FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, December 11, 2008, San Francisco — The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages U.S. government-funded broadcasts for overseas audiences, has launched a campaign to defend its strategy of privatizing and outsourcing public diplomacy efforts, which it claims is designed to improve America’s image abroad using advertising and other private sector solutions. Nearly everyone in the U.S. and abroad agrees that these efforts have been a disastrous failure, but the White House continues to publish self-serving and misleading assertions crafted by the BBG staff in an attempt to portray the agency as incredibly successful and forward-looking in its approach to public diplomacy.
The White House statement issued to commemorate Human Rights Day and the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 included a claim that “U.S. international broadcasters funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) are overcoming censorship by gathering news from citizen journalists with cell phones, reporting the facts via SMS feeds and targeted e-mails, and encouraging citizens living in repressive regimes to join the information revolution with open discussions on radio and TV call-in shows and blogs. The BBG now offers diverse Internet products in all 60 broadcast languages, ranging from basic text to complex video and audio and live streaming.” The wording of the White House statement may suggest to some that the BBG is paying for these initiatives when in fact U.S. taxpayers’ money appropriated by Congress is being used.
Such self-serving statements are more interesting not for what they include but for what they leave out. For nearly eight years, the BBG has supported the neoconservative agenda of privatizing and outsourcing U.S. international broadcasting, resulting in an unprecedented failure and a waste of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars. Incredibly, some of the biggest supporters of this privatization effort have been liberal Democrats serving on the bipartisan Board, including Edward E. Kaufman, the newly appointed U.S. Senator from Delaware, and Norman Pattiz, founder of the U.S. radio syndicate Westwood One.
One of their staunchest neoconservative allies has been James K. Glassman, the BBG’s most recent chairman who is now the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The record of the failed public diplomacy policies under his leadership has not prevented the BBG or the White House from claiming success. Glassman’s allies have even launched a campaign to help him hold on to his position in the new Obama Administration. His friend of 30 years, syndicated columnist Morton Kondracke, wrote recently in Roll Call, the Capital Hill newspaper, that “keeping on a conservative Republican like Glassman – formerly based at the American Enterprise Institute – may be a hard swallow for Democrats eager to occupy plum jobs. … But before they oust him, they ought to listen to him, take his recommendations for beefing up the U.S. global communications infrastructure and – for sure – maintain his innovations.”
Privatization of U.S. international broadcasting produced this report by the BBG-funded Alhurra Television for the Middle East. To pay for Alhurra, the BBG terminated all Voice of America Arabic broadcasts, which were produced by American-trained editors and were subject to strict editorial oversight.
Glassman, Kaufman and Pattiz may try to present themselves as experts who have uncovered the benefits of privatization of U.S. international broadcasting and the use of the Internet, but most outside experts agree that their innovations have been responsible for the steepest decline in the positive indicators of U.S. image abroad in recent history.
The core of the BBG strategy has been the dismantling of the Voice of America (VOA), the official yet journalistically independent U.S. broadcasting organization, which is subject to U.S. laws and strict fiscal accountability, and replacing it with a number of private broadcasters and contractors, some of them based overseas. Neoconservatives like Glassman were engaged in this effort primarily for ideological reasons, while liberal Democrats like Pattiz and Kaufman who unquestionably supported these ideas also saw benefits accruing to private consultants and contractors who have been linked to them through their business and political connections. As international public opinion surveys, U.S. government audits and reports by investigative journalists show, their efforts were a fiscal and editorial fiasco which turned overseas audiences against the United States.
- Glassman and Kaufman were among the majority of the BBG members responsible for shutting down Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian army attacked Georgia. They also voted to terminate VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine.
- The BBG ignored appeals from the U.S. Congress not to eliminate radio broadcasting to countries without free media. On July 17, 2008, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT ) specifically warned the BBG not to stop or reduce broadcasts to Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tibet and to the Balkans, saying that “freedom of speech remains restricted and broadcasting is still necessary” in these countries.
- Glassman, Kaufman and other BBG members voted to end VOA radio broadcasts in Hindi to India. These broadcasts went off the air just a few weeks before the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
- The American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1812, which represents VOA broadcasters, said after the Mumbai attacks that it would take at least a half dozen eggs “to cover the faces of those BBG Board members who voted in favor of ending the VOA shortwave radio broadcasts in Hindi.”
- Despite Putin’s crackdown on independent media in Russia, the BBG removed Voice of America Russian radio program from an AM frequency in Moscow. They restored a much shortened broadcast only after protests from FreeMediaOnline.org and other media freedom organizations.
- After the Russian attack on Georgia, Kaufman and Glassman refused to allow VOA to resume radio broadcasts in Russian that could be heard on shortwave in the war zone. Under Secretary Glassman personally rejected appeals from VOA Russian Service journalists to allow them to restart radio broadcasts during the Russian-Georgian conflict.
- The BBG eliminated a call-in radio show by the Voice of America Russian Service which was popular with independent journalists and human rights activists in Russia and in other former Soviet republics.
- A statement issued 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.
- The Public Diplomacy Council, a nonprofit organization which includes former diplomats, academics and other foreign policy experts, blamed the BBG for ignoring strategically important target areas such as Russia, the Balkans, India and the Western Hemisphere. The Council noted that the Broadcasting Board of Governors “has taken special aim at the Voice of America” by abolishing the VOA Arabic Service and reducing its broadcasts in English to the Middle East and other regions. The Council also criticized the BBG’s decision to terminate all VOA radio broadcasts in Russian shortly before Russia’s military attack on Georgia last summer.
- At the urging of James Glassman, the BBG unsuccessfully tried to hire Paula Zahn, formerly of CNN, as its high-profile spokesperson while cutting or reducing programs to countries like Tibet and Russia.
- In its push for privatization, the BBG ignored warnings that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists who are Russian citizens and are based in Russia are subject to intimidation and blackmail by the Kremlin’s secret police. View FreeMediaOnline.org report: Radio Liberty managers put a positive spin on Putin’s comments about the murder of independent Russian journalist
- Russian human rights organization, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau has criticized Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for giving an entire hour of airtime to a Russian politician known for his racist views and verbal attacks on Blacks and other ethnic and racial minorities. View FreeMediaOnline.org: U.S. Taxpayers Pay for Spreading Racist Views on Radio Liberty in Russia
- The BBG spent millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars on private foreign contractors and building construction in the Czech Republic, Russia, and the Middle East while cutting U.S. based jobs and denying U.S. labor law protections to its overseas based employees. View The Herald News: New administration must undue RFE/RL’s anti-diplomacy abroad
- Articles highly critical of the BBG’s actions in the Middle East and Russia have been published by the independent journalism web site ProPublica.org. They point out that despite many major editorial and financial scandals, the BBG still favors the privatized broadcasting entities, such as Alhurra, over VOA. Investigative journalists at ProPublica.org, a non-profit led by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger, reported that a guest invited to participate in an Alhurra program had called for killings of American soldiers in Iraq. The network also aired a 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 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.
The privatization of U.S. international broadcasting was based on a naive premise that overseas audiences will not associate such names as Alhurra and Radio Sawa with the U.S. government. The surrogate broadcasting model from the Cold War, embraced by both neoconservatives like Glassman and liberal Democrats like Kaufman, is neither effective nor forward-looking. Their current strategy is to present themselves as innovators of the Internet age. In reality, their neoconservative surrogate propaganda broadcasting policies are responsible for destroying the credibility of the U.S. message abroad have delayed new media innovation by at least eight years.
Under Secretary Glassman is still pushing for further cuts in radio broadcasting by the Voice of America to pay for his latest ideas such as using online contests to promote democracy. He and his former and current colleagues on the BBG fail to see that overseas audiences want serious news that reflect rather than advertise American policies and values — something unlikely to be generated by private contractors working without proper supervision. The Obama Administration should not be fooled by the BBG’s and Under Secretary Glassman’s newly-found enthusiasm for new media.
It might be worth remembering that not too long ago this neo-conservative Republican was just as enthusiastic about the U.S. stock market. Glassman co-authored a book DOW 36,000, confidently predicting that the stock index would soon reach that level. He now believes that Internet solutions, which bloggers have been successfully using for a long time at practically no cost, require millions of dollars in spending on private consultants and contractors. Norman Pattiz, whose business ideas and entertainment-based programming for Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television delighted the fabulously incompetent neoconservative BBG members, is now trying to save his own radio company Westwood One from bankruptcy. Westwood One announced on Nov. 18 that it will be suspended from trading on the NYSE as a result of its failure to maintain a minimum $25 million market capitalization level. Its stock now trades at about 5 cents a share.
Unfortunately for the American people and the cause of press freedom abroad, the BBG has been a refuge for political loyalists, U.S. businessmen lacking international sophistication, and ideologues of both parties with no real experience in foreign policy, human rights activism, and new media journalism. The Obama Administration would be well-advised to ignore the BBG-generated propaganda and take advice from independent experts with no link to political appointees, consultants and contractors who have exposed U.S. public diplomacy to international ridicule. Almost all independent experts, including those connected with the well-respected Public Diplomacy Council, have called for reversing the unregulated and completely misguided privatization of U.S. international broadcasting.
This commentary may be republished on the web or in print with attribution to FreeMediaOnline.org. 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. 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).