& Free Media Online Blog  Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti) Commentary, October 31, 2008, San Francisco — Free Media Online Blog welcomes a new guest contributor who provides a unique perspective on U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. We invite your comments.


The Great Pumpkin — A Halloween Look At U.S. Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting

By Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti)

It’s Halloween time when shadowy figures and grotesque ghosts and goblins roam the land.  Fast on the heels of All Hallow’s Eve come the U.S. presidential elections.

If, as the polls indicate, Senator Biden becomes our next vice-president, election eve, particularly for international broadcasters yet employed by the U.S. government, could conjure up some mighty frightening figures and events from the past.

Although known more for his verbal gaffes, Senator Biden has a foreign policy gaffe or two in his portfolio, most prominently, responsibility for the dissolution of the U.S. Information Agency in the late ’90s and the “reorganization” of international broadcasting after the Cold War with the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act. Thanks to the Senator’s efforts, USIA, the driving force of U.S. global communications was thrust into the mother of all bureaucracies: the U.S. State Department which experts agree has stymied our public diplomacy efforts for the past decade.  With the dissolution of USIA came the unfortunate “reorganization” of international broadcasting where a comfy collection of bipartisan political appointees known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) was given the awesome responsibility of directing our country’s international broadcasting.  

This was not a one-man band endeavor. Senator Biden had the necessary support in this “reform and restructuring”  from then-Secretary of State Albright, the Clinton administration, and, unfortunately, Republican Senator Jesse Helms.

With a few exceptions, most of the Board appointees over the past decade have only had scant, superficial knowledge of international affairs or global broadcasting and yet, were given the reins of directing a most important function of  U.S. public diplomacy.  Their record is dismal. Under the direction of this botch-prone Board, international broadcasting has suffered dramatic reversals and cuts, leaving in its wake a plummeting of U.S. prestige throughout the world, even in those countries historically supportive of America throughout the years. 

For participation on the Board, Senator Biden championed a leading contributor to his past presidential campaigns, a millionaire media mogul, Norman Pattiz from California, the owner of Westwood One. After his appointment by President Clinton, this self-styled “visionary” extraordinaire took Washington and the BBG by storm. 

First, Pattiz took over programming to the Middle East cauldron.  Corey Pein of the Columbia Journalism Review writes that “the real tragedy is that the VOA Arabic Service was destroyed by Norman Pattiz of Westwood One.  It is bizarre that the response of the US government to 9/11 was to fire the VOA broadcasters and dismantle the Service.” Substituting credible and professional programming by a seasoned staff with a 24/7 mindless and fruitless pop music format, Pattiz erased a loyal audience of movers and shakers in the Arab world, instead trying to attract teeny-bopper fans with vacuous pop artists. News and commentary took a back seat and millions of information-starved listeners in the Arab world were left high and dry.

Armed with questionable polls and statistics, Pattiz paraded to Capitol Hill, convincing Congress and surprisingly, the Bush administration to fund his broadcasting experiments which included expanding into a fruitless Arabic TV effort with Alhurra and then 24/7 pop format programming to Iran. To his credit, in 2002, Senator Jesse Helms expressed regrets over the changes in U.S. international broadcasting when he commented on Persian programming in a Wall Street Journal column:  “It’s difficult to believe that the Bush administration has agreed to support this shift from a proven program of serious policy discussion to a teeny-bopper music-based format.  It will likely insult the cultural sensitivities of Iranians as well as their intelligence.  Meanwhile, a brave professor sits in a jail cell awaiting execution, students plot protests and the regime struggles to hold the line against the will of the people.  And the U.S. will be spinning Britney Spears discs?”

Those who writhed under the Pattiz regime at VOA, managers, and rank-and-file alike,  bid him no fond farewells in 2005 when he finally walked out the door, considering him the person who almost singlehandedly destroyed U.S. international broadcasting. Yet his legacy continues as the BBG has retained Pattiz’s flawed Middle East broadcasting concoctions, dissolving other critical VOA language services to do so even when Congress explicitly forbade the elimination of essential VOA language services in its funding legislation. The latest BBG gaffe is mind-boggling: in July 2008, the Board closed the VOA Russian Service on the eve of Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia.

Will Norman Pattiz be returning to Washington and to his political colleagues on the BBG after the inauguration perhaps as Chairman of the woebegone Board?  Or will Pattiz be given an even higher position in the new administration where he can wreak even more damage? 

Only the Great Pumpkin knows.

Happy Halloween.

Quo Vadis (Marie Ciliberti)