BBG Watch Commentary
Unique Role of U.S.-Funded Surrogate Broadcasters
by Ted Lipien
U.S. Government-funded surrogate broadcasting, which started with the formation of Radio Free Europe in the early 1950s, was one of the most successful American inventions of the Cold War. Its effectiveness was undeniable in helping to weaken communist regimes over a period of several decades. Most journalists and even experts now assume that it was done by breaking the regimes’ monopoly on news and information. While this was certainly true, other international broadcasters, including the U.S. Government-funded Voice of America (VOA), also provided news and information. Knowing that, was there something unique about surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)? Why were they created in the first place and supported in Congress and by most Americans? Are they still relevant? Are they different from the Voice of America? Should VOA and surrogate broadcasters be combined and offer the same news?
Surrogate broadcasters were from the very beginning different and separate from the Voice of America. They were created with strong support from various U.S. administrations and Congress. Prominent Americans of both political parties embraced the idea of surrogate broadcasting because VOA was not set up or able to assume many of the additional roles these surrogate broadcasters would assume. These roles were viewed as important for U.S. national security and for peacefully strengthening freedom and democracy abroad.
The idea of surrogate broadcasting was first proposed at the highest U.S. Government levels by American diplomat George Kennan, the principal author of the Policy of Containment against the Soviet Union. Kennan wrote in a top secret memo in 1948 that as part of “political warfare” designed to weaken and defeat the Soviet Union through non-military means, the U.S. Government should support private American Committees to enable “selected refugee leaders to keep alive as public figures with access to printing presses and microphones.” They would also “provide inspiration for continuing popular resistance” to these regimes, Kennan wrote. As a diplomat, he assumed that the State Department should coordinate these activities. Other prominent Americans, including General Eisenhower and former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, thought that CIA would do a much better job. Their view prevailed, but CIA’s control over surrogate broadcasters was never overbearing with regard to programming and was eventually eliminated when RFE/RL started to be funded directly by the U.S. Congress.
What was clear almost from the very beginning was that surrogate broadcasters would operate as private corporations and would provide a platform for emigre and dissident journalists, intellectuals and political leaders. They would not be connected directly with the U.S. Government or in any way with the Voice of America, which would continue as an official and later semi-official U.S. broadcaster. RFE/RL journalists enjoyed a high level of editorial independence. They worked under American management, but their programs only had to be consistent with long-term U.S. policy goals.
Because surrogate broadcasters were extremely effective, they were immediately attacked by supporters of accommodation with the Soviet Union. There were many calls for their abolishment or a merger with the Voice of America. This did not happen because they enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress, as well as from U.S. ethnic communities, U.S. labor movement and human rights NGOs.
Surrogate broadcasters were effective for several reasons. Their staff was composed of local journalists and a few highly-trained American and European experts. They were not managed by the Washington government bureaucracy. They were totally focused on their narrow mission. They were very close to their audience. They provided not just uncensored news and information but also analysis, commentary, and programming of a high intellectual level.
With the exception of providing uncensored international news, some limited local and regional news, and American music, none of the other features of surrogate broadcasting were true for the Voice of America, especially in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. During the Reagan Administration, VOA became more specialized in its reporting about the Soviet block and more targeted in some of its foreign language broadcasts. However, VOA never reached the level of local specialization and domestic intellectual political dialogue provided by surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
While both VOA and surrogate broadcasters engaged in the information war that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about in her recent Congressional testimony, surrogate broadcasters also engaged to a much larger degree than VOA in the war of ideas, which Mrs. Clinton also mentioned as a past success that, in her view, is now lacking in current U.S. international broadcasting, making it nearly “defunct.”
In many cases, surrogate broadcasters were more successful than VOA because of their surrogate role, because they had many more expert local journalists and regular contributors among emigre and dissident intellectuals, and because of their administrative autonomy and considerable programming independence.
In the post-Cold War world, surrogate broadcasting is not the right answer for most countries. It is, however, still highly effective and desirable from a practical and humanitarian perspective for countries that practice strong censorship, threaten or corrupt their own journalists, and have a population that looks for moral support to the United States against internal political repression.
This is how a former RFE/RL president, Jeffrey Gedmin, described in a 2009 Foreign Affairs article the role of surrogate broadcasters:
“Any soft-power strategy should include a focus on surrogate broadcasting — government-sponsored broadcasts that provide accurate and reliable news to countries where independent media do not exist. Surrogate broadcasting grew up during the Cold War, when the United States sought to penetrate the Iron Curtain with radio broadcasts to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. These broadcasts — first clandestinely funded by the CIA and then openly by Congress — were designed to provide the people of communist nations with the domestic news and information that their own governments denied them.”
Gedmin also observed:
“Although the technology has changed, the mission of surrogate broadcasting is still the same. It remains one of the most effective and cost-efficient programs the United States can support in order to promote democracy and advance U.S. national security interests.”
The Voice of America can certainly do its job for most countries, but surrogate programmers are still needed for some of the most strategically important nations that represent a real or potential threat to the United States and practice repressive political and media policies.
Unfortunately, the role and effectiveness of surrogate broadcasters has been substantially undermined in recent years by the Washington bureaucracy trying to establish central control over all U.S. international broadcasting. When bureaucrats replace experts, global solutions replace specialized and targeted programming, and autonomy is replaced by centralization—-surrogate broadcasters cease to be effective.
Surrogate broadcasting/digital media programming also allows Americans to show their support and solidarity with oppressed people around the globe through multimedia channels. This support is provided directly to local and emigre journalists and intellectuals by giving them tools they need to serve their oppressed societies. If autonomy of surrogate broadcasters is removed, then they are not longer surrogate and play no special role. They become like the Voice of America, which has a different and also important role. But VOA cannot represent and serve oppressed societies in a way that surrogate broadcasters and surrogate multimedia programmers can if it wants to maintain complete journalistic objectivity and its status as the United States broadcaster.
Some duplication in news reporting is inevitable. It happens all the time among all media around the world. But if surrogate broadcasters/programmers do their job right, most of their reporting and analysis cannot be found anywhere else or done by anyone else, including the Voice of America.
If surrogate broadcasters are no longer needed for some countries, then VOA can take over as the only U.S.-funded broadcaster/programmer. The worst thing the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, can do is to blur the critical differences between the two entities. By mixing the identities of VOA and surrogate broadcasters, the United States would undermine the latter’s special targeted mission, administrative autonomy and programming independence.
The Washington BBG bureaucracy, centered at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) pushes the idea of one type of global U.S. journalism perfect for the whole world. Washington bureaucrats ignore the fact that the U.S. has never had a tradition of a central public broadcaster like the BBC for both domestic and international audiences. The Voice of America is seen as being most effective when foreign audiences regarded it as authoritatively reflecting the American perspective on world affairs, reporting on U.S. official policies and independent views, and presenting and explaining what’s best or most interesting in American culture.
If international audiences want nothing but unbiased international news in English, they are more likely go to BBC or CNN than VOA. No amount of changing names, managements, brands or descriptions will alter the fact in terms of public perceptions abroad that the government of the United States is behind the Voice of America or any other such entity. But when for some specific reasons foreign audiences are interested in the United States or what the United States thinks about their countries, they might go to VOA if they can easily receive its programs, especially programs in their own languages.
But when foreign populations are oppressed by their own governments and want news and analysis about their own countries delivered by their own independent journalists and experts, either in exile or struggling in-country with censorship, they will go first to surrogate broadcasters if these broadcasters are any good. Surrogate journalism, however, cannot be any good or perceived as independent if programmers are told what to do by Washington-based bureaucrats with no special expertise or emotional commitment to serve a particular foreign audience.
The idea that there are no differences but only duplication between VOA and surrogate broadcasters and that there is only one type of journalism and one global type of generic news suitable for the whole world is an invention of Washington bureaucrats working for the BBG. People in China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran who look for both highly targeted news about their countries and good analysis, plus some gesture of moral support from the U.S. for their struggle against oppression, certainly would not agree that surrogate broadcasting and other multimedia programming is an outdated proposition.
Surrogate broadcasting/programming still is and will continue to be highly effective for the United States and American taxpayers if allowed to do what it was designed to do in the first place: provide local journalists, experts and intellectuals with independence and tools to overcome censorship and practice civic journalism as if they were working without any restrictions in their own countries.
If Washington bureaucrats are allowed to impose their central plan and ideas on surrogate broadcasters and put non-experts in charge, the end result is what has happened in recent months to Radio Liberty in Russia and in several other countries–a loss of reputation, respect and audience. Even BBG members eventually realized that they had made a mistake by relying on their Washington executive staff to centrally manage U.S. international broadcasting. The BBG put a seasoned journalist and surrogate programming expert Kevin Klose in charge of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to repair the terrible damage that has been inflicted on this once great institution.
Washington bureaucrats and other supporters of central planning for U.S. international broadcasting could learn a lot of lessons from the Radio Liberty disaster. Let’s hope that they will. A centrally-managed USIB bureaucracy will consume and destroy U.S.-funded surrogate broadcasting. Such an outcome would be a great loss for the cause of freedom in some of the countries that matter most for U.S. national security. The Broadcasting Board of Governors and the U.S. Congress must not let it happen.