What is the Mission of U.S. International Broadcasting?
Saturday, April 26th 2014
Russian troops are threatening the sovereignty of a bordering country while its anxious neighbors look West for support... Chinese bellicosity is prompting similar concerns from its neighbors... Iran’s nuclear ambitions are raising fears of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East….
At a time when our government needs all the tools of national influence and diplomacy that we have to let people around the world know what's at stake, and where the U.S. government stands in these crises, our best public diplomacy tool – U.S. international broadcasting and online media – is wrestling with its own challenges.
In recent weeks, there has been a growing debate about the proper roles of the Voice of America (VOA) and its fellow government-supported broadcasters Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Radio & TV Marti, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks of Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV. Columnist Anne Applebaum wrote in The Washington Post that it’s time to “rethink the funding and governance” of the broadcasters, while former Reagan Administration Soviet affairs advisor John Lenczowksi charged in The Wall Street Journal that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees the broadcasters, “has greatly diminished America's capacity to fight the Putin propaganda machine.” Lenczowski was even more critical at a Heritage Foundation panel discussion last week, where he called the BBG “dysfunctional” and in need of “an entire overhaul.”
While all this has been going on, BBGWatch.com, a public blog site which frequently airs grievances from current and former employees, has been launching daily broadsides against senior managers at VOA and the International Broadcasting Bureau, an internal supporting agency.
Some of the issues that have been raised are not new: Funding (there’s never been enough to do everything); shortwave radio, and what role it should play (some veteran employees still regard television as a new-fangled extravagance); and news coverage decisions.
These are all important issues, and the BBG has recently installed an interim management team to oversee internal operations while it weighs additional changes. But as it does so, the BBG will also have to confront a key question that underlies all of U.S. international broadcasting:
What should its mission be in a world where technological changes and skilled competition from Russia, China, and others have so dramatically changed the way people get their news, the speed with which they get it, and the wide range of information sources they now have to choose from?
There used to be a general consensus on that mission, and it went like this: VOA told “America's story," and provided news, feature stories, and information about the U.S. and our culture, while the other, "surrogate" broadcasters focused on local and regional news and information of interest to their target audiences, so they could act as a local broadcaster would if there was freedom of the press in those countries.
Over the years, however, those distinctions have become blurred as VOA and its fellow international broadcasters all now generally provide U.S. news and information as well as local and regional news. They have to if they want to be competitive in their target markets.
The bigger problem is that everyone now has his own idea of what the mission is, and that goes to the heart of what these organizations decide to cover every day.
Should they focus on breaking news and speed of delivery, or analysis and context? Should their coverage decisions be dictated by national strategic goals, or by what research says their audiences want? Should they aim for specific audience segments like the young, urbanites, or elites, or just try to attract the largest audiences they can get?
Only Congress and the Board can provide this guidance, but others have offered a range of views. Some critics like Lenczowski say the broadcasters should be more closely tied to national policy by making them accountable to a government agency such as the National Security Council. On the other side are critics who say that VOA, at least, shouldn’t have anything to do with public diplomacy, that it should simply be an independent news organization like CNN.
Complicating the discussion are two additional factors. First: Congress is not going to be eager to provide taxpayer dollars for a government agency that simply wants to be another CNN. And second: Any changes that cause the broadcasters to be seen as propaganda outlets for the government will cause them to lose their credibility as well as their audiences.
In practice, there is a lot of room between being a propaganda outlet and being a CNN. Every day, for example, there are stories that the U.S.-supported international broadcasters should cover because they can inform a target audience about an issue that they are either uninformed or misinformed about. And every day there are feature stories that VOA can (and does) do that counter anti-American propaganda and show our society as one that provides, for example, opportunities for upward mobility and freedom of speech and religion. None of these examples could be fairly called propaganda, and all of them can be done in a journalistically balanced way. Yet none of them could be called part of CNN's mission.
Clearly the BBG is facing some tough issues. But at a time when true propaganda from organizations such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and China's CCTV has gotten both more professional and more pervasive around the world, the U.S. needs a strong global voice with a clear mission.
We have that strong voice in our U.S. international broadcasting media. What we need now is a consensus on what those voices should be saying.