BBG Watch

The Wilson Center, chartered by Congress as a research institution in Washington, DC, has posted online a new study, “Reassessing U.S. International Broadcasting,” written by a former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member S. Enders Wimbush and a former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executive Elizabeth M. Portale.

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.

We include in this post a few excerpts from the study. A link to the entire study is HERE.

“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.

One senior BBG official who wants to remain anonymous told BBG Watch that reading the study was a “very disappointing and even frustrating” experience.

“The bottom line is everyone agrees that the BBG structure is flawed and … need[s] a CEO. And most everyone now agrees that influence is more important than reach. The hard questions are now how … [to] accomplish this influence from (1) an operational and structural standpoint, (2) a content standpoint, and (3) an access/distribution standpoint. And for those questions the ‘study’ is silent.”

“‘blow it up and start over’, … always sounds great until you have to start deciding what you are actually going to build once you destroy what you’ve got, and there is no consensus on that!,” a senior BBG official also told BBG Watch.

The study’s authors admit that 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.

Reassessing U.S. International Broadcasting


“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.”

“Many see the entire enterprise as broken.”

“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.

“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.”

“Their most powerful and persistent observation was the need to completely re-­‐conceptualize how the U.S. government communicates in support of its foreign policy, starting from the ground up.”

“Responding to threats, advancing democratic norms, and conveying U.S. foreign policy interests should be key parts of the mission.”

“Surrogate presence assumes greater importance as regimes monopolize information that really counts.”

“Detractors should be denied an opportunity to tarnish America. The conveying of U.S. values should be consistent but not didactic.”

“U.S. international broadcasting should be the definitive source for news on America. America should be shown in all its complexity, nuance and diversity.”

“The U.S. is engaged in a war of ideas. U.S. international broadcasting should be an essential soft power instrument with key audiences.”

“To justify the investment, its activities must be tied to America’s strategic interests. Purveying ‘objective journalism ‘s by itself insufficient reason for U.S. international broadcasting to exist.”

“Currently the taxpayer has little idea—or the wrong idea—of what he or she is paying for with regard to U.S. international broadcasting.”

“Oversight should be redesigned and relocated in government to facilitate its connection to foreign policy objectives and practices.”

“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.”

In conjunction with our earlier report, this covers all the major points in the executive summary in some detail.

Here is additional material from the study specifically related to VOA, but also to the so called “surrogate broadcasters”:

“…a number of interviewees sought to address what they described as a persistent tension in recent years, especially in the VOA newsroom, between journalists’ sense that being both “independent” and employed by the American government are incompatible. This tension mirrors a larger one, discussed elsewhere in this report, surrounding the attachment of U.S. international broadcasting to U.S. foreign policy. The journalists’ concern is 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.

The interviewees in our sample were unsympathetic to this view. ‘They don’t understand who they are working for,’ noted one who had had extensive interaction with the VOA’s newsroom. ‘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’.”

“One interviewee acknowledged his understanding of what the VOA’s journalism is supposed to achieve. ‘I never think of VOA as objective journalism,’ he noted. ‘I do interviews with them because I want to support the U.S. But I never think people will listen to it the way they would to the BBC. It is clearly the U.S. official presentation.’

‘Journalism is only part of [U.S. international broadcasting],’ concluded another senior diplomat, summarizing the views of most interviewees.”

No one in our sample argued for turning the VOA or the surrogate broadcasters into ‘propaganda’ instruments that slant or twist information to support tendentious policies, preferences or points of view. U.S. international broadcasting is not ‘a messaging machine,’ one said.

“Journalism ‘is not the end, it’s the means. The end is national interest, foreign policy goals. This is the means to it,’ was a common refrain in interviews.”

“Journalism is a convention that U.S. international broadcasting should direct toward winning the information war, most noted. One observed that ‘one way of putting it is, really good journalism directed at a particular goal, is actually a really powerful tool’.”

READ IN FULL: “Reassessing U.S. International Broadcasting,” written by S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth M. Portale