A struggle for the soul of U.S. international broadcasting?
Friday, April 8th 2011
In a tiny, crowded conference room on Capitol Hill April 6 --- ignored by camera crews covering what appeared to be an imminent U.S. government shutdown --- a decades-old struggle on the content of America’s publicly-funded international broadcasts surfaced once again. The setting was the first meeting of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, chaired by Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). The hearing’s title: “Is America’s Overseas Broadcasting Undermining our National Interest and the Fight Against Tyrannical Regimes?”
Opening the hearing, Chairman Rohrabacher seemed eager to answer the question with a resounding “yes.” One of the greatest failures in U.S. foreign policy, he said, “is the failure to follow a strategic communications policy… The role and responsibilities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the BBG) is not only journalism.” (The Board is the oversight agency for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV in Arabic and Radio/TV Marti to Cuba in Spanish.)
It is high time, subcommittee chairman Rohrabacher added, “to stop giving airtime to the Iranian government” on VOA’s Persian TV Service and to be so “slow in reporting negative things they (the Iranians) are doing.” The chairman added: “Two of America’s most dangerous enemies are Iran and Communist China and “both are manipulating information to their own citizens.” He also was critical of the BBG’s plan to abolish VOA radio and TV broadcasts in Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese as of October 1. The chairman questioned whether U.S. international broadcasting is as effective today at it was at the height of the Cold War.
BBG member Enders Wimbush responded that U.S.-funded broadcasts, available through radio, TV, the Internet and mobile devices, “allow populations to learn the facts, to share their experiences on the ground through Twitter, SMS text and cell phone video, and to become participants in the global community that is providing a new voice to those who have had none. U.S. international broadcasting,” he said in a prepared statement, “has a distinct niche: objective journalism. The power of a free press fuels and sustains the exchange of ideas and the struggle for individual thought and freedom.”
From 1948 until 1987, VOA was far and away the leading international broadcaster to Russia, despite intermittent jamming. Today, of the 165 million weekly listeners to and viewers of U.S. government-funded overseas broadcasts, 123 million listen to VOA. That’s because it has strived mightily to live by its Charter (Public Law 103-415) mandating it to be an accurate, objective and comprehensive source of news and “straight arrow” reflector of significant American thought, institutions, policies and policy debates. Just the facts, not propaganda.
“The cutting edge of honest facts,” to quote the late legendary VOA news director Bernie Kamenske, “reflects our values.” Spin doesn’t work. “Most people in other societies,” the current VOA Director Dan Austin told a George Washington University audience less than two hours after the House hearing concluded, “know propaganda when they see it… What I and those who came before me and who will come after me are resolved to ensure… what won’t change, are the values behind our broadcasts, podcasts and webcasts.”
Indeed, the Voice’s history is one rich with “full service” broadcasting of news and information about the world and various regions it reaches, and a Charter obligation to reflect U.S. life, culture and ideas. And “full service” surely should mean broadcasting on all platforms in the most important of the 44 VOA languages, as former Voice Director Robert Reilly told the hearing:
“Now, if an outside observer looked at what happened to the VOA over the past ten years, he might notice a pattern --- that broadcasting to the largest, most important countries of the world has been eliminated --- Portuguese to Brazil gone, Hindi to India eliminated, Arabic to the Arab world ended and replaced by a pop music station. Russian (radio and TV) gone, and the Chinese service is now on the block for extinction in all but its Internet presence, which is blocked. Why have we done this to ourselves?” A key question to Congressional appropriators who still have before them the latter reduction as part of the administration’s FY 12 request.
The new Broadcasting Board of Governors that took office last July is at a crossroads. It seems serious about streamlining operations through consolidation and restructuring of a complex and costly array of support services and overlapping managements among the five networks. That, rather than still more cuts of radio and TV in principal languages or broadcasts in our own language, English, seems the wisest course in the streamlining that lies ahead.
And, as we witnessed at the oversight hearing, cross-streaming of credible content is key within any media brand. Fear transformed to hope is the change agent fueling the Arab spring of 2011. It is what many media consumers overseas are seeking. It explains why the Chinese are cracking down on local media and arresting even prominent artists such as Ai Waiwai. To quote the Financial Times: “The ongoing campaign of repression in China is thought to be related to calls for a peaceful ‘jasmine revolution’ --- emulating calls for democracy sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa.” Britain, France, Germany, the European Union and the United States have all condemned Ai’s disappearance and the fate of other prominent human rights activists in China --- reported in news programs at VOA but not in PRC media.
Speaking of the impact of an Arab spring that could be emulated in other regions, media expert Jeffrey Ghanem of the National Endowment for Democracy says: “The convergence of social media, satellite networks and traditional media (radio and TV) proved pivotal in spreading the protesters’ messages.” He quotes one Tunisian blogger as saying: “These were the echo chamber of the struggle on the street,” or “freedom beyond 140 characters.”
“Freedom beyond 140 characters.” Straight news, empowering ideas and information-in-depth. Just the unvarnished cutting edge of facts. The heart and soul of successful U.S. international broadcasting for nearly seven decades. “Where there is light,” a Chinese shortwave listener emailed VOA a few years ago, “living things will seek it.” The struggle goes on --- now more important than ever before to millions of millennial citizen producers and consumers of information of quality in an ever more curious world.