The Voice of America newsroom in Washington.

“CNN’s Tightened Check On News Breaks”
– Eason Jordan
What have listeners abroad been hearing from the Voice of America about the sexual charges against President Clinton? Has VOA reported the story comprehensively and unvarnished as a major American news story? Or has it been reported selectively with equivocation or obfuscation for the purpose of downplaying a White House embarrassment in the eyes of foreigners? Has the editorial integrity of the Voice of America been compromised by the fact that VOA’s current director, Evelyn Lieberman, was Deputy Chief of Staff in the Clinton White House? Is VOA’s treatment of the story distinctively different from that of commercial U.S. media?

Texts of daily VOA news broadcasts show that after an initial stumble the Voice of America is reporting the story credibly to millions of non-Americans.

When perjury and adultery accusations against President Clinton broke in the case of Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, VOA’s overnight news editor faced a journalistic dilemma. He saw the story prominently reported in The Washington Post and on all news services. As the story was based on unattributed sources, he placed the VOA story of sexual misconduct accusations down low in the VOA news lineup of the day’s central news file. His supervisors say this was a goof, a lapse of editorial judgment and that the story should have led the news lineup with attribution to The Washington Post. Within hours the central news file, which is distributed to all VOA language desks for translation, began leading with the Lewinsky story. VOA publicly acknowledged the editorial lapse.

In a recent television interview on CNBC’s “Hardball” with Christopher Matthews, former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said that if he were still the managing editor of CBS Evening News today he would not have placed the first breaking Lewinsky story at the top of the news because it was based on leaked information.

As in all newsrooms, there have been arguments within the VOA over how to handle the story. Shortly after the Lewinsky case broke, some writers urged that VOA immediately broadcast a background piece about the U.S. impeachment process. They were overruled by Sonja Pace, the VOA news chief. It was far too soon for such a broadcast, she said. The background piece explaining the impeachment process was prepared and is now on hold if needed.

Lieberman acted quickly on the breaking story. Although she had had no previous professional experience in radio or in news, she ordered all VOA writers, editors and correspondents to treat the Lewinsky story like any other news story and to follow it wherever it led, according to Pace, a former VOA foreign correspondent. This mandate by a Clinton political appointee reportedly had a positive effect on the staff of writers and editors in the VOA newsroom, the majority of whom have professional journalistic backgrounds.

The Voice of America is the flagship of U.S. government-financed international radio broadcasting, costing American taxpayers approximately $100 million annually. News and information are broadcast 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in 52 languages including English. VOA says that 86 million listeners worldwide tune to its programs each week via direct medium-wave and short-wave broadcasts, with the largest audiences reportedly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

VOA is charged with telling America’s story to the world, “warts and all,” in the words of legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, former director of the U.S. Information Agency, parent organization of VOA.

The nerve center of VOA is a newsroom that never sleeps. One of the largest news gathering organizations in the world, more than 80 writers and editors staff the newsroom and 40 correspondents at 25 news bureaus around the world and in the United States, including a VOA news bureau in the White House, write and report an average of 200 stories each day. Additionally, reports from 10 independent news services feed into the VOA newsroom daily.

In reporting the story, VOA follows a long-established tradition: before any news story goes on the air it must be confirmed by two sources, such as wire services. Today, in addition, most VOA stories are seen by three sets of eyes—the writer and two editors—before they are inserted into the central news file for the language desks.

The accusations against President Clinton have been prominently reported at the top of VOA news, as well as his denials that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and that he encouraged her to lie about it. The VOA news product, however, has largely steered clear of speculation. Neither anonymous sources nor reliable sources, frequent attributions in commercial media, have been used in VOA news stories. Attribution to specifically named newspapers rather than to generic news reports has guided VOA news reporting of matters such as the exchange of gifts between the President and the former White House intern as well as frequent visits to the White House by Lewinsky after she was moved to a job in the Pentagon. No references to speculative reports of Presidential semen on a Lewinsky dress or to oral sex in the White House are to be found in the early VOA news stories. Speculation about impeachment of the President was briefly mentioned with attribution.

The tone of VOA news in this story has distinguishing characteristics. Stridency and the impulse for sensational headlines and scoops have not been reflected in its approach to the story. Although VOA seeks to disseminate the news as quickly as possible, the sensitive and complex nature of the story has required that “we err on the side of being right and not being the first out there,” as news chief Pace puts it. The frenzied, competitive drive by some commercial media for the attention of readers, listeners and viewers, and for profits and ratings, is not the tone of VOA news coverage.

All of this is not to suggest that VOA’s coverage has been bland or has obfuscated facts or issues. The first report on January 21 from VOA’s White House Correspondent, David Gollust, called the matter “serious” because “it involved possible felony charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.” His second report that day included a statement by the House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Henry Hyde, that “the charges were serious enough that if proven could lead to impeachment of the President.”

Other than Lieberman’s mandate to treat the story like any other news story, VOA editors have emphasized to writers that they were dealing primarily with allegations of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and allegations of sexual advances by the President toward Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones requiring careful language. Editors have also reminded writers that overseas audiences are not as familiar with the American system as U.S. domestic audiences and hence VOA coverage of the story requires more explanation and background.

There has been no special policy guidance, as it’s called in the government, for VOA coverage of the story. Neither the White House nor State Department nor any U.S. Embassy abroad nor any member of Congress nor VOA’s parent organization, the U.S. Information Agency, has intervened with guidance, suggestions or complaints.

Along with the Iraqi crisis, the Lewinsky phase of the sex story was at the top of the VOA central news file for several weeks. Some samples:

  • “President Clinton is struggling to control a firestorm over allegations he had a sexual relationship with a White House intern and asked her to lie about it,” was the lead of an early VOA story.
  • “A political crisis continues to envelop President Clinton,” another story began.
  • VOA’s White House Correspondent reported that a “raging controversy over the alleged affair is overshadowing other events at the White House, including the President’s talks here with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.”
  • National Correspondent Jim Malone reported that “President Clinton has become enmeshed in what may be the most significant domestic crisis since the Watergate scandal which forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974.”

VOA News has labeled the story “a White House scandal” and “Washington’s latest sex scandal” and correspondent Malone reported on January 23 that “some political analysts warn that Mr. Clinton’s presidency may be at stake.” In this instance, the bar against generic attribution (“some political analysts”) was apparently lowered.

VOA reported the basic charges against the President: accusations by Paula Jones, an Arkansas state worker, that she was sexually harassed by Clinton when he was Governor, and allegations of unwanted sexual advances by Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer. The Jones civil damage suit was dismissed April 1 by a federal judge. That dismissal and a Willey interview on CBS’s “Sixty Minutes” were front page headlines in American newspapers and generated nationwide editorial comment. VOA played both stories differently from the U.S. press.

The Willey interview was not in the top five stories of the VOA news lineup. Lineups are formulated by the editor on duty. Dismissal of the Jones suit was number three in VOA’s news lineup. The lead story that day was President Clinton’s visit to Senegal, the final stop of his African tour. The VOA story included the President’s expression of pleasure with the judge’s ruling. The VOA correspondent traveling with him reported that “White House aides were careful not to gloat” about the President winning a major legal victory. The judge ruled that evidence fell short of proving sexual harassment and that other allegations concerning obstruction of justice and perjury were not relevant to this case, as VOA reported.

Immediately after the Willey-CBS interview, the White House, according to VOA, “launched an all-out campaign to cast doubt” on her credibility. At the same time, VOA also reported that “Congressional Republicans were calling Ms. Willey’s TV appearance credible and saying Mr. Clinton’s presidency would be in jeopardy if her account was proven.” VOA carried an actuality by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, saying that either the President or Willey has been untruthful and that “obviously there are problems here with the potential for perjury on one side or the other, and this is very serious.”

VOA has also been informing listeners, as straight news, of the fact that independent counsel Kenneth Starr is investigating business dealings Clinton and his wife had with the Whitewater Land Company in Arkansas before he became President, as well as the expansion of Starr’s investigation into accusations involving Willey and the central figure in the scandal story, Monica Lewinsky. As the scandal story moved into April, VOA reported that there were calls from the White House, Congress and the press for Starr to conclude his investigation quickly with a public report. Unlike the commercial media, VOA has not speculated about what the report may say or whether there may be indictments or impeachment proceedings.

Overall, VOA coverage has not attempted to equivocate or downplay a White House scandal or to burnish the reputation of the American president by dispensing propagandistic-sounding news on his behalf. VOA coverage of the Watergate scandal increased its reputation for honesty.

For purposes of comprehensive coverage of major U.S. developments, VOA also broadcasts samplings of American and foreign editorial opinions. For example, a New York Times editorial headlined “Tell the Full Story, Mr. President” was quoted in VOA’s domestic editorial digest. So, too, was a Kansas City Star editorial saying that “some of the President’s political adversaries have gone to such great lengths to demolish his reputation that the public cannot simply assume that the most recent insinuations and accusations are true.”

The editorial opinion of the conservative Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire also was quoted: “Many Americans apparently are willing to forgive the President’s past indiscretions committed before he took office. Would Americans be willing to forgive Mr. Clinton’s adultery committed in the White House?” The editorial digest also cited a Dallas Morning News editorial saying that “Facts should rule in this case, not titillating gossip.”

There was a good deal of U.S. editorial reaction after the Willey-CBS interview, even though her allegations had generally been heard before. “Most of the reaction was unfavorable toward the President,” VOA told listeners, with a sampling of critical editorials.

As the scandal story unfolded, VOA carried polls showing the division of opinion within the American public over who was telling the truth while at the same time showing a majority of those surveyed approving of the way Clinton was handling his job.

Foreign editorials are also quoted by VOA in its World Opinion Roundups of what newspapers around the world are saying about the White House story. The Guardian in Britain was quoted: “Talk of impeachment is premature. There is the matter of proportion. American voters have twice elected Bill Clinton to the White House, knowing him to be no choirboy. Marital fidelity is not part of the Constitution’s job description, and while naturally lapping up the scandal, American voters show signs of becoming less puritan and more, shall we say, European in distinguishing between private and public life.” In Austria, Die Presse editorialized with some exaggeration that “The White House focuses its entire attention on shielding the President from numerous scandals.”

It’s one thing to examine the radio and television news programs on U.S. networks and local stations for slant or the placement of stories or objectivity. They’re all in English. It’s a different matter in the case of VOA news programs. They cannot be judged for objectivity wholly on the basis of the English language broadcasts because VOA news is reported in 51 foreign languages. The VOA newsroom provides a daily news lineup and a central news file to the language services in English for translation. What happens after that is important.

The language services today have far more latitude and flexibility in choosing the news lineup or the order of news stories than in the past. They can make changes in the lineup. If, for example, a language service editor believes the sex story is not as newsworthy or pertinent to his region of the world as another story, he can change the news lineup and put the story below what he considers the top story for his region. It’s called tailoring the lineup for regional interest. Language editors and chiefs of VOA language services suggest that they have a better understanding of what is newsworthy in their regions than writers and editors in the VOA newsroom who do stories only in English and, it’s claimed, primarily for English-speaking audiences.

While the language services can change the news lineup, they cannot make changes in the copy of any story on the VOA newsroom’s central news file without consultation with the newsroom. Furthermore, if the newsroom puts a “must use” on a story, as it does on rare occasions, the language services are required to comply.

The newsroom expects that the language services will use at least the top two or three stories on the daily central news file of 200-300 stories.

How is this system monitored to assure compliance by the language services? There are frequent spot checks of translations. There is a monthly program review process. By and large, though, it’s a matter of trusting the judgment of language service chiefs, all of whom are American citizens. A few writers in the VOA newsroom are reluctant to regard language service editors as real journalists. Veteran VOA program reviewers acknowledge occasional glitches. But they emphasize that “screwing up” a story in translation or interpretation is “not intentional.”

Nevertheless, the system inherently contains the possibility of flaws. And as the total audience of VOA’s foreign language news programs is larger than listeners to news in English, the translations and interpretations of the language services are important to the goal of objectivity. Given the emotional situation in the Balkans, VOA program reviewers probably exercise special caution in examining the news lineup and output of the Serbian and Croatian language services to guard against any possibility of those services reflecting historically intense, ethnic attitudes.

Seventy-nine days after the U.S. entered World War II,VOA began international broadcasting under the Office of War Information and then was moved to the State Department when the war ended. In those early years, daily State Department policy guidance produced wrangling as VOA editors argued for more independence in the interest of objectivity to increase their believability by avoiding any taint of propaganda.

President Dwight Eisenhower, in 1953, decided that international broadcasting and international information programs did not belong in the State Department, so he put them into one independent agency, the U.S. Information Agency, stipulating that USIA would report directly to the President while continuing to receive foreign policy guidance from the State Department. Since that time, there has been growing emphasis by VOA on objectivity. But VOA was still uncomfortable until President Gerald Ford, in 1976, signed into law rules that would govern what and how VOA communicates to the world, called the VOA Charter. Its three rules or principles underline objectivity and editorial integrity:

Rule One says VOA must serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news, and VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive.

Rule Two says VOA will represent America, “not any single segment of American society,” and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of “significant” American thought and institutions.

Rule Three says VOA “will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will present responsible discussion and opinion of these policies.” How does this rule work in practice?

When the President or Secretary of State addresses foreign policy in a speech or news conference, that is a presentation of policy and it will lead the news report. VOA promotes support for U.S. policies in clearly identified VOA-written editorials separated from news stories.

In increasingly rare cases of criticism of a VOA news story by the State Department or an ambassador or the head office of USIA, the language of the Charter is cited by VOA editors. The VOA newsroom today, relying heavily on the judgment of its writers and editors, thus represents the almost completely independent status of the Voice of America under its bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors.

If the three elements of VOA’s coverage are examined as a whole—the news stories, the special correspondents’ reports and the editorial digests—independent analysis adds up to high marks for the government’s principal international broadcasting station. The coverage has reflected ethical journalistic professionalism and balanced comprehensive reporting without shading, spin, rumor, innuendo or a sensationalist tone. The scandal has been reported responsibly and with care.

Who is listening to radio in this TV age is another matter. Of course, VOA’s coverage of this one, provocative story cannot be regarded as the sole litmus test of its objectivity. But American taxpayers can be proud of the professionalism that has marked VOA’s international reporting of this story so far. If continued, it may not substantially help to improve unfavorable perceptions of journalism and journalists, but it will enhance the reputation of professional journalists who work for government radio and are often viewed erroneously by commercial journalists as “just propagandists.”

A Yale alumnus, Mark B. Lewis is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer. His assignments included Voice of America news desk, VOA correspondent in the Middle East, White House correspondent, senior public affairs positions in India, Zimbabwe and Ghana, and Assistant Director of USIA Washington in charge of African Affairs. As a freelance journalist today, his most recent articles on U.S. foreign relations have been published in American Heritage, American Libraries magazine, the Foreign Service Journal and as op-ed columns in daily newspapers. Lewis lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment