Linked via ZOOM, two dozen veteran practitioners and scholars of the impact of the nation’s five overseas international broadcasters joined December 16th in discussion of the networks’ future under a Biden administration.
Among the expert panelists as lead participants:
- Amanda Bennett and David Ensor. Former Voice of America Directors
- Martha Bayles and Peter Pomerantsev, scholars and international media experts who teach and write the nation’s multimedia public diplomacy reach in both closed and open societies
- Jamie Fly and Jeffrey Gedmin, Former Presidents of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Mr. Gedmin chaired the discussion.
The main roundtable points
As Amanda Bennett put it in her initial remarks: “There’s plenty of room for more reform.”
David Ensor, Ms. Bennett’s immediate predecessor as VOA Director from 2011-2015 and former executive vice president of the Atlantic Council noted: “The truth in content is fundamental, including countries as different as Mexico and Nigeria. Broadcast networks should apply overall principles to each distinct audience as fulfilling a clearly identified need. I like the current three goals (contained in the VOA Charter, Public Law 94-350):
- Serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news: accurate. objective and comprehensive.
- Represent America, not any single segment of American society… a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
- Present United States policies clearly and effectively, and responsible discussion and opinion on these policies.”
As Ms. Bennett put it: “Journalists (at the five networks) are working hard to get it right, often at great personal risk. People who access our broadcasts want to know the difference between what they want and need and what they get from their own governments and local media.”
A thoughtful, serious look ahead
In David Ensor’s view: “An effective responsive board of international broadcasting needs, first and foremost, to recruit a solid chief executive, as was the case with John F. Lansing”. He served as a holdover appointed CEO of international broadcasting for more than two years under the Trump administration. (Mr. Lansing departed in 2019 to become the senior official at National Public Radio).
Discussion chair Jeffrey Gedmin requested the panel to cite challenges ahead for international broadcasting as a new year dawns. Former RFE/RL President Fly warned: “The Russians are very flexible, outspending us their media focus on destruction of Western media. It’s an open question about how we respond.”
In Martha Bayles’ view: “China has a different approach than Russia. Their pro-Chinese narrative of the greatness of the PRC isn’t going very well. Good journalism by Western media is key. It’s possible that international Western broadcasting has this capability.” Amanda Bennett heartily agreed. “We’re practicing real journalism (under the three principles outlined earlier). I was thrilled,” she added, “to have the Charter behind me.” (That Charter, as noted above, remains the law of the land as PL 94-350).
As former RFE/RL President Jamie Fly (dismissed last June on Michael Pack’s first day in charge of U.S. international broadcasting) put it in this current, much-needed discussion among other veterans of that profession: “When you have contacts in Congress, give them examples of impact.”
As Mr. Pomerantsev concluded: “In the United Kingdom, we look closely at audiences: what is it about an open democracy that appeals?” And his fellow scholar Martha Bayles adds: “You have to talk about interactivity in your mission.”
My own view, as an observer of U.S. international broadcasting since joining VOA as a cub news writer 52 years ago is: one-on-one conversations with a sample of the 354,000,000 people who today access U.S. international broadcasts is key.
Hats off to the panel convened by American Purpose magazine to address the multimedia challenges we all face. May these roundtables continue in 2021!
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More