Broadcasting Board of Governors – The Most Misunderstood Agency

BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Letter to RohrabacherBroadcasting Board of Governors – The Most Misunderstood Agency

A condescending letter sent by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher implies that the Congressman failed to understand the BBG’s China strategy; Rohrabacher and other critics charge that the BBG was outsmarted by the Chinese regime and failed Journalism 101 when it cut live Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin radio newscasts to China during the US-China diplomatic crisis over the fate of blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. The BBG’s attitude seems to be – hey, we’re experimenting with social media now. We’ve got some strategies up our sleeve that evidently the Congress, in its myopia, just doesn’t quite understand.

You see, the (Chinese) morning news program from 6:00am to 8:00am (Chinese time) of VOA has been abolished. This is like going backward. If America is regressing, what then can be expected for the human rights situation in China? — a Voice of America (VOA) Mandarin radio listener in China

One can only imagine if VOA staffers had suddenly been told during the 1968 Prague Spring crisis in Czechoslovakia or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the June uprising in Tiananmen Square with the lone dissenter facing that ominous oncoming tank, we’ll be cutting your live broadcast hours and doing repeats for the time being because we’re thinking about doing something new, maybe TV.

BBG strategists and executives create the very definite impression that the BBG doesn’t really care that there may have been a 17-hour gap in VOA Mandarin radio news at this critical time. — a former Voice of America broadcaster and journalist

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) presiding chair Michael Lynton implied that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher did not understand the explanations of BBG officials, but neither did the Voice of America Mandarin radio listener in China and a former VOA journalist quoted above. See PDF file of Governor Lynton’s letter to Rep. Rohrabacher.

The letter points out that the BBG’s China plan was explained to Rohrabacher and his staff by BBG officials. The Congressman and his staffers need not to worry, however, for failing to grasp the sophisticated arguments of BBG strategists. Voice of America (VOA) radio listeners in China, human rights activists like Chen Guangcheng, the Dalai Lama, Mrs. Annette Lantos, VOA journalists, and most Republican and Democratic members of Congress think that the BBG’s China plan is as misguided as its authors. The Senate Appropriations Committee told the BBG in no uncertain terms not to cut broadcasts to China, Tibet and other countries without free media.

In a condescending letter signed by the BBG’s presiding governor Michael Lynton but drafted by BBG executives, the agency in charge of US international broadcasting, failed to address Rohrabacher’s two main concerns, shared by many others:

Rohrabacher Letter on BBG China Cuts1. Why did the Voice of America (VOA) eliminate two hours of live VOA Mandarin radio programs and replaced them with old programming without live newscasts in the middle of the US-China diplomatic crisis over the fate of blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng?

No VOA Mandarin radio news in China for 17 for most of the day is actually good news because we will at some point in the future have a new one hour satellite television program, Lynton’s letter assured Rohrabacher but was conveniently silent on the 17-hour radio news gap created by BBG officials at the height of the Chen Guangcheng crisis.

2. The letter did not even attempt to answer Rohrabacher’s overall question: “…I am at a loss to understand the BBG’s drive to constantly cut broadcasting despite increased appropriations from the Congress and despite clear bipartisan congressional intent in the case of China. The BBG has shown itself to be opaque in its decision making and incredibility tone deaf to Congressional priorities.”

See PDF file of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s letter to to Rep. Kay Granger (R – TX), the Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, and to the Ranking Member Rep. Nita Lowey (D – NY).

We have pulled together a number of comments on the BBG letter to Rep. Rohrabacher, including reactions from VOA radio listeners in China who were astounded that the United States cut two hours of live radio broadcasts. The BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials did not properly plan the switch from live to repeat programming, which after the cancellation of live broadcasts resulted for a while in no radio programs of any kind.

The audience is always the most important and we start with a few comments from China, which are not directly related to the BBG letter but are relevant to the issues raised by Rep. Rohrabacher.

COMMENTS FROM VOA MANDARIN RADIO LISTENERS IN CHINA

Comments by Mr. Hu during the 10:30am radio call-in show, May 25, 2012
… For the U.S. government, there is something, which as we say in Chinese is kind of stupid. The U.S. made a serious mistake in not seeking reciprocal treatment of each other’s media with China. Now, the CCTV, People’s Daily and even Xinmin Evening News (a local tabloid newspaper in Shanghai) have all landed in America but we in China have no access to any TV and radio programs, newspapers or magazines. When you (America) deal with China, (media) reciprocity is a fundamental condition, without which it is impossible for us in China to access information available in America and for you in America to know about the changes in China…

You see, the (Chinese) morning news program from 6:00am to 8:00am (Chinese time) of VOA has been abolished. This is like going backward. If America is regressing, what then can be expected for the human rights situation in China? [Emphasis added]

Despite the difficulties in listening to VOA programs, we just need to be persistent. During the Cultural Revolution, it was hundreds or even thousands of times more difficult to listen to VOA. In fact, listening to VOA at that time might lead to capital punishment! So for now, at least one can listen to it. You used to have long broadcast hours but the program has been cut repeatedly, from 12 hours to 8 hours, and then to the current 6 hours, right?

(Call-in host: Mr. Hu, how do you listen to VOA, via radio, TV or the Internet?)

There are many options. First, via shortwave (radio), then via satellite dish. Now we also use the Internet but it is often blocked. But still, we just need to be persistent. However, your broadcast hours have become shorter and shorter, what would you want the audience to listen to? In addition, your programming is deteriorating and is losing perspectives. You used to have programs on legal issues and Americana, which no longer exist. (The programming is) Too narrow in perspectives!
(Original transcription)
安徽,胡先生评论:
… 美国政府,有件事,用中国话来说,就是比较笨。美国和中国在媒体对等方面,是个严重的失误。现在中国的央视过去了,人民日报过去了,什么新民晚报的海外版, 也都到了美国。但我们在中国大陆看不到任何美国的电视,广播和报刊杂志。你们(美国)要同中国打交道,这是个很基本的对等条件。如果没有这种对等,人权个 案,人权动态,我们在中国无法掌握你们美国的信息,你们美国也很难掌握到中国的变化。我认为,对中国的问题,要有个全面的观点和认识。不是站在一个偏狭的 角度来看。
你看,美国之音,早上的新闻也取消了,六点到八点,这个新闻也取消了。这,越来越倒退。你美国自己也倒退,这中国人权状况,能有什么指望呢?
你 们美国之音,尽管现在收听很困难,但也要锲而不舍。你说在文革时候,那个时候,在中国收听美国之音还困难一些,比现在困难十倍,百倍,万倍。那时,听美国 之音是要被抓起来杀头的!现在听美国之音,至少你还可以听啊。以前你们有很长(播音)时间,现在,你们一减,再减。以前你们有12个小时,后来,减少成8个小时,现在,6个小时了,是吧!
记者:胡先生,你收听美国之音,是用什么方式?广播,电视,互联网?
胡先生:办法相当多啊。先是用短波,后来用电视锅,也收啦。现在靠网络,有时也被封掉啦。但,你要锲而不舍。现在,你(播音)时间越来越短,那我们听众能听什么呢?而且,你们这个节目,越办越差,越办越差! 没有角度啦。原来法律也有,美国生活也有,现在都没有啦,现在太单调啦!
Email from Zhao Xiqiang, 赵希锵 from China,
10:06pm, May 6, 2012
The (shortwave radio) program from 6:00am to 7:00am on the morning of May 7, 2012, which was supposed to be live broadcasts, turned out to be the repeat of the TV program of “Strait Talk” of the previous night, to be followed then by several hours of repeated programs that are several days old. The iTunes subscription for the 6:00am – 7:00am live radio show also became a repeat of the “Strait Talk” TV show that was broadcast the previous night.
This must have been a technical error and please notify the technicians for prompt action.
Thank you for providing “food for thought” to the Chinese citizens for decades. My regards to you.

(Original email)
5月7日上午6点–7点直播节目竟成了6日晚间的电视节目 ”海峡论坛“,随后的几个小时直播节目也都是前几天的。在iTunes上预订的播客传送,当日上午6–7点节目也成了6日晚间电视节目”海峡论坛”.
这一定是技术部门工作失误。请告知他们尽速纠正,并采取相应的补救措施。
谢谢你们,几十年来为中国老百姓送来的无价的精神食粮。向你们致敬。

Email

Friday, May 18, 2012 3:44 PM
Re: VOA Chinese programs
Hello VOA,
I relied on my mobile handset to listen to the VOA radio programs since the Chen Guangcheng case began to unfold but lost my access since yesterday afternoon when the software on my handset could not find VOA radio programs. It could find VOA English and music programs but showed “No network connection” when VOA Chinese radio program was searched. I suspect there must have been some restrictions. I used the VOA mobile app on my handset but could only download the menu. The speed was slow that I wouldn’t be able to listen to anything even if I could click-open the items on the menu.

I still believe that listening is the most convenient way as I can do other things while listening to your Chinese programs. Do you have other apps that I can use to listen to VOA Chinese radio program?
Thanks! I very much like VOA news reports, analyses and commentaries.
(Original email)
美国之音你好,陈光诚事件后我一直通过手机软件收听voa中文广播,但是昨天下午开始手机广播软件就搜不到中文台了,美国之音英文的现场新闻台、音乐台都能收听,唯独中文台的显示无网络,搜索不到我想一定是受了什么限制。你们voa的手机软件我下载后也只有菜单,运转很慢,就算打开也只能看不能听。
我始终觉得还是听中文广播最方便,可以边听边做事,不知道你们还有其他可收听到voa中文广播的软件吗?
谢谢!很喜欢voa的新闻报道与相关评述。

COMMENTS FROM A FORMER VOA BROADCASTER AND JOURNALIST

“The best defense is a good offense” is an adage that has been applied to many fields of endeavor, including games and military combat. Generally the idea is that offensive action preoccupies the opposition and ultimately its ability to directly harm. Mao Zedong has echoed the words by saying “the only real defense is active defense” meaning defense for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive. The quote is often attributed to heavyweight prizefighter, Jack Dempsey, and is also echoed in the writings of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu.

That best defense, good offense concept seems to be the underlying tone of the formal letter sent by the Presiding Chair of the BBG in response to a letter written by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations. The letter appears more than just a bit condescending to the Congressman who has fought and continues to fight for the viability of U.S. international broadcasting, one of the most important components of the U.S. public diplomacy toolbox.

In answering the Congressman’s letter, the BBG sets the stage by stating it welcomes the opportunity “to clarify several issues” which evidently the Congressman most certainly didn’t understand. To buttress the contention that the Congressman had little comprehension of the facts, the BBG Presiding Governor mentions a briefing that Director Ensor had with the Congressman regarding the new strategy of TV enhancement of VOA Mandarin at the conclusion of which the Congressman should have understood that it could only be accomplished by “redirecting certain VOA Mandarin funds internally.” What was conspicuously left out was that this “redirection” of funds impacted the Mandarin radio broadcasts where the decision was made that instead of having original content with news updates that an entire broadcast hour would be a repeat.

What was also left out was the timing of this broadcasting cut of radio: at the very height of one of the most dramatic international events of the past or any year: the daring escape of blind dissenter, Chen Guangcheng, from his internal exile in the provinces to Beijing at the very time that Secretary of State Clinton was expected in the Chinese capital. A time of anxiety as the brave opposition figure was transferred to a hospital because during the escape he had broken his foot. Subsequent isolation from embassy protection. The dramatic telephone call directly to a congressional hearing where Chen spoke through an interpreter to Congressman Chris Smith. Behind-the-scenes negotiating in which Secretary Clinton played a decisive and very brave role, the kind of dramatic situation that for a brief period of time the eyes of the world are focused upon, an event involving human rights and freedom, the very topics that VOA has always been a part of in its 70 years of broadcasting. Just one of the very many reasons for its great success in broadcasting journalism. An all-hands-on-deck moment using all available resources of staff and resources to get that story out, 24/7 alert, tracking down rumors and actualities, scanning the news output for clues, one of those rare breathtaking events in human history.

One can only imagine if VOA staffers had suddenly been told during the 1968 Prague Spring crisis in Czechoslovakia or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the June uprising in Tiananmen Square with the lone dissenter facing that ominous oncoming tank, we’ll be cutting your live broadcast hours and doing repeats for the time being because we’re thinking about doing something new, maybe TV.

BBG strategists and executives create the very definite impression that the BBG doesn’t really care that there may have been a 17-hour gap in VOA Mandarin radio news at this critical time. The attitude seems to be – hey, we’re experimenting with social media now. We’ve got some strategies up our sleeve that evidently the Congress, in its myopia, just doesn’t quite understand.

That question was not answered in the letter because to answer it directly and truthfully would be to admit that the VOA had broken some basic rules of journalism. Had flunked Journalism 101. The Broadcasting Board of Governors had retreated instead of focusing and perhaps compromised the very integrity of VOA.

COMMENTS FROM A TAXPAYER

They (BBG/IBB) like to play word games. They say “no plans to reduce staffing, broadcast hours or transmission to VOA Mandarin.” But they also talk about “redirecting certain VOA Mandarin funds internally.” That means they want to do two things: (a) radio repeats of the evening show (DC time) with no live news and (b) put the money into television.

• The “satellite strategy” doesn’t mean anything because it only is talk from inside the Cohen Building. We haven’t heard from the Chinese. More than likely, we won’t. They’ll just block the channels if they see it as a threat to their media policy. Private satellite dishes are banned in China. So, what kind of miracle is the BBG/IBB hoping for?

• They are going up against TWO THOUSAND television channels in China. Even if those channels aren’t all on-the-air 24/7, the amount of television programming they can generate would be overwhelming. A couple hours of television from VOA would be an insignificant counterweight to the Chinese government’s own internal distribution and whatever foreign product they would deem acceptable for the Chinese people.

• They got caught on their “small reduction” in EAP Division funding. They say $60,000 but “no final decision has been made.” That means they aren’t making any promises and the money could be more – or – it could wipe out one of the smaller services, or make smaller services even smaller.

• Pre-recorded segments will be old news, especially if it is material from earlier in the day (the AM/DC time Mandarin program). When the Chinese hear the pre-recorded material, it will be behind the news cycle 24/7, if it isn’t updated. And if it is updated, that means staff will have to be committed to making the updates. It may not be a lot, but without it, the feature programming could be irrelevant, based on what may or may not be the content.

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