BBG Watch launches Public Diplomacy section, warns against diminished public oversight of U.S. international broadcasting


With the unfortunate demise of the United States Diplomacy Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, citizen input into how public funds are spent on public diplomacy and international broadcasting is rapidly diminishing to almost nothing. BBG Watch continues to monitor the activities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), as does the recently-formed nongovernmental and independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB). But there is not much monitoring of how U.S. public diplomacy interacts with U.S. international broadcasting.
If the BBG plan to de-federalize the Voice of America (VOA) is adopted, Americans will have even less to say how their money is spend on spreading America’s message abroad by a proposed new corporate entity. Public scrutiny of U.S. international broadcasting will be drastically diminished.
Removing the BBG and VOA from the public sphere into a corporate commercial sphere is likely to make them even less transparent and less accountable than they are now. It will also make them less able to represent America and American citizens and less able to offer a powerful message of support for free press and democratic values.
As our contribution to what we hope will be an unhampered public discussion, we will include in this section significant articles on the public diplomacy role of international broadcasting. The first link is to an article published last year by former Voice of America director Robert Reilly. His article is available online, link, on the MercatorNet website, which stands for: reframing ethical and policy debates in terms of human dignity, not dollars and cents or political calculation.
Message to US State Dept: evil is evil is evil
Here are some highlights from Robert Reilly’s article:

The State Department should not have been expected to do both diplomacy and public diplomacy, as they sometimes conflict. Public diplomacy attempts to reach the peoples of other nations directly over the heads of their governments. This can make the State Department’s job more difficult, as its responsibility is to work with the heads of those same governments and maintain good relations with them. The two missions should not reside in the same institution. Public diplomacy has suffered as a result. In short, since the dismantling of USIA, there has been no central US government institution within which policy, personnel, and budget could be deployed coherently to implement a multifaceted strategy to win the war of ideas over an extended period of time.

On its part, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) inherited all non-defense government broadcasting, including the Voice of America. The BBG became a stand-alone agency run by part-time board members, most of whom have had no experience in foreign policy or public diplomacy. The eight Board members exercise executive power, to the extent that eight CEOs can, and are not directly accountable to anyone.

Since the professional backgrounds of the governors have been mainly in American mass media, they have sought to replicate that media in government broadcasting by refashioning much of it with American pop culture – Radio Sawa being the primary example. Over the past decade, the BBG has seen fit to eliminate VOA’s services to Brazil in Portuguese, to Russia, to India in Hindi, to the Arabic world, and now to China in both Mandarin and Cantonese. [The plan to end VOA Chinese broadcasts was stopped due to a bipartisan Congressional intervention.] There seems to be a perverse logic at work here, in which it has abandoned attempts to reach the most important audiences in terms of our national strategic interests about who we are, what we are doing, and why.

In the Arab world, the VOA 12-hour, content-rich Arabic service was replaced with a 24-hour pop music station featuring the likes of Britney Spears, Jay Lo, and Eminem. The intellectual premise of this effort, as explained to me by the chairman of the board when I served as the director of VOA, was that “MTV brought down the Berlin Wall.” Radio Sawa has been proclaimed a success in attracting large youth audiences. However, as the dean of journalism in Jordan informed me, “Radio Sawa is fun, but it is irrelevant.” In a war of ideas, performing a lobotomy on your enemy might be a good move. It is almost unheard of to perform a lobotomy on yourself, and then to declare it a success. How would you like to have a superpower adolescent in your neighborhood?

Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. This paper was delivered at a seminar on “Fighting the Ideological War: Strategies for Defeating Al Qaeda”, organised by the Westminister Institute on May 25. Robert R. Reilly serves on the Advisory Board of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting.