Wednesday, February 24th 2016
How might America, in its publicly-funded international media, best serve the national interest in a world where Vladimir Putin “weaponizes information” and America experiences a chaotic Presidential election year?
Nationally known veteran journalist and diplomat David Ensor offered some possible solutions in the 5th annual Walter R. Roberts memorial lecture at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The roundtable with Frank Sesno, dean of GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs, happened to coincide with George Washington’s 275th birthday.
Ensor served as the Voice of America’s 28th director until last May and subsequently wrote an extensive analysis of today’s increasingly complex, new generation media environment as a Harvard University Shorenstein scholar before his recent appointment as executive vice president of The Atlantic Council.
He reiterated his earlier appeal to the next U. S. President to appoint on the White House staff an influential national specialist in public diplomacy and foreign affairs to advise the new administration on the way forward.
Ensor drew on his nearly four years at VOA, his experience before that as chief public diplomacy officer at the U. S. Embassy in Kabul and his Harvard study late last year to assess legislation before Congress on reforming the five U.S. government funded multimedia international broadcast networks.
THE REFORM LEGISLATION
HR 2323, a bipartisan bill drafted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last May and now still on the House floor, calls for division of U.S. international broadcasting into two separate entities. VOA and Radio-TV Marti would remain federal networks. The grantee privately incorporated networks, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Arabic language Middle East Broadcasting Networks would be placed under a separate organization,with its own separate CEO unaccountable to the Executive Branch and its own separate oversight board. That, according to Ensor, could destroy the growing collaboration among the networks, foster competition among them, and be disastrous for America’s global media reach.
Rather, Ensor said, the recently appointed CEO of the current Broadcasting Board of Governors overseeing all the networks, John F. Lansing, should be granted full authority in any legislation to implement the reforms he has already initiated as well as ensure the credibility of all the networks and reiterate the VOA Charter principles that have guided the Voice since Congress enacted it as a law in 1976.
He attributed VOA’s success in garnering audiences --- nearly 188 million adult listeners, viewers and readers each week at the end of 2015 --- to its insistence on honest journalism and telling the truth, the good news and bad. That audience has grown by more than 40 million in the past four years and accounts for a huge proportion of the 226 million viewers, listeners and on line users of all five networks, according to rigorous research by the Gallup organization and others.
Credibility counts. Ensor quoted Secretary of State John Kerry, during a recent dedication at the new Washington Post headquarters: “A country without a free and independent press has nothing to brag about, nothing to teach, and no way to fulfill its potential.” VOA, on the other hand, broadcasts in 45 languages, with a fresh emphasis on younger audiences. The key, Ensor added, is that in our multimedia approach (TV, radio, and online) “we are exporting our most valued product, freedom of speech.”
The former VOA director said that in his Harvard research, an examination of global audience reach by networks such as Russia Today and China Central Television was generally smalls. He noted that RT’s claim of 700 million listeners was highly exaggerated, and misleading. The total actually referred only to potential audience, i.e., those Moscow might reach if everyone living in its targeted countries accessed the program. In the United Kingdom, RT’s audience is about 90,000, or two tenths of 1 percent of viewers. In Kenya, despite China’s heavy investment, Chinese funded overseas broadcasts reach just two percent. They are hardly victors in the contest of ideas.
PUBLIC DIPLOMACY CHALLENGES POSED BY THE CHAOTIC 2016 U.S. ELECTION CAMPAIGN
Moderator Sesno and several in the audience wondered how the Voice might counter growing misperception of the campaign abroad because of the vitriolic debate among many of the Presidential candidates. Context and balanced reporting along with illustrations of American teamwork and the nation’s commitment to the value of individuals might prevail, if these were a component of VOA’s full service broadcasting about the election.
Ensor cited the writings of a leading scholar of cultural diplomacy Martha Bayles and her critique of the impact of Hollywood films on public diplomacy in her recently published classic book, Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy and America’s Image Abroad. Her thesis is that Hollywood is often negative in its portrayals of the U.S. to moviegoers abroad.
Yet a 2015 Academy Award nominee, The Martian, has been cited by former VOA Director David Jackson and others as public diplomacy at its best --- by illustrating the nation’s commitment to teamwork and the value of an individual life. Jackson called it a classic, this adaptation of Andy Weir’s 2011 science fiction novel about an American astronaut stranded on the Red Planet and NASA teamwork in successfully rescuing him.
Ensor agrees. By providing full service content, cultural as well as political, and indispensable context in the Presidential campaign --- all sides of issues debated --- VOA can fulfill its Charter requirement to “present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and opinion.” As Ensor concluded: “The role of VOA is to explain the system, sometimes messy but in the end, we have a President. The role of the VOA this year is absolutely critical, more important than ever.”
END ITEM February 23, 2016