Commentary

Senator Coburn has a long history of criticizing U.S. international broadcasting,. Search this website on Coburn, and see also his subcommittee minority web page about U.S. international broadcasting.

It is appropriate that Tom Coburn., M.D., adheres to the hypodermic theory of communication, also known as the bullet theory of communication. By insisting that international broadcasting should be "promoting values," he believes that it is a matter of sending message (A) to audience (B) to achieve desired effect (C).

The bullet theory was discarded by communication theorists by the 1940s. This is because audiences are not chained to their radio or television sets, and because those sets, except maybe in North Korea, tune more than one station. The audiences use that tuning facility to get the content they are looking for. They are looking for news that is more reliable and comprehensive than the news they get from their state controlled domestic media. The most credible station wins.

Because of pressure from Senator Coburn and other decision makers, U.S. international broadcasting is like Nickelodian's CatDog, part news, part advocacy, and running in both directions.

Meanwhile, the BBC is a less ambiguous breed of international broadcaster. Soon, it's new Farsi language television service will compete with U.S. broadcasts to Iran. BBC's new Arabic television channel is already competing with Alhurra. We will soon find out which approach to international broadcasting is more successful in attracting audiences.

It is ironic that Senator Coburn, who positions himself as a federal budget watchdog, advocates not only an approach that is out of touch with why audiences tune to foreign broadcasts, but also a massive back-translation bureaucracy that could cost almost as much as the broadcasting effort itself. Who is going to read all that stuff? In most cases, nobody.

If U.S. international broadcasting to Iran says something that raises objections, the audio log file will be available. It can be put online, going back a month or more. The offending passage can be translated into English. Then we can have a lively debate about whether that content was biased, or not biased enough.

Speaking of out of touch, does Senator Coburn know that in his capacity as under secretary of State for public diplomacy, James Glassman would not have authority for international broadcasting, other than having one vote on the BBG? On the other hand, in his present capacity as BBG chairman, Mr Glassman is CEO of U.S. international broadcasting. If Senator Coburn is unsatisfied with U.S. international broadcasting as it is now, he would want to expedite Mr. Glassman's move from Independence Avenue SW to Foggy Bottom.

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