U.S. public diplomacy chief Tara Sonenshine to visit the disappearing Voice of America

Tara Sonenshine, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs

Tara Sonenshine

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives who have embarrassed the Obama Administration by their decision to end Voice of America (VOA) radio broadcasts to Tibet will receive an early visit to VOA from the newly sworn-in Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara D. Sonenshine.

BBG Watch has learned that the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has accepted an invitation from the BBG to come by the Cohen Building early in her tenure.  Tara Sonenshine plans to attend the Board’s meeting this month at the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), but has also welcomed the chance to visit the agency’s headquarters as well as “the vaunted home of VOA,” as one BBG official with former links to the State Department described her planned Voice of America visit in an internal email.

Tara Sonenshine will see the Voice of America shortly before it may lose many of its broadcasting services, including VOA radio to Tibet, major parts of VOA English and Spanish, VOA Cantonese broadcasts and Internet Cantonese news to China, VOA Georgian radio and several other foreign language news operations. VOA would lose 170 professional front line broadcasters and producers in the proposed budget if it is passed by Congress.   VOA faces net cuts totaling $17 million, compared with a reduction of $731,000 for its sister network, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

These cuts to Voice of America operations are being advanced year after year by a small group of BBG and IBB strategic planners and executives. Despite strong bipartisan opposition in Congress to these cuts, they were approved again this year by the majority of part time BBG members with the notable exception of the senior Republican Ambassador Victor H. Ashe. He and Sonenshine are the only attendees of BBG board meetings with any substantive foreign policy and public diplomacy experience. Sonenshine will represent at these meetings Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is an ex officio BBG member.

Tibetans protesting at BBG's Michael Lynton's LA Sony office against silencing of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Tibet by the broadcasting Board of Governors

Tibetans protesting at BBG's Michael Lynton's LA Sony office against silencing of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Tibet by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

A group of Tibetans and their supporters protested recently against the latest proposed VOA cuts at the Sony Pictures office of the BBG interim presiding chair Michael Lynton. Thousands of letters in support of VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts have been sent to members of Congress, some of whom want to save not only VOA Tibetan and Cantonese broadcasts but also VOA programs to other nations without free media, including Vietnam and Laos.

BBG and IBB executives who want to end these broadcasts claim that the Voice of America’s mission of representing the United States to the world can be done by the so-called surrogate broadcasters, semi-private entities such as Radio Free Asia (RFA), which are also managed by the BBG. Critics have charged, however, that these executives are also taking resources from the surrogate broadcasters to expand their own International Broadcasting Bureau bureaucracy. Their primary target, however, according to these critics, is the Voice of America, particularly reporting in foreign languages focusing on human rights issues. These BBG and IBB executives want to fire dozens of experienced VOA journalists, media freedom and human rights activists have warned.

Their measure of success, according to one critic, are VOA English lessons with high school bathroom humor that Chinese censors are inclined to ignore rather than providing hard-hitting radio and satellite television news of interest to specific groups such as political dissidents, human rights activists, ethnic and religious minorities and women who are victims of forced abortions. “They can’t survey these groups in an authoritarian nation like China and therefore videos with juvenile humor seem to them more appealing because they bring it an online audience that can be measured for as long as the Chinese censors allow it,” a critic said.

A letter addressed to Congresswoman Kay Granger (R – TX), Chairman of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs of the House Committee on Appropriations and to Ranking Member Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D – NY) criticizes the Broadcasting Board of Governors for expanding their bureaucracy at the expense of critical overseas broadcasts and U.S. strategic interests:

The proposed reductions are driven not by a considered strategic world view, but by bureaucratic expedience and a fundamental misunderstanding of the mission of VOA. If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted, the staff level for VOA will be reduced by 13.2% from the current year. In contrast, only 3.3% of the positions from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which provides administrative support to the BBG, will be cut. If the fiscal year 2013 proposal is enacted the number of full time equivalent (FTE) positions for the IBB will rise from 593.2 in fiscal year 2011 to 678.2. In the same time period VOA will lose 121.2 FTE positions. The general trend of the IBB has been to grow larger while the number of language services they support is being reduced. Broadcasting should be the last thing to be cut. It makes little sense to grow the bureaucracy while cutting that which it is meant to support. The eliminations and reductions in broadcasting to Tibet, China, Laos, and Vietnam alone will cut 28 positions from VOA.

Link to the Letter

Here is the schedule of Tara Sonenshine’s planned visit to the BBG and Voice of America headquarters, as described in an internal email:

The new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Tara Sonenshine, has accepted an invitation from the BBG to come by the Cohen Building early in her tenure.  She plans to attend the Board’s meeting this month at OCB, but has also welcomed the chance to visit the agency’s headquarters as well as the vaunted home of VOA.

This she will do next Tuesday, April 10, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.  The program agreed upon with the State Department will be:

11 a.m. to noon – reception with light refreshments, VOA Briefing Room.

Among the invitees will be the language service heads and senior congressional staff who handle public diplomacy issues.

Noon to 12:30 – Tailored tour taking in historic aspects of the building as well as state-of-the-art studios.  Possible TV interview, to be worked out with VOA; tape would be shared across entities.

12:30 to 1:30 – Informal lunch, pre-ordered individually for those who choose to participate.  Details to follow.

The program will end in time for a brief break before the 2 p.m. Strategy and Budget Committee meeting.

Unlike most top level BBG and IBB executives, Tara Soneshine has extensive public diplomacy experience and is believed to be sensitive to human rights issues. Some who know her believe than she may be more involved in BBG decision making process.

Here is her official State Department bio:

Biography

Tara D. Sonenshine
Under Secretary
Term of Appointment: 04/05/2012 to present
Tara D. Sonenshine was sworn in as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs on April 5, 2012.

Tara was formerly Executive Vice President of the United States Institute of Peace. Prior to joining the United States Institute of Peace, she was a strategic communications adviser to many international organizations including USIP, the International Crisis Group, Internews, CARE, The American Academy of Diplomacy, and the International Women’s Media Foundation. Ms. Sonenshine served in various capacities at the White House during the Clinton Administration, including Transition Director and Director of Foreign Policy Planning for the National Security Council and Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of Communications for the NSC.

Tara has had a distinguished career in communications and government, with high-level experience in broadcast, print, and online media. She has produced news programs for network television and authored numerous articles for national print and online media. She is the recipient of 10 News Emmy Awards and other awards in journalism for broadcast programs on domestic and international issues.

Tara graduated from Tufts University in 1981 Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in political science. She has remained active at Tufts on boards and advisory committees including the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.

Her broadcast career began at ABC News in New York, working for another Tufts alumnus, David Burke, then vice president of ABC NEWS. Ms. Sonenshine went on to become editorial producer of ABC News’ Nightline, where she worked for more than a decade. She was also an off-air reporter at the Pentagon for ABC’s World News Tonight. A former contributing editor for Newsweek, Sonenshine is the author of numerous articles on foreign affairs published in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers.

Her hobbies include family time, tennis, Zumba, writing about foreign policy and global women’s issues.

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