State Department videos embarrass the U.S. among audiences abroad while the Department’s top promoter of Public Diplomacy 2.0 pushes to eliminate Voice of America radio journalism in favor of TV and Internet propaganda advertising and broadcasting based on Cold War models.
While I was an elementary school student in Poland in the 1960s, we had to write compositions why communism was the world’s best political system and what made Lenin the greatest man who has ever lived. Communist media in Poland was full of similar propaganda, although admittedly it was not nearly as naive as what the Soviet media was offering at the time. Most people in Poland were both offended by and laughed at such crude efforts to promote communism. They listened instead to radio broadcasts by Radio Free Europe (RFE) and the Voice of America (VOA). Everybody knew that these two station, financed by the U.S. government, represented a particular political point of view against communism, but we appreciated the fact that they offered generally accurate news and sophisticated journalistic analysis rather than crude propaganda.
Since then, communism had collapsed and international consumers of media news have become even more skeptical and discerning. And yet a number of recent U.S. State Department political appointees responsible for public diplomacy and officials in charge of U.S. international broadcasting have enthusiastically embraced propaganda advertising as the primary solution to the problems of how the Bush Administration and the United States are perceived abroad.
These efforts have been in line with the general desire of neoconservative Bush Administration officials to subcontract much of public diplomacy and international broadcasting to private corporations and institutions, thus limiting fiscal controls, transparency and input from professional State Department diplomats and Voice of America journalists who could question and possibly block outlandish and counterproductive ideas. Instead of responsible and balanced journalism by Voice of America, foreign audiences are now being offered short propaganda videos and entertainment-rich programs produced by private contractors.
A similar effort to replace journalism with questionable marketing and advertising concepts has been underway for a number of years at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is responsible for U.S. international broadcasts. Even though this is a bipartisan board, its Democratic members joined forces with neoconservative Republicans in slashing Voice of America journalistic programs and creating private broadcasting entities, such as Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television for the Middle East, with the stated goal of “marrying the mission to the market,” (BBG’s own slogan.)
BBG members and their private consultants had told these privatized entities to play music, offer programs that audiences agree with, and to make every other effort to attract more listeners and viewers. Not surprisingly, Muslim viewers dismissed Alhurra as an American propaganda station, even though in its misplaced desire to please the audience the station aired reports expressing sympathy with those who deny that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis during the World War II Holocaust.
Use this link to the ProPublica.org web site to view the Alhurra Holocaust report (with English subtitles) as an example of what the BBG’s marketing strategy has produced at these privatized U.S.-funded stations: http://www.propublica.org/feature/alhurra-video
Voice of America is the only U.S. Congress-funded international broadcaster that has tried to resist BBG’s marketing strategy, but “Marrying the Mission to the Market” and Public Diplomacy 2.0, which in their current form can only be described as Propaganda 2.0, have largely replaced objective journalism in U.S. efforts to communicate with foreign audiences. One of the first Voice of America broadcasting units eliminated by the BBG was the VOA Arabic Service, which was highly-respected in the Middle East for independence and the quality of its radio programs.
More recently, the current public diplomacy chief at the State Department, James K. Glassman, the neoconservative co-author of the book DOW 36,000: The New Strategy for Profiting From the Coming Rise in the Stock Market, (Yes, in 1999 Glassman was just as enthusiastic in predicting that the U.S. stock market would soon reach this level as he is now about his vision of Public Diplomacy 2.0.) ordered the termination of VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian military attacked Georgia in August 2008. Glassman had also wanted to eliminate all VOA radio programs to Georgia and Ukraine. He personally rejected pleas from VOA Russian Service journalists to allow them to resume radio broadcasts to the war zone in the Caucasus during the height of the Russian-Georgian conflict.
Glassman apparently became convinced that even war refugees and war combatants can get their news from the Internet, and if they can’t, they probably do not matter as an audience since more often than not these groups are not statistically significant. His other assumption was that the Internet requires vast sums of money (for private consultants and contractors), and therefore VOA cannot possibly do both radio and Internet to Russia at the same time, even though many other private and public broadcasters are combining the Internet with radio and TV without much difficulty. It’s hard to tell what Mr. Glassman thinks about the people in Russia and elsewhere who cannot afford the Internet, but he definitely ignores the power of direct communication between American journalists and their international audience that has always been crucial, especially in times of serious political crises, and he dismisses concerns about the documented ability of Russia’s secret services to block and sabotage the Internet.
At first, the BBG would not even consider restoring VOA radio to Russia, but after protests by FreeMediaOnline.org and others, it allowed the Russian Service to produce a much reduced 30 minute radio program Monday through Friday, which has no current newscasts but does offer more in-depth coverage of critical current issues than what is available from other formats. Despite BBG’s decision to spend large sums of money on outside Internet consultants and contractors, the Russian radio program is difficult to find on the VOA web site and its audio is often not updated regularly, thus leaving site visitors to hear the same outdated program over a number of days.
ProPublica.org, a nonprofit investigative journalism web site, has uncovered major financial and editorial irregularities related to private contractors hired under the rules set up by the BBG. Some of them were confirmed by an independent study prepared by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, University of Southern California. Commissioned by the U.S. government, the study’s authors concluded that Alhurra, Arab-language television to the Middle East managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors fails to meet basic journalistic standards and is seen by few.
It was beyond the scope of the USC study to point out that the money to operate Alhurra has been taken from VOA broadcasting to such strategic countries as Russia, China (including Tibet), and India. As millions of dollars were being spent and wasted on Internet propaganda videos at the Department of State and on programs at scandal-ridden private broadcasting entities, such as Alhurra, the Broadcasting Board of Governors also made a decision to stop VOA Ukrainian radio broadcasts. This happened just hours before Russia shut off the flow of natural gas supplies to Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
Only five members serve currently on the Board: Joaquin F. Blaya, Blanquita Walsh Cullum, D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, Steven J. Simmons, and Condoleezza Rice (ex officio). One prominent former BBG member Edward E. Kaufman, recently appointed as a U.S. Senator from Delaware, (He had been Senator Biden’s chief of staff and replaces him in the Senate.) joined other Democrats and Republicans in voting to end VOA radio programs to Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, and India — each time shortly before a major news emergency affecting these countries, which included the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
In making these cuts, the majority of BBG members completely disregarded warnings and requests from the U.S. Congress, human rights NGOs, and the union of journalists and broadcasting technicians working for the Agency. BBG members have also ignored advice from professional diplomats and media experts familiar with foreign cultures. Neither Kaufman nor Biden seemed concerned that silencing VOA radio while RFE/RL operations in Russia are vulnerable to intimidation by the Russian secret police presents a serious risk. RFE/RL is incorporated in Delaware.
Most BBG officials treat their jobs as giving them carte blanche to support their pet projects. Democrats on the Board became enthusiastic supporters of the Bush Administration’s plans for privatized broadcasting to the Middle East. The chief architect and implementer of these plans at the BBG was a Democratic appointee, Norman Pattiz, founder of the U.S. radio syndicate Westwood One. According to FreeMediaOnline.org sources, only one BBG member, a Republican appointee, was reported to have opposed VOA programming cuts to media-at-risk countries, angering both former BBG Republican Chairman Glassman, and Ted Kaufman, former top Democratic member. Leaders of the union representing BBG employees have called for the Board to be eliminated as did the highly respected Public Diplomacy Council, whose members come from diplomacy, the armed forces, nonprofits and academia. Most BBG members are successful businessmen (often in domestic broadcasting industry) with strong political connections, but they lack substantive experience in foreign policy, public diplomacy, international broadcasting, or international human right advocacy.
This is a link to “I Am America” video in Russian on the State Department’s web site that truly qualifies as a historical exhibit in a propaganda museum. It is described on YouTube as a video “presented to the U.S. State Department by Business for Diplomatic Action” that “will be played in U.S. embassies and consulates.” The images of America are spectacular, but the message is crudely propagandistic and naive. Anybody with even basic political education, which describes much of today’s world, knows that the people in the video do not run U.S. foreign policy and had elected George W. Bush twice as their president before changing their minds about the direction the country should take in dealing with the world. A one-sided view of America will be dismissed as propaganda regardless of how many dollars are spent on a clever advertising packaging.
In fact, millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent on these highly embarrassing videos, which are prominently featured on the State Department web site. A single VOA radio or television report about President Elect Barack Obama’s family background and foreign policy plans could not only help repair some of the damage done by these propaganda videos but would also have a long-term positive impact on how America will now be perceived abroad. Unfortunately, for ideological and bureaucratic reasons, the BBG has put VOA on its chopping block, and the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy is still determined to replace a substantive dialogue with foreign audiences with short and clever video messages and apparently wants to hold on to his job after the Obama Administration takes over.
Another propaganda video commissioned from private contractors by the State Department public diplomacy 2.0 team announces a worldwide contest for submitting privatelly-produced videos about the meaning of the word ‘democracy.’ View it here. The prize is “an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, New York and Hollywood to attend special screenings of the winning videos, gain exposure to the U.S. film and television industry and meet with creative talent, democracy advocates and government leaders.” The contest has been prominently featured on the State Department’s official web site, but the YouTube page, where contest videos must be submitted, has received less than 160,000 views despite being available for several months. A popular Voice of America radio program can attract many more listeners in single day and offer a journalistic view of American democracy that is far more substantive and credible.
The Internet does offer enormous opportunities for U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting but not in the hands of propagandists, or private contractors who have no journalistic and foreign policy experience and care primarily about their own profits. Most of the members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (James K. Glassman was its most recent chairman) have done great harm to journalism and to the U.S. image abroad. The current Bush Administration’s public diplomacy chief at the Department of State does not seem to realize that many types of Internet activities are not appropriate or credible when done by government officials and are better left to truly independent NGOs and individual bloggers.
For people placed in charge of U.S.-funded journalistic entities, most BBG members have shown remarkable indifference to the concept of journalistic independence. In their misplaced desire to chase after higher audience ratings, they have allowed Russian-based Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reporters to be intimidated by the Kremlin’s secret police and tolerate giving extensive airtime to Russian politicians known for their racist views. This is the same marketing-first/journalism-second approach advocated by the BBG that had encouraged Alhurra, another privatized broadcaster, to air comments by Holocaust denies.
Radio Liberty, which during the Cold War had played a highly effective role as a surrogate broadcaster, providing in-depth domestic news coverage for listeners in the Soviet Union, has become a virtual hostage of the BBG strategy of favoring privatized surrogate broadcasting. Mr. Putin’s repressive but sophisticated media policies call for an entirely different approach, and yet the BBG insists that RFE/RL should have a large presence in Russia and rejects VOA radio broadcasts from the United States as unnecessary. But the idea of keeping many private broadcasting entities fits well with the desire of individual BBG members, both Democrats and Republicans, to keep as much control over U.S. international broadcasting for themselves and to reward their friends with well-paid positions and lucrative contracts. James K. Glassman was reported to have tried to hire Paula Zahn, formerly of CNN, as the BBG’s high profile spokesperson at about the same time when the BBG executive director Jeffrey Trimble, formerly acting president of RFE/RL, was implementing the plan to stop VOA radio broadcasts to Russia. Paula Zahn had wisely declined the offer perhaps after realizing that her job might be to explain why a group of Tibetan monks staged a silent protest on Capital Hill against the BBG’s plans to reduce U.S. radio broadcasts to Tibet. Thankfully, at least in this case the BBG backed down.
Contrary to what BBG members believe, including its most recent chairman, traditional independent radio and television journalism can be successfully merged with Web 2.0 concepts and can achieve high audience ratings without resorting to questionable management techniques, marketing practices and crude propaganda.
They could have learned much about the use of “soft power” from reading a recently published book by Ambassador Patricia Gates Lynch, Thanks for Listening: High Adventures in Journalism and Diplomacy, with the foreword by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. For many years Ms. Gates had been a host of the highly popular VOA Breakfast Show. She made millions of friends for America around the world without resorting to propaganda simply by telling her audiences about America and broadcasting interviews with exceptional and ordinary Americans. Later named by President Reagan as U.S. Ambassador to Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, Pat Gates also worked briefly as a public relations representative for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty at the time when that organization practiced truly independent surrogate journalism while Voice of America offered a mix of American news, American commentaries, as well as reports on political and human rights situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. There was no BBG at that time, and both VOA and RFE/RL were managed by journalistic professionals and distinguished Americans, people like NBC anchor John Chancellor and Malcolm Forbes, Jr. Political appointees serving now on the BBG do not want people with ideas and much greater accomplishments to tell them how to practice broadcast journalism.
Ironically, even as the Cold War ended, neoconservative Republicans and internationally naive but politically ambitious Democrats serving on the BBG chose the very earliest surrogate broadcasting model developed when Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (later Radio Liberty) were still financed and run by the CIA. This model, which was completely outdated and inappropriate for skeptical and hostile audiences in the Middle East (audiences in Easter Europe during the Cold War were highly sympathetic to the message in American-funded radio broadcasts) nevertheless gave BBG members and the White House maximum control over truly uncooperative and potentially uncooperative journalists.
While surrogate broadcasting was effective during the Cold War, even then it faced some serious problems, which BBG members chose to ignore when they developed their grandiose broadcasting plans for the Middle East. They could have learned about these problems and how to avoid them from an exceptionally honest account by former RFE/RL manager James Critchlow. In his book, Radio Hole-in-the-Head: Radio Liberty: An Insider’s Story of Cold War Broadcasting, Critchlow describes some very serious policy and editorial errors committed by naive political operatives, incompetent bureaucrats, and uninformed journalists who had worked at RFE/RL between 1953 and the end of 1980s.
At least during the Cold War, RFE/RL journalists were based in Munich, West Germany, and were relatively safe from intimidation by the KGB. Serious editorial problems were usually uncovered and corrected until the BBG took over. The BBG placed most of RFE/RL Russian Service reporters in Russia and kept them there even after former President Putin and the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, nearly completely took control over the local broadcast media using force and intimidation.
Unwilling to give up or significantly scale down RFE/RL’s large bureau in Moscow, BBG members and their staff, some of whom had business and personal links to Russia, began negotiating with members of the Putin regime while BBG-hired consultants told RFE/RL journalists to make their programs less critical of the political and social realities in Russia.
Shortly after independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow in an execution-style hit in 2006, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty managers made public statements strongly suggesting an attempt on their part to appease Mr. Putin. In an apparent effort to protect their presence in the country, the head of RFE/RL Moscow bureau, Elena Glushkova, said in an on-air discussion in October 2006 that the work of Radio Liberty journalists cannot cause Russia any harm. She insisted that RFE/RL reporters respect and love Russia. She also pointed out that all Radio Liberty reporters who work in Russia are Russian citizens and said that her optimism despite the murder of Ms. Politkovskaya is based in her belief in “the common sense of the current Russian leadership.” Maria Klain, Russian Service director at the RFE/RL home office in Prague, also expressed confidence that the radio’s future in Russia looks good. These comments surprised and offended pro-democracy activists in Russia who were still in mourning after Anna Politovskaya’s murder.
More recently, a 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. For the new U.S. administration headed by the first African-American president, this is not a very encouraging sign that the BBG’s marketing and programming strategies have been successful. View FreeMediaOnline.org report: “U.S. Taxpayers Pay for Spreading Racist Views on Radio Liberty in Russia: What Would Barack Obama Say If He Knew…”
One would think that in light of such developments and statements by RFE/RL managers in Russia, the BBG would want Washington-based Voice of America journalists to expand their Russian broadcasts. The BBG’s policy, however, has been not only to dismantle the Voice of America radio services but to make sure that even the names of the privatized entities designed to replace them did not have any references to the U.S. in an naive belief that this would make them more credible with skeptical and hostile audiences.
By placing much of the work and operations of these privatized entities in countries like Russia and in the Middle East and relying on locally-hired staff, the BBG created no safeguards to make sure that local reporters would not be blackmailed by foreign security and intelligence services. At the same time, the BBG denied locally-hired employees the protection of U.S. labor laws, damaging U.S. reputation in countries like the Czech Republic and drawing attention and criticism from local politicians, including the highly respected former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Link to FreeMediaOnline.org report Radio Free Europe or Radio Free Putin? Did BBG End U.S. Surrogate Broadcasting in Russia on Radio Liberty in an Attempt to Appease Mr. Putin and Pursue Its Marketing Strategy?
The new Obama Administration has a chance to completely reform U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting. Millions of U.S. taxpayers’ money are still being wasted by the BBG in financing multiple privatized broadcasting entities — a veritable GM-like corporate model — with multiple executive positions and duplicate administrative structures. None of these entities is set up to present America’s story to the world.
The Voice of America, the only journalistic organization that knows how to do this job without propaganda and with some measure of credibility, desperately needs protection from the incompetent political appointees at the BBG and from the Bush Administration’s public diplomacy chief. If nothing is done, propaganda will triumph over journalism and America’s reputation abroad will be further diminished. Public Diplomacy 2.0 designed by ideologues, propagandists, and profit-seeking private contractors is an embarrassment. The Obama Administration would do well by sending these State Department videos to a museum as a warning to future government officials in charge of public diplomacy and U.S. international broadcasting who might again be tempted by the allure of propaganda.
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 and oversaw the development of VOA television news broadcasts to Russia and Ukraine.
In 2006, Ted Lipien founded FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit which supports media freedom worldwide. He is also author of “Wojtyla’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.
In December 2008, FreeMediaOnline.org has launched a Russian-language web site — GovoritAmerika.us ГоворитАмерика.us — which includes summaries of more serious news and commentaries from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources. According to Ted Lipien, the web site is designed to compensate for the loss of information from the United States for Russian-speaking audiences due to program and budget cuts implemented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The web site, which includes links to VOA Russian Service news reports, is also designed to counter the BBG marketing strategy that has forced broadcasting entities to focus on entertainment programming and to avoid hard-hitting political reporting that might prevent 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.