12 April 2005
Put the News Here, and the Propaganda There
U.S. international broadcasting and U.S.
can succeed, if they are separate.
Kim Andrew Elliott
At the confirmation hearing for Karen
Hughes, President Bush’s nominee for Undersecretary of State for Public
Diplomacy, the senators will undoubtedly ask her many questions about
international broadcasting: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio
Radio Free Asia, Radio/TV Martí, Radio Sawa, and Alhurra.
They will be asking the wrong
person. The International Broadcasting
Act of 1994 and the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of
separated U.S. international broadcasting from the U.S. Information
later from the State Department. At
least a few decision makers understood that international broadcasting,
provide a reliable, objective, balanced news service, had to be
and not part of the policy advocacy of U.S. public diplomacy.
But confusion about the relationship
of international broadcasting to public diplomacy continues. A large proportion of the many commentaries
about the Hughes nomination discuss U.S. international broadcasting
efforts. For example, Fred Kaplan wrote in
the Soviet Union of the 1950s and '60s, there was Pravda on the one hand, Voice
of America on the other. The
former dished out the dreary boilerplate of the ruling Communist Party.
latter offered exciting rhythms from the forbidden outside world. …
official American image, even a well-crafted one, would have to compete
vast array of newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts and, most
satellite TV networks—some state-sponsored, some independent—that have
better idea of what appeals to their viewers than we do.
This is an uncommonly astute
observation about international broadcasting, but it has little to do
Karen Hughes. True, Ms. Hughes would attend meetings of the
of Governors, sitting on behalf of the Secretary of State, who is an ex
officio member of the Board. But
the real authority is in the eight appointed members of the Board, a
panel whose members serve fixed and staggered terms.
The State Department representatives can voice concerns,
assume and hope -- though don’t know, as Board meetings are rarely open
the Board members do not take these as directives.
Broadcasting versus Public
BBG itself has offered different
explanations about .the relationship between international broadcasting
public diplomacy. Its 2002 Annual
Report begins with a statement that its chairman Kenneth Tomlinson made
hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he places
diplomacy and international broadcasting in “two different spheres”:
We need to
understand the importance of maintaining
the strength of public diplomacy and the traditions of international
broadcasting. I am convinced that we will not be successful in our
mission of delivering our message to the world if we fail to grasp that
are two different spheres and that they operate according to two
different sets of rules.
It is very important that government
America’s message to the world -- passionately and relentlessly. We
be ashamed of public advocacy on behalf of freedom and democracy and
States of America.
broadcasting on the other hand is called upon to reflect the
highest standards of independent journalism as the best means of
international audiences that truth is on the side of democratic values.
statement concluded by describing international broadcasting as one of
“arms of public diplomacy”:
These arms of public diplomacy should be
pursuits because the effectiveness of either is adversely affected when
attempts to impose its approach on the other.
And the 2003 BBG annual report has
international broadcasting in the “realm” of public diplomacy:
“Within the public diplomacy
BBG performed its journalistic mission on behalf of the American
taxpayers.” (Italics added.)
Even the Voice of America described
itself as subordinate to public diplomacy, in its March 14 news report
the Hughes nomination.
undertake a broad review and restructuring of U.S. public diplomacy,
includes cultural outreach, educational exchanges, information programs
international broadcasting, including Voice of America.
part, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does acknowledge the
the State Department and BBG. At her
Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on January 18,
responded to a question about public diplomacy and international
by Virginia Senator George Allen. She placed international broadcasting
part of a broad public diplomacy effort.”
But she added:
Europe and Voice of America and Radio
Martí are about telling the truth, not about propagandizing. We have to
certain that people who otherwise don't have access to the truth
…there is perhaps nothing more important in this war of ideas than
the truth. And so I look forward to working with the Broadcasting Board
Governors, respecting the line that is there, that has been observed
the State Department and the Board.
But in an interview with the Washington
Post, reported on March 25, Secretary Rice added, perhaps
the words “unified” and “coherent” to her vision of U.S. international
The way that
we were most effective with
Radio Free Europe and Voice of America was it was a reliable source of
truth in places where the truth was suppressed. And so obviously we'd
message to be positively received. But you have to be able to
message, and it has to be a unified message and a coherent message… .
Some of the recent commentaries about
the Hughes nomination are more explicit in their desire to see less of
between U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. In a Heritage Foundation commentary on March
15, Stephen Johnson and Helle
The BBG is
supposed to broadcast balanced news and
cultural programs through the Voice of America network and surrogate
such as Radio Free Asia. Since the Reagan Administration, these
gone on to operate in separate universes... Establish a public
coordinator position at the National Security Council to put other
with missions like information warfare, media development, and foreign
broadcasting in sync.
They were perhaps inspired by a
recommendation in the
widely cited report of Ambassador Edward Djerejian’s Advisory Group on Public
Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World:
represents nearly half the spending on public diplomacy,
and it must be part of the public diplomacy process, not marching to
drummer with its own goals and strategy, sources of funding, and board.
Congress needs to reexamine the legislation that created the BBG to
broadcast operations support the strategic mission of U.S. public
The BBG should also safeguard the professional integrity of the effort,
broadcasting must fit into the overall public diplomacy strategy of the
States. It is critical, however, that news and opinion programs be
credible and reliable. The truth is our ally.
But how does one maintain a newsroom
that is objective, balanced, and reliable, and capable of earning the
credibility that is key to success in international broadcasting, if
content is “unified,” “coherent,” “in sync,” and “supports the
mission of public diplomacy”? If U.S. international broadcasting is
“coordinated,” the audience, even illiterate nomads in the most
of the world, will spot its agenda within half a week. They have heard
on their shortwave radios and will not be taken in by the strategizing
Washington decision makers and think tank fellows.
The Djerejian Commission was not
satisfied that U.S. international broadcasting merely keeps foreign
well informed with the news. The broadcasts must make people’s
favorable to the United States. They must “move the needle.”
The view of
the Advisory Group is that [Radio] Sawa needs a clearer
objective than building a large audience. To earn continued financial
it must show, through continuous research, that it can change attitudes
listeners toward the United States, that is, “ move the needle” toward
State Department, in its mission statement on public diplomacy and
affairs, calls “influence,” which comprises “understanding,”
disagreement,” and “active support.”
Confusion about whether the Voice of
America is broadcasting news, or a news-like product with a particular
exacerbated by some recent news coverage about VOA.
The New York Times, no less, in its March 13 story
the U.S. government distribution of videos to news organizations,
Smith-Mundt Act … allows Voice
of America to broadcast pro-government news to foreign
not at home. (Italics added.)
The VOA Charter requirement that its
reporting be “accurate, objective, and
not allow its news to be pro-, or anti-, anything.
Indeed, a few days later, the Times published a
clarification from VOA spokesman Joe O’Connell.
But since the Times story,
the “pro-government” label has spread. On
March 19, the Miami Herald used it in an
editorial about the
government videos that was printed in other papers via the
Voice of America is prohibited by law from broadcasting pro-government
American audiences, out of concern that citizens shouldn't pay to aim
propaganda at themselves.
With these mixed signals about what
VOA and U.S. international broadcasting should do, it is not surprising
notions of propaganda persist even among influential journalists,
analysts, and decision makers. The Washington Post reported
Representative José Serrano said of Alhurra during an Appropriation
hearing in April 2004, "Do not tell us it's not propaganda, because if
it's not propaganda, then I think . . . we will have to look at what it
Communication Process of
Many American journalists and
decision makers seem to think of international broadcasting in terms of
radio propaganda pioneered by Germany and Italy in the 1930s, and
Radio Moscow from the 1950s. To them,
the concept is send message (A), to audience (B) – with the assumption
audience is huddled around their radios to hear message A – to bring
outcome (C), e.g. a more favorable attitude towards the United States,
rejection of terrorism, etc.
But the German, Italian, and Soviet
international radio efforts were not successful. This
is because the actual process of international broadcasting
is more complex than that described in the previous paragraph. It starts not with what message a
national government wants to send, but
with what content the audience wants to hear. Audience
(A) desires certain content (B) that is lacking
domestic media (C), and so they seek it from foreign broadcasting
with a preference towards the broadcaster that provides the best
the clearest signal, through the optimum mix of media, with the most
But what about (E) -- the
all-important impact, or effect, of these international broadcasts? Why would the United States government want
to fund an international broadcasting effort if it has no control over
1) Because people will listen. The
international broadcasting audience makes the effort to tune in to get
that is more reliable than the news they get from their state
2) Well informed audiences are
bolstered against the misinformation, disinformation, and intentional
of media controlled by dictators, terrorists, and other international
miscreants. The audience is now equipped
to form their own opinion about current affairs.
3) The VOA Charter states, "The
long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating
with the peoples of the world by radio." In VOA's first broadcast on
February 24, 1942, announcer William Harlan
Hale said, "The news may be good. The news may be
shall tell you the truth." If the policies of the United States are
and virtuous, then through reporting about U.S. policies and actions
the policies and actions of its adversaries, the good and the bad, we
reasonably expect that in the long range well-informed
tend to agree with U.S. policies.
4) Even if the United States
government decides to pursue policies that are not popular elsewhere in
world, uses of propagandistic techniques would only exacerbate the
of those policies and of the United States itself.
The best the United States can do is to describe those
objectively as possible, and to report on the debate on these policies. If the audience does not agree, at least
they will have a better understanding why the administration has
policies. And they will know that the
United States has a pluralistic system in which policy-making remains
constant debate, including by people whose views may not be far from
5) The audience will witness
democracy in action, with all the inherent disorder therein. They may want some of that disorder in their
6) Even if the audience does not
come to agree with American policies, the fact that the United States
an honest and objective news service speaks well for the United States.
7) Personality and entertainment
programs transmit goodwill and convey the humanness of the American
All told, the process is long term
and subtle and probably cannot be measured by any convenient “needle.”
Complementary Role of Public
While international broadcasting exists
as an independent entity, there is, as a separate and parallel effort,
diplomacy. Every country has a right to
engage in public diplomacy, and the United States has a special need to.
Public diplomacy would continue to
use its usual methods, including the exchanges of writers, artists, and
Websites are increasingly being used
for public diplomacy and are ideal for this purpose.
Journalists, government officials, researchers, interested
individuals use the websites to get a country’s policy statements,
of speeches, contact information, etc.
The U.S. website for this purpose
has the rather ungainly URL of http://usinfo.state.gov. It is now available in seven languages. This
number of languages should expand. Instead of U.S. international
competing with itself in 22 languages (VOA versus Radio Free
Liberty in Russian, Ukrainian, Albanian, etc. and VOA versus Radio Free
Mandarin, Burmese, Tibetan, etc), it would be better and certainly more
efficient for international broadcasting and public diplomacy to complement each other in at least those
And to make this complementation
work, and to maintain credibility all around, the content of the public
diplomacy website and other public diplomacy products should not be
as news. Users should know that they can go to the U.S. international
broadcasting website for an independent journalistic treatment of U.S.
and to the public diplomacy website for official views presented by
representatives of the U.S. government.
As a general rule, public diplomacy
cannot on its own attract a mass audience because its output does not
any popular demand for information or entertainment. To reach large
people, public diplomacy will have to find ways to attach itself to
media outlets in the target countries. This is increasingly important
domestic media in the target countries improve.
One way to do this is to line up
interviews with foreign television stations –- including the
Jazeera -- and other media with large audiences. As
an unnamed U.S. official told the London Telegraph
(reported March 25), "What
would have a real impact is a cast of American diplomats who were
putting their case over on Middle Eastern news and talk shows."
Another method is to purchase
advertisements on media in the target countries. The use of television
advertisements by former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Charlotte
to inform audiences about the life of Muslims in the United States
served no useful purpose. But she was
on the right track by using ads to tap into large audiences already
these domestic media, rather than try to reinvent the wheel with
radio or television services built from scratch. These advertisements,
straightforward, economical, plainly identified, and employed only when
can help correct the record if U.S. policies and actions are not
reported by media in the target country.
Whatever the target country, public
diplomacy has a perpetual role, whereas international broadcasting has
shelf life. When the domestic media of
the country become sufficiently free and diverse, or at least
people will no longer tune to foreign radio and television channels. Eventually, the domestic radio and
television stations will not use programs and reports from foreign
broadcasters, preferring to do the reporting on their own.
When this point is reached, international
broadcasting no longer has significant potential in the target country. However, even in countries with rich and
diverse domestic media, journalists must turn to the public diplomacy
of the transmitting country to obtain policy statements, press
releases, and to
arrange interviews and media events.
Model: Spend Less, Get More
Since September 2001, the multitude of
that have called for improvements, expansions and, above all, budget
for U.S. public international broadcasting have ignored the elephant in
living room: From the Cold war years
through to the present, BBC World Service has had the largest audience,
impact, and greatest prestige of any international broadcaster, even
Britain spends less money on international broadcasting.
I discussed this fifteen years ago in “Too
Voices of America,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1989/90. One of the reasons is that, in Britain,
there is less confusion about the distinct roles of international
and public diplomacy. Members of
Parliament by and large understand the need for the independence of BBC
Service. World Service officials bristle when their station is
public diplomacy. They point out that
their role is to provide news, and providing that “speaks well for
John Tusa, managing director of BBC
World from 1986 to 1992, articulated this stance in his book Conversations
With the World (1990):
broadcasting is, in essence,
anarchic – it leaps boundaries, defies regulations, scatters forbidden
thoughts, and challenges otherwise unchallengeable authorities. It is essentially humanistic, allowing the
individual to make his or her own decisions about their view of the
opens minds; defies collective regimentation and, out of the darkling
of the ether, offers a dialogue of ideas between broadcaster and
So, while many international radio
stations have transmitted propaganda, successful international
broadcasting provides an antidote
Success in the international communications
efforts of the United States requires that international broadcasting
public diplomacy should be conducted by separate agencies, from
buildings, located, ideally, in separate cities.
Improving U.S. international
communications to meet the challenges of the twenty first century
thinking outside of the proverbial box. Specifically,
the thinking should move into two boxes, one
international broadcasting, another box for public diplomacy, with
distance between the two.
Elliott, expressing his own views, is an audience
research analyst in the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau. His
website is kimandrewelliott.com.