In their persuasive op/ed on January 5, two great public servants argue for more beef in countering Putin, ISIS, and other propaganda mills working against us. Paula Dobriansky, a clear-throated advocate for freedom of expression and transparency under the George W Bush administration, and David Rivkin, who ably served in the Justice Department and the White House under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, bring this up as a matter for urgent policy attention. In this, they are right.
Their cri de coeur is most timely, and reminds us that the cold war never really went away, it just staged remakes with different actors. The world remains dangerous, and vigilance needs to be more energetic than ever.
The problem is, as medicine, House Bill 2323, now under consideration to revamp U.S. Government broadcasting, is worse than the disease. It should be plucked in its infancy and sent back for rehab.
As Dobriansky and Rivkin correctly remind us, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Senate hearings in 2013, “[The U.S. Government Board of Broadcasting Governors] is practically a defunct agency in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and need to get back into it.”
The BBG is a clunky entity, staffed by part-timers, and fails to coordinate the sprawling world of radio, television, social messaging, web links and rest, which bring accurate news in 47 languages to all continents. It happens to have an able, dedicated CEO only as of September 14, 2015, when John Lansing moved into the position which has served as target practice for frustrated communicators and reorganizers.
Given adequate authority, Lansing and his successors will be well able to advance the cause of more effective U.S. government broadcasting. Creating yet new layers of bureaucracy will not.
The Voice of America, created in 1942 to counter Nazi propaganda, still serves the interest of unbiased information, and on this basis has earned a universal reputation for accurate sourcing in a world crowded with private, national, and commercial networks with axes to grind.
The firewall between it and the U.S. Government (sneered at by skeptics but nevertheless solid to date) has rendered record listenership based on its credibility. While American skeptics often doubt it, the VOA has a universal standard of veracity which at times has pitted it against the ephemeral actions of its funders. Listeners overseas know this, and tune in with increasing numbers. While the “surrogate” broadcasters, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Radio Marti and others, carry on courageously, their signals are easily scrambled by hostile regimes, where VOA manages to get through – and currently has a non-negligible audience of two million inside Russia.
For $749 million a year, U.S. government broadcasting gets a proven 226 million listeners per week. Proven “hits” count more than “potential listeners,” which is the standard for RT and CCTV impact. (“Seven hundred million!” says RT.)
House Bill 2323 calls for new layers of “coordination” which would muddy the already confusing overlays of authorities, and would pit one U.S. government broadcaster against the other in vying for scarce operating funds. The objective should be to reduce the layers to more coherence, not create yet new confusion. A double-headed monster we do not need.
Most ludicrously, it would create an “International Communications Agency” – stop the presses! This was the same silly mistake made by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, when he word-smithed himself into this dead-end phrase, the acronym easily confused with an agency which does not promote transparency. I well remember the warm welcome we received in 1978 when I checked into a hotel in New Orleans with five official African visitors, the hostess beaming, “Welcome to our delegation from the CIA!” Americans supposedly do not repeat mistakes as stupid as this one.
The good news is, talk of obliging the VOA to report on news in the United States only, with U.S. policy as an overlay, was correctly set aside in the drafting of the bill. This gaffe, from last year’s bill 4490, would have killed our audiences forever, everywhere. How best to counter crude propaganda: create yet more crude propaganda ourselves? Clearly not, and we’ve dodged that bullet just for the moment. Rue the day it might ever return.
But the text still carries a ton of lint and threatens both the independence and the coherence of our octopus broadcasters. Yes, different broadcasters under the same funder should avoid duplication and coordinate roles, but this is not done with a wave of the wand or a paragraph in a bill. It happens in the newsrooms and open discussions among the able employees of the broadcasters.
China spends seven billion dollars per year on international broadcasting, with scant results and not much trust from its potential listeners. With $749 million for all its facets, the VOA and “surrogates” have earned and kept vast audiences in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and the “two” Europes. People still want information, and they are perfectly capable of knowing when their local broadcasters in repressive countries do not supply it.
Kindly double or treble its funding, if you think we should have adequate answers to Putin and other propaganda, don’t fiddle with an already sprawling structure to make it more unwieldy. Heaven forfend that the Senate should ever come up with a draft as flawed as House Bill 2323.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."