They traded fat, high-profile jobs in network television news and public affairs for less money and relative obscurity to work for … Voice of America?
Either Dominic Bellone, Farah Ispahani, Joy Kalfopulos Wagner and Maryam Velgot are masochistic propagandists, or there’s something wrong with commercial news these days.
Television is still fairly new to VOA, a radio broadcaster since 1942. Bellone, Ispahani, Wagner and Velgot recently came to work as senior TV producers in VOA’s crucial West & South Asia division, beaming news and public-affairs programming to Middle East auds to show them that the U.S. is not the Great Satan that Islamic radicals say it is.
Isn’t that PR?
“I did have reservations about the whole objectivity thing,” says Wagner, who spent 16 years at ABC News. “I called my friends at ABC and asked if I’d completely destroy my career by coming here, because so many people were saying to me, ‘Propaganda machine!’ But as I sat down and saw the VOA newsgathering process and lived it each day, I was seeing that we’re killing ourselves making sure everything is legitimate and balanced.”
VOA’s charter declares that the org “will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news … accurate, objective and comprehensive.”
Every fact must be double-sourced and every “responsible” view must be represented. But whether VOA is a news org or an instrument of U.S. foreign policy has long been debated.
“I called every contact I had — top, seasoned journalists and anchors — and sounded them all out” about whether to join VOA, says Velgot, who worked for both NBC and MSNBC. “They all said, ‘Do it.'”
All four say that with critics so eager to paint VOA with the propaganda brush, the agency will extensively report, as it has, unflattering news, like the U.S. military’s planting stories in the Iraqi press and the Bush administration’s secret eavesdropping. Indeed, since 9/11, some of the sharpest complaints against VOA have involved charges of giving too much voice to governmental critics.
Ispahani, a Pakistani-American and veteran of ABC, NBC and CNN, says validation has come from some of the toughest critics: people in Pakistan.
“Anti-Americanism is very high there,” she says. “But from day one, the feedback we got was, ‘We were expecting U.S. propaganda, but wow, this is balanced and interesting!’ We are now No. 1 in our timeslot in Pakistan, which has about 50 channels.”
Ispahani says she desperately needed a change. “After the (2004) election, I just got so sick of the dumbing down of American news, especially on cable. I just couldn’t take it another minute.”
Ballone, formerly of MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” liked the managerial opportunities that producing for VOA offered, but adds: “Cable news is more and more celebrity driven, both on the people and events covered and the people who are reporting. VOA isn’t.”
All four say they delight in being able to cover political and international stories that, in commercial news, would likely be cut for the missing-pretty-white-girl-du-jour report.
“We’re not breaking news necessarily,” Velgot says, “but when things go right, there’s so much more sense of satisfaction.”