Officials hail Voice of America TV interview in Persian with Hillary Clinton; then what about TV to China?
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is right to brag that the Voice of America (VOA) — one of several U.S. government-funded journalistic entities under BBG’s management — conducted an exclusive interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and broadcast it to Iran. BBG press release — VOA Exclusive: Clinton Cites Trend Toward Military Takeover in Iran
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Voice of America’s hit TV show “Parazit” Wednesday that Iran’s military is becoming increasingly involved in the Iranian economy.
“Parazit,” a satirical Farsi language program broadcast to Iran by VOA’s Persian News Network, has become the most widely watched international program in Iran, despite Iranian efforts to jam the broadcasts.
But the same Broadcasting Board of Governors which manages the Voice of America and pays for VOA television broadcasts to Iran with taxpayers’ money wanted to end VOA television and radio programs to China and to deliver VOA news to China only through the Internet. In their communications with Congress, BBG officials were downplaying the fact that the Chinese government blocks VOA Chinese websites and censors the Internet.
At the same time, BBG officials tried to convince members of Congress that “almost no one” listens to VOA radio in China on shortwave. Congressional staffers did not buy this argument, and Congressmen derided “BBG bureaucrats” for suggesting that their audience surveys in China could be deemed reliable. They told the BBG to pay more attention to the intimidation tactics used by the Chinese regime against the population that undoubtedly prevent many people from admitting that they listen to Western broadcasts.
Few people noticed, however, that BBG members — as well as their executive staff who cooked up the China plan — were completely silent about VOA satellite television broadcasts, which they also wanted to eliminate. Unlike VOA shortwave radio transmissions, which are partially jammed by the Chinese, VOA satellite television broadcasts get through and can be easily watched in China. The BBG proposal would deprive the Voice of America of all of its broadcasting capabilities to China. It was a very curious move.
Taking a bipartisan stand, Congressional committees in the House and the Senate blocked the BBG plan, but the question remains why BBG members and their staffers wanted to end these VOA television broadcasts, which have had more members of Congress as guests than any other VOA program. In any future crisis affecting China or U.S.-Chinese relations, satellite television is likely to play a vital role, as it does now in Iran and as it did during the Balkan crisis and during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
It is technically possible for repressive regimes to jam satellite television signals, but interfering with satellite transmissions is a more drastic and more visible step than jamming radio signals or censoring the Internet. Regimes facing a serious crisis usually are not able to do all the blocking and jamming all at once. They do in fact go first after the Internet, as we have seen in Egypt and several other countries in the Middle East during the Jasmine Revolution.
We now learn that the new Voice of America director David Ensor not only does not want to end VOA satellite television broadcasts to China; he wants to expand them. He is absolutely right. Time and time again, the Voice of America played an important news role during political crises abroad and attracted a huge audience when it had satellite television programs to countries like Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Iran.
So why did the BBG executive staff want to quietly end VOA TV to China along with radio? They managed to convince BBG members with little U.S. government international broadcasting experience — BBG Chairman Isaacson knows CNN but is new to U.S. government broadcasting — to go along with this plan until they received a rude awakening in Congress. Politically, their plan was toxic, but they thought that they could push it through as they did with the termination of VOA radio and television to Russia in 2008.
Russia invaded part of the Republic of Georgia just days after the plan was carried out, a few members of Congress complained, VOA lost a sizable audience — and nothing happened. BBG bureaucrats thought they could do the same thing with VOA in China, but they miscalculated. China is not the same as Russia as far as long term U.S. national security interests are concerned.
So why did they want to do this so badly? BBG Watch believes that the answer is very simple, albeit not easily apparent. It has nothing to do with national security or programming strategy and everything to do with bureaucratic interests of certain BBG officials. It also explains the actions of VOA executive staffers who advised former VOA Director Dan Austin to go along with the program cutting plans.
In the case of VOA executive staff, eliminating journalistic positions and programs ensures than their jobs are not put on the line when it comes to budget cuts. They have been very successful in protecting their positions while getting rid of dozens upon dozens of experienced VOA journalists.
Understanding the actions of BBG executive staff requires a somewhat deeper analysis. Audience surveys have shown that historically VOA language services with satellite television capabilities have been able to attract big audiences. These BBG officials, however, want to make sure that the surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia can justify their continued existence.
The surrogate broadcasters do in fact perform a different function than VOA — and an equally valuable one — but because of VOA TV, they often have a smaller audience than VOA. (This became quite obvious when comparing VOA and Radio Liberty audiences in Russia just before BBG officials ended VOA Russian broadcasts.) Eliminating Voice of America television, and in some cases also VOA radio programs, eliminates competition and ensures that the favorite broadcasters of individual BBG staffers and BBG members get their funding from Congress.
Cynical, wasteful, harmful to U.S. interests? BBG Watch believes all of it is true. Unless, of course, killing VOA TV — the goose that lays a golden egg — is the only way to save the surrogate broadcasters from Congressional scrutiny and possible closure. Even that does not justify such a cynical strategy that weakens America’s ability to explain U.S. policies to audiences abroad through the Voice of America. As Secretary Clinton said earlier this year, the U.S. is losing the information war. To win this war, both VOA and surrogate broadcasters are needed. But what’s most needed is a major reform of U.S. international broadcasting, starting with the BBG.
In some cases, the surrogate broadcasters may not have as large an audience as VOA — although one never knows from surveys in countries like China — but they specialize in domestic news in countries without free media. In some cases, surrogate broadcasters do some things better than VOA. Closing them down would be just as foolish as terminating VOA radio and TV to Russia and China.
So where can we find money to keep all of these important Voice of America and surrogate broadcasts going in this difficult budget environment? BBG Watch has an answer. More than a hundred of journalistic and programming jobs have been eliminated at the Voice of America in recent years but the BBG, IBB, and VOA management and administration kept growing to support far fewer programs.
We hear that the same bureaucrats who wanted to fire 45 VOA journalists preparing programs to China are now telling Director Ensor that the only way to pay for the expansion of VOA TV programs to China is by reducing radio broadcasts. We have a better solution. Reducing VOA radio presence in China would be both wrong and foolish and would hurt BBG in Congress, while reducing the number of non-journalistic and non-productive management positions would improve the efficiency of the organization and would do wonders for employee morale.
No one will notice if 20, 30 or even 60 percent of SES and other highest-paid BBG and VOA executives are gone. In fact, their departure will greatly improve employee morale. The absence of their advice will definitely save BBG members from further political embarrassments and David Ensor can get his money to pay for the expansion of VOA satellite television to China. It’s a win-win proposal for the Board and U.S. international broadcasting.