Hillary Clinton: Telling America's Story Largely the Task of the Voice of America, But the Bush Administration Leaves VOA Barely Surviving
In answers to written questions from Senator Richard Lugar submitted during her Senate confirmation process, Hillary Clinton said that “telling America’s story is largely the task of the VOA.” What she may not have been told by her briefers is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages the Voice of America, has completely eliminated or severely restricted VOA broadcasts to many countries in the world, thus preventing them from receiving news from the United States in vernacular languages. BBG funding for VOA English language broadcasts has also been severely reduced at the time when countries like China, Russia, Iran and India are expanding theirs.
the performance of America’s international broadcast entities has been quite successful in telling America’s story (largely the task of the VOA) — Hillary Clinton
The dismantling of VOA as America’s voice to the world became an ideological and bureaucratic goal of both the Bush Administration and of the BBG, despite the latter’s bipartisan status. After the decision to invade Iraq had been made, the Board worked closely with neoconservatives Bush White House staffers to privatize U.S. international broadcasting by subcontracting this vital government function. The idea was to make U.S. international broadcasting more responsive in supporting the Bush Administration’s policies — something that VOA journalists, protected by their Congressional charter and committed to journalistic independence, were unwilling to offer, neither to the White House nor the BBG.
In their push to give themselves maximum control, the BBG not only eliminated jobs of U.S.-based VOA journalists, most of them American citizens, but at the same time denied foreign journalists hired abroad job security and basic protections of American labor laws. These protections were available to VOA journalists, which made them more independent but annoyed the Bush White House and the BBG because they were unable to control them.
In carrying out its privatization plan, the BBG closed down many VOA language services, including the VOA Arabic Service, and created private entities such as Radio Sawa and Alhurra, with new multiple executive positions and contracting opportunities for favorites of BBG officials. (Some of the former Democratic BBG members, including Norman Pattiz and Senator Edward E. Kaufman, were in the forefront of implementing the neoconservative privatization agenda and the Bush White House propaganda goals in the Middle East; they were in fact more enthusiastic supporters than some of the conservative Republican members, but in the end most Republicans and Democrats supported the Bush Administration’s plans.)
Other major international broadcasters felt no similar need to create new broadcasting entities with new names and new missions. The British Broadcasting Corporation also expanded its media coverage in the Middle East and recently launched a Persian TV channel, but it is proudly and consistently promoting the BBC brand.
Focused on privatization and advertising schemes in international broadcasting and public diplomacy, the Bush Administration and the BBG worked together to destroy the Voice of America as an internationally recognized American broadcaster and went on to create multiple brands, such as Sawa and Alhurra, with no solid journalistic traditions or clearly defined goals. The BBG corporate structure is now very similar to the multi-brand corporate structure of General Motors.
The Public Diplomacy Council, a nonprofit organization which includes former diplomats, academics and other foreign policy experts, agrees that the BBG’s policies are designed to waste U.S. taxpayers’ money. The PDC has called on President Elect Obama and Congress to take urgent action in reforming publicly-funded U.S. international broadcasting and is proposing consolidation of all five broadcast entities into a single international network. The PDC believes that the proposed consolidation and replacing the Broadcasting Board of Governors by a new nonpartisan oversight commission would result in “cost savings aimed at making U.S. global broadcasting unmatched on the airwaves and in cyberspace.”
As it is customary during the confirmation process, Hillary Clinton’s answers to Senator Lugar’s questions were quite vague and may very well have been written based on information provided by the BBG staff. She made no reference to numerous reports about major editorial and financial scandals at Radio Sawa and Alhurra, such as airing of unchallenged statements by Holocaust deniers and giving extensive airtime to Islamist extremists and racist Russian politicians. ( These decisions were made by untrained and unmanaged contract employees in support of the BBG’s goal to achieve a mass audience in Iran and Russia. Their effort to gain higher ratings by playing up to the presumed worst prejudices of their audience was in any case unsuccessful, but it created a distorted impression of American values and damaged America’s reputation as a supporter of freedom.)
A study prepared by the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, University of Southern California, which was commissioned by the U.S. government, concluded that Alhurra, Arab-language television to the Middle East managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) fails to meet basic journalistic standards and is seen by few. Read FreeMediaOnline.org report: “U.S. Taxpayers Pay for Spreading Racist Views on Radio Liberty in Russia: What Would Barack Obama Say If He Knew…”
Use the following link to the ProPublica.org web site to view the Alhurra Holocaust report (with English subtitles) as an example of what the BBG’s marketing strategy has produced at these privatized U.S.-funded stations: http://www.propublica.org/feature/alhurra-video
One statement that deserves further analysis was Clinton’s assertion 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, and BBG members often make claims that their decisions are driven by 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. Senator Lugar asked a very good question whether the U.S. should try to reach a mass audience in the Middle East through entertainment programming. Perhaps understandably at this point, Hillary Clinton could not provide a clear answer.
While still working for the BBG, I became aware that BBG members and staffers were spending countless hours pouring over research data showing that the word “American” was unpopular in the Middle East and trying to come up with new names for their Middle East privatized broadcasting enterprise. They lacked knowledge, experience, and sophistication to realize that the problem was not with the word “American,” American society, or the Voice of America, but with the Bush Administration Middle East policies and their own preoccupation with marketing and advertising.
Making outdated Cold War-like assumptions about the Arab and Islamic culture, they named their TV station (Alhurra) “The Free One.” It was utterly naive of them to believe that their audiences would be fooled by the lack of the word “American” in the name selected for the new network.
In the process of trying to disassociate their new broadcasting outlets from America, the BBG insulted Arab pride by implying that Middle East audiences were uniformly lacking basic freedoms. It did not occur to them that this was not an East European-like audience, which truly lacked basic freedoms during the Cold War and looked to the West for help. Those in the Middle East who do not want to hear American news or the word “American” are not going to become viewers and listeners anyway, but most would rather have access to authentic American news and culture from a clearly identified source rather than rely on light-weight news and entertainment hiding behind propagandistic names from another era and another part of the world.
The new Secretary of State should inquire about some of the decisions made by the BBG during the last weeks of the Bush Administration. They included the shutting down of VOA radio broadcasts to Russia just 12 days before the Russian military invasion of Georgia and the Board’s refusal to resume them during the crisis. The BBG also ended VOA radio broadcasts to Ukraine just hours before Russia cut off the flow of natural gas supplies to that country and the rest of Europe. The BBG also wanted to end VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia.
The BBG staff claims that each one of these blunders was justified by solid market research. As someone who as a former BBG employee has placed U.S.-supported programming on stations in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Russia, and Iraq, I known that some of the research results obtained in closed and repressed societies are questionable ( for example, WMD intelligence research in Iraq, another closed and repressed society). But the main problem is not the quality of the research but the inability of the BBG members and their staff to interpret the data in light of political realities on the ground.
Most political loyalists serving on the BBG lack journalistic and human rights advocacy experience and know very little what it means to live in a country without free media. They nearly always have failed to understand what American broadcasting means to both dictators and victims of human rights abuses. Unfortunately, this is not something that reading audience research reports on countries without free media can teach them.
QUESTIONS FOR THE RECORD, SENATOR RICHARD G. LUGAR: Many have criticized the Bush Administration’s decision to try to reach broader audiences in the Middle East through efforts such as Radio Sawa and Al Hurra TV. Critics argue that Sawa – which relies primarily on a pop-radio format with a smattering of news – fails to deliver sufficient information to serious listeners who desire to hear unfiltered news about their country and the rest of the world. Opponents of AL Hurra – which attempts to serve as a counter to Al Jazeera – claim that it often fails to provide sufficient counterpoints to radical and inaccurate claims made by participants on many of its programs.
141. Does the Obama Administration intend to continue funding Radio Sawa in its current, mostly music, format? Similarly, what changes does the Administration intend for Al Hurra?
142. Does the Obama Administration believe that the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees both Al Hurra and Radio Sawa as well as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, is the appropriate vehicle to provide managerial and policy guidance to the disparate broadcasting entities? Does the Administration seek to alter or even replace the BBG?
HILLARY CLINTON: Let me answer these two questions together. For the most part, the performance of America’s international broadcast entities has been quite successful in telling America’s story (largely the task of the VOA), and in serving as important surrogates for missing independent media in countries where a free press and independent media have been repressed, such as Afghanistan and Burma, where RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia respectively operate. Beyond the precise content of the news, our international broadcast services demonstrate an essential lesson of free societies – the requirement of an independent media for a robust democracy.
A robust and effective BBG in turn requires a strong and unambiguous fire wall between the professional journalists and editors at BBG, and others in the U.S. government whether at the White House or the State
Department. I recognize this to be a fundamental requirement of effective international broadcasting.
The BBG is an independent agency but the Secretary of State holds a seat on the Board, through which the Department can express its views. State also clears editorials for the VOA broadcasts. But the most
effective BBG will be one at arms length from these and other government agencies.
Now is the time to review the Arab language services – they have grown in listenership in recent years, and we should review their performance and impact to determine whether Al Hurra and Radio Sawa are achieving their full potential.
We recognize that our biggest challenge is to ensure that our messages are listened to, considered and, we hope, acted upon by people in the Middle East, and Muslim societies around the world. To do this effectively, 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, and these conditions differ substantially from one country to its neighbor. So we must start with the market, and then devise our message accordingly, which more and more will include new digital platforms.
This commentary can be republished with attribution to FreeMediaOnline.org
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 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.
This report was first published by FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, January 25, 2009, San Francisco.