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Broadcasting Board of Governors' Chief On The Future Of VOA


A news story a few weeks ago filled critics of President Trump with anxiety. The story said transition aides for the new president had turned up at Voice of America, one of the networks the United States uses to try to send fact-based news around the world. The anxiety was that a new president who frequently repeats inaccurate information would turn the network to his own purposes. We spoke with John Lansing, the CEO of the governing body that oversees Voice of America. And Lansing, appointed under President Obama, says the transition has actually been normal.

JOHN LANSING: Representatives from the administration came over here. And they are just learning about how the agency works, what makes Voice of America work.

INSKEEP: And so let's just put it out there. Are the administration aides telling you what to broadcast?

LANSING: They are absolutely not. And if they were to, it would be illegal.

INSKEEP: The Voice of America was established in World War II to counter Nazi Germany's propaganda. And it continued into the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Today, the VOA uses radio, social media, digital media to reach people inside Russia. In fact, it's expanding its efforts to reach the nations around Russia. And Lansing insists the mission has not changed.

LANSING: VOA tells the story of America - not just stories about the government but stories about entrepreneurialism, health and science and technology in parts of the world where the Russians put a false narrative about the American experience and the American intentions and motives.

INSKEEP: So you mentioned false narratives. What is an example of a Russian false narrative that is harmful to the United States?

LANSING: Well, for instance, the Russians - if you think about the hot war in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian narrative is that that's something that's been ginned up by the United States.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is kind of classic conspiracy theory. They're saying it's a false-flag operation.


INSKEEP: It looks like Russia's interfering in eastern Ukraine. But it's actually the United States doing it.

LANSING: Right, yeah. You can sort of put that approach against any number of issues. You know, up is down. Black is white - that kind of thing. And so we're constantly fighting a battle every day in the face of propagandists around the world.

INSKEEP: What tools does Russia use to get its narratives out?

LANSING: Well Russia has a very, very well-financed media conglomerate. You can see RT, Russia Today, here in the United States. And sometimes it's much more subtle and nuanced than you might think. It's a way of twisting a narrative or questioning a narrative that puts the United States at a disadvantage on an important issue.

INSKEEP: Meaning they might throw in some facts, but they'll bend them a certain way.


INSKEEP: Is Russia investing big time in this kind of propaganda?

LANSING: Oh, their investment in media and disinformation and propaganda would dwarf that of the United States - easily 10 to one.

INSKEEP: Ten to one.

LANSING: Yes. Our agency, to give you an example, is funded at $750 million a year. And we believe Russian-state media would be in the range of 10 times that.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, have you dealt with the fact that you're trying to counter Russian propaganda? And in recent months, on a number of instances, the president of the United States has appeared to take the Russian line and Russian narratives.

LANSING: Well, we report that just as any news organization. It's our job to report all sides of a story. And we have the greatest respect for whoever is president. And their point of view is something that's newsworthy. And we report that.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about just the other day. The president is talking with Bill O'Reilly of Fox News. They talk about Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. O'Reilly says he's a killer. And Trump says, you think we're so innocent? And Russia watchers said, well, that's actually the Russian narrative - that Russia tries to tear down the United States and say the United States is just as bad as Russia.

LANSING: And, again, that's something that we report like other news organizations. We report all sides of a story and do - the analysis is necessary for people to understand exactly what's being said and what the reaction to that is.

INSKEEP: Is that an accurate description of a big Russia narrative - that the United States is morally compromised, and if you think Russia is bad, the United States is bad, too?

LANSING: You know, I can't say for sure. To be honest with you, it would be a speculation. But it's a challenge every day to broadcast truth against fiction.

INSKEEP: John Lansing, who is CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, overseeing the Voice of America, thanks very much.

LANSING: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 9, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous Web version of this story called John Lansing the Voice of America chief. Lansing is the head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. It also called the group a governing body. It is an independent agency.