The Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Destruction of US International Broadcasting
FreeMediaOnline.org Truckee, CA, USA, March 07, 2011 — The following was written by The Federalist, a regular contributor to FreeMediaOnline.org, in support of the staff of the Voice of America (VOA) China Branch who demonstrated uncommon courage and fortitude in facing down senior officials of the VOA and Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) in a town hall meeting conducted in the auditorium of the Cohen Building on February 24, 2011.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Destruction of US International Broadcasting
by The Federalist
Let’s get right down to the nitty-gritty:
Every member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should submit his/her resignation to the White House. That should be followed by the resignation of the head of the Voice of America (VOA). If they don’t voluntarily submit their resignations, they should be demanded by the White House. The reason: they have destroyed US credibility abroad. They have unilaterally abandoned major radio audiences (the Russians) and are prepared to abandon the granddaddy of all audiences, the Chinese. Eventually, the BBG intends to abandon all of its international radio broadcasts. When that happens, the US Government will no longer be in the business of international broadcasting. There will no longer be a need for a BBG because it will have destroyed its most important strategic infrastructure and resource in reaching public audiences worldwide: direct global radio broadcasting.
The VOA Charter states, in relevant part:
“The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio…
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news…”
Clearly, the BBG is not in compliance with key provisions of the VOA Charter. The BBG is intentionally abandoning radio as the primary foundation base of communicating with world populations. The BBG has abandoned its Russian radio audience. The BBG has abandoned shortwave radio audiences in Indonesia and Vietnam. The BBG is prepared to abandon its enormous Chinese audiences. Other services have also been targeted. The intentions of the BBG are clear: it intends to thoroughly and completely shut down its radio operations.
Further, the BBG cannot claim to be in compliance with the provision that the VOA be “a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news…” VOA operations are now consistently unreliable. It is abandoning its radio audiences as quickly as possible. It has adopted a destructive “strategic plan” which relies upon the Internet as a sole source platform for audio, video and text…knowing (or worse, ignoring) that the Internet can be controlled and access to VOA websites blocked or hacked.
No doubt, the BBG would protest vehemently and try to point out otherwise, through semantic trickery and disingenuous, if not flatly erroneous statements bordering on deceit. But the facts speak otherwise.
The exit out the door of the Cohen Building doesn’t stop with the BBG members and the VOA director. Right behind them should follow the head of broadcasting to the Middle East and the staff of the International Broadcasting Bureau responsible for concocting the witch’s brew known as the “strategic plan.”
By its intended outcomes and the actions, past, current and future, this plan and those who vigorously advocate it are not operating in the National and Public Interest, have been destructive of those interests and have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on failure…failure that is abject and complete.
The key components of the strategic failure are as follows:
In 2008, the BBG unilaterally ended direct radio broadcasts to the Russian Federation by the VOA Russian Service. The service was reduced to an Internet-only capacity. At the time, as senior agency official stated that all of VOA would be like the Russian Service in five years.
Within weeks of this unilateral capitulation by the BBG, Russian forces invaded the Georgian Republic. As part of the campaign, the Russians engaged in cyber countermeasures to block or hack into Georgian and international websites.
The agency’s own research shows that the VOA Russian Service lost virtually all of its audience…upwards of 80%. Hits on the website are most often one-time-only, some on redirects and then the user leaves the site.
In the words of VOA Director Danforth Austin, the VOA Russian Service is an Internet “success.” Indeed, Austin is correct…it is a successful demolition of a service to a country without a free press. It is a “success” in enhancing the ability of the Russian government to control or block access to websites that do not comport with the interests of the Russian government.
The Arab and Muslim World:
For almost a decade, the BBG has taken millions of taxpayer dollars in a failed attempt to establish a meaningful presence in the Arab and Muslim world. It has failed miserably, as recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated.
Far and away the leader in reflecting and giving resonance to Arab and Muslim public sentiment is al-Jazeera television which broadcasts in both Arabic and English. One thing is clear from the unrest in the Arab and Muslim world: populations are fed up with regimes many of which have been supported by the United States. These populations are engaged in self-determination. The pro-democracy mantra is misplaced. Indeed, Senator John Kerry has remarked that it is too early to do a pro-democracy victory lap in the Middle East. Now, the United States government must prepare for an inevitable change in the wind. It is likely that the new governments to be formed will be less secular and more theocratic. In short, Arab publics are engaged in self-determination based on their traditional and historical values. This does not translate into identifying with US interests or values. The situation for the United States has become immediately more complex.
Add to this the success enjoyed by the Iranian government in projecting its power and influence in the region, most notably in Lebanon where Hezbollah is essentially in control of the national government and is armed to the teeth not only to protect its political gains but also to square off with the state of Israel, which it fought to a standstill in 2006. Iranian dissidents have been agitating for change for years, without much success. Even if these dissidents forced a political change in government, the still unanswered question is how that translates into dealing with the country’s theocracy. Further, even if Iranian dissidents force a change in government, this does not necessarily translate into the abandonment of the Iranian nuclear program. Iranians know that this program gives Iran an enormous amount of political leverage. The Iranians are not about to dispose of that leverage easily.
In short, the BBG effort has had no effect on Arab and Muslim sentiment. It is a failure. It is a waste of taxpayer dollars. The BBG is so far behind the public opinion curve in the Middle East that it will take more decades and taxpayer money to try to have some meaningful resonance. On the current trajectory of Middle East political developments, the chances of recovering the US image in the Middle East through the BBG are slim to none and will haunt US policy in the regions for decades.
In late February 2011, VOA director Austin and other officials held a “town hall meeting” to rationalize with agency employees the cuts the BBG intended to make to VOA China Branch Mandarin and Cantonese broadcasts, which would ironically take place on October 1, a national political holiday in the Peoples Republic of China (PRC).
This intended outcome highlights all of the ineptitude, incompetence and idiocy of the BBG “strategic plan.”
The BBG, through the VOA Director, justify this decision on a whole lot of suspect reasoning. According to Austin, the agency wants to go after “new” media…the Internet users in China. There is only one “small” problem with this: the Chinese government knows that it can control Internet website access. It can, does and will continue to block sites that it considers detrimental to Chinese national interests. The Chinese have already demonstrated its capability in this regard. The PRC government blocked outside news reporting on the unrest in the Middle East. That effort was not limited to the Internet but across all media platforms.
As large as the Chinese Internet audience may be, the BBG will not have access to that market. The cost to the Chinese government is next to nothing. The government controls all the in-country Internet service providers.
From the Chinese perspective, this unilateral decision is a gift. The BBG, an agency of the US Government is unilaterally narrowing its footprint inside China. It is funneling its program output into a medium that the Chinese government controls and will continue to control for the foreseeable future.
The Chinese are not being stupid about this. They know their Internet users. They know the content that is attractive to them and allows access to those sites that have commercial, entertainment and other non-political interests. This is about control, not about across-the-board blockage.
The other skillfulness in this approach is that, after a fashion, what the government provides ultimately outweighs what it blocks. With the passage of time, this renders the VOA program output irrelevant.
Danforth Austin suggested that the Chinese government would want the BBG to continue to do shortwave radio broadcasting. In Austin’s view – and no doubt that of the BBG – this is a waste of money. They believe that radio is passé. This is just plain stupid. Radio is about as passé as the wheel…and no one is abandoning the wheel as a critical part of technology.
The fact of the matter is that the Chinese government spends large amounts of money to jam VOA Chinese shortwave radio programs. That means that VOA radio program content has a value placed not on what the US Government spends to transmit its broadcasts but how much the Chinese spend to block it.
Another fact: Chinese radio users far outnumber those with broadband Internet access. As one VOA staffer asked Austin: are you prepared to buy a computer for those Chinese who don’t own a computer? You could see Austin bristle at the question posed by the staffer.
Another specious argument offered by the BBG and Austin is that the Chinese would not block the Internet because they would suffer economically and in prestige.
Truthfully, it is painful is hear this delusional babble coming out of an agency charged with communicating with the rest of the world.
Here is the truth of the matter: the Chinese are riding the crest of a wave of an economic juggernaut which has yet to reach maximum effectiveness. This juggernaut, which is worldwide in scope, shows no signs of negative backlash from its blocking of US government websites. Globalized economies want access to Chinese goods. Globalized businesses want access to Chinese labor which reduces their costs. Advantage: PRC.
Further, the PRC owns a huge amount of US debt. No one should operate under the delusion that blocking US government websites is somehow going to have significant impact on the leverage the Chinese government has.
Lastly, as VOA Chinese staffers pointed out, the BBG spends $8-million dollars on its transmission costs. By comparison, the Chinese government spends $8-billion dollars on its overseas media campaign. This includes advertising in the Verizon Center in Washington, DC and Times Square in New York City. It includes a robust radio broadcasting effort in English to North America. It includes inserts in major American newspapers including the Washington Post.
The Chinese government has been quick to comment on its victory over the hapless and inept BBG. Through its official media, it has proclaimed the BBG action as a retreat and defeat, a mission abandoned and unfinished.
The Chinese are right.
More on the Cyber Front
One of the more ludicrous pronouncements from the BBG comes via one of its public relations flaks who stated in a press release that the BBG was a “leader” in cyber security and countermeasures.
The blatant idiocy of this remark was made clear when BBG/VOA websites were recently hacked by the “Iranian Cyber Army,” an operation with apparent links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. This attack took down all VOA websites and proxies for five hours. Repeat: all VOA websites and proxies for five hours. The attack occurred a few days before the BBG town hall meeting.
The BBG response was a reflection of its naivety in the cyber environment, complaining about infringement on freedom of the press and similar blah, blah, blah that means absolutely nothing to those opposed to US interests. After indulging in this rant, the statement followed by saying that the attack did not penetrate deeper into the agency’s IT infrastructure.
Not this time.
No doubt, the Iranians will study its successes and make efforts to expand and improve upon them. The next attack may be longer. The next attack may indeed penetrate deeper into the IT infrastructure disrupting perhaps actual on-air programs as well as websites. Clearly, the BBG does not have effective measures in place to prevent such attacks or similar ones in the future.
This is important to note when it comes to the Chinese. The BBG needs to be reminded that the Chinese government has the equivalent of unlimited resources and it will expend those resources to protect its national interests. For example, the PRC could match the BBG employee-for-employee in a cyber warfare operation and double it and not break a sweat. Even VOA director Austin noted that the Chinese are very focused on their goals. Apparently, the VOA director isn’t listening to what he’s saying and the import behind it. The Chinese government means business. They are not coy about it. They will tell the US government exactly what it will do to protect its interests.
On the Political Front
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In her testimony, the secretary noted that the United States is losing in the court of world opinion. Using the often-expressed “war” analogy, Secretary Clinton said, “We are in an information war and we are losing that war.” She also noted that “Most people still get their news from TV and radio.”
Secretary Clinton is right on both counts. Unfortunately, the BBG – which the State Department oversees – is committed to abandoning radio both immediately and in the long term in favor of the Internet. Well over 70 percent of the world population does not have Internet access. That 70 percent is a bountiful resource for organizations that hate the United States. Out of these impoverished and oppressed peoples come recruits for terrorist organizations and operations.
Senator Richard Lugar asked Secretary Clinton about a more assertive role for the BBG. While Secretary Clinton’s response was not fleshed out in press accounts, there is a message for the secretary and for Senator Lugar in the BBG town hall meeting. From that meeting it is evident that the BBG intends to press forward in abandoning world publics and narrowing the US government information footprint around the world. Channeling more funding toward the BBG will be money wasted on an already bankrupt “strategic plan” that cripples access to mass audiences and goes after audiences that are and will continue to be effectively blocked.
Mrs. Clinton also noted that the major player in the Middle East is al-Jazeera television. Thanks to the arrogance and mismanagement perpetrated by the BBG, other major players are already on the rise in Russia and China which have mounted robust international media programs.
We have become the world’s big time loser in news and information. We have allowed US international prestige and credibility to be undermined and our national interests compromised. For that reason, as the direct consequence of the BBG’s decisions, the Board should be held accountable and be given the heave-ho, along with the IBB and VOA management that has supported the Board’s actions and shares in its culpability.
Sign a petition on http://voashortwave.org
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View Voice of America Chinese Branch journalists protesting the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ decision to end VOA on-the-air radio programs to China in Mandarin and Cantonese.