BBG Watch Commentary

An old Soviet-era joke went something like this: “This is Armenian Radio; our listeners asked us: ‘Why do we need two central newspapers, Pravda (Truth) and Izvestiya (News) if both are organs of the same Party?’
We’re answering: ‘Because in Pravda there is no news, and in Izvestiya there is no truth.'”

Almost every weekday morning, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) sends out “BBG in the Media,” a digest of news and commentaries about U.S. international broadcasting, also referred to as “Media Highlights.” But as in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, some U.S. and international stories just don’t make it into the BBG Media Highlights. They can be classified as “bad propaganda” and as such they must be banned, just as Soviet Pravda ignored any news story that did not meet the Party’s standard of what was “good news” about the USSR and “bad news” about the capitalist world.

For example, the National Public Radio (NPR) reported yesterday that “The [Buddhist] monks [in Tibet] listen secretly to Voice of America’s Tibetan service news every night, despite feeling almost physical pain at the bleak news.”Protests, Self-Immolation Signs Of A Desperate Tibet,” by NPR’s Louisa Lim.

Good news for VOA? Not really.

You might think that the Broadcasting Board of Governors would highlight this NPR report about the effectiveness and the need for the VOA Tibetan radio broadcasts in Tibet, perhaps even issue a special press release. But you would be wrong.

The BBG has proposed in its FY2013 budget to eliminate Voice of America Tibetan radio programs. Calling attention to the desperate need for these VOA radio broadcasts among Tibetan Buddhist monks and other Tibetans would not be good public relations for this mismanaged federal agency.

The NPR story from Tibet did not make it into the BBG Media Highlights. BBG has gone Pravda, and it’s not the first time. And it’s not just the BBG. In Pravda-like approach to journalism, the Voice of America English website ignored a story about a fake interview with a Russian opposition figure posted by the VOA’s own Russian Service.

But why ignore a story about Voice of America’s success in Tibet? Perhaps images of Tibetan monks hovering around a radio and listening secretly to VOA reminded slick BBG bureaucrats too much of the Cold War. They want everyone to think that U.S. international broadcasting is about modern technology and straightforward reporting using new media for iPhone using consumers. Tibetan monks don’t fall into this category. Any associations with the Cold War and radio broadcasts are “bad news.” Anything that contradicts BBG executives’ thinking and decisions is “bad propaganda.”

Some propaganda, however, merits inclusion into the BBG Media Highlights. It helps if it’s propaganda not of American origin and includes attacks on America, such as those by Putin supporters in Russia or a North Korean tourist guide spewing Pyongyang’s propaganda claims. Then it is not really propaganda, it is a necessary part of “balanced reporting.” Since VOA was criticizing Mr. Putin’s old employer, the KGB, for years and years during the Cold War, it’s time to give the other side a chance to respond.

When a top level Voice of America manager, became impressed a few months ago with a VOA video report from North Korea, he insisted on issuing a BBG/VOA press release. The report consisted mostly of North Korean propaganda, but he thought it was cool to have a VOA reporter in Pyongyang, so it was highlighted by the PR team. The Tibetan Buddhist monks apparently did not meet the standards of what passes at the BBG for “good propaganda.”

Another story that did not make it into the BBG Media Highlights was PRI’s The World report by Mary Kay Magistad “Growing Rift Between Hong Kong and Mainland China” over the use of the Cantonese language. Why? The Broadcasting Board of Governors has proposed in its FY2013 budget to eliminate the Voice of America Cantonese Service. Again, one should not call attention to the fact that both Chinese communist regime officials, and the Obama Administration acting through the BBG, are undermining the Cantonese language and the young people’s movement in Southern China to defend their local culture and democracy.

Yet another report that did not make it into the BBG Media Highlights was RadioWorld story “CUSIB ‘Outraged’ at BBG Budget Proposal.” RadioWorld reported that the nongovernmental Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting was outraged by the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Budget for FY2013 that proposes to cut and reduce Voice of America English and foreign language programs and positions, as well as programs and positions at Radio Free Asia (RFA) and at other U.S. government-funded international broadcasting entities managed by the BBG.

The BBG Media Highlights also ignored Ted Lipien’s op-eds in The Washington Times, “VOA Harms Putin Opposition in Russia,” and The Washington Examiner, “US Taxpayers Funding Pro-Putin Programs.” They could not ignore, however, an NPR report, “Russian Accuses Voice of America Of Fake Interview,” because it included statements from VOA director David Ensor.

Even during the Soviet times, Politburo and Central Committee members would receive a secretly-prepared digest with real news from the West, including transcripts of reports by Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and BBC. One would hope that in addition to preparing their “BBG in the Media” digest for the less sophisticated general public, the BBG Public Relations Office also provides presidentially-appointed BBG members with a politburo-type secret media digest that includes not just “good news” but also “bad news.” That may not be the case, however, considering the Board’s decision to cancel VOA Tibetan radio programs. BBG members apparently did not know about media reports of a protest by Tibetan Buddhist monks on Capitol Hill in 2007 that forced BBG bureaucrats to drop their earlier plan to reduce radio broadcasts to Tibet.

If BBG executives can put out a press release about a North Korean propaganda video, they should be able to put out a press release about Tibetan Buddhist monks listening secretly to VOA radio. We dare them to do it and then explain to Congress why they want to shut down the VOA Tibetan Radio Service. Perhaps Lynne Weil, the newly-hired Director of Communications and External Affairs who has extensive experience on Capitol Hill and with the State Department’s public diplomacy outreach, can explain to BBG members how to turn a Pravda-like public relations strategy of the current BBG management team into something that might actually work.

Here is another old Soviet-era joke for you that went something like this: Every morning a man would pick up a copy of Pravda at a newspaper stand, look at the front page and then throw the paper with disgust into a trash can. Intrigued by this unusual behavior, the newspaper stand seller asked the man, “Why do you buy Pravda just to glance at the front page and throw it away without even opening it.” “I’m only interested in the front page news,” replied the man. “I’m looking out for a death notice.” “But death notices are not on the front page,” said the seller. “I assure you, the death notice I’m looking for will be on the front page,” answered the man.

Perhaps a perestroika in the ranks of the Broadcasting Board of Governors executives and managers is in order.

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