Former RFE/RL president's plan for VOA: 1) relegate it to public diplomacy, 2) bust its union.

Posted: 20 Aug 2012

The American Interest, September/October 2012 issue, Jeffery Gedmin (president of RFE/RL, 2007-2011): "American public diplomacy needs the full and active support of American broadcasting. To this end the BBG should clarify the identity of the VOA and the MBN. Both have developed needlessly complex personalities. Too often taxpayer-funded broadcasters have bristled over the notion that their independent journalistic work should be subsumed as an element of American public diplomacy; yet it must be. The BBG carries the responsibility both to place the work of broadcasting in the service of its mission, and to protect the integrity of the journalism produced under its banner. These ideas are not contradictory; they are rather mutually reinforcing.

"Both VOA and MBN should re-focus on U.S. public diplomacy efforts, but MBN should maintain its independent status. Like Radio Free Asia and RFE/RL, it is a 501(c) (3) and, as such, a grantee of the Federal government. VOA should be de-federalized to permit greater flexibility in recruiting and managing personnel. This will mean an end to VOA’s union, a step that will almost certainly have to wait for a Republican Administration.

"Surrogate broadcasting was always 'about them.' Public diplomacy (including VOA) was always 'about us.' Any reorganization of broadcasting should reflect these two distinct yet complementary missions. U.S. international broadcasting needs above all simplification and clarity of purpose. Times and technologies change, but a return to some of the most important basics can help us get the most out of broadcasting’s soft power today."

Dr. Gedmin would eliminate the VOA union? Now that would send a powerful message to the world about the "freedom and democracy" enshrined in the Broadcasting Board of Governors mission statement. Or does he mean that the VOA's American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, local would have to be replaced by something like Radio Free Asia's Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, local, if VOA were de-federalized?

Beyond that, Gedmin's essay is a collection of good and bad ideas for US international broadcasting. A single CEO for USIB, more journalism training (if it's real journalism), and more correspondents in or near the target country are all, in my opinion, good ideas.

In the first paragraph quoted above, Gedmin writes the "BBG carries the responsibility both to place the work of broadcasting in the service of its mission, and to protect the integrity of the journalism produced under its banner." This is possible only if journalism with integrity is the mission. Otherwise, the enterprise is pulling in two very different directions. Elsewhere in his essay, Gedmin would have the surrogate broadcasters collaborate more with the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House. Worthy as those organizations are, they are not in the news business. Journalists do not do well by trying to do good.

Gedmin believes that US international broadcasting should be centrally planned by politicians and bureaucrats in Washington. I believe it should be market-based. The market, in which I have been immersed for 35 years as an audience research analyst, seeks news that is more accurate, reliable, and objective than the news they get from their state-controlled domestic media. Fortunately, such a market-based news service benefits both the audience and the United States. Well informed publics make it more difficult for dictators, terrorists, and other international miscreants to commit mischief. Instead of arguing the merits of democracy, USIB should be an element of the democratic process by giving audiences the information they need to form their own political opinions.

The audience for international broadcasting is, collectively, much smarter than all the decision makers and think tank fellows within the Beltway. The audience would spot almost immediately a broadcasting service that is a mix of journalism and "mission." They will tune to another broadcasting outlet, or visit another website, that does not insult their intelligence.

Ideally, international broadcasting should be in the private sector, so that the burden of demonstrating insulation from a government is not necessary. CNN is successful globally with its English-language CNN International, in Latin America via CNN en Español, and through its partnerships in India and Turkey. When such endeavors succeed, the US government should get out of the way. In fact, the International Broadcasting Act of 1994 has such a stipulation.

In other languages, where international broadcasting has less commercial potential, the government must provide the funding but (this is the tricky part) not insert itself in the journalistic process. Members of parliaments in the UK and other Western democracies seem to understand this concept, so I have not given up hope that American decision makers could do the same.

Gedmin writes that the "distinct but complementary" missions of RFE/RL and VOA became "muddled" since the end of the Cold War. Actually, anyone who turned on a shortwave radio back in the day knows they were muddled long before that. By the 1950s, VOA knew its audiences were mostly interested in what was happening in their own countries, and adjusted its content accordingly. The result was duplication, lots of duplication, between VOA and RFE/RL. Radio Free Asia was created on false premise that VOA was limited to news about the United States and English-language lessons (pretty much the VOA as described by Gedmin). VOA leadership at the time did not correct that information, resulting in even more duplication. (BBC World Service was and is probably the most important surrogate broadcaster, although it never uses the word "surrogate." See the previous post about a Vietnamese listener calling the BBC to do what Vietnamese media would not do under current circumstances. Nevertheless, BBC World Service also manages to provide news about Britain and the rest of the world. All from one convenient station.)

Duplication is pervasive in US international broadcasting. Duplication is a significant form of waste in federal spending. I would eliminate the duplication by consolidating the USIB entities into one entity. Gedmin, on the other hand, would turn VOA into a "public diplomacy" entity. VOA would then presumably duplicate the work of the public diplomacy offices at the State Department. I would prefer that the complementary roles be on the part of US international broadcasting, in one building, and the State Department's public diplomacy effort, on the other side of town.

As part of its new public diplomacy function, VOA would become a station that is "about us." From the hundreds of surveys I've seen, it is is clear that the audience is less interested in "us" than "us" would like to believe. Under Gedmin's plan, it's not so much that the surrogate stations would be "about them" and VOA "about us", but that the surrogates would have an audience, and VOA would not. Or at least not much of an audience.

Still, in order for some part of USIB to have a modicum of journalistic independence under a future administration and Congress, it may be necessary for another part of USIB to function as public diplomacy as a sop to those who want international broadcasting to be more "mission" driven. VOA might become that sacrificial animal. It would broadcast an ersatz news product and (Gedmin quoting British historian Andrew Roberts): "stories of Omaha Beach; of the Wild West; of Mr. Smith going to Washington; of the Frontiersman; of the huddled masses who work hard and ultimately succeed; of the Alamo ... ." You get the point. Such stories may bring tears to the eyes of us Americans, but too much of it may bring yawns to listeners abroad. VOA would lose most of its audience. It would become largely a waste of the taxpayers' money, but, in Washington, what else is new?

Actually, in the Gedmin scenario, VOA could thrive. It would send messages that are music to the ears of future administrations and Congresses, and thus its funding would be assured. VOA could carry on in such a manner for many, many years, just as the old Radio Moscow, with its huge budget and tiny audience, endured for decades.

Finally, Gedmin joins the chorus of experts who think that new technology has rendered obsolete the Smith-Mundt prohibition of domestic dissemination. Back in the shortwave heyday, nothing could stop VOA programs from being heard off the back of the beam in the United States. Now, with the internet, access to USIB websites could simply be denied to those with US IP addresses. New technology has made the domestic dissemination ban finally observable. It is, however, not observed. Fine with me, because the US taxpayers deserve to know what USIB is transmitting to the world. And they can benefit from what is an excellent global news service. For now, at least.

Foreign Affairs, 31 July 2012, Michael Ledeen, (untruncated at IsraelAmerica): "[T]he time has come for the United States and other Western nations to actively support Iran’s democratic dissidents. The same methods that took down the Soviet regime should work: call for the end of the regime, broadcast unbiased news about Iran to the Iranian people, demand the release of political prisoners (naming them whenever possible), help those prisoners communicate with one another, enlist international trade unions to build a strike fund for Iranian workers, and perhaps find ways to provide other kinds of economic and technological support." -- Right now, VOA has the largest audience in Iran of any USIB entity. Under the Gedmin plan, VOA would no longer "broadcast unbiased news about Iran," because VOA would be "about us."

Ghalib Academy of America press release, 17 Aug 2012: "Illinois Governor Pat Quinn congratulated Dr. Sarfaraz K. Niazi, a long-time Illinois resident, for being awarded the Pakistani civil award Sitara-i-Imtiaz (Star of Excellence) announced on Pakistan's Independence Day (August 14) by the Government of Pakistan. Dr. Niazi received this recognition for his lifelong contributions in assisting scientists in developing countries to improve their intellectual property assets and improve their economies through creative applied research. ... He is widely recognized worldwide for introducing Asian poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) to the West through the first complete English translation of the Urdu and Persian collections of his love poems. He broadcasts explications of Ghalib's poetry on the Voice of America radio station every Sunday." -- Explications of the poetry of Mirza Ghalib would not be "about us." Even though this content has enhanced the popularity of VOA in Pakistan, under the Gedmin plan, it would be dropped in favor of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Copyright 2006–2018 Kim Andrew Elliott.