Gary Marco responds to NYT's "A new Voice of America for the age of Twitter
Gary Marco’s letter to The New York Times’ author of “A New Voice of America for the Age of Twitter”
Dear Mr. Landler:
I read your piece regarding the Voice of America (VOA). It is an excellent explanation of the world view of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
I am a retired Federal employee. I served 28 years with the VOA from 1980 to 2008. At various times, I had the opportunity to observe the senior officials of the BBG, VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) in motion (as opposed to action). With this in mind, I would like to offer an alternative point of view: I believe that the strategy adopted by the BBG has been an abysmal failure.
Let us examine the “highlights:” In 2008, the BBG terminated direct VOA Russian Service radio broadcasts to Russia. Very shortly thereafter, the Russians invaded the Republic of Georgia. To date, the BBG has steadfastly refused to reestablish the radio broadcasts, instead relying upon a website only for VOA Russian. As the BBG’s research demonstrates, as conducted by a survey company named InterMedia, the VOA Russian audience dropped off a cliff, virtually disappearing to insignificant numbers.
In the Spring of 2011, with unrest and revolution roiling throughout the Middle East, the BBG’s Radio Sawa and al-Hurra television were not the go-to source for news and information. That distinction rests with al-Jazeera, far and away the leader in news and information for Arab audiences. The BBG is notorious for making outrageous statements that don’t hold up to careful and critical examination and scrutiny.
Next is the matter of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The BBG intends to terminate VOA Mandarin and Cantonese radio broadcasts. Instead, the BBG intends to rely primarily on Internet content, with marginal radio backup via Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts into the country. I use the term “marginal” because RFA has been a distant third to broadcasts of VOA (the leader), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), until they ended their broadcasts. It is unlikely that RFA will rocket to a position of prominence or dominance of radio broadcasting into China.
Another word about the PRC: the Chinese government has made it explicitly clear that it will block VOA Chinese language websites aimed at domestic Chinese audiences. The National Endowment for Democracy reports that the Chinese government has 50-thousand personnel assigned to domestic Internet surveillance. In addition, the PRC has a robust cyber warfare operation. Some of these operations are under the direction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This should indicate the level of importance the Chinese government attaches to controlling the Internet and blocking content which it contends is harmful to their interests.
Recently, Gmail and Google email accounts of government officials and private sector executives were hacked by an attack originating inside China. The Chinese, their capabilities and resources should not be taken lightly. The BBG efforts to circumvent these capabilities should be taken lightly, with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in. In addition, the Iranian Cyber Army recently hacked all VOA websites and proxies for a period of five hours. In place of the VOA web pages, people attempting to access the sites were treated to a screen with messages in English and Farsi directed to Secretary of State Clinton, along with an animation of the Iranian flag wafting gently in the breeze and an AK-47 rifle.
Mrs. Clinton recently remarked in congressional testimony that we are losing the information war. The federal agency responsible for losing the information is the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Now who am I to believe: the Secretary of State or the BBG representatives inside the Cohen Building? The good money for credibility is with the Secretary of State. All this talk about Twitter and Facebook is BBG babble.
The truth of the matter is that people, when they migrate to new media are not migrating to BBG new media. They are predominantly going to Facebook and Twitter accounts of indigenous people and organizations. The BBG is not controlling the conversation and dialogue. Further, they are not offering a service that is exclusive to them. People have options, many options; and the research demonstrates that they are turning away from the new media of the BBG.
The BBG is desperate for a place in the present and future. It has no place; at the very least, experience has demonstrated that it has a substantially diminished if not marginalized place in the present and future. It is not likely that it will recover its lost ground in the foreseeable future.
However, at the same time, the BBG will prevail upon the Congress and the American taxpayer to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on a failed enterprise. For any of us who committed our careers in the Federal government with the VOA, the current results are reprehensible. They are disgusting. Coming up with fantasies concerning the agency’s place in the 21st media and information doesn’t alter the reality, substance and consequences of the BBG’s failed strategic plan.
Voice of America: 1980-2008 President, AFSCME Local 1418, Voice of America: 1983-2008