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What is the Purpose of VOA Persian?

I’ve been traveling and so a bit late getting to this, but last week, Sohrab Ahmari, an assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal (and an occasional COMMENTARY contributor) had an excellent piece examining Voice of America broadcasting into Iran:

Critics also charge that VOA’s Persian coverage is often distorted by an editorial line favoring rapprochement with the mullahs. There is “a clear slant in favor of Iran in terms of its involvement in terrorism,” the current production staffer wrote in response to queries for this article. The network, he said, often refuses to air criticism of Iranian terror unless it is “balanced with the perspective of the Islamic Republic who vehemently [deny] any involvement.” And because “no one in the Islamic Republic gives us interviews anyway,” VOA Persian abandons otherwise informative segments about terrorism.

Ahmari continues to demonstrate that VOA Persian has jettisoned programs with millions of followers in favor of new programs that have no measurable impact.

What happened after publication was even more informative: A VOA Persian producer tweeted (via Sohrab’s twitter account), “Another BS story on VOA Persian but thankfully behind paywall” and then seemed to dismiss the idea of audience reach mattering. The producer then defined VOA Persian’s mission as, “to provide a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news.”

Just my own three cents:

  • The idea that VOA Persian hasn’t allowed its own politics to corrupt it is risible. I had a run in with VOA Persian a couple years ago after I had written a post here questioning whether the State Department should be granting Iranian nationals multiple entry visas when many repressive regimes have used students in the past to spy on one another and dissidents and when the State Department lacked the ability to vet such visa holders adequately. In response, VOA Persian, in the course of a news item (as opposed to an opinion piece) cavalierly labeled me an enemy of the Iranian people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wrote about the episode, here. Needless to say, Ramin Asgard, the leader of VOA Persian at the time, lacked the professional courtesy to issue a correction, let alone apologize. His goal, however, was outreach and if that meant personal attacks on critics of Islamic Republic policies, so be it. Asgard has since left VOA.
  • Around the same time, I attended a roundtable that included a former head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which also broadcasts into Iran (among other places). One of the topics discussed was the role of U.S. broadcasting and broadcasting strategy. The former official said that the United States’ broadcasters built credibility by airing criticism of itself and simply being another news source. My response: 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 there 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.
  • Lastly, it is important to remember that toward the end of the Bush administration, the National Security Council asked a security-cleared, native Persian speaker to listen to and read VOA broadcasts and document the bias. She did as she was directed and yet Senate staffers—especially those attached to Joseph Biden and Chuck Hagel—tried to kill the report and attack the staffer who wrote the report, rather than the National Security Council official who assigned her the task. How unfortunate it is that VOA Persian complains that they are tarred unfairly and that no one has ever systematically shown bias and yet, when someone did, proponents of uncritical rapprochement with the Islamic Republic’s leadership tried to deep-six it.