The Battle for the Soul of U.S. International Broadcasting

Posted: 03 Jul 2013   Print   Send a link
Commentary by Kim Andrew Elliott

On 26 June, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on U.S. international broadcasting (USIB): "Broadcasting Board of Governors: An Agency 'Defunct.'" During the hearing, two distinct visions of US international broadcasting, and of how it will consider the needs of the audience, became evident. The fate of US international broadcasting will be determined by the political debate in the next several months.

The opening statement by committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) included misinformation about the Voice of America: "While the Voice of America aims to provide listeners with objective news and information about United States foreign policy, the purpose of the surrogate broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, is very different. And that is to beam ... information into closed societies, giving those citizens the information that otherwise they would never be able to access."

Anyone who has listened to VOA knows that its content is not limited to US foreign policy. VOA would not have an audience if it did not also include news about its target countries. Where did the chairman get this erroneous description of VOA? It is often used by supporters of the surrogate Radio-Free stations to justify their preservation. Such misinformation about VOA is persistent (see previous post). It was on such faulty premises about VOA that Radio Free Asia was created in 1996.

It is perhaps based on this perception of VOA as purveyor of US foreign policy that a proposal is swirling among Congressional staff offices that VOA be absorbed into the State Department. VOA, as the largest of USIB entities, with by far its largest audience, would therefore become a sacrificial elephant. Under State, VOA would lose, in quick succession, its independence, its credibility, its audience, and its justification for continued existence. The surrogate stations (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Alhurra, and Radio Sawa) would come under the umbrella of the National Endowment for Democracy. These entities would enjoy more independence than VOA, giving them the potential to continue reporting the news. The surrogates would retain their audiences and survive into the future.

The three witnesses at the hearing did not include any present members or representatives of the "defunct" BBG. Instead, three former members of the BBG spoke and took questions.

James K. Glassman

James K. Glassman was chairman of the BBG during the George W. Bush administration and was a senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. With those conservative credentials, it's interesting that Mr. Glassman's proposals for USIB are based on central planning rather than market based solutions. They focus on what the U.S. government wants the audience to hear, not on what the audience itself wants to hear. The attention of the audience is taken for granted.

While Mr. Glassman said USIB output should consist of "journalism of the highest caliber" he also said that such journalism should be "not the end but the means." It should be "following actual strategic directives, for example convincing Pakistanis that they face an existential threat from Al Qaeda" and trying "to persuade Iranians to oppose the development of nuclear weapons."

To that end, Mr. Glassman wants the BBG "fully integrated into the foreign policy apparatus of the US government" by placing USIB (all of it, not only VOA) into the State Department, with an assistant secretary of state playing the role of a CEO, or under a "resurrected USIA."

Mr. Glassman did not mention Radio Moscow and probably never listened to it back in the day, but it is the model for the type of USIB that he wants. Its news-like content was certainly a "means to an end" rather than an end itself. It was definitely integrated into the Soviet foreign policy apparatus. Radio Moscow was the granddaddy of international broadcasting, with more broadcast hours, more languages, more kilowatts, than any other international radio station. But it had a tiny audience.

This is because the audience for international broadcasting is, collectively, much smarter than the decision makers and experts who would devise schemes to use those broadcasts to change opinions in other countries. Yes, freedom is a more attractive ideology than communism, but extolment even for a commendable cause becomes repetitive. USIB under the Glassman centrally-planned vision would manage only to persuade the audience to reach for the dial and tune to the BBC.

Turning U.S. international broadcasting into public diplomacy would be bad public diplomacy. Audiences could be even more annoyed with the United States than they may already be if the U.S. provides a product labeled as news but is really thinly disguised advocacy for US policies. Audiences want news that is more credible than the news they get from their government-controlled domestic media. The solution is not more government controlled media.

Through international broadcasting as international news, audiences abroad will learn about U.S. policies. They will do so through interviews, actualities, reportage, all of which enhance credibility and attract audiences, rather than the opposite.

Enders Wimbush

In his testimony, Enders Wimbush, a former director of Radio Liberty and member of the BBG until last year, described USIB as a "mélange" of federal agencies and 501C3 corporations. He also said that USIB is characterized by "rampant duplication of effort" and he read out all of the 23 languages that are transmitted by more than one entity. Because of all this duplication, said Mr. Wimbush, USIB lacks the funds to add new strategic languages, such as Ibo. The distinction between surrogate and non-surrogate broadcasting is a "canard." He added that "VOA has been practicing surrogacy for years" and that one station can both be a surrogate and "tell America's story."

About the BBG, Mr. Wimbush was blunt: it "was a bad idea when it was created, and it is dysfunctional." He recommends that the BBG be eliminated.

As one who has advocated consolidation of USIB for nearly a quarter century, I was happy to hear Mr. Wimbush's strong statements about consolidation and the deconstruction of the surrogate-official dichotomy. The elimination of the BBG, however, worries me. Throughout the world, there is no public broadcasting body that has been able to maintain its independence without the protection of a multi-partisan board. Such independence is necessary to achieve the credibility necessary for a successful news operation.

If the BBG is eliminated, chances are it will be replaced by something other than a bipartisan board. If the senior management of USIB is again appointed by the president with Senate consent, the quest for independence becomes a crapshoot. A president might appoint a director who is committed to independent journalism. Or the president might appoint a policy flack who will steer the broadcasting service to something with an evident bias. In previous decades, VOA went through such pendulum swings. The BBG was created to put an end to that, it succeeded, and thus it was, and still is, a good idea.

Jeffrey Hirschberg

Of the three witnesses, only Jeffrey Hirschberg unambiguously made the case for independent journalism in USIB. "The most important thing is that US international broadcasting has in its favor around the world is its credibility. ... The BBG does not do messaging. It does not do advocacy." He also stressed that any CEO of USIB must be behind the BBG firewall, i.e. appointed by the Board and not by the president.

Mr. Hirschberg noted that the BBG worked well in the past, and can again if its members work together. He would not eliminate the present multi-entity structure of USIB. He said that, beyond its structure, part of the problem is that the BBG is underfunded.

Of course, I am gratified by Mr. Hirschberg's defense of the news function of USIB. And by his reminder that the BBG can work if it has the right people working constructively together.

I can't sign on to his desire to preserve the present multi-entity structure of USIB. The standard Washington solution to any bureaucratic problem is: increase our funding. An agency so replete with duplication should, however, reform itself, or beg Congress for the necessary reforms, before it asks for any budget enhancement.

The present structure of USIB 1) is full of duplication, a form of waste in federal spending, 2) divides resources that are scarce no matter how generous the budget, and 3) forces the audience to tune to two different stations to get all of the news. In USIB as it is now, each entity is assigned a deficiency. VOA needs more resources to report about its target country. RFE/RL and RFA mostly do not do world news and news about the USA. In each target country, through audience research, the audience will indicate what proportion of news about their country, about the United States, and about the rest of the world, they want. When two USIB entities transmit in the same language, neither is calibrated to provide news in the desired proportion.

Reps. Brad Sherman and Eliot Engel

Most of the members of the committee perceive U.S. international broadcasting as a form of advocacy. One member said the BBG is "not about increasing your target audience. It's about getting your message out." In other words, international broadcasting as soliloquy.

Two members of the committee defended the news function of USIB.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) said, "We need to maintain enough distinction between the State Department and the broadcasters so that every news report isn't considered an official statement of the US government subject to 17 reviews." He also said, "I think we need one agency overseeing this to avoid the duplication."

He also spoke of his quest to add VOA broadcasts in the Sindh language of Pakistan. "I've been here 17 years. I haven’t seen any suggestion taken by the broadcasters unless it was passed by both houses of Congress and binding on them by law."

If languages of USIB were added every time a member of Congress wanted it added, USIB would soon be up to 200 or more languages. With resources so subdivided, daily broadcasts in each language would probably not be possible, nor would television in most of them.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), in his opening statement as ranking member, said, "As we examine ways to improve the governance of international broadcasting, it is vital that any reforms maintain the journalistic integrity that has been built over the last 70 years. This means maintaining a strong firewall between journalism and politics." He also cited what he described as a VOA adage: "Tell the truth and let the world decide."

That adage is a wonderful encapsulation of what VOA, and indeed all the entities of USIB, should do. It is, unfortunately, not displayed anywhere at the VOA headquarters. And it requires some explanation. Some might wonder, why merely broadcast truth to the world? Why on earth let audiences decide for themselves? Shouldn’t we decide for them? The answers are not difficult but require a slight intellectual leap.

Rep. Engel also asked a key question: "Is there any common ground in the overarching mission of US international broadcasting? Is it possible for the broadcasters to provide authoritative, accurate, and objective news while at the same time advancing US interests?"

The responses largely consisted of sophistry, with journalism positioned as a “context” for an effort whose real intent is to support U.S. policies. Mix any amount of propaganda with news, however, and the sum is propaganda. The audience will detect an agenda. And they can tune to other stations, or access other websites, with a more sincere approach to news.

Here is the answer to Rep. Engels’ question: Providing authoritative, accurate, and objective news in itself advances US interests. 1) It attracts an audience, because authoritative, accurate, and objective news is what the audience is seeking. 2) Having received such information, the audience is bolstered against the misinformation and disinformation of dictators and terrorists and other miscreants. 3) The audience has a clear and undistorted picture of US policies and actions, and of the reasons behind them, and of US discussion and debate about those policies. 4) It speaks well for the United States that it provides such a needed information service. 5) It speaks well for the United States that it would provide a news service that includes all the day’s events, including those that might be unfavorable to the government. 6) Authoritative, accurate, and objective news is necessary for the development of democracy, and for the maintenance of young democracies.

The United States has a substantial public diplomacy effort in the State Department. That is where advocacy should be employed to advance U.S. interests. Public diplomacy and international broadcasting are complementary.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

In her questions for the witnesses, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) expressed her support for Radio and TV Martí, a subject of interest to her constituency. She also asked if VOA can fill the information “vacuum” in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen should find out what media research says about any such information vacuum in those two countries. Is CNN en Español available there? Is it being watched? Is it reporting in sufficient detail about Venezuela and Ecuador? Keep in mind that CNN en Español provides the hemisphere with a 24-hour news service at no cost to the US taxpayers. I thought conservatives preferred private sector initiatives, but, no, here they go again, trying to increase the size of government.

As acting chair of the committee (Rep. Royce having stepped out), Rep. Ros-Lehtinen closed the hearing with a sternly inflected admonition: "I again remind our witnesses, our audiences, and members that the mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is, quote, 'to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,' end quote. This is broadcast for freedom and democracy. If you think that this is an impartial broadcasting, then you are not fulfilling your mission, because you are supposed to stand for freedom and democracy. That is the direction, that is what the BBG is supposed to do. We don't have to change the mission. We have to change the folks who are in charge of the programming who don't have any idea what their mission is. So, this is an important mission, it's of great interest to this committee, support for freedom and democracy. Amen."

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen thus warned U.S. international broadcasting, including, presumably, its journalists, not to commit the sin of impartiality. And, significantly, she used the BBG’s own mission statement as ammunition in her assault on the BBG firewall.

This is the BBG’s mission statement: “To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

When this new mission statement was unveiled in 2011, I had a sinking feeling. The first thing to know about international broadcasting is that the audience for international broadcasting is seeking news that is more accurate, balanced, and objective than the news they get from their government controlled domestic media. The new mission statement, unlike its predecessor, does not mention “accurate, balanced, and objective”. In fact, it does not even mention “news.” It does include the verb “inform,” but there are many ways to inform. An advertisement for an automobile dealership informs, but it is hardly accurate, balanced, and objective.

I wrote that the wording of the new mission statement “could cause confusion among audiences, and among the employees of USIB.” But it is also confusing members of Congress, and why shouldn’t it? It mentions “support of freedom and democracy” but nowhere mentions accurate, balanced, and objective news.

The mission statement has not only confused members of Congress, it has incited them to dissolve the BBG firewall and move USIB towards the advocacy role that corresponds with the words in the mission statement.

And isn’t it fascinating that this momentum towards advocacy comes just as the domestic dissemination prohibition of the Smith-Mundt Act has been lifted, and the BBG is informing U.S. domestic media outlet how to access its content. Fear of domestic propaganda was one of the premises of the prohibition. Somewhere from the Great Beyond, the late Senators Alexander Smith and Karl Mundt may be trying to tell us: we told you so.

The battle for the soul of US international broadcasting

If and when Obama nominee Jeff Shell is appointed as the new BBG’s new chairman, the first thing he should do is jettison the BBG’s unfortunate mission statement. He should also bring in people who can explain the concept of international broadcasting in terms that Washington decision makers, think tank fellows, writers and commentators understand.

With press freedom deteriorating throughout the world, there is a greater global need for accurate, balanced, and objective news. USIB is poised to be the world’s leading multilingual news service. To achieve this requires the consolidation called for by Enders Wimbush and the journalistic independence articulated by Jeffrey Hirschberg. The BBG must decide, unambiguously, that it is in the business of accurate, balanced, and objective news, and not in the advocacy business. This intention should be proclaimed in plain language to Washington, to the American people, and to the world.

The battle for the soul of U.S. international broadcasting has been joined. The outcome will determine whether USIB does news or propaganda, whether it is market based or centrally planned, and whether it will have an audience, or not.

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