In a paper published by the Public Diplomacy Council, Alan L. Heil Jr., a former deputy director of VOA, the author of Voice of America: A History, argues for a multi-platform U.S. international broadcasting that in addition to new media takes advantage of both radio and television.
In his paper LANDSCAPE OF INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING VOA and the BBC at a Crossroads,Heil, a board member of the Public Diplomacy Council, points out that some in Congress are advocating retention of traditional as well as new media in U.S. international broadcasting. He quotes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an ex-officio member of the BBG, who told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February, “Even though we’re pushing online, we can’t forget TV and radio because most people still get their news from TV and radio.” In the same hearing, Secretary Clinton also said that the U.S. is in an information war and is losing this war.
Subsequently, in a bipartisan rebuke to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which shortly before the onset of the Jasmine Revolution in China had proposed ending VOA Chinese radio and TV broadcasts on October 1, all members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted for an amendment, introduced by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, to keep VOA radio and TV to China on the air.
Heil also quotes the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, who told a London conference (March 2) that he profoundly regrets the proposed BBC World Service cuts:
“The future of news and information,” he said, “is intrinsically
multi-platform, multi-device, and multi-media. No one
medium, neither TV, nor radio, nor print, nor even the web
are sufficient in themselves…those players who control or
have an interest in multiple platforms are capturing the
highest amounts of news consumption.”
Heil also points out the comments of the Defense Department’s former desk officer for China, Joseph Bosco, who likewise stresses the importance and even the distinct advantage of relying on radio and television to reach the Chinese audience:
“The revolutionary events in the Mideast,” Joseph Bosco wrote in
March, “demonstrate that a picture can be worth a thousand
tweets. Television and radio are still the most effective
media to convey dramatic images and descriptions, as well
as to provide in-depth discussion of contemporary historic
events. They are also the only contact with the outside
world for the millions of Chinese without Internet access.”
Bosco noted that the Pentagon today spends billions of dollars to cope with new Chinese weapons systems, writes Alan Heil. In this multimedia era, outlets like VOA and RFA by reporting events accurately, completely and objectively can, as Bosco put it, “help foster political reform in China for a fraction of the cost.”
In a later post on the Public Diplomacy Council website, Heil alludes to the current BBG’s preference for soft programming, which in some cases can attract larger audiences, especially if undemocratic regimes allow such soft broadcasts on local networks because they don’t view them as politically dangerous.
Although Heil makes no references to the most recent scandal involving BBG members who travelled to Ethiopia to negotiate with the regime’s officials about local placement of soft programming, journalists working for VOA’s Horn of Africa Service were told after the BBG trip to limit political coverage and the service chief David Arnold was dismissed, reportedly at the insistence of BBG member Michael Meehan, after Arnold told his staff that the Ethiopian regime’s officials presented BBG members with a list of broadcasters and radio guests whom they find unacceptable. This led to the largest anti-censorship demostration in VOA’s history. It was organized by Ethiopian American and media freedom organizations in front of the VOA and BBG headquarters in Washington, DC. The Ethiopian regime had earlier charged several VOA Horn of Africa Service journalists working in Washington with treason and threatened them with the death penalty.
Heil points out that while soft programming can be valuable, international broadcasters should pay attention to the real information needs of people in countries like China. In addition to doing humanitarian programming, the Voice of America also must be “credible, hard-edged but accurate in assessing events of the day.”
Ultimately, the “Big Idea” behind U.S. international broadcasting, according to Alan Heil, can be found in two key articles of the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 30 adds: “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” That’s the really big idea that drives solid, public service multi-platform international broadcasting at its best.
Alan L. Heil Jr. Board member of the Public Diplomacy Council is a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA). Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries as foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 125 million people in 44 languages.