Latest in the bring-back-USIA-and-put-USIB-back-under-it occasional series.

Posted: 08 Oct 2013   Print   Send a link
US News & World Report, 1 Oct 2013, Robert Schadler: "On that date in 1999, President Bill Clinton formally abolished the U.S. Information Agency, spinning off its broadcasting element into an independent agency and merging most of the rest into the Department of State. The effort was the product of a curious bipartisan alliance between conservative Sen. Jesse Helms and liberal Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and its effects were far reaching – shooting U.S. public diplomacy in the back with some six bullets. The first bullet was the dismantling of an organization with talented people knowledgeable and devoted to public diplomacy – i.e., informing key foreign 'publics' about the United States. Personal exchanges, fellowships, magazines, film, radio, TV and later the Internet were all among the means and media used. The second bullet was the placement of some of these functions in the Department of State. State's role is diplomacy – working with officials in foreign governments and multilateral organizations. That is rather different from engaging artists, journalists, religious leaders, politicians, students and professors about either the basics or subtleties of the U.S. and its people. The head of USIA was responsible for personnel, policy and budget matters. All of these key elements are jumbled and diminished in State's aptly-named corner of D.C., which is called Foggy Bottom. Bullet three was placing radio and television broadcasting under a part-time board that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (herself a member of the board at the time) called 'dysfunctional,' with board members fixated on 'audience size' and some even denying that public diplomacy was part of their mission." [Some bullets omitted.]

The subhead of this article is "Public Diplomacy Is Still Being Undermined by Bill Clinton's Budget Cuts." But make no mistake: Senator Jesse Helms was the prime mover of the elimination of USIA.

USIA worked so closely with, and was so subordinate to, the State Department and its embassies that it was a de facto branch of the State Department. Restoring USIA is not the panacea that will restore popularity to the United States. It would merely restore a bureaucracy and several suites full of senior level plum jobs, many of which would just so happen to be populated by the senior fellows of the think tanks who call for the revival of USIA.

As for US international broadcasting, I've written before that, as a VOA broadcaster, I miss USIA about as much as a Lithuanian misses the Soviet Union. Under USIA, VOA was sometimes pushed toward one editorial line, then pushed towards another editorial line. It was sometimes loosely controlled, and sometimes tightly controlled. Many VOA managers were rotated USIA foreign service officers, some who embraced the journalistic mission of VOA, and some who did the opposite.

Under USIA, VOA was not consistently independent. Without independence, an international broadcasting effort cannot achieve credibility. Without credibility, there will be no audience. The audience for international broadcasting is seeking real news, not public diplomacy.

The lack of an audience does not concern Mr. Schadler. He derides the BBG for being "fixated on 'audience size'." Implied here is that the BBG should be fixated on sending a certain message to the world, regardless of how many people are listening. We see many real-life examples of this communication strategy. They are the people walking the streets, some with shopping carts, engaged in animated conversations, but talking only to themselves.