President Obama’s major Middle East speech offers an opportunity to provide substance to a policy so far heavy on rhetoric and light on action. It also offers the opportunity for Obama to use Voice of America (VOA) to help deliver the message of support to the Arab peoples, who are in an unprecedented struggle for peaceful political change.
Yet, for the second time in the space of a year, it will not be VOA but the BBC that will get the coveted interview with President Obama (according to the White House schedule at 2:55 p.m.). This time, it will be a sit down in the White House Diplomatic Room just hours after the President’s Middle East speech. The first time, it was the BBC’s Persian service that had the opportunity to interview Obama at the United Nations.
In fact, Obama is the only U.S. President since VOA came into being during World War II not to give an interview to the signature international broadcaster of the U.S. government. At the White House, where VOA maintains a bureau, VOA is generally treated as an unwanted relative, never called on in daily briefings and not allowed questions during the President’s rare press conferences.
While officials from the Broadcasting Board of Governors have repeatedly appealed to the National Security Council staff and most recently to White House press secretary Jay Carney for air time with the President, nothing seems to have changed. The BBC remains the White House’s medium of choice, while VOA executives and reporters are left fuming and frustrated.
One possible explanation is that the White House shuns VOA and other U.S. international broadcasting as embarrassing relics of the Cold War past, out of tune with its progressive political message. Yet the President’s 2012 budget proposes to spend $767 million on U.S. international broadcasting. At a time of record deficits, at the very least Americans should demand to get something more for their money.