Despite being a writer for a news website and despite its headquarters being just a 15-minute bus ride from my house, I was unaware of one the world’s most important news sources until recently. It’s called Voice of America, and it broadcasts globally via radio, television and internet in 45 languages. When I found out that they give guided tours of their studio, I jumped at the chance to attend one. I was impressed and surprised by what I learned, and I thought it would be cool to share what I found for those who are in the dark about it like I was.
However, my experience also raised uncomfortable questions about news media in general, and I want to put those out there too.
First, the tour. After getting put through the same post-9/11 security ringer one is always subjected to upon entering a government building, I met with the group, which consisted of only me, an intern from another wing of the building, and the tour guide. We walked through hallways covered in murals, quotes and photos of historic events before arriving at the studio. Through windows we watched reporters and crew members doing broadcasts in real time as they were transmitted to places as far-flung as Albania, Afghanistan and China. We were in and out in 45 minutes.
I was particularly interested in VOA’s mission: to provide only the most thorough, objective and unbiased coverage of issues affecting all segments of society. It was started in 1942 by the Roosevelt administration to provide transparent coverage of the Nazi regime to both sides of the Atlantic, but after World War Two, it expanded to cover current events worldwide.
VOA plays an important role throughout much of the world. In countries with government-sanctioned media repression, such as China and Iran, it is reverently regarded as a vital source of information, a lifeline to the truth. The Dalai Lama has said that the collective spirit of the Tibetan people is lifted during a VOA broadcast. In some technologically disadvantaged countries where AM and short-wave radio are still the main media outlets, VOA is the alpha and omega of information sources.
They go above and beyond to deliver that information. VOA technicians have hacked through internet censorship in China. Some international correspondents and crew members have risked everything to report from the front lines of war-torn countries.
Here’s where it gets weird. The government-funded Voice of America is not allowed to broadcast over American airwaves, because the government fears competition with commercial broadcasters.
It’s a thinly veiled secret that, just as politicians will say anything to get financing and votes, news outlets generally stick to the script that yields the most ad revenue or, for public broadcasters, listener donations. Why has the one news source that’s been demonstrating integrity for 70 years been kept underground on its home turf? What’s really behind this? And what does it all mean for the bigger picture of our access to information?