Senator Richard Lugar is right about past mistakes that had crippled U.S. public diplomacy, but new actions by the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors also continue to silence America’s voice abroad
Closed Down American Centers and Crippled Voice of America
In an insightful and candid article posted on the Foreign Policy magazine blog, Senator Richard R. Lugar, argues that the United States can only blame itself for not being able to properly explain America to the world. He pointed out that “reaching out to the man or woman on the streets of Jakarta or Caracas or Cairo is the practice of public diplomacy,” which, unfortunately — according to Senator Lugar — the U.S. government has not done very effectively in recent years. The closing down of American information and cultural centers abroad — the subject of Senator Lugar’s article — is, however, only one example of an American institution destroyed or severely crippled by political expediency and naivete of Washington bureaucrats. The Voice of America (VOA) — international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government — is another institution being dismantled by the very agency — the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — set up to strengthen U.S. broadcasts to the world and to represent America abroad.
In his article, the Republican senator from Indiana noted the continued existence of various U.S. public diplomacy initiatives, including the Peace Corps and the Fulbright academic exchange program. He also mentioned the Voice of America without offering any further comments about VOA. His overall conclusion, however, after analyzing other public diplomacy programs, was that the United States has been “waging the battle of ideas with one hand tied behind its back.”
Lugar’s criticism is focused on the dismantling of the United States Information Agency (USIA) by a joint action, taken by the Clinton Administration and the U.S. Congress, and the subsequent closing down of American information and cultural enters around the world. Senator Lugar wrote that the United States no longer has “a worldwide equivalent to what Britain and France have, namely, facilities in major world cities with libraries, reading rooms, outreach programs, unfiltered Internet access, film series, lectures, and English classes that enable people to meet with Americans of all walks of life and hold two-way conversations on issues of mutual interest.”
The central point of Senator Lugar’s article is that the U.S. government’s own actions and inactions have contributed to its inability to conduct effective public diplomacy overseas. But the closing down of American centers has not been the only action that was damaging to America’s image abroad in recent years. While Senator Lugar noted that the Voice of America still exists, many of VOA radio programs for overseas audiences have in fact been terminated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
BBG Ends VOA Radio to Russia Less than Two Weeks before Russia Invades Georgia
In an incredible show of bad judgment, this bipartisan board had taken VOA radio programs to Russia off the air just 12 days before the Russian invasion of Georgia last summer. The BBG also ended VOA radio broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania just as Mr. Putin started to increase pressure on Russia’s neighboring states to make them follow the Kremlin’s foreign policy objectives. BBG members even wanted to terminate VOA radio broadcasts to the Republic of Georgia — one of the most vulnerable of the former Soviet republics — but the Russian invasion forced them to suspend their decision, at least temporarily. Earlier, the BBG also tried to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet. The Board only backed off when pro-independence demonstrations in Tibet were bloodily suppressed and a group of Tibetan monks staged a silent protest on Capital Hill.
In yet another show of incredibly poor judgment combined with bad timing and ulterior bureaucratic motives resulting in a major waste of U.S. tax dollars, the BBG had silenced Voice of America radio programs to Ukraine on December 31, 2008, just one day before Russia halted natural gas deliveries to Europe. Since then, Ukraine has sunk further into a major economic and political crisis, which is threatening its pro-Western foreign policy and democratic changes won during the Orange Revolution.
As a supporter of American Centers abroad who appreciates the value of teaching English and sharing American culture, Senator Lugar would probably also appreciate the damage of the BBG’s persistent efforts to reduce funding for Voice of America English broadcasts. (BBG claims that some of these VOA programs have small audiences and therefore should be terminated. But the BBG has done close to nothing to help market and distribute such programs. The agency instead poured millions of dollars into private entities and their contractors. As it turns out, the results in terms of audience size in many cases are not statistically significantly any better than what traditional VOA broadcasting was able to deliver at a much lower cost and with much greater credibility in representing America.)
Responding to these decisions, a union representing the Voice of America employees said on its website that the BBG has made “at least a half dozen mistakes in the past few months.” One of them resulted in the silencing of the Voice of America Hindi radio broadcasts just a few weeks before the terrorists attacks in Mumbai. ProPublica.org, a nonprofit investigative journalism website, and FreeMediaOnline.org, another nonprofit organization which supports media freedom worldwide, have also reported extensively on journalistic scandals and mismanagement at the BBG.
“America” As a Bad Word — Market Research without Political and Human Rights Context
BBG officials argue that their actions are based on solid market research. Theirs is the same argument used previously to justify the closing down of American information and cultural centers around the world, namely that radio — which comes as close to providing similar people-to-people contact with real Americans as American centers had done before they were eliminated — is not nearly as effective as the Internet, short video clips, and other impersonal but highly technological solutions.
The real story behind the BBG’s actions is a combination of incredible incompetence and the desire of BBG members to subcontract Voice of America work to private entities which can benefit their U.S.-based friends, supporters and constituents. Several years ago, BBG bureaucrats spent countless hours discussing names for their new privatized broadcasting stations for the Middle East, making sure above all that no word “American” was used. Their market research showed that Muslim audiences did not approve of such verbal associations with America. We can only imagine what the Voice of America would have been named if the BBG had existed during World War II and had been able to conduct market research in Hitler’s Germany. Presumably, at that time most Germans also did not like the word “American.”
Dubious Market Research in Russia Results in Attempts at Censorship
More recently, BBG-commissioned market research in Russia revealed that panels of Russian media users don’t like to hear criticism of Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule. Based on the previous BBG logic and actions, VOA journalists — who had been told to start blogging after the BBG eliminated their radio programs to Russia — are likely to be urged now to go easy on criticizing Mr. Putin and to hold back on expressing in their blogs their personal opinions about human rights abuses. Inside sources told FreeMediaOnline.org that such instructions have in fact been issued to the VOA Russian Service staff, although it’s unclear where within the BBG hierarchy they have originated. What’s quite clear, however, is that the BBG is responsible for creating a culture in which bureaucratic interests and poorly-understood and often patently compromised market research data take precedence over journalistic values, human rights concerns, and plain common sense.
It is unlikely that VOA Russian Service journalists, who are committed to journalistic freedom and objectivity and protected by the Congressionally approved VOA Charter, would comply with censorship orders. “They want VOA’s Russian Service toothless,” was a conclusion of one VOA journalist who remains defiant. Ultimately, however, their jobs as journalists are not protected if the BBG wants to get rid of those who do not play ball. Since VOA employees cannot be fired directly for their criticism, the way the BBG had dealt with such internal opposition it in the past was by eliminating programs which these employees produce and making them subject to reduction-in-force separation from government employment.
One of the reasons the BBG favors privatized broadcast entities over VOA is the ability to fire their journalists at will. The BBG even denies some foreign-based journalists basic protections of U.S. labor laws. BBG members may not even realize that this has serious implications for America’s image abroad and journalistic freedom. These abhorrent, un-American, and undemocratic BBG policies also make these foreign journalists insecure about their employment more vulnerable to intimidation and recruitment by the intelligence services of dictatorial regimes.
The Russian Service journalists, who were completely demoralized when the former BBG Chairman James K. Glassman personally refused their urgent pleas to allow them to resume radio broadcasts to the war zone in Georgia, have recovered much of their fighting spirit and seem unafraid to offer highly critical comments about Mr. Putin’s rule in Russia and the suppression of local independent media. BBG-ordered program cuts, however, severely limit their ability to provide in-depth multimedia coverage of human rights abuses and other critical issues.
BBG Market Research Encourages Airing of Racist Views on RFE/RL
A few years earlier, BBG-hired private consultants also cited market research to force programming changes at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) — a surrogate broadcaster with a splendid Cold War record completely mismanaged and set adrift by the BBG. Based on market research, RFE/RL journalists were strongly discouraged from sounding too critical about human rights abuses in Mr. Putin’s Russia. Those who resisted were silenced, fired or forced to resign. BBG consultants told RFE/RL reporters that Russian audiences want a more positive view of Russian society and politics and a more critical view of the West.
About the same time, BBG member Jeff Hirschberg (D. Jeffrey Hirschberg), who has business links in Russia, and the Board’s executive director Jeffrey Trimble conducted secret negotiations with Russian officials to assure them that RFE/RL would practice only “responsible” journalism. When human rights journalist Anna Politkovskaya was brutally murdered in 2006, their hand-picked managers in charge of RFE/RL operations Moscow and Prague expressed confidence in Mr. Putin’s leadership. Another change resulting from BBG market research in Russia was to allow Russian nationalists and other extremists access to Radio Liberty airwaves, causing a Russian human rights organization to issue a warning that comments by these individuals on a U.S. taxpayer-funded station promote acts of violence against immigrants, Blacks, and other minorities.
In criticizing Radio Liberty, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau said the station was guilty not only of enabling such people “to spread their poisonous views,” but also of legitimizing their ideas “in the minds of many impressionable radio listeners.” The appeal, written by the organization’s head Aleksandr Brod, argues that stations, which “in their pursuit of higher ratings” invite such “nationalist radicals,” are giving these enemies of democracy a larger audience and exacerbating ethnic tensions.
BBG Eliminated Voice of America Arabic Broadcasts
Because most VOA journalists would not blindly accept BBG’s directives, former and current BBG members had made sure earlier that the Voice of America would no longer have any Arabic-language broadcasts that would be immune to BBG-desired changes based on short-term trends identified by dubious market research. With strong encouragement and support from the Bush White House, BBG officials created instead Alhurra Television for the Middle East, making sure it has no cumbersome journalistic and financial standards used by VOA and no mandate to present a broad spectrum of American views and values that some Middle Eastern audiences might find objectionable.
While I’m not an expert on the Middle East and the Islamic world, I have studied propaganda and written extensively on this subject. My media contacts throughout Eurasia have been quite clear that they are not fooled by clever names for broadcasting entities thought up by the BBG and would prefer to receive American news and views from an authoritative American source clearly identified for what it is. BBG officials and the Bush White House should have known that propaganda techniques used during World War II and even during the Cold War — one of which was to try to obscure the identity of the originator of news and information — have no chance of success in the era of instant communications and the Internet.
Denying the Holocaust at U.S. Taxpayers’ Expense
BBG members acted surprised when Alhurra reporters gave extensive coverage to statements from a Holocaust deniers’ conference, held in Tehran, with absolutely no attempt to present balancing views. Yet these Alhurra reporters and TV anchors were not doing anything in this case that BBG’s own market research would not support.
Use this link to the ProPublica.org web site to view the Alhurra report with English subtitles: http://www.propublica.org/feature/alhurra-video
Misleading Administration and Congress
In answers to written questions from Senator Richard Lugar submitted during her Senate confirmation process, Hillary Clinton said that “the BBG has learned that it must rely on the best market analysis to understand the unique listening habits and attitudes of the populations we seek to inform.” The BBG indeed spends tremendous amount of taxpayer money on market research. Unfortunately, most BBG members have demonstrated that they lack both experience and judgment to apply research results to political realities in countries without free media.
Before being confirmed as the Secretary of State, Senator Clinton obviously had no time to study closely U.S. international broadcasting or the BBG (of which she is now an ex officio member). In her answers to Senator Lugar, she most likely repeated information provided by the BBG staff. She also told Senator Lugar that “performance of America’s international broadcast entities has been quite successful in telling America’s story (largely the task of the VOA).”
I believe Secretary Clinton, along with most Americans, would be surprised to learn that the Voice of America does not have a single Arabic-language program. Neither does any other U.S. government-supported entity that has “American” in its name — thanks to the BBG’s strategy of privatizing U.S. international broadcasting and using market research to make decisions that ultimately belong in the political rather than commercial sphere.
In carrying out its privatization of U.S. international broadcasting, the BBG has ignored and mislead Congress and high Administration officials and has tried to keep secret its mistakes and actions designed to weaken the Voice of America. BBG officials had refused to make public an independent study, which was highly critical of Alhurra, until they were forced to make it available on the Internet by the Obama transition team. The termination of VOA radio broadcasts to Russia was also done without any public announcement.
Supporting Privatized Entities More Important to BBG than Representing America
Senator Lugar is right that, from the U.S. public diplomacy perspective, the elimination of American centers abroad was a damage self-inflicted by the U.S. Government (the Clinton Administration and the U.S. Congress). Also a self-inflicted damage was the elimination of the VOA Arabic Service by the BBG and the termination of VOA on-air radio programs to Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and many other countries.
The governments of most of these countries would have gladly allowed VOA to continue these radio broadcasts on local stations, thus assuring VOA access to a wide audience. The situation in Russia is drastically different, with the secret police actively prohibiting VOA rebroadcasts by private stations and keeping a close eye on the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists in Russia who are Russian citizens and thus subject to Kremlin’s laws.
The intimidation of RFE/RL reporters in Russia makes the continuation of VOA radio programs from the safety of Washington even more necessary as a powerful political signal to the Kremlin’s secret security services, and equally to the segment of the Russian population that cares about democracy and human rights. BBG officials, however, refuse to admit that there is a security problem, since they justified the termination of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia by claiming that RFE/RL radio broadcasts would be sufficient. They also don’t want scrutiny of their earlier decisions to place significant RFE/RL facilities and other U.S. international broadcasting resources in Moscow within easy reach of Russia’s security services.
Naive About Mr. Putin’s Secret Police and Internet in Russia
According to information and documents obtained by FreeMediaOnline.org, BBG staff shows a high level of cluelessness about the ability of the new, post-Soviet KGB, now known as the FSB (Mr. Putin’s former employer), to control the Internet in Russia. Despite obvious signs that the Internet is great but not safe in times of serious crisis and not sufficient to reach the most vulnerable audiences, BBG bureaucrats remain widely enthusiastic about their Internet-only strategy for VOA’s Russian Service. With their American-only mindset, they assume that war zone victims, refugees, and the poorest and most repressed segments of world’s populations have high-speed and uncensored access to the Internet just like they do in their Washington suburban homes.
It may have not even occurred to these BBG officials that the audience panels they commissioned in Russia at great expense to U.S. taxpayers are most likely controlled by the Russian FSB. Based on my own experience working for many years with owners of pro-democracy private radio and TV stations in Russia who had been harassed into silence by the FSB, the Kremlin’s spy agency almost certainly has tried to skew BBG’s market research and RFE/RL reporting from Russia.
BBG Deserves Greater Scrutiny
While he did not address these problems, Senator Lugar should be applauded for speaking out candidly about past U.S. mistakes when it comes to public diplomacy. He, along with other members of Congress and the new Obama Administration, however, now has a chance to save U.S. public diplomacy not only from past disasters but also the ones being currently perpetrated by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its staff.
At the very least, the BBG members and senior officials deserve a much closer scrutiny of their decisions than they had received during the Bush Administration. During the past eight years, BBG members — both Democrats and Republicans — enthusiastically supported any ill-conceived public diplomacy initiative for the Middle East and came up with a few disastrous ideas of their own at a cost of millions of dollars to U.S. taxpayers. Only one BBG member, Blaquita Walsh Cullum, the only working journalist sitting on the Board, was said to have opposed program cuts to countries without free media and objected to hiring expensive consultants to beef up BBG’s public image in the United States.
Cullum is a Republican and was otherwise a strong supporter of the Bush foreign policy. Other Republican members, including the former BBG chairman James K. Glassman, unquestionably backed cutting of VOA radio broadcasts and privatizing U.S. international broadcasting. Ironically, all Democratic BBG members were just as enthusiastic in their support for the ill-conceived broadcasting initiatives for the Middle East as their Republican colleagues, if not more so.
In fact, the main architect of Alhurra and Radio Sawa was Norman Pattiz, a Democratic appointee and a personal friend and supporter of former Senator and now Vice President Joe Biden. Pattiz — whose company, America’s largest radio network Westwood One, is now in serious financial trouble — introduced commercial market research and commercial music formats at the BBG and pushed hard for eliminating Voice of America broadcasts to the Middle East and other regions. Pattiz worked closely with another former BBG member, Edward E. Kaufman, who is now a Democratic U.S. Senator from Delaware.
Other members of Congress, however, have taken notice of the waste and mismanagement at the BBG. One of the most severe critics of the BBG’s performance during the Bush Administration years was a Republican Senator from Oklahoma Tom Coburn, M.D.
Another U.S. Senator, Sam Brownback (R-KA), has called for abolishing the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He introduced legislation that would establish the National Center for Strategic Communications, an agency similar to the now defunct U.S. Information Agency.
Also, Patrick Leahy, a Democratic Senator from Vermont, has tried to stop the BBG from eliminating U.S. broadcasts in foreign languages. His request to the BBG not to end VOA radio Russia and other media-at-risk countries was ignored. The BBG executive director Jeffrey Trimble, a former acting president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, implemented the cuts, reportedly after requesting and receiving advice and help from Senator Biden’s staff.
VOA employees, including journalists in the Russian Service, are hopeful that the Obama Administration, with its new message about America’s intentions around the world, will understand the public diplomacy value of the Voice of America news broadcasts and will not want to engage in deceptive marketing of news using privatized entities with purposely ambiguous names. Their optimism is tempered, however, by the knowledge that Senator and now Vice President Biden was a strong supporter of former BBG members, Norman Pattiz and Edward Kaufman. Kaufman, who was at one time Biden’s chief of staff in the Senate, was described by a union leader at the BBG as “no friend of Voice of America employees.” Biden’s support for the privatization of U.S. international broadcasting may be partly explained by the fact that some of the BBG’s private entities, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, are incorporated in Delaware, Biden’s home state.
One of the Worst Among U.S. Government Agencies Needs Reform
The BBG, which was rated by its own employees as being among the very worst U.S. government agencies, should be abolished — an action recommended by the highly-respected Public Diplomacy Council, a nonprofit organization which includes former diplomats, academics and other foreign policy experts. The PDC has called on President Obama and Congress to take urgent action in reforming publicly-funded U.S. international broadcasting.
The hundreds of millions of dollars that the BBG spends on the discredited and scandal-ridden Alhurra Television could not only pay for re-opening of some U.S. centers abroad and for restoring VOA radio broadcasts to the Middle East and to Russia. Some funds might even be left to offset the record budget deficit and to help with economic recovery. In any case, most Arabs view Alhurra as the Bush Administration’s propaganda tool.
President Obama apparently understands the credibility issue with Alhurra and probably would not want his name to be associated with a television station that welcomed comments from Holocaust deniers. Rather than going to Alhurra, President Obama gave his first televised message to the Arab world in an interview with the Al Arabiya television network.
The United States should be honest with its potential Middle Eastern audiences. Rather than hide behind ambiguous names like Alhurra and Sawa, it should restore Voice of America Arabic broadcasts and offer programs that truly reflect America’s diversity and values. Some of the privatized entities managed by the BBG have proven again and again that they are incapable of applying high journalistic standards. In their current setup under BBG’s marketing rules, they are also incapable of representing America to the Muslim world.
Another reason for urgent action are the financial scandals that have been a constant occurrence among the privatized broadcasting entities so strongly favored by the BBG. The agency has been largely left unsupervised during the previous two administrations. If Senator Lugar can get his Democratic and Republican colleagues in the Senate to support him and get the Obama White House and Secretary Clinton to go along, he may have a good chance of not only repairing U.S. public diplomacy but of making U.S. government more fiscally responsible and more efficient.
The BBG’s organizational chart looks even worse than the GM corporate structure with multiple non-American brands, multiple physical facilities, and multiple executive positions costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars in completely unnecessary and duplicative expenses. (BBG members should have asked themselves why the British Government was not trying to dilute the BBC’s brandname by hiding it under multiple non-British names.) Eliminating the BBG and consolidating almost all U.S. international broadcasting under one American brand, as proposed by the Public Diplomacy Council and others, could make America’s voice abroad once again strong, credible, effective and fiscally justifiable to American taxpayers.
…after the Cold War, the United States prematurely declared victory in the battle for hearts and minds, terminating the U.S. Information Agency, which ran the centers, and cutting the State Department’s public diplomacy budget. Many thought the Internet and global satellite TV would render irrelevant the people-to-people exchanges fostered by the centers. — Senator Richard R. Lugar
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 and oversaw the development of VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia.
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 some of the 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.
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.
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