more important. Therein lies the reason, the VOA leadership believes, why audience and credibility ratings have risen since the Vietnam and Watergate years. Yet seemingly bureaucratic changes can make a difference if they enhance professionalism and thus reliability. That is the framework in which thenew guidelines should be welcomed.