BBG Watch EXCLUSIVE
A new study, “Reassessing U.S. International Broadcasting,” written by a former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member and a former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executive, offers a sometimes blistering critique of the current setup and management of U.S. international broadcasting and calls for a comprehensive reform.
While Reuters news agency had an initial report on the study, which was picked up by other news organizations — notably, not by the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty — BBG Watch has obtained a copy of the study prior to its official publication and can offer a few additional exclusive preview conclusions from the document. Russia’s RT had a report with a commentary on the study.
“By many accounts, U.S. international broadcasting’s mission is unclear, its attachment to U.S. foreign policy strategies tenuous at best, and its organizational structure ineffective,” the study’s authors, S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth M. Portale, wrote in the introduction.
S. Enders Wimbush was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate as a Governor on the United States Broadcasting Board of Governors, where he served from 2010-‐2012. From 1987-‐1993, he served as Director of Radio Liberty in Munich, Germany.
Elizabeth M. Portale had nearly twenty years of operational experience in international affairs and media. She served as Vice President and Chief of Staff at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).
This was, however, primarily an interview project rather than a venue for personal assessments by the study’s authors, although they likely agree with many of the observations and conclusions. BBG Watch was told that the job of the study’s authors was to report the substance and temper of their interviews faithfully and to present especially those conclusions over which there was substantive consensus.
Those interviewed for the study included former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former chairmen of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Marc Nathanson and Amb. James Glassman, former Voice of America directors Geoffrey Cowan and Robert Reilly, former RFE/RL President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, former Freedom House President David Kramer, Dr. Francis Fukuyama, and several other prominent American scholars, diplomats, journalists and media experts.
Some of the major conclusions of the study, as provided by BBG Watch sources, are listed below:
“Competitors with anti-‐US messaging are fomenting an information war—and winning—while U.S. international broadcasting is challenged to keep pace with competitors and changes in the media landscape.”
“Broadcast strategy should be replaced by media strategy.”
“The surrogate function should not be jumbled together with public diplomacy. Surrogate broadcasting is likely to gain in importance and strategic influence in the foreseeable future.”
“Ideas matter; U.S. international broadcasting should not be an ideas-‐free zone.”
“Telling America’s story and informing audiences of U.S. positions, policies and attitudes is not a side issue but rather a central objective of U.S. international broadcasting, and the Voice of America is its vehicle.”
“‘Thinking’ media consumers should remain the main target audience. Audience size is an ambiguous measurement of influence.
“U.S. international broadcasting should use good journalism as its platform. Its networks are not independent news agencies, as if they were CNNs that happen to receive their funding from the U.S. government.”
“The journalism ‘firewall’ that has come to characterize the relationship between U.S. international broadcasting and other parts of the government is overblown and frequently counterproductive.”
“U.S. international broadcasting is nowhere effectively linked to U.S. government foreign policy planning processes or structures.”
“U.S. international communications strategy should be rebuilt from the ground up. The intellectual model for U.S. international broadcasting was created for the Cold War. It is outdated and ineffectual. The proposed legislative reform is a good patch, but it is not a permanent fix. ‘Starting over’—abolishing today’s ‘international broadcasting’ while simultaneously designing a new communications capability to support U.S. foreign policy that resonates with the realities of today’s world and media possibilities—should be given urgent attention.”
According to those who have read the entire study, it does not offer one overreaching solution as it reflects various points of view of the interviewees. Most, if not all of them, reportedly have agreed, however, that the current Broadcasting Board of Governors structure is poorly designed and badly implemented.
Many of those interviewed reportedly “expressed dismay that English-‐language broadcasting at the VOA has recently been reduced.”
There was broad agreement that “keeping journalism standards high sends the right message” to those the U.S. seeks to influence because “it enhances American credibility.” “But journalism unhooked from general or specific foreign policy objectives is not what the taxpayer believes he or she is paying for,” the study’s authors concluded based on their interviews with approximately 30 individuals with extensive experience in foreign policy design and strategy, international relations, international broadcasting, commercial media, public diplomacy and the promotion of human rights and democracy.
BBG Watch has also learned that the interviewees for the study were generally unsympathetic to the view expressed by some Voice of America journalists in their criticism of the bipartisan H.R. 4490 BBG reform bill, particularly those reporting for VOA newsroom in English, that “too close or too obvious a connection between broadcasting and its affiliation with the U.S. government compromises the credibility of their work, especially if their mission is to support U.S. policies and positions.”
“They don’t understand who they are working for,” one interviewee who reportedly had had extensive interaction with the VOA newsroom was quoted as saying.
The interviewee reportedly said:
“Some of them see themselves as entirely neutral with respect to anything having to do with U.S. foreign policy. How can that be? Intuitively, why would one wish to pay for that, and why wouldn’t you want to go and work for Fox or CNN anyway? It’s a great conceit and indulgence that has taken place over time.”
BBG Watch will offer space for commentaries on the Wimbush-Portale study once the entire document is made available online.