By Kim Andrew Elliott
Matt Armstrong has asked for a discussion on the future of the U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB) and the structure and purpose of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. For the past quarter century, I have been writing about US international broadcasting at the macro level. The two pillars of my proposals have always been independence and consolidation.
First, US international broadcasting must be under a bipartisan or nonpartisan board that shields it from direct US Government control and interference. There is no substitute for this. The world’s great public broadcasting corporations, including the BBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, are seen as independent and credible news providers because they are managed by boards and not by the governments of their countries.
A government agency cannot realistically be a news agency. One politically appointed manager might be committed to independent journalism, but the next might order the manipulation of content, or the staffing of newsroom management, to support the policies of the president who appointed him or her. The Voice of America went through such pendulum swings over the decades, to the detriment of its reputation.
The BBG must unambiguously commit to independent and credible news. In this regard, the new mission statement of the BBG is not helpful:
To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.
There are many way to “inform.” An advertisement informs. Radio Havana informs. Neither does so objectively. “Inform” needs to be qualified. And “inform” should not be relegated to equal billing with “engage” and “connect.”
“Engage” seems to be a word more associated with the persuasive arts than with journalism. A used car salesman will “engage” you the second you walk on to the lot. The best way to “engage” an audience is to give them something worth the effort of tuning in or logging on. USIB should concentrate on informing accurately, and let the professionals at the State Department’s public diplomacy offices “engage.”
As for “connect,” Facebook, Twitter, T-Mobile, and Sprint already do this. NGOs can bring such connections to more parts of the world. If USIB gets too deeply into the “connect” business, this could deplete the resources needed to be in the “accurately inform” business. Yes, encourage user-generated content (which VOA has done since before the internet). Use some of it in output, but realize that, for the sake of time and reputation, much user-generated content won’t, and shouldn’t, be included in USIB mass media.
“In support of freedom and democracy.” The mission statement moves much too quickly to an ulterior motive. Wonderful as freedom and democracy are, it is not a journalist’s job to support anything. Yes, accurate news and information are necessary to the development and maintenance of democracy. This should be explained in a separate sentence.
For example, we could take the old BBG mission statement, moving its lead to the front:
To provide accurate and reliable news and information about the United States and about the world.
For those who do not understand why accurate and reliable news is a sufficient goal, a second sentence could be added:
To provide accurate and reliable news and information about the United States and about the world. Accurate and reliable news and information are necessary to develop and maintain freedom and democracy.
The BBG’s new mission statement has jettisoned “accurate and reliable” but has kept “support freedom and democracy.” This could cause confusion among audiences, and among the employees of USIB.
Is this USIB station giving me accurate news, or supporting a US policy goal?
Am I selecting, sourcing and writing this story to give the audience an accurate and complete picture, or to bolster the US government policy goal of fostering freedom and democracy?
To explain the concept of broadcasting news, and just news, here are some talking points:
Q: Why broadcast just the news? Don’t we want to give it a little spin, or be selective in subject matter, to support US Government objectives?
1) Accurate and comprehensive news brings an audience to US international broadcasting. Audiences abroad seek out international broadcasts and websites to get news that is more reliable, objective, and credible than the “news” they get from their state-controlled domestic media.
2) Accurate news provides the antidote to the misinformation and disinformation of dictators, terrorists and other international miscreants.
3) Reliable and comprehensive news gives people the information they need to form their own opinions about current events and the conduct of their societies.
4) In the long term, accurately informed people will better understand, if not always agree with, US foreign policies and actions.
The second pillar of the reform of US international broadcasting is consolidation. True consolidation.
The BBG has announced a plan for the restructuring of front office management, but one that will preserve the “many brands and many divisions” of USIB. USIB has several entities and, increasingly, entities within entities. With multiple brands, there will be opportunities to preserve the duplication of effort, and the splitting of scarce resources, that keep USIB from realizing its potential. The BBG has announced a goal to become the “world’s leading news agency” by 2016. This is a lofty ambition, but USIB cannot compete with other world news agencies until it quits competing within itself.
A single brand can build the stature necessary to compete against the other big, unified global brands, e.g. BBC and Al Jazeera. (CNN is another big, unified global brand, but USIB should not compete with CNN, or any other compatriot corporation that is providing accurate and reliable news to international audiences, at no cost to the US taxpayers.)
Consider the BBC: three crisp syllables, pronounceable and recallable by people all over the world, no matter what language they speak. Success for the BBC on TV in Asia reinforces the BBC brand on radio in Africa, and on the internet in Latin America. The BBC brand is therefore more readily recalled in audience surveys, increasing its estimated audience size, and thus enhancing its standing in the international media scene.
Q: Why not a Proctor & Gamble approach to US international broadcasting?
A: P&G products do different things, from freshening one’s breath to dusting one’s floor. USIB is in one business: credible news.
Q: But VOA reports US and world news, while Radio Free X reports news about X.
A. VOA actually does report about X. Otherwise, VOA wouldn’t have an audience in X. And, so, USIB has two stations splitting resources and duplicating their reporting about X.
Q: Why not require VOA to report only US and world news and Radio Free X to report only about X, thus eliminating any duplication?
A: Because then the audience would have to tune to two different USIB stations to get all the news. Or they could — and probably would — tune to BBC to get all the news from the convenience of one station. Surveys show, unsurprisingly, that audiences are interested in news about their own countries, and about the world, and about the USA, in proportions that vary from country to country. One station can provide news in the optimum proportions.
Q: But if we eliminate several USIB entities, won’t we also have to eliminate several senior level management structures?
A new board structure?
BBC has not only a unified international broadcasting structure. It also has a valuable partnership with the domestic BBC. In my Foreign Service Journal paper of October 2010, I propose a similar partnership between USIB and US domestic broadcast news organizations. This would not only enable the exchange of news and journalism resources between US domestic and international broadcasting, but it could also result in a new board without the succession problems of the present BBG.
Kim Andrew Elliott reports on international broadcasting at www.kimandrewelliott.com.
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