TIME foreign affairs

Why the Broadcasting Board of Governors Is Nothing Like RT

Russia Today Putin
An internal view of the former Russian RIA Novosti news agency headquarters, which is now Rossia Segodnya (Russia Today) global news agency since President Vladimir Putin signed a decree liquidating the former news agency, in the capital Moscow, on Dec, 12, 2013. Sefa Karacan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Media supported by the U.S. government may serve the nation's interests — but they still adhere to the highest standards of journalism.

This week, a stirring new documentary from the Voice of America called “AIDS: Living in the Shadows” made its world premiere at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. The 30-minute report — introduced by the British music legend and longtime AIDS activist Elton John — takes a global look at one of the most daunting side effects of AIDS: the stigma that makes its victims outcasts even within their own families.

The documentary takes audiences on a journey to Nigeria, Cambodia, Haiti, Uganda, Canada, and the United States to meet those living with HIV and AIDS. This is the most recent example of the excellent work done by VOA as it serves its audiences around the world while promoting the interests of the United States — in this case, helping halt a global pandemic.

Also this week, Time.com published an article regarding RT, an English-language propaganda outlet for the Kremlin. This article explored the many ways in which RT spreads distortions in support of the Russian government’s geopolitical aims, including outright lies that have prompted some of its top journalists to quit.

Amid all that, the article noted: “RT is neither the first nor the only outlet that exists to serve the state rather than its citizens. Nearly every major country has a thriving state-sponsored media. (The U.S. funds media organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia that target foreign populations through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)”

While it’s true that these media are, indeed, funded by the U.S. government, the arrangement differs in just about every other way from RT.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent federal agency that oversees civilian U.S. international media (USIM), including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. The BBG is one of the world’s largest news-gathering and reporting enterprises, with 61 language services, 50 overseas news bureaus, 3,500 employees, and 1,500 stringers among the five media entities.

These networks are founded on the belief that it is in the interest of the United States to communicate directly with the people of the world and for the people of the world to have access to accurate information about local, regional, and global events, including in the United States. The VOA Charter asserts, “To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners.” Our international audiences turn to VOA and the other BBG-supported media because they count on their accuracy and reliability. If these media were to engage in propaganda or false reporting, our audiences would simply tune us out and we would not be able to accomplish our mission. This is why we work to meet the highest standards of reporting and journalistic integrity.

These standards are at the very heart of USIM. VOA’s journalistic code states, “VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government. …Furthermore, VOA professionals, careful to preserve the integrity of their organization, strive for excellence and avoid imbalance or bias in their broadcasts … Accuracy and balance are paramount, and together, they are VOA’s highest priority. …Though funded by the U.S. government, VOA airs all relevant facts and opinions on important news events and issues.”

The professional journalists around the world who work for our networks are tasked with presenting accurate and objective news and information for audiences in many countries where it is difficult or impossible to receive locally-produced, uncensored or unbiased programs. Our networks provide responsible discussion and open debate in places where this is rare in the media. And our reporters sometimes do so at great personal cost: One of our reporters in Pakistan was killed by the Taliban for doing his job in January 2012. Another reporter went missing in Syria in August 2012. One has stood up to harassment, slander and blackmail for her reporting on corruption in Azerbaijan, for which she was recently honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s “Courage in Journalism” award.

The credibility of USIM outlets is underscored by the many acclaimed, popular, private sector, and well-respected media that frequently cite our reporting. A few recent examples include a citation in the Wall Street Journal of a VOA story about corruption in Vietnam, a post in the New York Times China blog citing RFA’s reporting, a Washington Post article citing a Radio Liberty reporter, and the inclusion in this New York Times blog post of interviews of Russian citizens done by RFE/RL following the downing of MH17.

Our founding legislation mandates that our programs be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism, and it provides guarantees against government interference in our journalists’ work; it also insists that our agency’s broadcasting standards be consistent with broad U.S. foreign policy objectives. The BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. In the sense that informing international audiences with news that is consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive is beneficial to U.S. interests, yes — the BBG and its media do serve the state. However, by doing so through credible and balanced reporting, we serve both the state and the citizens of the world.

Shell is the Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. If you are interested in learning more about the BBG and USIM, visit www.bbg.gov.

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