FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog, January 23, 2009, San Francisco — In a move that may signal a return to a more serious approach to pubic diplomacy, the U.S. State Department website no longer prominently features an announcement for the “Democracy Video Challenge” contest. Such contests were promoted by a series of Bush Administration’s political appointees at State as a new and exciting way of influencing public opinion abroad.
FreeMediaOnline.org bloggers described the “Democracy Video Challenge” contest as crude propaganda. One blogger, who grew up in Eastern Europe under communism and later worked as a journalist in the United States, wrote that asking young people to produce videos about democracy and offering them a free trip to the United States as a prize seems reminiscent of similar contests about the virtues of communism that school students behind the Iron Curtain had to enter to meet propaganda goals.
Ted Lipien, president of FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, commented that this particular contest has been part of a much larger effort by the Bush Administration’s political appointees who tried to privatize the conduct of public diplomacy by granting lucrative contracts to advertising firms and web development companies. “They generally know very little about foreign policy and foreign cultures. Many of their ideas and programs have embarrassed the United States and contributed to the growth of anti-Americanism abroad,” Lipien said.
FreeMediaOnline.org bloggers also pointed out that these experiments in propaganda advertising were undertaken at the expense of traditional public diplomacy programs supported by American taxpayers, such as exchanges for foreign journalists and serious international news broadcasting by the Voice of America (VOA). These programs have been effective over many decades but were reduced during the Bush Administration to pay for various advertising schemes and the use of private contractors.
The Department of State was not the only U.S. government entity affected by experiments in advertising and privatization. The Bush Administration’s last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, James K. Glassman, supported a privatization effort at the Voice of America, the official but journalistically independent U.S. government supported international broadcaster, that resulted in weakening and in some cases ending substantive American radio and web journalism directed at audiences abroad.
While he was the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages U.S. international broadcasting, Glassman and other BBG members voted to end VOA radio news programs to many countries, including Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Glassman ordered instead more Internet video production, which requires high speed Internet access in areas usually known for poverty, corruption and conflict. He refused to allow VOA Russian Service journalists to resume emergency radio broadcasts to the war zone during the Russian-Georgian conflict last summer.
But in a move that may signal change under Secretary Clinton, the State Department web site, which has been partially and quickly redesigned after President Obama took office, no longer shows on the home page a prominently displayed image announcing the “Democracy Video Challenge” contest. It now shows under the heading of “FOREIGN POLICY HIGHLIGHTS” a link to a different online video contest, “My Culture + Your Culture,” which seems more in line with traditional public diplomacy programs carried out by American diplomats as opposed to content developed by advertisers and private contractors.
But to participate in the “My Culture + Your Culture” contest, visitors are taken to ExchangesConnect web site, which — as in the case of the “Democracy Video Challenge” web site — also does not look at all like a U.S. government official site but rather like a site run by a nongovernmental enterprise. ExchangesConnect is copyrighted (unlike official U.S. government web sites, which are not copyrighted) and has all the indications of being operated by a private contractor. There is a small notice, however, that ExchangesConnect is administered by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State. Much of the propaganda effort during the Bush Administration, both at State and at the BBG, was designed to hide any connection to the U.S. government in a naive belief that foreign audiences would not notice.
In the same area of the State Department web site’s home page with information about the cultural video contest, visitors are also informed about the “Ask The Ambassador” online forum that lets them interact with U.S. Ambassadors around the world. It tells visitors that when a chat is announced, questions submitted online are answered by State Department officials and posted to the website so that others many benefit from the discussion. Unfortunately, there was no announcement of any new online discussions.
To get to the “Democracy Video Challenge” contest, site visitors can still stay on the State Department’s home page, but they now have to navigate under “FOREIGN POLICY HIGHLIGHTS” to a next slide. In addition to the video contest, that slide also features a link to the “Policy Podcast,” where State Department officials discuss upcoming events and foreign policy issues.
The U.S. certainly needs more Public Diplomacy 2.0 programs that promote online discussions with American officials and use other interactive forms of communicating with foreign audiences. The new Obama Administration has to be careful, however, what content goes into these programs. Secretary Clinton should not allow advertising and propaganda to replace serious journalism. She should not discard well-tested public diplomacy tools in favor of gimmicks developed by private contractors whose only qualification are connections to high government officials.
Ted Lipien of FreeMediaOnline.org pointed out that one result of privatizing experiments during the Bush Administration was the airing of unchallenged statements from Holocaust deniers on the U.S.-funded Alhurra television network for the Middle East. Before that happened, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which is responsible for these broadcasts, eliminated Voice of America Arabic radio programs, which had accurate and balanced news prepared by well-trained journalists. The BBG re-directed resources, previously used for serious journalism at VOA, to develop Alhurra as a private entity. It could more easily control Alhurra as a private entity and force it to accept advertising and marketing concepts rejected by VOA journalists as incompatible with objective and balanced reporting.