Winning Democracy Through New Media Contests
FreeMediaOnline.org and Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, October 7, 2008, San Francisco — U.S. public diplomacy is in crisis, as is U.S. international broadcasting. Officials in charge of both, including James K. Glassman, the current Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, put their hope in the Internet, other new media platforms, and heavy marketing to help them reach foreign audiences and create a more positive image of the United States. Wanting to promote democracy to young Internet users abroad, the State Department launched a global video contest about democracy, which the officials hope will attract a large number of participants who are used to uploading their home-produced videos to platforms such as YouTube. As a sign of the importance that Under Secretary Glassman attaches to this new media video initiative, an image link to a special web page promoting the contest was placed on the home page of the official U.S. State Department web site.
The officials, who designed the “Democracy Video Challenge” with the help from well-paid outside contractors, ask potential contestants around the world to create a video short that completes the phrase “Democracy is…” The main prize is an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., New York, and Hollywood. The eight winners from different parts of the world will have their videos screened and will meet with leaders of the U.S. film and television industry. They are also promised meetings with democracy advocates from government, the media and civil society. The submission deadline is January 31, 2009.
Before being appointed to the public diplomacy position at the State Department by President Bush, James K. Glassman, was the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages U.S. international broadcasts. In that position, he voted to eliminate the Voice of America radio broadcasts to Russia, Georgia and Ukraine in favor of more Internet-based programming. Despite strong opposition in Congress to this move, VOA Russian-language broadcasts were taken off the air 12 days before Russian troops entered Georgia thanks to advice and support from the Senate staff of Senator Joe Biden. Even after the Russian invasion, Glassman said that these broadcasts would not resume, although under pressure from Congress, human organizations and Voice of America journalists he agreed to let VOA continue radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine for the time being. When the Voice of America Russian Service journalists pleaded with him to let them counter the Kremlin’s propaganda using multiple media, including radio, he told them they would not be allowed to do any more radio programs and confirmed last week that “we are effectively starting to shift our Russia strategy to the Internet.”
In pushing the Internet-only strategy, the BBG staff is now preventing VOA from producing regularly scheduled political radio programs to Russia that could be broadcast on shortwave, a still available medium wave transmitter in Moscow, or even put on the Web. The Broadcasting Board of Governors under Glassman’s chairmanship continued a policy initiated by a former BBG member, media mogul Norman Pattiz, that placed a high premium on expanding audience reach through broadcasting music and making programming less political, less controversial, and less intellectual. Pattiz has been Senator Biden’s friend and supporter.
Neither the State Department officials nor BBG bureaucrats understand how new media works, which has resulted in programming initiatives that foreign audiences are likely to view as embarrassing the United States. What works well for independent NGO-driven media is rarely effective when new media strategies are employed by government bureaucrats working with outside marketing consultants.
The “Democracy Video Challenge” is likely to be no exception, although a much more limited and more focused program could produce some benefits if it were designed and implemented by NGOs or even by diplomats with area expertise who know what kind of Internet promotion is appropriate for a given target audience.
The State Department is not the only victim of marketing experiments favored by its public diplomacy chief. Strictly journalistic organizations, such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, were significantly more effective in the past when they could produce programming according to the real news needs of their audiences rather than be forced by the BBG and its former chairman to dumb down their message, use flashy marketing schemes, and limit their program delivery options.