Can Publicly Financed Journalism Ever Be Honest?

Voice of America is a news outlet financed by the U.S. government. Now, the journalists who work at VOA are locked in a fight over a policy change that would require them "to actively support American policy." Is it possible to make sense of this?

One might rationally say: since VOA receives all of its operating budget from the U.S. government, is it any wonder that the U.S. government expects it to support the U.S. government? Is it not ridiculous, in fact, for listeners to assume that VOA would ever not support U.S. government policy in any meaningful way? Isn't VOA best understood as—and we mean this in the most nonjudgmental way possible—a propaganda tool that the U.S. government uses to target foreign nations?

The answer to all of those questions is "yes," but it does not fully capture the nuances of this sort of grey area of government-supported journalism (of sorts). The very fact that VOA journalists are now fighting both the government and their own union for attempting to require them to pledge allegiance to the U.S. government in their work goes to show that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Most journalists, surely including those at VOA, do not set out to be patsies, or government spokespeople. They want to feel as if they have independence. The problem with the new rule is not that it changes the facts of VOA's existence—it has always, at its core, been a propaganda tool—but that it makes explicit what has always been an implicit agreement. In that sense, it makes VOA journalists feel insulted.

All media outlets get their money from somewhere. Most of us are financed by ads. We build a wall between the editorial side of the operation and the advertising side of the operation, and hope that it holds. Usually, it does. Likewise, the mere fact that the government pays some of the bills for a news operation does not automatically mean that every journalist there is in the tank for the government. Witness the BBC, or NPR—both world class news organizations that receive government funding, and are not generally considered to be propaganda tools.

However! This journalistic freedom extends only so far. The editorial side of all news outlets have an unspoken line which they are implicitly discouraged from crossing. If money becomes very tight, and the financial survival of a news outlet is in doubt, that implicit line may become far more explicit. No publisher wants a lone crusading journalist to drive away the last advertiser keeping the lights on. Sometimes, depending on the greed of the publisher in question, this soft boundary can become hardened well before an organization's existence is imperiled. Bloomberg News, for example, chose to shut down sensitive journalism in China rather than risk its business interests there. This is shameful. But it happens.

Journalists want their independence, whether from their private corporate overlords or from their government paymasters. And journalists will push for that independence, and test its boundaries. And, in the normal course of things, when no crisis is laying bare the fault lines of power, journalists at news organizations are able to produce decent journalism if they want to, regardless of who is paying the bills. That is why, rather than a steady drone of North Korean-type propaganda, government-financed news organizations like VOA and Stars and Stripes tend to resemble a "normal" news outlet on most days.

So, the savvy reader knows that yes, government-financed journalism can be real journalism—as long as it doesn't clash too hard with the government's interests. When things get too controversial, though, savvy readers will need to turn to private news organizations for the real story.

Until things get so controversial that all the advertisers pull out and the private news outlet shuts down. The system of financial support for journalism is ultimately a flawed one, whether public or private. But it's the best thing we have.

Unless you motherfuckers want to start spending a lot of money on subscriptions.

[Photo: AP]