Restoring Effectiveness of U.S. Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting

FreeMediaOnline.org Logo. FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog  The Federalist Commentary, September 25, 2008, San Francisco — Free Media Online Blog welcomes a new guest contributor who provides a unique perspective on U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. The first article from The Federalist deals with the legislation introduced Tuesday by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KA) that would establish the National Center for Strategic Communications, an agency similar to the now defunct U.S. Information Agency (USIA). Brownback’s proposal would abolish the existing Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy at the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). We invite your comments.

The Brownback legislation is a step in the right direction. It acknowledges the problem. It remains to be seen if elected officials respond to this problem in a manner that restores the effectiveness of US international broadcasting or if the legislation will be undermined by special interests or agendas that perpetuate and expand the known failure of this agency [Broadcasting Board of Governors]. The Federalist 

Restoring Effectiveness of U.S. Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting

The Federalist 2008/1

 

The legislation introduced by Senator Sam Brownback is an acknowledgement that US international broadcasting is broken and needs to be fixed and in a dramatic fashion.  The senator’s legislation would dramatically reshape how the US Government goes about the business of public diplomacy.  Not only does the legislation eliminate the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG); it also eliminates the position of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.  The former has been a hotbed of sometimes vicious partisan bickering and the latter a steady succession of appointees who have searched in vain for an answer, almost any answer, to the woeful state of American prestige abroad.

Without a doubt, this legislation will have opponents.  Most likely to lead these forces will be Senator Joe Biden who has a demonstrated interest in this area of government operations.  He will likely be joined in opposition to the Brownback bill by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, no doubt led by Biden’s former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman.

The dismissive attitude demonstrated that the BBG does not think its Russian audiences are important anymore. … Putin, by training, a KGB professional, understands the importance of being several steps ahead of one’s adversaries. 

At this early juncture, it is unclear who will prevail in the political contest over the fate of US international broadcasting.

At the same time, it is important to make note of the record of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, particularly in recent years.  This Board has presided over a failed effort in the Middle East; namely, the Radio Sawa project and worse, the al-Hurra television project.  The fanciful vision of the Board has been akin to if we put these projects on the air, Arabs and Muslims would be enamored of our program content and we will have miraculously won them over to our point of view.  Wrong, on many different levels.  First and foremost, it ignores the obvious; namely, the ability of Arabs and Muslims to distinguish between their expectations and those of the United States through the BBG programming.  No one makes significant life decisions solely on the basis of what someone puts on the radio or television, particularly if that programming is out of step with the daily realities of the target audience.  The al-Hurra project has been called a “broadcast flop” and indeed it is so, in part for the reason stated above.

Putin can congratulate himself on being able to control the media environment in Russia and portray the military incursion in his own terms, exploiting a void created by the BBG in the absence of direct VOA radio programming to the Russian people.

Next, the BBG made a unilateral decision to end 60 years of direct broadcasting to Russia.  One should not treat lightly the significance of these broadcasts…but the BBG did.  The dismissive attitude demonstrated that the BBG does not think its Russian audiences are important anymore.  Clearly, the BBG is oblivious to the changes underway in Russia under Vladimir Putin.  Putin, by training, a KGB professional, understands the importance of being several steps ahead of one’s adversaries.  If he were a chess player, in dealing with the BBG, he would appear to be a grand master.  He knows the opponent and the opponent’s weaknesses.  He has skillfully manipulated the media environment to limit or outright eliminate the ability of alternative points of view to be heard.  He is also mindful of Russian history, something totally outside the parameters of BBG thinking.  He intends to reestablish Russian prestige both domestically and abroad.  Russians have historically responded to calls upon their national pride, particularly in the hands of a strong leader.

Timing is everything.  While not likely a determinant of the Russian decision to invade Georgia, it no doubt had some bearing accessible information to the Russian people as to how this action was viewed abroad.  Putin can congratulate himself on being able to control the media environment in Russia and portray the military incursion in his own terms, exploiting a void created by the BBG in the absence of direct VOA radio programming to the Russian people.

Lastly, an examination of the BBG “strategic plan” is in order.  This plan is available for public inspection on the BBG website.  The Board is proud of its plan.  It believes that it propels US international broadcasting into the 21st century.  In essence, this plan relies heavily on the use of the Internet as a sole source platform for all VOA program material, audio, video and text.

This would be fine in the environment of a free society with a tradition of free speech and a free press.  However, the places where VOA programming is most important are places where these freedoms are absent or under duress.

This “strategic plan” also passes the cost of receiving US government information onto the consumer.  The Board believes that it is saving large sums of money, particularly transmission costs, by pursuing this strategy.  On paper, this is correct.  However, in turn, the BBG is passing the costs onto the consumer, particularly in places where the average per capita income is at the subsistence level.  The Board’s plan would require individual’s to purchase personal computers and acquire Internet access.  In some cases, the costs of both are prohibitive and in other cases they may be nonexistent, in terms of broadband Internet service.  There is also the matter of regular and reliable electrical service to power one’s PC.

The Board also likes to argue that it is trying to reach societal elites with its programming.  These elites are the “haves” in these socio-political environments.  Thus, the question is, what motivation do these elites have in embracing larger socio-political concepts that would dilute their power to benefit the “have-nots?”

The Board is dismissive of the power of radio to reach mass audiences over large geographical areas.  The Board believes that radio is passé, particularly shortwave radio.  However, radios are abundant throughout the world and are available at far less cost than a PC with broadband Internet service.

This Board’s plan creates serious gaps that can be exploited to influence people’s attitudes toward the United States.  As such, this is a serious issue of national security. … every American adversary can easily identify, locate, attack and dispute (or destroy) BBG communication links with its overseas audiences.

Clearly, this BBG plan is an all-or-nothing strategy.  The “all” is dreamlike wonderful.  The nothing is potentially very dangerous.  Those who oppose US interests and policies look for gaps in how the United States attempts to reach large audiences.  This Board’s plan creates serious gaps that can be exploited to influence people’s attitudes toward the United States.  As such, this is a serious issue of national security.

This strategy facilitates and invites electronic countermeasures in times in crisis.  There is a lesson to be learned for the arrogant BBG in the Georgian-Russian crisis.  When hostilities erupted, Georgian websites were hacked, by persons or entities unknown (but suspected to be the Russian security services).  This electronic attack seriously disrupted information coming out of Georgian websites concerning the crisis. 

It would be foolish for the BBG to believe that, in times of crisis, BBG websites would be left alone or somehow rendered immune from such attacks.  No doubt, the BBG would be wise to take steps to protect its websites from such attacks and most likely does.  However, no amount of effort on the part of the BBG would be 100 percent in the face of a determined and focused attack.

Another aspect of this “all-or-nothing” strategic plan is that it can be argued that the BBG no longer is an international broadcaster.  As the term implies, broadcasting means reaching the widest possible range in audience and geography.  This is no longer the case when a heavy reliance is placed on terrestrial downlinks or Internet service providers, easily identified, in fixed locations.  In short, every American adversary can easily identify, locate, attack and dispute (or destroy) BBG communication links with its overseas audiences.

All aspects of these severe shortcomings in BBG thinking represent the manner in which this body fails to carry out its mission.  It is a failure in an important, though little understood and definitely underestimated commodity of government.  It also is a failure in that the Board has clearly placed political interests above the national and public interest.  The Board relishes the fact that it has screened off public scrutiny of its activities.  This is where the problem begins.  Secret governance is no governance when an agency of the Federal government is understood to be accountable to the Public Trust.  One cannot trust an entity that deliberately shrouds itself in secrecy.  It cannot be relied upon to function effectively.  It cannot be relied upon to be a guarantor of public funds well spent.  The corrosive effect of the manner in which the Board operates speaks for itself.

The Brownback legislation is a step in the right direction.  It acknowledges the problem.  It remains to be seen if elected officials respond to this problem in a manner that restores the effectiveness of US international broadcasting or if the legislation will be undermined by special interests or agendas that perpetuate and expand the known failure of this agency.

The Federalist 2008/1

 
 

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