Amanda Bennett is director of Voice of America.
“Something has to be done,” President Trump tweeted Monday.
Frustrated by CNN, with which he has an ongoing beef, Trump suggested that the United States create its own “worldwide network to show the World the way we really are — GREAT!”
Despite the proposal’s origin in conflict with the press, it’s a really good idea. So good, in fact, that under another president’s watch — Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 — it happened.
Seventy-six years ago, the world was a dark place. The radio broadcast that eventually became Voice of America was created to give people trapped behind Nazi lines accurate, truthful news about the war, in contrast with Nazi propaganda.
Those broadcasts were lifelines to millions. Even more important, however, was the promise made right from the start: “The news may be good for us. The news may be bad,” said announcer William Harlan Hale. “But we shall tell you the truth.”
And therein lies the power of Voice of America.
Though we are 100 percent funded through Congress, we are legally protected from government interference in our newsgathering. The separation we call “the firewall” is enforced by decades of laws and regulations, buttressed by a deep respect for the protections of our Constitution, and has been cherished for decades both inside our newsrooms and out, both inside government and out.
So what is Voice of America?
From that single World War II radio broadcast we grew into a multimedia global television, radio and digital network. We broadcast in 46 languages to more than 60 countries. Our mission is to tell America’s story and to bring truthful, accurate news and information to those without access to it otherwise.
Our audience is growing rapidly. Just-released figures show it grew 16 percent last year to 275.2 million weekly viewers, listeners and users. We tailor our work for countries such as China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Serbia, Cambodia and Venezuela, where the press is not free or is at best partially free.
Yet what is most important isn’t the size of our audience. It’s their trust: Eighty-five percent of our global audience say they trust us.
Why? We think our credibility is rooted in the interpretation of the second half of Trump’s proposal. We, too, think our job is to show our country as it really is — through journalism based on fact.
We export the First Amendment.
We cover the toll of the opioid crisis and how people combat it. We show troops massed near the U.S. border and migrants throwing rocks. We interviewed people both shocked and elated by Trump’s election. We cover killings by white supremacists and marches by #MeToo protesters.
Our audiences see a country strong enough to criticize itself — a nation struggling openly with its problems.
During the midterms, we reported as Somali refugee Ilhan Omar was elected to Congress in Minnesota. We showed that our people grapple with many contradictory beliefs, encompassing both those who want to keep immigrants out and those who elect them to office.
True, there are those who believe that a government-funded broadcaster should broadcast only what the government wants. Anyone with that view need only spend a couple of days in a country where people are fed a mind-numbing diet of government-massaged pablum to realize how ineffective it is. It’s boring. (Try reading one of China Daily’s advertorial sections cover to cover, and you’ll see what I mean.) It challenges credibility. It breeds cynicism, not admiration.
“Truth is the best propaganda, and lies are the worst,” said Edward R. Murrow, who helped create VOA.
Thus we watch people seek us out at times of crisis even in countries where doing so risks steep penalties. During Iranian street protests this year, our Instagram traffic increased tenfold as our journalists worked overtime verifying local reports and photographs to use in news reports. In Venezuela, people who had been waiting for hours to get passports broke line to surround and protect VOA journalists; let the world see what we are going through, they yelled. In Zimbabwe, the vast majority of citizens wouldn’t have even known their country was undergoing a coup were it not for our broadcasts.
When President Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or former FBI director James B. Comey or congressional leaders Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi face VOA journalists, from Steve Herman to Gesell Tobias, Nike Ching, Katherine Gypson, Oleksandr Yanevskyy, Farhad Pouladi and many others, they face professionals as committed to fact-based journalism as any in the world. When Greta Van Susteren interviews Trump in Argentina in the next few days, he will get the same journalist who did neutral, factual work for years for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.
For a big chunk of the world, we are the free press. For more than three-quarters of a century, we’ve worked to deserve that role.