Â FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online BlogÂ Commentary by Ted Lipien,Â June 04, 2009, San Francisco –Â President Obama’s recentÂ announcement ofÂ a new Global Engagement DirectorateÂ that will combineÂ ”diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance” was short on specifics how this new structureÂ might change the focus ofÂ U.S. public diplomacy and broadcasting initiatives. That’s hardly surprising, considering that theÂ White HouseÂ has to deal with many other seeminglyÂ more pressing problems. But whenÂ the Administration finally startsÂ making hard decisions on global engagement,Â a greater appreciation of history and foreign culturesÂ could help return some sanity and accountability to these programs. The President and theÂ SenateÂ also have to makeÂ better choices in selecting key officials responsible for international communications and avoid the temptation toÂ use propaganda rather than dialogue and journalism in communicating with the Muslim world.Â Â Such officialsÂ should be appointed and confirmedÂ based onÂ their qualifications as foreign policy analystsÂ andÂ international mediaÂ expertsÂ rather than selected because ofÂ political loyalty orÂ the size of their political contributions. Finally, there is no reason why American taxpayers should continue to fund many of theÂ programs created during the Bush Administration thatÂ at best don’t work and often damage America’s image abroad.Â
Propaganda Is Out, Journalism and Culture Is In – We Hope
- Edward R. Murrow, 1956 photo.
If the White House is serious aboutÂ avoiding past mistakes,Â Â what’s clearly needed in communicating with the rest of the worldÂ is a moreÂ sophisticated approach that draws on what is best in American diplomacy,Â culture and objective journalism.Â Much will depend on what kind of people are put in charge of representing America to the world. TheyÂ should appreciate what’s best in American culture.Â The Administration should look for peopleÂ who would beÂ in the same leagueÂ as EdwardÂ R. Murrow, who was President Kennedy’s choice to head theÂ now defunct United States Information Agency (USIA),Â or John Chancellor, President Johnson’s choice to head the Voice of America (VOA) in the days when the White House appreciated the experience of professional journalists.Â
The last thing America needs is leaving public diplomacy in the hands ofÂ obscureÂ political loyalists who make private business deals on taxpayer-paid trips abroad and help theirÂ business associates get hiredÂ as government consultantsÂ at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which manages, or more accurately mismanages,Â U.S. international broadcasts.Â It’s hard to imagine that the late Armand Hammer, a U.S. business tycoon who made profitable trade deals with Lenin andÂ Stalin,Â wouldÂ have beenÂ put in charge of U.S. broadcasting during the Cold War, or that the late Edward E. Murrow would be discussingÂ private business dealsÂ with President Putin’s associates on a trip to MoscowÂ if he were now in charge of these broadcasts. ButÂ suchÂ apparent conflicts of interest and other abuses were commonÂ at the Broadcasting Board of Governors during the Bush Administration.Â The BBGÂ has been consistently rated in government surveys as one ofÂ the worst managed Federal agencies. Read The Washington Post column by Joe Davidson: Employee Poll Makes VOA’s Parent the Worst Place to Work.
Under President Bush,Â political appointees selectedÂ to run State Department’s public diplomacy programs and U.S. international broadcasting were political operatives,Â advertising executives andÂ mirror entrepreneurs who proved their value to the White House and the Democratic leadership in CongressÂ with political contributions and loyal support. (The BBGÂ is by law bipartisan and must include members of both parties, thus both the Bush White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress share the blame for selecting these individuals.)Â They were rewarded with jobs for which they were completely unsuited andÂ unprepared.
It is not surprising, therefore, that during the past ten years, Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and members of the BBG have brought once sophisticated cultural and broadcastingÂ programs to a new lowÂ level ofÂ simplistic and counterproductiveÂ propaganda.Â They promoted advertising and marketing campaigns that admittedlyÂ mayÂ sometimesÂ produce desired resultsÂ in a U.S. domesticÂ businessÂ setting but turned out to beÂ ineffective and outright offensive when applied to public diplomacy and international broadcasting. And that’s exactly whatÂ these political appointeesÂ whoÂ lacked any substantiveÂ experience in foreign policy, human rightsÂ and journalism,Â have done in tryingÂ toÂ communicate America’s message toÂ foreign audiences,Â especially in the Middle East.
Bring “American” Brand Back
BBGÂ consultants declared “America”Â as a brandÂ nameÂ not to be usedÂ in the Middle EastÂ and came up with aÂ GM-like collection ofÂ new names and new private broadcasting initiatives, each one costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars. Since their creators lacked an even basic understanding of Arab culture and refused to listen to advice from area experts, there was noÂ chance that they could be successful. And by all accounts, theyÂ were not.Â They should have asked themselves why the British, who after allÂ perfected serious radio journalism for audiences abroad, did not feel the need to dilute the BBC World ServiceÂ brand withÂ new stations underÂ manyÂ different names.Â
Returning to a more sophisticated approach, using high-levelÂ cultural diplomacy andÂ serious news broadcasts, may not be easy, as much of the knowledge and experience of previous decadesÂ has beenÂ destroyed and will take time to Â rebuild. The only thing left of sophisticated news analysisÂ and culturalÂ programsÂ once available on the Voice of AmericaÂ are oldÂ audio and text files of interviews with important cultural figures in the Arab world. They have been archived by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, where someÂ U.S. diplomats and localÂ Egyptian employees stillÂ understand their value. It’s this kind of understanding and cultural sensitivity that needs to be brought back. Link to Egyptian Treasures from VOA on the U.S. Embassy Cairo website.
TheÂ BBG eliminated all VOA Arabic language programsÂ to createÂ privately-run Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. The programming philosophy of these stations, developed by former BBG member Norman Pattiz, a DemocratÂ –Â whoÂ despite beingÂ then Senator Joe Biden’s protegeÂ worked closely with neoconservatives in the Bush AdministrationÂ –Â specifically rejectedÂ anything cultural in U.S. international broadcastingÂ above the level ofÂ Brittney Spears. BBG members claimed that theirÂ market research supported programmingÂ derived fromÂ Hollywood and popular culture. TheirÂ professional background, however,Â made it impossible for them toÂ conduct a sophisticated analysis that would take into consideration Middle EasternÂ history, cultural sensitivities, and political implications ofÂ theirÂ programming choices.
The Obama Administration would do well by quicklyÂ reversingÂ many of the BBG’s decisions of the past decade. Correcting these mistakes would greatlyÂ improve America’s image abroad and save U.S. taxpayers’ money. “American” brandÂ should be brought backÂ by makingÂ the Voice of America againÂ a primary U.S. international broadcaster.Â VOA broadcasts and Internet site in Arabic should be restored as soon as possible.
Sources of Failure
How did U.S. international broadcasting go from a series of great successes during the Cold War to disastrous results in the Middle EastÂ in the last decade? While the simplistic worldview adopted by the Bush Administration bearsÂ some of the blame, theÂ BBG and its members haveÂ made a bad situation far worse than it had to be.Â These well meaning but completelyÂ miscast individuals, most of themÂ with backgrounds inÂ small domestic U.S. businesses,Â took a Cold War concept of surrogate broadcasting — whichÂ in any caseÂ was totally unsuitable for the Middle EastÂ –Â and compounded their error by removing from it one element that hadÂ made the original surrogate broadcaster –Â Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty –Â vastly successful in broadcasting to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. That element was aÂ high level intellectual and cultural program content developed by localÂ journalists, writers, artists, and intellectuals — notÂ U.S. advertising experts and politicalÂ loyalists based in Washington, D.C.
Not satisfied withÂ silencing Voice of America broadcasts in Arabic, the BBG membersÂ and their private consultants destroyed culturalÂ uniqueness and effectiveness of RFE/RL Russian broadcasts and terminated VOA radio to Russia just a few daysÂ before the Russian army invaded Georgia. FreeMediaOnline.org reported that only one BBG member, Blanquita Walsh Cullum — the only working journalist on the Board –Â had the courage to to oppose these cuts and spoke outÂ against other abuses, including anÂ ultimately unsuccessfulÂ effort by a former BBG chairman James K.Â GlassmanÂ to hire Paula ZahnÂ asÂ the Board’sÂ high profile spokesperson while VOA broadcasts to critical countries were being eliminated. Paula Zahn declined the job offer as a private contractorÂ that would have cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. James K. Glassman, who ended up as President Bush’s last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, refused to resume VOA Russian radio broadcasts during the Russian-Georgian conflict.
In the process of expanding their power, BBG membersÂ deprivedÂ foreign journalists working for their surrogate broadcastersÂ of any measure of independence and authority, which was one of the key elements of success of U.S. broadcastsÂ during the Cold War. At the same time, they failed to provide clear editorial and policy guidelines — another key element that previous American management teams were usually able to put in place successfully by working in partnership with foreign journalists. Those who dared to oppose BBG’s misguided ideas were fired or found their programs eliminated. To cover up their mistakes, the BBGÂ forced foreignÂ employeesÂ to sign secrecy agreements and refused to make public independent studies showing the failure of their projectsÂ in the Middle East. ReadÂ Report Calls Alhurra A FailureÂ on ProPublica.org.
By all accounts, the broadcastingÂ Â Board has been an unmitigated disaster. Some ofÂ the abuses areÂ only now beginning to come to light.Â BBG-approved personnel policies at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which discriminate against foreign-born journalists,Â Â may soon come before the European Court of Human Rights. Close links between the BBG Democrats and neoconservatives in the Bush AdministrationÂ have proven thatÂ theÂ BoardÂ does not protect U.S. international broadcasters from political interference with program philosophy and program content.Â Â
- The Broadcasting Board of Governors’s organizational chart looks very much like the one for General Motors with numerous brands and units that duplicate missions and budgets. Reforming the BBG, eliminating waste and abuse, and combining broadcasting units could save U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars. More up-to-date figures can be found on the BBG website in the FY2010 BBG Budget Request.
The Obama Administration has a choice ofÂ abolishing the Broadcasting Board of Governors and closing down Alhurra Television andÂ other private broadcasting entitiesÂ created during Bush years. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have a common interest in saving taxpayers money, which are now being wasted on ineffective and duplicate programs.
Alhurra Television and theÂ BBG, however, has some powerful supporters, mostlyÂ amongÂ Democrats who helped to create Alhurra, includingÂ former BBG member Senator Edward E. Kaufman, D-DE, a protege of Vice President Biden.Â Â Read ProPublica.org: Alhurra Bleeding Viewers, Poll Finds, But Spending is Up.
- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is an ex officio member of the BBG.
One of the key members of theÂ Obama Administration who may have a say in what happens to the BBG and Alhurra is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. SheÂ is an ex officio member of the BBG, although sheÂ does not attend its meetings. She is usuallyÂ represented at these meetingsÂ by a senior State Department official. While President Obama wisely avoided giving interviews to Alhurra, Secretary ClintonÂ was recently interviewed by the network. Secretary Clinton is a friend of BBG member D. Jeffrey Hirschberg. He was one of the Democrats who workedÂ closely with the Bush White House to create Radio Sawa and Alhurra. Hirschberg, a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, was also said to be responsible for terminating VOA radio broadcasts to Russia shortly before the Russian invasion of Georgia.
Other than Senator Kaufman and perhaps also Secretary Clinton, Alhurra, which means “The Free One,”Â seems to have now far fewer supporters, especially among members of Congress. ProPublica.org reported that outraged members of Congress threatened to withhold funding after the network aired a report on a Holocaust deniers conference in Tehran. According to ProPulica.org, “the reporter who covered the conference told viewers that Jews had provided no scientific evidence of the Holocaust.”
As a former acting associate director of the Voice of America (VOA),Â I am certain that VOA, the only American-brand broadcaster and a target ofÂ numerous BBG program cuts, is capable of providing news andÂ representing America in a credible and responsible manner that will not embarrass the United States. It’s unlikely that VOA would give airtime to Holocaust deniers, as did Alhurra editors and anchors, who apparently felt theyÂ had no choice but to follow the BBG dictum of giving the audience what it wants based on market research.Â Although VOA has had various problems with its broadcastsÂ over the years, itÂ follows much more strict editorial and fiscal standards than the BBG’s favored private broadcasting entities and their contractors.
In some cases,Â private broadcasting entities and surrogate broadcastersÂ can be effective if they have the right programming philosophy,Â proper management andÂ sufficient autonomy combined with sufficientÂ oversight.Â Ultimately, much will depend on the quality and experienceÂ of the people the Obama AdministrationÂ puts in charge of these programs. Their understanding how we can communicate with other nations by presenting what’s best in our culture and intellectual tradition will determine whether these programs will be successful in the future.
About Ted Lipien
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was also a regional BBG media marketing manager responsible for placement of U.S. government-funded radio and TV programs on stations in Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in Eurasia. In the 1980′s he was in charge of VOA radio broadcasts to Poland during the communist regime’s crackdown on the Solidarity labor union andÂ oversaw the development of VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia. He is also author of “Wojtylaâ€™s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church” (O-Books – June 2008). In his book he describes the efforts of the KGB and other communist intelligence services to place spies in the Vatican and to influence reporting by Western journalists.
FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, supports media freedom worldwide.Â
In December 2008, FreeMediaOnline.org launched a Russian-language web site — GovoritAmerika.us Ð“Ð¾Ð²Ð¾Ñ€Ð¸Ñ‚ÐÐ¼ÐµÑ€Ð¸ÐºÐ°.usÂ Â –Â which includes summaries of some of the more serious news and commentaries from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources. According to Ted Lipien, the web siteÂ is designed to compensate for the loss of information from the United States for Russian-speaking audiences due to programÂ and budget cuts implemented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The web site, which includes links to VOA Russian Service newsÂ reports,Â is also designed to counter the BBG marketing strategy that has forcedÂ broadcasting entities to focus on entertainmentÂ programming and to avoid hard-hittingÂ political reporting that might preventÂ local rebroadcasting or offend local officials. GovoritAmerika.us web site was developed without any public funding and is managed by volunteers. It is also hosted on LiveJournal.com.
BBG officials initially had told the VOA Russian Service that their requests to resume radio broadcasts were a “non-starter” even after Russia invaded Georgia. Only after weeks of protests, including reporting by FreeMediaOnline.org, the BBG finally allowed VOA to produce a short audio program for the Internet, updated only Monday through Friday. This program is rather difficult to find on the VOA website. We made it available for easier access and listening on the GovoritAmerika.us website managed by FreeMediaOnline.org.