FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, November 26, 2008, San Francisco — Voice of America journalists and other employees who broadcast American news to the world are thankful for the pre-Thanksgiving Day news that Ted Kaufman (Edward E. Kaufman) was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat from Delaware vacated by his former boss, Vice President elect Joe Biden. As concerned as these employees are with state and national-level politics, they are relieved that a person responsible for shutting down Voice of America direct radio broadcasts to Russia, an action taken just days before the Russian military invasion of Georgia last summer, will now be of more immediate concern to the people of Delaware.
Ted Kaufman, who had previously served as Senator Joe Biden’s chief of staff, was appointed in 1995 to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a bipartisan body which oversees U.S. government-funded international broadcasts, including those by the Voice of America. Although he is a liberal Democrat, Kaufman and another former BBG member, Norman Pattiz of the U.S. radio conglomerate Westwood One, formed an alliance with a few of the Board’s most famously incompetent neoconservative Republicans. Kaufman, Pattiz and their neoconservative allies including James K. Glassman, the current Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs, worked together to outsource much of U.S. international broadcasting to private contractors such as Alhurra Television and Radio Sawa network for the Middle East. These new networks were created based on the outdated Cold War-era surrogate broadcasting concepts and Norman Pattiz’s domestic U.S. radio business models. To pay for them, Kaufman and his allies began a process of closing down Voice America language services, which were financially and editorially more accountable to American taxpayers but also more difficult to be managed by the BBG in any way the Board members saw fit.
Ted Kaufman was the primary force behind the shutting down of many Voice of America radio broadcasts, including programs to Russia, a secretive action taken last summer only days before the Russian army attacked Georgia. Even when after the Russian move against Georgia Kaufman’s foreign policy and public diplomacy blunder became obvious, the future U.S. Senator from Delaware prevented the BBG from voting on restoring the Russian-language radio programs that could reach Russia and the war zone in the Caucasus on shortwave. Shortly before the start of the Georgian conflict, Kaufman also voted to eliminate VOA radio to Georgia and Ukraine on the assumption that even poor, desperate and displaced people in conflict areas will be able to get their news and information from the Internet.
While the BBG praises its own and Ted Kaufman’s achievements, the Board has numerous critics and no major outside defenders. Many have called for its abolition, including the highly-respected Public Diplomacy Council, a Washington nonprofit think-tank on public diplomacy, which accused the BBG of taking “special aim at the Voice of America.” The PDC has recommended that the Broadcasting Board of Governors should be replaced by a new nonpartisan oversight commission. It blamed the BBG for silencing VOA Russian radio and ignoring subsequent appeals to restore it.
The BBG, which had tried unsuccessfully to hire Paula Zahn, formerly of CNN, as its high-profile spokesperson to improve its public image while cutting or reducing programs to countries like Tibet and Russia, issued a statement on the appointment of Ted Kaufman to the U.S. Senate describing him as “a dedicated guardian of the journalistic independence of our broadcasters and a passionate advocate of the Agency’s mission.” It also said that “Mr. Kaufman understands the impact of international broadcasting and has always been quick to credit the brave reporters in the field and dedicated employees behind the scenes who are essential in providing reliable news and information to audiences suffering censorship and lack of press freedom.”
Many VOA employees dispute such statements by the BBG spokespersons as public relations hype hat has no basis in reality. They point out that in addition to terminating VOA radio to Russia, a country where censorship is widely practiced and independent journalists are frequently murdered, the BBG had tried also to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet. In that case, the BBG was forced to cancel its threat after protests by Tibetan monks on Capital Hill and letters from outraged members of Congress.
A letter issued last summer by the leadership of the Voice of America employees’ unions, AFGE Local 1812 and AFSCME Local 1418, said that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “has been responsible for one blunder after another — to the point that its actions have compromised U.S. strategic interests.” Saying that “the elimination of Russian and Georgian radio broadcasts should be the last straw,” the VOA employees’ union leaders called on Congress to act immediately to dissolve the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Their letter also said that the BBG, “unilaterally and in contravention of the express language of the Congress, closed the Voice of America Russian Radio Service.” “In effect, we are deaf, dumb and blind in Russia,” the union letter said.
Upon learning of Ted Kaufman’s appointment to the U.S. Senate, a high-ranking Union leader told FreeMediaOnline.org that “Ted Kaufman was no friend to the employees of the VOA.” A former VOA Union member and manager said that the statement by the BBG spokeswoman Letitia King describing Kaufman as “the kind of person who expresses sincere appreciation for the person on the front line,” is as hollow “as any statement could possibly be.” The former VOA employee said that Kaufman never sought input from the rank-and-file and kept himself “behind the closed doors of the BBG fortress. ”
Journalistic blunders and financial abuses during Ted Kaufman’s watch at the BBG have been well documented by the independent journalism web site ProPublica.org, a non-profit led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger. ProPublica.org investigative journalists reported that a guest invited to participate in an Alhurra program had called for killings of American soldiers in Iraq. The Alhurra network also aired a completely unbalanced report on a Holocaust deniers conference in Tehran. According to ProPublica.org, “the reporter who covered the conference told viewers that Jews had provided no scientific evidence of the Holocaust.” ProPublica.org has also uncovered major financial abuses at Radio Sawa and Alhurra. The BBG has refused to make public an independent study commissioned last year from the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School to review the network’s content because the study is reportedly highly critical of Alhurra and the BBG.
Such public diplomacy, journalistic and financial blunders would be unlikely to occur on a vast scale if Ted Kaufman and Norman Pattiz had not become liberal allies of equally incompetent neo-conservative spenders of U.S. taxpayers’ money who wanted to outsource U.S. international broadcasting to private contractors. Many Voice of America employees are thankful that Ted Kaufman is finally gone from the Broadcasting Board of Governors along with people like James Glassman, who in 1999 co-authored a book DOW 36,000 predicting an unstoppable growth of U.S. stocks, and Norman Pattiz, whose radio programing company’s shares sold at 3 cents on Wednesday and will stop trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Despite Kaufman’s close links with Biden and Biden’s links with Pattiz, who has been one of Biden’s major financial backers, some VOA employees are also optimistic that in managing U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy, President Obama will be true to his promise of rewarding foreign policy experience and competence above political loyalty. They also hope that as a junior Senator from Delaware, Ted Kaufman can do less damage to U.S. international broadcasting than he would have if he had stayed at the BBG. As one former VOA broadcaster, manager and Union leader put it, Ted Kaufman was a big fish in a small BBG pond, but he will be a mere guppy in a mammoth Senate sea.
This commentary may be republished on the web or in print with attribution to the author. Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director and 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. He is founder and president of FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit which support media freedom worldwide, and author of Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church (O-Books – June 2008).