OPINION: How America’s first propaganda station became a reputable news source

The Voice of America headquarters in Washington, D.C.

From fighting communism around the globe to butting heads with the White House, Voice of America’s (VOA) 79-year history is as bizarre as you’d expect from what started as a strictly U.S.-based propaganda broadcasting outlet. 

Founded in 1942 as part of an effort to inform the European populace about World War II from an American perspective, VOA had immediate international influence within its first few minutes on air. After WWII, VOA wasted no time in countering Soviet propaganda, broadcasting over Russia as early as 1947. Two years later, the USSR installed radio-jammers to combat the American propaganda. 

During the Cold War, the U.S. government funneled billions of dollars to expand VOA’s infrastructural capabilities, and more importantly, out-source their Soviet counterparts. 

Initially, it was the Clinton Administration’s intention to cut funding for the globalized broadcasting outlet with the conclusion of the Cold War and Balkan conflicts, but in an ironic turn of events, VOA became the very first broadcast-news organization to continuously publish work on the internet – it has not looked back since.

VOA caters to a primarily foreign audience, with a reach of over 230 million people, and broadcasts in 47 different languages. 

Despite being funded entirely by American tax dollars, VOA operates autonomously of any government bureaucracy, hiring its own staff and covering stories with independent interest. 

With a long history of backing the red, white and blue, VOA has had trouble dropping its “propaganda” label over the years. 

According to Media Bias Fact Check, VOA ranks in the “least biased” tier of news, and “high” in factual reporting, which is measured by proper sourcing and a clean fact-checking record.

Former president Donald Trump took a stab at VOA for their COVID-19 coverage, citing the publication’s use of Chinese government statistics for cases early in the pandemic. The 45th president even hinted at the possibility of creating a state-run broadcast in lieu of what he  considered fake news. 

Trump wasn’t the only president to criticize VOA. Richard Nixon took exception to their Watergate coverage, and George W. Bush blocked the publication’s attempt to interview then-Taliban leader Mullah Omar after the events of 9/11.

Nowadays, VOA looks like any other media cooperation. They employ a broad scope of journalists who cover international issues in every continent, similar to other world-news organizations like the British Broadcasting Channel (BBC). 

But it can never be that simple when your funding is coming directly out of Uncle Sam’s pocketbook. With a history of nationalist propaganda and more recent scuffles with the executive branch, the reputation of VOA is up for question once again.

Can VOA keep a neutral viewpoint, or even a critical stance against American politics when they are completely government funded?

The Trump-VOA beef would be the first case in support of this thesis. 

The post-colonial, post-Cold War world no longer endorses the types of propaganda that VOA once thrived on producing, which leads to the conclusion that since they still exist as one of the biggest international news organizations on the planet, the idea of VOA as a threat to transparent news standards should be nullified. 

So long as they continue to meet international standards in producing well-researched news, the VOA should be a publication people all around the world point to as a trustworthy news source. 

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