Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Common Sense Approach to U.S. International Broadcasting Reform

Author: Alan Heil

Congress is currently considering legislation aimed at long-needed reforms in U.S government funded international media.  At issue is coordination of a complex galaxy of five networks that are vital to our nation’s security.  None is more essential and more cost effective today than the most widely-known flagship network, the Voice of America.
The U.S. International Communications Reform Act of 2015 (HR 2323) seeks to streamline and improve the nation’s outreach to a curious and increasingly tech-savvy world where authoritative, timely and reliable news is sought by tens of millions of viewers, listeners and on line users each and every week.
HR 2323 in its present form, however, is seriously flawed.  It calls for restrictions in the longstanding mission of VOA, a federal agency, while enhancing the privately incorporated but U.S.G. financed surrogate grantee entities, RFE/RL, RFA, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.[1]  VOA, the draft measure says, should largely concentrate on U.S. news and policies and “international developments that affect the United States.”
Such a straitjacket on VOA’s global news coverage would do unacceptable damage to the credibility of the very institution HR 2323 praises.
The Voice’s global content --- American and world news --- is clearly spelled out in a long-standing VOA Charter adopted by Congress three times since 1976 as Public Laws 94-350, 103-415 and 105-277.  VOA’s audience today is by far its largest ever, by some estimates in the neighborhood of 173 million adults weekly worldwide.  That is a significant, frequently unheralded public diplomacy triumph. 
Yet HR 2323 maintains that “despite its tremendous success, the Voice of America would benefit substantially from a recalibration of Federal international broadcasting agencies and resources, which would provide the Voice of America with greater mission focus and flexibility in the deployment of news, programming and content.”  That is both wrong and unnecessary.
The Voice’s mission is clearly spelled out in a long-standing Charter adopted by Congress three times since 1976 as Public Laws 94-350, 103-415 and 105-277.  The Charter requires the Voice to be an accurate, objective and comprehensive source of news, to offer a balanced reflection of American thought and institutions, and to convey American policies clearly and effectively as well as responsible discussion of those policies. The Voice does so daily, serving both America’s interests and its national security.  The Charter reflects Congressional mandates for U.S.-funded civilian international broadcasting that occurred as early as the mid-1940s.
So it is mystifying that HR 2323 further alleges that “the lack of a coherent and well-designed mission of the Voice of America has led to programming that duplicates the efforts of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, RFE/RL Incorporated, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network Incorporated that results in inefficient use of taxpayer funding.”  That’s simply not so.
Four times last year, the Voice had exclusive interviews with Secretary Kerry on topics including Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, the latest atrocities of the Islamic state, and the Nobel Peace Prize for Malala Yusufzai.  VOA likely saved thousands of lives in Africa and elsewhere because of its extensive on scene coverage and public service announcements on Ebola prevention measures.
A glance at the English and 46 other language websites of the Voice of America on any day reveals numerous stories about America that reflect democracy in action as well as a rich palette of world news.  Charter-driven, credible, honest journalism --- including recent on scene reportage from Nepal, Eastern Ukraine, the war against ISIS and refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa --- attracts far more audiences than a restricted agenda of only American news and policies ever would.
America’s international broadcasting overall shares facts and insights with others around the world accustomed to surfing for information from a variety of sources.  The myth of duplication cited in HR 2323 is from another era.  In fact, content overlap is relatively rare, as a  comparison of English or language websites of all five U.S.-funded networks reveals every day.
VOA’s 28th director, David Ensor, recently summed up how full service, honest journalism enhances an understanding of America and contributes to our nation’s security:
“Moving forward, VOA will continue to set a standard, to be widely emulated, for principled, objective and trustworthy journalism, based on the notion that the proper response to propaganda is honest reporting, not counter-propaganda. It will reflect theconviction that if people have good information, they will make better decisions on matters that affect their lives. Done properly, this will not only ensure a wider understanding of American values and viewpoints, but also enhance respect for the  United States as a nation where truthfulness and fairness are highly valued.”
1)    All five networks should be directed by a single Chief Executive Officer and advisory board, not dual bureaucracies as envisioned in HR 2323.  Appointment and installation of an impartial CEO, charged with day-to-day coordination of all the networks, is urgently needed.
2)    The rapidly-expanding collaborations among broadcasters evident in joint programming ventures such as the VOA-Radio Liberty daily Current Time TV program to Ukraine and Russia’s near abroad merit additional support and expansion --- with an equitable allocation of resources to each and every network collaborating on such projects.
3)    Abolition of administrative duplication, not elimination of content producers and individual language or news services, should be the focus in essential reforms ahead.
4)    Unification around the goal of honest, comprehensive, shared news and programming, not divisive competition for resources or turf, should be required of all network managements.
5)    The networks’ credibility should be shielded from interference by both the executive and legislative branches and private sector sources.  The oversight Broadcasting Board of Governors has, to its credit, issued a series of “firewall” memos safeguarding all the networks from interference in programming content. 
6)    In this digital age, U.S. international broadcasting must be sufficiently funded, flexible, and empowered to react instantaneously to crises and natural disasters in a world awash in potential threats to U.S. national security.
As former BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson so wisely put it in an appearance at the April 2015 meeting of the Board:  “It is ingrained in the American DNA to be thrilled with the spread of information --- Benjamin Franklin even developed the postal system.  But the main point:  we’ve always been enamored of an open system.  Information technology has bent the arc of history toward individual empowerment.  If you can keep free media in U.S. (publicly-funded) international broadcasting, the future is bright.” 
“Our goal is not to capture minds, but free them.”---Iconic CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, as Director of the United States Information Agency, 1962 
[1]  Radio-TV Marti to Cuba, unlike the other surrogates, is part of the International Broadcasting Bureau, a federal agency responsible for administrative support and delivery systems of all five networks.

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