This comment was sent to BBG Watch by a former Voice of America broadcaster and journalist. Also read: Broadcasting Board of Governors – The Most Misunderstood Agency
“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.