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Tilted Toward U.S., VOA Tries to Keep Its Balance

Reporting: The radio service may give the home team the benefit of the doubt, but its 'selling point is . . . credibility.'


WASHINGTON — The Voice of America recently broadcast a lengthy report on Pakistani Muslims crossing into Afghanistan to join what they see as a holy war against the United States in defense of Islam.

Earlier, the U.S. government radio service reported extensively on U.S. bombs that missed their targets and hit civilian locations.

What's going on here? With the Bush administration vying for the hearts and minds of more than a billion Muslims worldwide, why is America's radio voice reporting bad news along with the good?

"We are presenting news straight as it comes," said Andre deNesnera, the VOA's news director. "We aren't putting any spin on it. Our essential selling point is our credibility. The best way to attack any of these strident voices is to report on what is happening in a balanced and straightforward way."

To be sure, the VOA is inclined to give the U.S. side the benefit of the doubt in its reporting. But if it does not exactly depict the United States with warts and all, it at least shows some blemishes.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the VOA has increased its broadcasts to Afghanistan, the Arab world and non-Arab Muslim countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

But these broadcasts can be effective only if they are believed. And VOA officials argue that they will be believed only if they appear to be telling both sides.

Although the VOA is owned by the U.S. government and its staff is made up of federal employees, its charter calls for editorial independence. It is administered by an independent board that is supposed to act as a "firewall" between the organization and the rest of the government.

In the ideological component of the war on terrorism, the VOA is only one U.S. weapon.

The Pentagon operates a C-130 transport plane known as Commando Solo that broadcasts the throw-down-your-arms, you-have-no-chance type of front-line propaganda. Other U.S. planes drop leaflets over Afghanistan. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, issues fact sheets to the international press corps designed to respond to Taliban claims.

Bush administration officials have been interviewed repeatedly on Arabic-language television, especially the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite outlet. Retired ambassador Christopher Ross, one of the State Department's few diplomats fluent in Arabic, has been rehired to broadcast to the Arab world. And Charlotte Beers, a former top advertising agency executive, has been installed as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy to bring Madison Avenue techniques to the fray.

Among these, the VOA is the only one that claims to report both sides.

A Target Audience Outside Afghanistan

In the view of some U.S. officials, the VOA's most important contribution may be its broadcasts to Muslims outside Afghanistan, especially in the Arab world.

Middle East experts concur, noting that terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi, has targeted fellow Arabs in waging his side of the propaganda war. The experts say the administration has little choice but to contest him on that battleground.

Disagreements have surfaced, though, about how the VOA should go about countering Bin Laden's message.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, the VOA obtained a rare interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar, spiritual leader of the Taliban. The State Department angrily ordered the VOA to kill the report, arguing that to broadcast it would give free publicity to terrorists.

After several days, the VOA used a portion of the interview as part of a longer report that also quoted President Bush, a spokesman for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and a U.S.-based Islamic scholar.

"We never intended to run the interview unedited," DeNesnera said. "The State Department got in a huff and said, 'You're not going to run the piece.' But after a couple of days, when we were able to incorporate other voices, we decided we had enough to run and we ran it."

Philip C. Wilcox, a retired diplomat who once served as the State Department's counter-terrorism chief, said the U.S. message must be believed if it is to do any good.

"I was in some jobs in government where I was a bit upset by what VOA was doing," Wilcox said. "But I think a broadcast organization that is credible is vastly more important than a propaganda arm."

Service Expands Its Arabic Programming

After the terrorist attacks, the VOA increased its Arabic-language broadcasts from seven hours to nine hours a day. And daily broadcasts in Dari and Pashto, the two main languages of Afghanistan, were increased from an hour and 45 minutes to two hours and 15 minutes each.

The House recently approved legislation establishing a separate Radio Free Afghanistan that would broadcast 12 hours a day in each language. That bill is awaiting action in the Senate.

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