Voice of America Director David Ensor on Truth and Propaganda to Iran

BBG Watch Commentary

We were greatly intrigued by this comment about Truth versus Propaganda from Voice of America director David Ensor, as reported by Kim Andrew Elliott, an employee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), on his private blog:

“What over the years, over the 70-odd years of VOA’s history we have learned, is that — and I say this often to people who say why aren’t you hitting harder on the ayatollahs in Iran or something like that — I say, look, the best answer to propaganda is not more propaganda. It is truth. We’re in the truth business at the Voice of America. We may not get it a hundred percent right all the time, but that’s always our goal. That is our goal.” Voice of America Director David Ensor

VOA director David Ensor: “The best answer to propaganda is not more propaganda,” Kim Andrew Elliott Reporting on International Broadcasting, Jan. 12, 2013.

Aside from the fact that there are dozens of theories of truth, some more restrictive than others, what intrigued us was Mr. Ensor’s association of “hitting harder on the ayatollahs in Iran” with propaganda.

Why would the Voice of America Director chose this particular analogy? At the very least, he is guilty of not choosing his words carefully. It was not a smart thing to say.

We would not use such a loaded term as propaganda in the Iranian context without defining it, especially if part of Mr. Ensor’s job is to ensure proper funding for VOA from the U.S. Congress and American taxpayers. After hearing his comments, they may now want to put their support behind a surrogate broadcaster to Iran, based somewhere in the Middle East, rather than give money to Mr. Ensor.

With his remark, Mr. Ensor also painted serious critics of VOA programs to Iran, including members of Congress like Senator Tom Coburn and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher who claim that these programs are not sufficiently hard-hitting, as advocates of propaganda and enemies of truth. The use of such language is too simplistic, unfair and counterproductive. If Mr. Ensor wants to throw around accusations of propaganda, he should at least define what he means exactly by this term and perhaps tell us whom he’s accusing of such crimes against good journalism, as he sees it.

Critics of Voice of America programs to Iran have argued for a long time that some VOA staffers avoid quests who are too critical of the Iranian regime and instruct those whom they invite to participate in their programs to Iran to moderate their criticism. We know for a fact that many successful VOA services do not practice such self-censorship and do an outstanding job. The VOA management denies that such censorship now exists in the Persian Service, but these accusations keep surfacing. One of our contributors experienced it first hand while being interviewed for the VOA Farsi program several years ago. The question is has anything changed since then?

See:At Voice of America, Complaints About Its Iranian Coverage: A Persian-language service is accused of tailoring its programs to avoid offending the regime. The VOA denies it,” Sohrab Ahmari, The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 06, 2013.

See:What is the Purpose of VOA Persian?,” Michael Rubin, Commentary, Jan. 11, 2013.

See:‘At Voice of America, Complaints About Its Iranian Coverage,’ Wall Street Journal op-ed,” BBG Watch, Jan. 08, 2013.

Going back to Mr. Ensor’s comments about truth and propaganda, we are wondering which of the many theories of truth Mr. Ensor had in mind: Veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus? Is it news balanced with Iranian propaganda? Can opinions be incorporated into a VOA newscast to Iran, and when do they become propaganda? What about a hard-hitting analysis after the news? What about sarcasm or satire as in the now defunct satirical TV program to Iran “Parazit”? Do they have a place in a Voice of America broadcast to Iran or don’t they?

Truth is the equation of things and intellect,” Thomas Aquinas wrote.

Many philosophers warn that this ideal of describing reality cannot be achieved without additional intellectual analysis. For example, all languages have words that are not easily translatable into another, not to mention cultural factors that make intercultural communication difficult, or that a non-Farsi American speaker who never experienced political repression will perceive reality differently from an Iranian who feels oppressed by the ayatollahs.

That is why surrogate broadcasters were established by Congress to provide news specialization and a much deeper analysis, including hard-hitting commentaries. But some Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and VOA executives claim that all the news is the same, and all that anyone needs is news, or even better, feature stories, cooking shows and funny English teaching videos. Audience research shows that young people like them and dictators don’t object to them.

This is what some Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America extecutives think: there is no need for surrogate broadcasters, for commentaries, for specialization, for hard-hitting programs that people living under oppressive regimes may want if you can expand your audience with the lighter stuff. Add a few sexually suggestive photos and videos and Radio Liberty will have a much larger audience in Putin’s Russia and Nazarbayev’s Kazakhstan. If Voice of America does the same thing, then they might just as well merge. Not surprisingly, the experiment failed in Russia and in Kazahstan, and even if sexy photos and videos attracted a larger audience, what is the point and why should U.S. taxpayers pay for it?

Some of BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) bureaucrats and Voice of America executives think that you can take a former CNN executive and put him in charge of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or take an American who ran a TV station in Atlanta, does not speak Farsi, is not an Iran expert, has never spent much time in the region and put him in charge of VOA programs to Iran. It’s all about marketing, the Internet, and television production values. The news can be produced centrally in Washington for the entire world. Any domestic U.S. television specialist can do programs to Iran if he’s smart enough and is guided by the BBG research department.

We don’t think so.

We don’t think that news and local program placement is all that matters to people facing repression. We don’t think that hard-hitting analysis or commentaries are by definition propaganda rather than truth.

Nor do we agree with Mr. Ensor, in the quote below, that Voice of America builds an audience around the world by focusing on America and its faults. Mr. Ensor should know this.

Audience research shows that even those who seek VOA programs, especially in countries ruled by repressive regimes, are primarily interested in what is happening to them and what America thinks of what is happening to them. Explaining America’s interest in Iran is the role for the Voice of America for countries in crisis like Iran.

But an important country like Iran with a repressive government and a nuclear program also needs a surrogate U.S.-funded independent broadcaster based somewhere close to its borders, especially if VOA executives think that “hard-hitting” is a bad word for their programs directed to the region and insist on telling their TV program guests to soften their criticism of the ayatollahs.

“And, you know, when America sometimes has a story to tell that isn’t altogether positive about itself, you know, issues of race, or Abu Ghraib, actually our credibility, Voice of America’s credibility, we’ve discovered, grows when we tell the truth about ourselves. And that is when we build an audience around the world, when people say, ah, these Americans realize they’re not perfect, they are analyzing their own flaws, trying to figure out how to make their selves a better country. That makes the Voice of America, which talks in these terms, worth listening to on other subjects, besides America, perhaps what’s going on my country.” – Voice of America Director David Ensor

In his article in Commentary, Michael Rubin wrote:

“The notion that the U.S. builds credibility by bashing itself is unproven pap. Credibility certainly depends on truthfulness, but editors can choose which news to publish, and both VOA Persian and often Radio Farda appear to lack a general strategy. So, here’s one: U.S.-funded broadcasters neither can do everything nor is it their job to replicate the private sector. Instead, they should focus on those subjects which journalists operating under repressive conditions cannot cover. VOA Persian should be the go-to source for news about human rights in Iran, corruption among the Iranian regime, and explanations countering rather than amplifying the official Iranian line,” – Michael Rubin in Commentary

We agree with many of the points made by Michael Rubin. Voice of America should always tell the truth and the VOA Charter requires that it tells the truth. But the analysis from the VOA Director is not the whole truth about why Iranians may want to seek VOA programs and what makes them credible. The reality is too complex to be neatly divided between truth and propaganda, as Voice of America Director David Ensor proposes.

BBG expert Kim Andrew Elliott is also largely wrong in his analysis as to why some people, especially in countries experiencing severe repression, are interested in U.S. international broadcasts and what attracts an audience in such countries.

“The transaction between the listener and the broadcaster is really quite simple, and has nothing to do with persuasion theories: the audience wants news that is more comprehensive, reliable, and credible than the news they get from the state-controlled or otherwise deficient domestic media. International broadcasters that provide such a product attract an audience. That’s International Broadcasting 101″ – Kim Andrew Elliot

Kim Andrew Elliott no doubt honestly expresses his strongly-held personal opinions, not the official BBG position, but it’s rather obvious that he has never lived under an oppressive regime that practices press censorship.

We asked international broadcasting experts, who actually experienced life in countries ruled by dictatorships, for their views on Kim Andrew Elliott’s and David Ensor’s comments about Iran:

“Some of us who had lived under repressive regimes can tell Mr. Ensor and Dr. Elliott that accurate and objective news, while much needed and appreciated, were hardly enough for those  of us who wanted freedom. What we also needed was a thoughtful but hard-hitting commentary, which Radio Free Europe and BBC were much better at providing than Voice of America, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

We wanted all the lies of the communist regime and all the guilty of hypocrisy exposed and our faith in truth reaffirmed. Truth was an absolutely essential part of it, no doubt about it, but it was hardly everything we expected from these broadcasts. We were looking for a voice we could consider as our moral supporter, a friend and an ally with a message of freedom and hope. Mr. Ensor does not like “hard-hitting” and that’s a shame because great journalism that made a big difference during the Cold War was very much “hard-hitting.

As a supporter of eliminating surrogate broadcasters and merging them with Voice of America, Kim Andrew Elliott is equally wrong that accurate and comprehensive news is enough to attract a larger audience in media restricted countries. Specialized analysis and hard-hitting commentaries by well-informed experts and journalists are also essential. That is why Radio Free Europe was more popular in Eastern Europe during the Cold War than the Voice of America and why BBC foreign-language programs with their hard-hitting expert analyses were also more popular than VOA.

But Kim Andrew Elliott does not have to look back at history because he can see it right now in the United States if he would check the relative popularity of various broadcasters like CNN, FOX, and CNBC. It appears that those with strong partisan commentaries usually do better than others. He should then imagine what people who are really deprived of freedom and support for their views feel like, what they need and where they can find it.”


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