In Search of A Smarter, More Cultured Approach to U.S. Public Diplomacy and Broadcasting in the Middle East
FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, Commentary by Ted Lipien, June 04, 2009, San Francisco — President Obama’s recent announcement of a new Global Engagement Directorate that will combine “diplomacy, communications, international development and assistance” was short on specifics how this new structure might change the focus of U.S. public diplomacy and broadcasting initiatives. That’s hardly surprising, considering that the White House has to deal with many other seemingly more pressing problems. But when the Administration finally starts making hard decisions on global engagement, a greater appreciation of history and foreign cultures could help return some sanity and accountability to these programs. The President and the Senate also have to make better choices in selecting key officials responsible for international communications and avoid the temptation to use propaganda rather than dialogue and journalism in communicating with the Muslim world. Such officials should be appointed and confirmed based on their qualifications as foreign policy analysts and international media experts rather than selected because of political loyalty or the size of their political contributions. Finally, there is no reason why American taxpayers should continue to fund many of the programs created during the Bush Administration that at best don’t work and often damage America’s image abroad.
Propaganda Is Out, Journalism and Culture Is In – We Hope
If the White House is serious about avoiding past mistakes, what’s clearly needed in communicating with the rest of the world is a more sophisticated approach that draws on what is best in American diplomacy, culture and objective journalism. Much will depend on what kind of people are put in charge of representing America to the world. They should appreciate what’s best in American culture. The Administration should look for people who would be in the same league as Edward R. Murrow, who was President Kennedy’s choice to head the now defunct United States Information Agency (USIA), or John Chancellor, President Johnson’s choice to head the Voice of America (VOA) in the days when the White House appreciated the experience of professional journalists.
The last thing America needs is leaving public diplomacy in the hands of obscure political loyalists who make private business deals on taxpayer-paid trips abroad and help their business associates get hired as government consultants at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which manages, or more accurately mismanages, U.S. international broadcasts. It’s hard to imagine that the late Armand Hammer, a U.S. business tycoon who made profitable trade deals with Lenin and Stalin, would have been put in charge of U.S. broadcasting during the Cold War, or that the late Edward E. Murrow would be discussing private business deals with President Putin’s associates on a trip to Moscow if he were now in charge of these broadcasts. But such apparent conflicts of interest and other abuses were common at the Broadcasting Board of Governors during the Bush Administration. The BBG has been consistently rated in government surveys as one of the worst managed Federal agencies. Read The Washington Post column by Joe Davidson: Employee Poll Makes VOA’s Parent the Worst Place to Work.
Under President Bush, political appointees selected to run State Department’s public diplomacy programs and U.S. international broadcasting were political operatives, advertising executives and mirror entrepreneurs who proved their value to the White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress with political contributions and loyal support. (The BBG is by law bipartisan and must include members of both parties, thus both the Bush White House and the Democratic leadership in Congress share the blame for selecting these individuals.) They were rewarded with jobs for which they were completely unsuited and unprepared.
It is not surprising, therefore, that during the past ten years, Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and members of the BBG have brought once sophisticated cultural and broadcasting programs to a new low level of simplistic and counterproductive propaganda. They promoted advertising and marketing campaigns that admittedly may sometimes produce desired results in a U.S. domestic business setting but turned out to be ineffective and outright offensive when applied to public diplomacy and international broadcasting. And that’s exactly what these political appointees who lacked any substantive experience in foreign policy, human rights and journalism, have done in trying to communicate America’s message to foreign audiences, especially in the Middle East.
Bring “American” Brand Back
BBG consultants declared “America” as a brand name not to be used in the Middle East and came up with a GM-like collection of new names and new private broadcasting initiatives, each one costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars. Since their creators lacked an even basic understanding of Arab culture and refused to listen to advice from area experts, there was no chance that they could be successful. And by all accounts, they were not. They should have asked themselves why the British, who after all perfected serious radio journalism for audiences abroad, did not feel the need to dilute the BBC World Service brand with new stations under many different names.
Returning to a more sophisticated approach, using high-level cultural diplomacy and serious news broadcasts, may not be easy, as much of the knowledge and experience of previous decades has been destroyed and will take time to rebuild. The only thing left of sophisticated news analysis and cultural programs once available on the Voice of America are old audio and text files of interviews with important cultural figures in the Arab world. They have been archived by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, where some U.S. diplomats and local Egyptian employees still understand their value. It’s this kind of understanding and cultural sensitivity that needs to be brought back. Link to Egyptian Treasures from VOA on the U.S. Embassy Cairo website.
The BBG eliminated all VOA Arabic language programs to create privately-run Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television. The programming philosophy of these stations, developed by former BBG member Norman Pattiz, a Democrat — who despite being then Senator Joe Biden’s protege worked closely with neoconservatives in the Bush Administration — specifically rejected anything cultural in U.S. international broadcasting above the level of Brittney Spears. BBG members claimed that their market research supported programming derived from Hollywood and popular culture. Their professional background, however, made it impossible for them to conduct a sophisticated analysis that would take into consideration Middle Eastern history, cultural sensitivities, and political implications of their programming choices.
The Obama Administration would do well by quickly reversing many of the BBG’s decisions of the past decade. Correcting these mistakes would greatly improve America’s image abroad and save U.S. taxpayers’ money. “American” brand should be brought back by making the Voice of America again a primary U.S. international broadcaster. VOA broadcasts and Internet site in Arabic should be restored as soon as possible.
Sources of Failure
How did U.S. international broadcasting go from a series of great successes during the Cold War to disastrous results in the Middle East in the last decade? While the simplistic worldview adopted by the Bush Administration bears some of the blame, the BBG and its members have made a bad situation far worse than it had to be. These well meaning but completely miscast individuals, most of them with backgrounds in small domestic U.S. businesses, took a Cold War concept of surrogate broadcasting — which in any case was totally unsuitable for the Middle East — and compounded their error by removing from it one element that had made the original surrogate broadcaster — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — vastly successful in broadcasting to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. That element was a high level intellectual and cultural program content developed by local journalists, writers, artists, and intellectuals — not U.S. advertising experts and political loyalists based in Washington, D.C.
Not satisfied with silencing Voice of America broadcasts in Arabic, the BBG members and their private consultants destroyed cultural uniqueness and effectiveness of RFE/RL Russian broadcasts and terminated VOA radio to Russia just a few days before the Russian army invaded Georgia. FreeMediaOnline.org reported that only one BBG member, Blanquita Walsh Cullum — the only working journalist on the Board — had the courage to to oppose these cuts and spoke out against other abuses, including an ultimately unsuccessful effort by a former BBG chairman James K. Glassman to hire Paula Zahn as the Board’s high profile spokesperson while VOA broadcasts to critical countries were being eliminated. Paula Zahn declined the job offer as a private contractor that would have cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. James K. Glassman, who ended up as President Bush’s last Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, refused to resume VOA Russian radio broadcasts during the Russian-Georgian conflict.
In the process of expanding their power, BBG members deprived foreign journalists working for their surrogate broadcasters of any measure of independence and authority, which was one of the key elements of success of U.S. broadcasts during the Cold War. At the same time, they failed to provide clear editorial and policy guidelines — another key element that previous American management teams were usually able to put in place successfully by working in partnership with foreign journalists. Those who dared to oppose BBG’s misguided ideas were fired or found their programs eliminated. To cover up their mistakes, the BBG forced foreign employees to sign secrecy agreements and refused to make public independent studies showing the failure of their projects in the Middle East. Read Report Calls Alhurra A Failure on ProPublica.org.
By all accounts, the broadcasting Board has been an unmitigated disaster. Some of the abuses are only now beginning to come to light. BBG-approved personnel policies at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which discriminate against foreign-born journalists, may soon come before the European Court of Human Rights. Close links between the BBG Democrats and neoconservatives in the Bush Administration have proven that the Board does not protect U.S. international broadcasters from political interference with program philosophy and program content.
The Obama Administration has a choice of abolishing the Broadcasting Board of Governors and closing down Alhurra Television and other private broadcasting entities created during Bush years. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have a common interest in saving taxpayers money, which are now being wasted on ineffective and duplicate programs.
Alhurra Television and the BBG, however, has some powerful supporters, mostly among Democrats who helped to create Alhurra, including former BBG member Senator Edward E. Kaufman, D-DE, a protege of Vice President Biden. Read ProPublica.org: Alhurra Bleeding Viewers, Poll Finds, But Spending is Up.
One of the key members of the Obama Administration who may have a say in what happens to the BBG and Alhurra is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She is an ex officio member of the BBG, although she does not attend its meetings. She is usually represented at these meetings by a senior State Department official. While President Obama wisely avoided giving interviews to Alhurra, Secretary Clinton was recently interviewed by the network. Secretary Clinton is a friend of BBG member D. Jeffrey Hirschberg. He was one of the Democrats who worked closely with the Bush White House to create Radio Sawa and Alhurra. Hirschberg, a director of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, was also said to be responsible for terminating VOA radio broadcasts to Russia shortly before the Russian invasion of Georgia.
Other than Senator Kaufman and perhaps also Secretary Clinton, Alhurra, which means “The Free One,” seems to have now far fewer supporters, especially among members of Congress. ProPublica.org reported that outraged members of Congress threatened to withhold funding after the network aired a report on a Holocaust deniers conference in Tehran. According to ProPulica.org, “the reporter who covered the conference told viewers that Jews had provided no scientific evidence of the Holocaust.”
As a former acting associate director of the Voice of America (VOA), I am certain that VOA, the only American-brand broadcaster and a target of numerous BBG program cuts, is capable of providing news and representing America in a credible and responsible manner that will not embarrass the United States. It’s unlikely that VOA would give airtime to Holocaust deniers, as did Alhurra editors and anchors, who apparently felt they had no choice but to follow the BBG dictum of giving the audience what it wants based on market research. Although VOA has had various problems with its broadcasts over the years, it follows much more strict editorial and fiscal standards than the BBG’s favored private broadcasting entities and their contractors.
In some cases, private broadcasting entities and surrogate broadcasters can be effective if they have the right programming philosophy, proper management and sufficient autonomy combined with sufficient oversight. Ultimately, much will depend on the quality and experience of the people the Obama Administration puts in charge of these programs. Their understanding how we can communicate with other nations by presenting what’s best in our culture and intellectual tradition will determine whether these programs will be successful in the future.
About Ted Lipien
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. 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.
FreeMediaOnline.org is a San Francisco-based nonprofit which supports media freedom worldwide.
In December 2008, FreeMediaOnline.org launched a Russian-language web site — GovoritAmerika.us ГоворитАмерика.us — which includes summaries of some of the 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.
BBG officials initially had told the VOA Russian Service that their requests to resume radio broadcasts were a “non-starter” even after Russia invaded Georgia. Only after weeks of protests, including reporting by FreeMediaOnline.org, the BBG finally allowed VOA to produce a short audio program for the Internet, updated only Monday through Friday. This program is rather difficult to find on the VOA website. We made it available for easier access and listening on the GovoritAmerika.us website managed by FreeMediaOnline.org.
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