SPINKS: What should we consider real news?

Investigating the content produced by a federally-sponsored U.S. international news agency

Most Americans have never heard of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency that oversees federally-sponsored U.S. international news media. But on Jan. 20, Andrew Lack made history by becoming the BBG’s first-ever CEO. The BBG manages five international news networks that collectively reach over 200 million people in 61 different languages and spanning 100 unique countries on a weekly basis. And in many ways, the BBG represents the journalistic ideal: it avoids being beholden to corporate interests by being entirely funded by tax dollars and it ostensibly aims to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy” through “high-quality journalism.” But until 2013, when the Smith-Mundt Act was passed, the BBG was notably forbidden from broadcasting their content to American audiences. The Internet rendered this prohibition mostly symbolic and unenforceable, but nonetheless some observers feel the BBG is not a fact-sharing endeavor but a propaganda machine.

I certainly approached this column with an inherent distrust of the agency that aims to produce content “consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.” Further, while the implications of Lack’s reign are thus far undetermined, it is worth mentioning that before he was elected CEO, he served as the Chairman of the Bloomberg Media Group, where he strived to expand the company’s media market. This restructuring of the BBG does not necessarily signify a worrisome change in the BBG’s agenda, but it might. What does it mean to prioritize the breadth of your audience (and perhaps even your financial situation) when you exist to be the shining example of independent news, as the BBG does? Should we be concerned with the content the BBG is disseminating abroad, given that it has been compared to RT — Russia’s international news channel — which Time Magazine writer Alex Altman calls a “propaganda outlet?” The answers to these questions are unclear. As engaged American citizens, we should at least be educated about the content being broadcast on our behalf and with the process of its production.

The BBG had a budget of $731 million in fiscal year 2014, which means it has the resources to do a lot of good — or a significant amount of harm. From a solely idealistic standpoint, we can all get behind the mission of the BBG, which involves protecting free speech and providing news that is “accurate, objective, and comprehensive” to countries that often do not have access to a free press. The concern lies in how staunchly the BBG adheres to these standards. Many argue it is not problematic that the U.S. government is using tax dollars to project an image of a democratic and successful America abroad. The BBG admits they view their networks as tools of American foreign policy, but maintain self-conception doesn’t come at the expense of journalistic integrity. Surely, many people at the BBG do admirable work, but it is still telling that one of their website’s frequently asked questions is “Do [the BBG’s] programs contain propaganda?”— with the answer, of course, being no. It feels somehow in conflict with our societal values to be intentionally marketing a positive image of our — admittedly, fairly troubled — nation abroad, even if we are doing so in the name of promoting democracy. I struggle to accept that we can act in accordance with a value that we ourselves so often fail to uphold for our own citizens.

Last weekend, I dived into the BBG’s coverage by perusing the website for Voice of America, the largest network that the BBG supports. I read several articles and found them largely well-written and fair. While I would occasionally encounter sentences injected with pro-American sentiment, on the whole it wasn’t the information presented that was problematic, but the stories that were given attention at all. As of Saturday, the top two stories on the VOA’s U.S. News homepage concerned, first, the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism and second, recent correspondence between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. Comparatively, neither The New York Times, The Washington Post, nor CNN mentioned either event on their homepages on the same day. VOA demonstrably chose stories that exemplified American values — such as religious tolerance and diplomacy — even if those stories were not the most news-worthy of the day.

Questions of what constitutes “real news” are, of course, complicated. But if three major and largely respected American news networks are ignoring stories, they are likely not critical. And while the BBG’s programming may act as a balancing force against slanted news networks abroad, that doesn’t justify the Board’s existence. Nor can any bias exist and still be in accordance with the BBG’s purported mission. We need to demand more of the BBG and hold it accountable to its values. As the primary investors into a media company that has an impressive scope internationally, I would encourage American citizens to stay aware of the BBG’s activities and of the type of content it is producing. Perhaps even contact the BBG to give them feedback on their coverage. The BBG offers a compelling case study into the ideals of transparency, independence and the free press, and it would behoove those concerned with the state of journalism more broadly to reflect upon the work that the BBG does.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.spinks@cavalierdaily.com.

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