U.S. International Broadcasting: An Untapped Resource For Domestic And Ethnic News Organizations

Walter RobertsFor anyone interested in the Broadcasting Board of Governors and/or U.S. government broadcasting, I recommend reading this updated report-turned-chapter written by Shawn Powers: U.S. International Broadcasting: An Untapped Resource For Domestic And Ethnic News Organizations (180kb PDF, also available as a Google Doc).

The news media landscape is rapidly changing in the wake of technological progress and the altered ways in which information is received and disseminated require adjustments in the contemporary media regulatory framework. Just as advances in science and health sectors require governments to adjust their laws accordingly, so do advances in information technology. The advent of the Internet, a global infrastructure able to disseminate information instantaneously from anyone to anywhere in the world, calls into question the value of laws written in the first half of the 20th century with the intent to limit the direction of news and information broadcast by particular organizations.

Currently, U.S. public service broadcasting, which is severely underfunded in comparison to the rest of the world, is also legally separate from U.S. international broadcasting, a technical firewall that inhibits effective collaboration between the two entities. As a result, U.S. funded international broadcasting is prohibited from disseminating its journalistic features within the U.S., a legal ban that hinders the use of its significant journalistic resources by both public and private news networks, including a large sector of ethnic media that could surely benefit from the 60 languages that American international broadcasters report in. This chapter argues for further collaboration between government funded international broadcasting and its domestic counterparts–both public and private–and for an adjustment in policies in order to accurately and intelligently adapt to the reality of today’s information ecology. …

It is important to note that international broadcasting from other governments is increasingly available throughout the United States as well. Moscow’s Russia Today is available via the Internet and on cable systems throughout the East coast. China’s state-run CCTV is also available throughout the US and on a few major cable providers. Ditto for Japan’s NHK World, France’s France 24 and Iran’s Press TV. Qatar’s Al Jazeera network, much more controversial than any U.S.-funded broadcaster, is available via the Dish Network for a small fee. Its sister station–Al Jazeera English, which is less sensational and more polished–is available in over 17 million American homes. In January 2009 as tensions rose between Hamas and Israel, it was the network of choice for Americans (via the Internet) for news about Gaza. If Americans can access foreign statefunded broadcasters, shouldn’t they also be able to tune into their own government’s programming? …

As the quality of news, especially international news, continues to decline, and as the domestic news media–both public and private–continue to face financial challenges, there is one untapped resource that remains off of the radar of most domestic news media, despite its long history of providing timely and accurate information: U.S. international broadcasting. Regretfully, few have argued for removing the Smith-Mundt Act’s restrictions in order to facilitate collaboration between the two, despite the fact that it would cost zero additional government resources and likely improve the quality of information produced by both American international broadcasting and its domestic news media. This oversight stems largely from the cultural and political stigma surrounding international broadcasting. The perception persists that it is government propaganda, an impression that, accurate or not, is no longer relevant in a world where information sovereignty is a thing of the past. Americans are bombarded with so-called “propaganda” from foreign governments all of the time. Territory-based restrictions on the flow of information no longer make sense in a world where identities, languages and politics increasingly transcend national boundaries. It is time to adjust our information policies to reflect today’s new reality, and soon, as both the domestic news media and U.S. international broadcasting are falling behind their international competitors. …

Shawn documents the use of BBG media and the availability of foreign government media inside the U.S. as well as debunks the arguments that the BBG is simply a front of U.S. propaganda. Shawn, USC-alum and now an Assistant Professor at Georgia State University, made his chapter available to MountainRunner for publication in advance to its appearance in a forthcoming book edited by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard’s Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It (New Press, 2011). This is an update of Shawn’s previous report of the same name.

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Image: Walter Roberts, former Associate Director of the United States Information Agency.

Event: Meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will meet on Friday, September 17, 2010, from 10:00 a.m. to noon. The BBG will be considering BBG Governance Committee recommendations, the BBG’s research program and other business. The meeting is open – via webcast – to the public.

The public may observe the open meeting via live and on demand streaming at www.bbg.gov.

Recalling History: Making the Case for U.S. Government Broadcasting

image As Americans, we are detached from our history. True, remaining anchored to the past can hold back progress, understanding what came before and thus the trajectory of past activities that shape today is helpful. As the saying goes, those who fail to grasp history are doomed to repeat it.
Understanding the context of public diplomacy, the institutions, and methods is important. For too many, public diplomacy began in the 1980s when the beginning of recent memory. At a 2009 conference organized by Doug Wilson, now the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, I sat on a “scene setting” panel with Harriet Fulbright, widow of the late Senator Fulbright, Len Baldyga, former Director of the Office of European Affairs of USIA, Barry Fulton, former Associate Director of USIA, and moderated by Bob Coonrod, former deputy director of VOA and former president and CEO for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. (I still don’t know why I was on this panel of luminaries.) Each person told a terrific example of public diplomacy. My job was to wrap it up, so I did. I realized there was a common theme: at one time we prioritized the resources (people, money, and “things”) to identify and engage the right audiences.

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BBG Meeting

On Friday, August 20, I participated in an off the record conversation with five of the new members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Joining me were Kristin Lord of CNAS and and Paul Foldi of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We met to discuss the status and future of U.S. Government broadcasting. While I cannot get into details, it was clear the Board is very interested in moving quickly to take advantage of clean start, a reset of sorts, for the Board and endeavor to make well-informed decisions to support smart, strategic requirements.

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China hosts seminar for developing countries on guiding public opinion and building a national brand

Last month, China hosted an event for Information Ministers from twenty developing countries titled “Actively Guiding Public Opinion and Building up Sound National Image.” According to Sierra Leone News:

The workshop focused on the cooperation and development between the Chinese and foreign media and information department encompassing political, economic, cultural and social aspects.

Participants raised grave concern about the negative media coverage given to developing countries despite efforts of these countries to match up with modern standards.

The Secretary General of the Information office in China, Mr. Feng Xwang said the western media controls the voice of news report thereby failing to report on the social life of the people.  He said Africa, Asia and South America should join forces with China to strengthen their media landscape and bring new opportunities to the media sector.

Vice Minister of the Information Office in Beijing, China, Professor Wang Zhong Wei in his presentation threw light on the rapid development of the Chinese media industry over the last three decades. He said that their media industry has become dynamic, best structured in terms of content and diversity. He said the Chinese information office is ready to embrace collaboration with other media organizations in developing countries to assist in the re-branding of developing nations.

In her contribution, Sierra Leone Deputy Information and Communication Minister suggested the establishment of an African Radio and Television station that would help tell the stories of developing countries better.

[Deputy Information of Information] Madam Saidata Sesay informed her colleagues that her government has recently transformed the then only government mouth piece radio and TV station to a public corporation in the interest of good governance. She appealed to the Chinese Information Office to reactivate the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA)  and to assist in the establishment of a media center which she believed would enhance media development and capacity building in that profession.

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Recalling History: Advisory Commission tells Congress to Expand VOA

On March 30, 1949, in its first semi-annual report by the US Advisory Commission on Information, the predecessor to today’s Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, recommended an “immediate and broad expansion of the world-wide information program being conducted by the State Department, including the activities of the Voice of America.”

A realistic approach requires that we provide a budget better balanced between the three-pronged program of military, economic and information policy. A budget which contemplates $15,000,000,000 for military, $5,000,000,000 for economic and only $36,000,000 for information and educational services, does not provide an effective tool for cleaning out the Augean Stables of international confusion and misunderstanding. …

It is in the information field that we meet the rival forces head on. The Soviet Union places by all odds its heaviest reliance on ‘propaganda’ spending enormous sums, and using its best and most imaginative brains. Other governments are acutely conscious of the importance of information programs and are spending more in proportion to their capacities than is the United States in telling its story abroad. …

There is a great need for additional regional offices and branch libraries to be established outside the capital cities. The dissemination of American private media abroad is primarily and essentially an informational activity and the responsibility and funds for this activity should be placed with the Department of State, and the activities should not be limited to the countries receiving aid under the European Recovery Act.

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An opportunity to de-militarize public diplomacy

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Last week, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) convened the third annual Magharebia.com Writers Workshop. The workshop is a professional development course for new and established writers for AFRICOM’s Maghreb-centered news and information website, www.Magharebia.com. According to AFRICOM public affairs, the event “introduced new media tools and technologies while stressing the importance of sound journalistic principles for writing, blogging and podcasting.”

The website www.Magharebia.com was started in 2005 by U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to “reach out to a younger audience in the North Africa region with news, sports, entertainment, and current affairs about the Maghreb in English, French and Arabic.” It is similar to EUCOM’s other sponsored news and information website, www.SETimes.com, “the news and views of Southeast Europe.”

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Broadcasting board decides Voice of America can peruse WikiLeak documents

Al Kamen reports that,

Some new members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors were most upset by a column item last Wednesday noting that the IT and security folks at the International Broadcasting Bureau had instructed Voice of America employees to not read or e-mail any of the WikiLeaks material on their government computers (bit of a blow to original reporting).

The issue was apparently that the infrastructure component of the BBG, the International Broadcasting Bureau, or IBB, was dictating the rules of the game to VOA journalists. Fortunately, the brand new Board members authorized the Director of the VOA to “proceed with reporting on the disclosure of classified documents available on the WIkileaks website in a manner that is consistent with the VOA Charter and the BBG’s statutory mission, and to balance this effort with due consideration for the laws and executive orders” on using classified information.

Likely the IBB will take a more appropriate stance in the near future when Dick Lobo, the proposed new director, is confirmed.

See also Kim Elliott’s comments that RFE/RL, a surrogate station not under IBB, was able to report on Wikileaks without constraint.

China aims to expand soft power, adds English-language news channel

CNTN.PNGIn 2000, China Central Television (CCTV) launched CCTV International, its 24-hour English-language news service aimed for the global audience. CCTV’s international broadcasting has since expanded to cover news -from a Chinese perspective- in French, Spanish, Russian, and since 2009, Arabic.

On July 1, 2010, China launched another international English language news channel to expand its soft power. According to a July 2, 2010 article from The Guardian by Tania Branigan, Chinese authorities hope the launch of state news agency Xinhua‘s CNC World channel will help promote China’s image and perspectives. Similar to CCTV’s international objective, Xinhua’s president said CNC would “present an international vision with a China perspective.” Currently, CNC world is airing only in Hong Kong and after its scheduled launch of global satellite coverage this fall, it hopes to reach 50 million viewers across Europe, North America and Africa in its first year.

Despite CCTV’s international presence, Chinese officials believe creating competition will raise standards of news coverage. In her article, Branigan challenges this notion and identifies CNC World’s stock footage, dated credits, sparse interviews, and “glimpses of the alternative news agenda that officials want to spread.” Still, Xinhua pledges objectivity and insists: “We are a news channel, not a propaganda station.”

BBG nominees confirmed and Radio Free Asia bill passes House

Briefly, June 30 was a good day for US international broadcasting. Alan Heil tells us the Senate confirmed the approved all eight nominees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) last night. They should be sworn in soon. Also, the bill to permanently authorize Radio Free Asia passed the House yesterday. The next step is President Obama’s signature to make it a law.

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