Commentary

Eighteen specialists in public service media and international broadcasting gathered at a Washington think tank recently (December 8) to offer sometimes contrasting views on how high quality international reporting could be maintained for the American public when overseas bureaus of major dailies in the United States are downsizing or disappearing altogether.

The symposium, sponsored by the New America Foundation, also touched on the challenges facing U.S. public-funded international broadcasting at a time of rapid technological change and the prospect of budget cuts. Some panelists raised the prospect of closer collaboration among public and non-profit broadcasting networks and their U.S. overseas counterparts such as the global Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and other regional outlets like the Middle East Broadcast Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa) as well as Radio-TV Marti).

Several panelists questioned the credibility overseas of the U.S. government-funded broadcast entities. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger noted, however, that in an era where there is a proliferation of voices and information, greater sharing of resources is essential. In an interconnected world, he said, significant new investment and collaboration is particularly needed in foreign reporting. He noted that there is a precedent: the U.S has had state funding of many of its universities with guarantees of autonomy that have worked well over many years.

Susan Glasser, editor in chief of Foreign Policy Magazine, added that the paradox of diminishing coverage of international events in the United States is that we have more information than ever before, but less “world class expertise.” She noted that aside from the wire services, there are less than 100 American foreign correspondents abroad --- serving their home country of more than 300 million people.

Joseph Bruns of PBS, former director of the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, asked if VOA and NPR might consider a potential partnership. Loren Jenkins, managing editor of foreign coverage at NPR, rejected the idea out of hand, saying that VOA’s product is often seen as “propagandistic,” in contrast to NPR’s educational mission. Fellow panelist Steve Redisch, VOA’s executive editor, disagreed. He said there are firewall guarantees of VOA’s “trust, accuracy and believability” and there is good, solid journalism at the Voice. The differences between NPR and VOA, in his view, are in the audiences. He doubted that a merger of VOA and NPR “would do either of us much good.” Redisch noted that the Voice has around 250 correspondents and stringers around the world --- many displaying great courage and taking personal risks to cover events in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The third panel of the afternoon symposium was in the form of a conversation between Dana Perino, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that oversees VOA and the other networks cited above, and Jeffrey Trimble, former acting president of RFE/RL and currently the Board’s executive director. Perino, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said her newly-appointed board has just launched a comprehensive, year-long strategic review. The BBG, she said, is inviting public comments on all aspects of U.S. international broadcasting: the structure, funding, and available new technologies. In her view, “everything’s on the table.” The review has been described as the most comprehensive in the nearly 70-history of America’s overseas broadcasts.

The moderator of the Perino-Trimble discussion, Jon Sawyer of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, questioned the cost effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasting, which, he noted has a budget of approximately $750 million a year. Trimble noted that the reach of the broadcasts in 59 languages is 165 to 170 million weekly listeners, viewers and website users, which he termed “a good return on investment.” He said “we have new and smarter ways of reaching audiences. This new Board has come along at a very propitious moment.”

Perino noted that globally, cellphone usage is expanding more quickly than any other new medium, and investments in new technologies are needed, such as countering the blocking of the Internet by authoritarian governments. The BBG and BBC might well pool resources to explore ways of countering such interference. Although 500 million people are on Facebook, Perino added, shortwave radio continues to be important. “A billion people,” Perino added, “still don’t have electricity.”

Perino said individual BBG members are very active in raising the public visibility of U.S. international broadcasting, especially on Capitol Hill. One effort, she said, is to seek reversal of the domestic dissemination prohibitions of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which banned distribution of U.S. government-produced print and broadcast programs within the United States. Although that prohibition is anachronistic today when BBG content is readily available on line, it has --- over the years--- prevented many Americans from recognizing the professionalism of the journalistic product of VOA and the other broadcast networks supervised by the BBG.

“I totally reject the idea that VOA is propagandistic,” Perino added. She said that as White House press secretary she “had an opportunity to note firsthand the professionalism of the VOA correspondent assigned there and she (former VOA correspondent Paula Wolfson) was highly regarded by others in the press corps there.” Perino also noted that Radio Free Asia recently received one of the most prestigious awards by its journalistic peers for “breaking news of an environmental crime in China… the kind of award that would have been received by ‘60 Minutes’ in past years.”

At a final panel on new roles for international broadcasting and public media, PBS vice president Jason Seiken noted that “a lot of walls are breaking down” between newsrooms which used to be fierce competitors.” Contrary to a popular misconception, Seiken said, journalism in one sense has never been healthier because collaboration among documentary producers is growing impressively. . A thirst for solid educational television is key, he said.

Beth Curley, president and CEO of Nashville Public Television, recalled a production of her station a couple of years ago focusing on the Kurdish community of Nashville. The outlet put this on its website and YouTube, and much to the surprise of local producers, it was downlinked and rebroadcast in Iraq. A subsequent documentary on the Somali community in Nashville, the largest group of Somali immigrants in the nation, also was relayed without permission in the troubled Horn of Africa country. Referring to the earlier discussion of an eventual repeal of Smith-Mundt Act restrictions, BBG executive director Trimble said: “It would be terrific if we could make available some of our content to you --- to help inform the local Somali community.”

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