Seven Republican senators on Nov. 7, 2023, criticized Voice of America’s editorial guidelines for covering the Israel-Gaza war and called for the firing of two staffers at the government-funded, editorially independent outlet.
The senators, in a letter to Amanda Bennett, chief executive officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, or USAGM — which oversees VOA — expressed “grave concern” about an Oct. 10 internal email sent by Carol Guensburg, the outlet’s associate editor for news standards.
In the internal email, which came in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war, and bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza, Guensburg advised VOA reporters and editors not to refer to members of Hamas as “terrorists” in reporting, except when quoting others. The Washington Post reported that Guensburg said Hamas’ attack on Israel could be referred to as “terrorist acts” or “acts of terror.”
According to a report by The National Review, Guensburg’s email explained that, “This practice conforms with the VOA News Standards and Best Practices guide and current usage by the wires and major U.S. news organizations, bearing in mind that the language including terrorism is often used to demonize individuals and groups with whom the speaker disagrees. Useful alternatives are militant group or militants or fighters.”
The senators called on Bennett to terminate Guensburg and Patsy Widakuswara, VOA’s White House bureau chief, who suggested in a reply to Guensburg that VOA stories include the context that “the militant group’s attack was done in retaliation for Israel’s decades-long occupation.”
The letter was led by Tennessee Sen. Bill Hagerty and joined by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Pete Ricketts and Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and John Barrasso of Wyoming. All sit on the Senate foreign relations or appropriations committees, which have oversight over USAGM’s policies and funding.
While VOA’s budget comes from a congressional appropriation, the outlet’s independence from government interference is enshrined in USAGM’s authorizing legislation, the International Broadcasting Act. The act established a “firewall” that guarantees all USAGM outlets, which also include Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, full editorial autonomy in order to maintain their “professional independence and integrity.”
In their letter, however, the senators stated that, “As members of the Senate committees with jurisdiction over the policies and funding of [USAGM], we believe that VOA’s editorial policy against the use of the term ‘terrorist’ contradicts VOA’s principle of providing ‘accurate, objective, and comprehensive’ news. Indeed, we seriously question how VOA’s editorial policy advances the interests of the American taxpayers who generously fund this news organization every year.”
The senators noted that Hamas has been designated a “foreign terrorist organization” by the State Department, and that President Joe Biden had referred to Hamas as “terrorists.”
Major news organizations have set varying policies and standards with respect to terminology for covering the Israel-Gaza war, with some — such as The Associated Press and the BBC — only using the word “terrorist” with attribution. AP’s guidelines explained, “The terms terrorism and terrorist have become politicized, and often are applied inconsistently.” BBC guidelines note that “our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom."
But the senators argued that VOA uses the term “terrorist” to refer to other groups, and alleged that “VOA has created an editorial double standard in which it appears to accept the description of the Islamic State, Al-Qaida, and other officially designated terrorists groups as terrorists, but not Iran-backed Hamas, which explicitly seeks to destroy Israel and kill Jews.”
The senators called on Bennett to review the directive and “hold accountable VOA leadership who issued this guidance for editorial double standards … including the immediate termination of Carol Guensburg and Patsy Widakuswara.”
In a Nov. 27 response to the senators, which the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker reviewed, Bennett clarified that VOA and other USAGM organizations do not prohibit the use of the words “terror,” “terrorism,” or “terrorist.” She added that each of the entities’ best practices policy guidelines “counsels care and attention in the use of the words but do not place any restrictions on the appropriate use” of those words.
Bennett also said that all USAGM news entities “are reviewing their policies as well as training and implementation of these policies. USAGM has retained an outside expert to review all practices and to make recommendations regarding future training or possible policy changes.”
Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Nov. 9 sent a separate letter to Bennett. In the letter, which was reviewed by the Tracker, Risch expressed “concern” about VOA’s editorial guidelines and sought “clarification” on the outlet’s policy. He asserted that Hamas’ attack “fit perfectly within the VOA style guide’s definition of both terrorist and terrorism,” adding that he looked forward to the outlet “accurately describing Hamas and its members as terrorists” in the future.
In a related incident, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, a Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to VOA acting Director John Lippman on Nov. 3 criticizing VOA editorial guidelines and asking for a copy of Guensberg’s email, as well as “a copy of any attached guidance, along with all replies to the email and attachments” by Nov. 9.
In response to an emailed request for comment about the policy, a VOA spokesperson told the Tracker that “VOA has never banned the use of the word ‘terror’ or ‘terrorism.’ It has been used many times without quotes. Nothing has changed.” Hagerty’s press assistant did not respond to an emailed request about any next steps to follow up on the senators’ letter.