Congressional Quarterly article gives BBG's PR spin against critics in Congress
A recent article in Congressional Quarterly offers a good view of the BBG’s arguments, many of them misleading, against critics in Congress and elsewhere.
BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson tries to present BBG critics in Congress as opponents of bureaucratic reforms in love with outdated technologies.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. Critics of the BBG are not in love with shortwave radio, as Isaacson claims. What these critics see is a wholesale destruction of U.S. broadcasting capabilities and pro-human rights programming to countries like Russia and China and their replacement with soft programs that authoritarian regimes find tolerable and some BBG members prefer. (Health program to Africa or English lessons to China, for example.) The latest BBG statement on threats to media freedom around the world did not even mention China and Russia even though a VOA reporter was beaten and temporarily detained by the Chinese secret police earlier this year.
Why? Being blunt about countries like China could upset their plans for Internet-only, soft-programming marketing strategy. At their last board meeting, the BBG was all exited about VOA English lessons, which is about the only type of VOA program in Mandarin that the Chinese Internet censors will tolerate.
Critics of the BBG want to see multimedia program delivery, not just shortwave radio, and don’t buy the argument that using the Internet and social media must cost U.S. taxpayers even more than using radio and TV.
That argument is ridiculous, considering how inexpensive the Internet technology is. It is just a cover for BBG executives to fire experienced journalists who specialize in human rights reporting and replace them with private contractors who don’t speak foreign languages and know very little about foreign cultures.
There are only a few honest statement in the CQ article. The first one is from Mark Helmke, an aide to Indiana’s Richard G. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Bureaucratically, the VOA and the other broadcast services are the most dysfunctional federal agencies there are.”
Who has been in charge of U.S. international broadcasting from more than a decade — the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
The second statement worth noting is from Republican Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that oversees government broadcasting and an outspoken critic of China.
“The Chinese service is coming to a historical end with its mission unfinished.”
The article distorts Rohrabacher’s position by implying that he is against investment in the Internet and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Rohrabacher and other critics are not against expanding social media outreach. They only point out that Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, so they should not be the only program delivery option for VOA. Isaacson likes to focus on shortwave, but fails to mention that the BBG also plans to end all VOA TV satellite transmissions in Mandarin, thus taking VOA totally out of broadcasting business in China while the Chinese regime expands its radio and TV outreach in the U.S.
The Congressional critics may be right to suspect that, contrary to what Isaacson is saying, behind the BBG proposal is an attempt to prevent reform and reasonable consolidation of U.S. international broadcasting by dividing media functions between various BBG entities, weakening the Voice of America, and giving more money to their favorite private contractors.
Most of the quotes in the CQ article, especially those from Isaacson and other BBG and administration officials, distort the positions of BBG critics:
“’So will we get push-back as we shift resources from shortwave to the Internet?’” he [Isaacson] posited. ‘Yeah, there are people who are understandably strongly attached to the notion of shortwave. But we’re trying to look at this in a non-emotional way.’”
“As for editorial decisions, Isaacson is not about to apologize to lawmakers such as Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Coburn, who has slammed Alhurra for its interviews with militant Middle East leaders.”
“‘The board would like to get rid of Cuban broadcasting because it’s jammed anyway and no one in Cuba can listen to it, but anti-Cuban lawmakers won’t allow that,’” said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal debates over broadcast policy.”