The importance of the Broadcasting Board of Governors to U.S foreign policy has, at least for the last couple of decades, but under-appreciated. Perhaps this is because of the shift in the late-1960’s & early-1970’s from the struggle for minds and wills to the Cold War known to many, an arms race of boomers, bombers, tanks and warheads. The change was noticed by Senator Fulbright in 1972 when he declared “the Radios [VOA, RFE, and RL] should be given the opportunity to take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.”
Today is not 1972, however. Nor is it 2001 (through most of last decade) when the “battle of hearts and minds” was waged in the ill-founded and misdirected effort of getting people to like us. “If only they knew us, they’d like us.” Today is more like the 1940s and 1950s where the enduring struggle was taking place and not a battle to be won, or lost, then move on.
Information is power. The Congress and the State Department appreciated its importance over sixty years when it made permanent activities we now call public diplomacy: Voice of America and other informational programs, and educational and technical exchanges. So important were these activities that those involved were, by the direction of the Congress, subject to a “loyalty check” [security clearance in today’s world] equal to that of the protection of “our atomic secrets” in World War II.
What then is the role of the BBG, and its networks, in today’s communication environment? Few would argue the current structure and strategy of the BBG is flawed and that it is a dysfunctional organization. Those that argue otherwise lack sincerity or knowledge, or both. The topic of reform is fraught with emotions and subjectivity too often framed by by past glories and not the demands of today’s, and tomorrow’s, communication environment. Those that truly care about the BBG, across the Government and the Congress, are too few and those that want to actually understand the issues are fewer.
We need a vigorous public debate on the role and direction of U.S. Government broadcasting. This includes discussing the purpose of Government broadcasting based not on assumptions or projections from the past but the current and future communication environment and the requirements of foreign policy. Like it or not, the BBG is a critical element of America’s foreign policy that often works indirectly, in hard to measure ways.