Another US Deficit – China and America – Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN)The Senate Foreign Relations Committee released its report on the imbalance of public diplomacy activities between China and the United States. Entitled “Another U.S. Deficit – China and America – Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet,” this is the final version of the report I reviewed on 11 February. Commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Ranking Member of the Committee, the report is a unique and necessary review of Chinese Government engagement in America. The report also highlights Chinese obstruction of reciprocity and U.S. Government failure to act, notably in the area of information freedom initiatives.

The timing of this report is critical. It comes on the heels of the recent U.S. visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao. More importantly, it comes at a time when the U.S. diplomacy budget, public and otherwise (is there really any diplomacy that is not in some part negotiated in public?), is under threat in today’s austere budget environment. At risk is the development and implementation of smart policies that, coupled with unfettered access to information to create knowledge, ultimately have a greater and more enduring bang for the buck than the kinetic effect of any smart munition.

Senator Lugar closes his letter that opens the report, a 2-page letter that you should read if you do not have the time or inclination to read even the report’s executive summary, with the hope the report will “stimulate dialogue within Congress.” It certainly should.

Read the report here (1.55mb PDF).

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VOA on The Daily Show (Updated)

Briefly, opening with “I got a hold of your show on the web and I was so impressed with the heart of it,” Jon Stewart began his interview with Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, two U.S. Government employees – and U.S. public diplomats – behind “Parazit”, a Voice of America program aimed at Iran. The interview, embedded below, followed a brief clip from the show.

Under current law, amended from its original form, if The Daily Show had requested permission from the U.S. Government to broadcast the clip it would have been denied. More on that below.

Two comments. First, kudos to VOA’s Persian News Network’s “Parazit” for the recognition. Jon Stewart said to Hosseini and Arbabi, “you’re like our show but with real guts” and “I’m proud to be considered in the fraternity of humorists that you guys are in.”

Second, Jon Stewart once again went to where little media has gone before: an examination of U.S. Government broadcasting – in this case, with high compliments – for the purpose of increasing American awareness in the same. This right of review, to become aware of what we’re doing abroad and why, to allow media within the borders of the United States access and permission to comment and rebroadcast or reuse material as they – in this case The Daily Show – see fit was the intent of Congress over six decades ago when the law was originally debated and passed. Today, however, it was against the law for VOA to make the material available to The Daily Show under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, as amended. At one time, the material the Act covers was deemed as exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act. 

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Kambiz Hosseini & Saman Arbabi Extended Interview<a>
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

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Barry Zorthian, public diplomacy legend, passes away at 90

imageA legendary member of the old guard of public diplomacy passed away December 30 at the age of 90. Barry Zorthian, seen at right at the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium, had a long career in the service of the United States and the media. I’m honored to have known Barry over the past two years.

Barry was born in Turkey in 1920. Emigrating with his family to the US, he graduated from Yale University in 1941 and joined the US Marine Corps, serving as an artillery officer in the Pacific Theater. After the war, Barry worked at CBS Radio in New York and earned a law degree from New York University. He also worked for the Voice of America for 13 years with Voice of America, first as a reporter, then an editor and finally as program manager.

In 1964, after three years in India for the State Department as a deputy public affairs officer. Back then, the public affairs officers worked for the United States Information Agency (or Service as it was known outside the US). Edward R. Murrow, as USIA Director and thus Barry’s boss, asked Barry to head the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in Vietnam. Barry would say this was the first (and largest ever) joint State and Defense public affairs office. According to Barry, to get around the concern based on Smith-Mundt that the USIA should not be speaking to the US public, Barry was transferred to the State Department and USIA reimbursed State for his pay.

Barry Barry retired from the Marine Corps Reserve as a Colonel in 1973, served as Vice President of Time Inc. (now Time Warner) and served on the Board for International Broadcasting with jurisdiction over Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

In July 2010, his wife Margaret Aylaian Zorthian, died. They had been married for 62 years. Barry is survived by two sons, Greg and Steve.

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BBC radio in English, Persian, Somali, Urdu now on US cell phones

News and information knows no boundaries. Borders of geography, technology, and language are quickly evaporating as content moves with increasing ease across mediums and political borders.

The latest example of the “now media” environment is the BBC, which just announced the availability of its “live radio broadcasts via mobile phones in the United States.”

The extension of the BBC’s agreement with provider of mobile phone radio distribution in North America, AudioNow, means that now, in addition to BBC Arabic radio, BBC World Service’s broadcasts in English, Persian, Somali and Urdu are now available across the US via any mobile phone without downloads or data services, simply by calling a national access number.

The numbers for the new services:

  • BBC World Service in English: 712-432-6580
  • BBC Persian: 712-432-6583
  • BBC Urdu: 712-432-6584
  • BBC Somali: 712-432-6582

The BBC has a host of different ways to listen to their content.

This week, Walter Isaacson, the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors announced the BBG, and its broadcasters, will transform, becoming customer-oriented and platform-neutral.

It’s helpful that the BBC makes it Somali content readily available to people within the US. Perhaps someone can promote it to the Somali-American community?

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BBG Chairman: customer-oriented, platform-neutral

This week, Walter Isaacson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, gave some remarks (PDF, 41kb) at the celebration of sixty years of Radio Free Europe. Walter, with his long history in the media business and the author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Einstein.

Walter acknowledged the newly appointed Board’s launch of a year-long comprehensive review to remake the BBG into “a great virtual global news service” that would provide reliable reporting across mediums and with social media input from the global audience. This is similar to the trend of major media to incorporate readers and viewers into news development and dissemination. The goal, Walter said, is to become “customer-oriented” but “platform-neutral.”

Some key excerpts of his remarks are below

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Discussion & Webcast: Freedom vs. National Security: Finding a Middle Ground

The Voice of America is hosting a discussion and webcast entitled Online Freedom vs. National Security: Finding a Middle Ground.

Government efforts seeking new controls over the Internet and mobile communications are raising concerns about the possible erosion of human rights and basic freedoms.

Participating are: Bob Boorstin, Director, Corporate & Policy Communications, Google; Arnaud de Borchgrave, Director & Senior Advisor, Transnational Threats Project, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS); Julie Barko Germany, Vice President for Digital Strategy, DCI Group; and Marc Rotenberg, President & Executive Director, Electronic Privacy Information Center.

When: Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 10:00am ET – 11:00am ET.

Where: Voice of America
Briefing Room 1528-A
330 Independence Ave, SW
Washington, DC 20237

RSVP at askvoa@voanews.com or call (202) 203-4959

****

It is not clear to me that this worthwhile and necessary discussion should be available to audiences within the borders of the United States as a result of continuing Congressional censorship found within the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Further, will someone mention irony of the firewall at the US border that inhibits informing audiences both abroad (at the very least by such engagement to Americans, including its value and content) and ignores diasporas (real or manufactured through empathy, sympathy, or other joining beyond the traditional ethnic, cultural, or linguistic bonds)? 

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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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.

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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Public Diplomacy: Iranian singer headlines VOA concert

The Voice of America’s Persian News Network will broadcast a three-hour concert for Persian New Year this weekend.

The singer-songwriter considered Iran’s Bob Dylan makes his international live television concert debut this Saturday on a three-hour Persian Nowruz, or New Year’s, special that will be broadcast on the Voice of America’s Persian News Network and beamed into Iran by multiple satellites.

Mohsen Namjoo, sentenced in absentia to five year’s imprisonment for his music, is among several entertainers and other celebrities appearing in the VOA Nowruz special.  Also on stage live from the Newseum in Washington D.C. will be Persian rap artist Shahin Najafi, who fled Iran after coming under pressure from government authorities to remove political messages from his music, and the 127 Band, which merges Iranian and other music influences to create a unique sound.

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi will deliver a special New Year’s message during the show.  Other guests will include Anousheh Ansari, the world’s first female private space explorer and the first astronaut of Iranian descent; Oscar nominee and Emmy award winning Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo; award-winning filmmaker and photographer Shirin Neshat; and exiled Iranian novelist, poet, critic and political activist Reza Baraheni.

The live special will be hosted by Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi, the hosts of VOA Persian News Network’s popular satirical show “Parazit.”  Besides entertainment, Saturday’s show, dubbed “Norouzit,” will take a look back at the tumultuous events of the past year in Iran, especially the disputed Presidential election of last June and the protest movement that grew in its wake.

VOA’s PNN is, interestingly, rarely mentioned when mentioning successful public diplomacy programs. The above show is a superb example of using culturally-aware means to engage an audience to open a channel to communicate information and ideas.

Also this Saturday, VOA launches a new English-learning website for Farsi-speakers, http://farsi.goenglish.me/.

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New Caucus To Probe Strategic Communication, Public Diplomacy

Inside the Pentagon reports on the new caucus on the Hill that shows the level of heightening interest in improving America’s global engagement. In “New Caucus To Probe Strategic Communication, Public Diplomacy”, dated 11 March 2010, reporter Fawzia Sheikh writes:

A new Capitol Hill caucus focused on strategic communication and public diplomacy officially launched last week and plans to study the latest government efforts in these domains during its inaugural meeting later this month, according to a congressional source.

A new Pentagon report on strategic communication, a State Department plan on public diplomacy and a National Security Council framework outlining how agencies will collaborate in these areas will be among the discussion topics, the congressional source said on the condition of anonymity. (See related story.)

Reps. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) are heading the caucus, which is still being rounded out, the source told Inside the Pentagon. Organizers have collected the names of three other Republicans and three additional Democrats interested in joining, said the source. There has also been “a lot of interest at the staff level,” including the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defense authorizers and “other elements of the congressional staff,” the source said.

“Given the interest in this issue,” added Michael Amato, Smith’s spokesman, “we expect a significant number of members to join the caucus.”

The rest of the article follows.

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What does Microsoft and State’s Bureau of International Information Programs have in common?

In today’s The New York Times, Dick Brass, a former Microsoft Vice President (1997-2004), describes a corporate paralysis that stifles the release of relevant and innovative products in his op-ed, Microsoft’s Creative Destruction.

As they marvel at Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, the technorati seem to be focusing on where this leaves Amazon’s popular e-book business. But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future, whether it’s tablet computers like the iPad, e-books like Amazon’s Kindle, smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone, search engines like Google, digital music systems like iPod and iTunes or popular Web services like Facebook and Twitter. …

Microsoft’s huge profits — $6.7 billion for the past quarter — come almost entirely from Windows and Office programs first developed decades ago. Like G.M. with its trucks and S.U.V.’s, Microsoft can’t count on these venerable products to sustain it forever. Perhaps worst of all, Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest.

What happened? Unlike other companies, Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers. …

What does Microsoft’s “Creative Destruction” have in common with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP)? According to Pat Kushlis of the public diplomacy blog Whirled View, too much. Pat drew my attention to the Dick Brass op-ed and had these comments, published here with permission:

Read the last paragraphs in particular and just substitute the initials IIP because that’s precisely what happened to a forward thinking bureau when State took over.

If the [International Broadcasting Bureau, the administrative and marketing arm of the Broadcasting Board of Governors,] were functional, I think I would argue that IIP should be transferred out of State and put into a functional international broadcasting entity (like VOA) since the line between electronic media has changed so dramatically.  Unfortunately the IBB is dysfunctional too.

Is this a viable, even preferred, alternative to reconstituting the United States Information Agency?

The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections by Walter Roberts

American Diplomacy has several interesting articles this month, including a historical review by Walter Roberts, The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections:

Beginning in 1937, the failure of the Executive Branch to reach a decision regarding the establishment of a governmental radio station led to a shift in initiative from the Department of State to Congress. Gregory calls it “a change that was marked by the introduction in both the House and the Senate of several bills.” Their sponsors, in particular Congressman Emmanuel Celler (D- NY), argued that every other nation was prepared to see that the world understands its point of view – yet the U. S.  was at the mercy of the propaganda of other countries without the ability to present its own position. The year was 1937 and German-Nazi and Italian-Fascist propaganda were in full swing.

The Congressional sponsors of a government short wave station found themselves fiercely opposed by the private broadcasters of this country. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) passed a resolution in June 1937 opposing any governmental international radio station. Within the Executive Branch there was no unanimity and the President was not willing to support the establishment of a government radio station.  The plan died in early 1940.

Continue reading “The Voice of America: Origins and Recollections by Walter Roberts

Al Shabab, Minneapolis in the news again

US Special Forces killed Salah Ali Nabhan, the man Somali-Americans who traveled to fight for the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist organization identified as one of their trainers. The coverage of this ‘made for the movies’ attack should draw attention to the not-neutral territory of Minneapolis where Al Shabab has shown significant success in recruiting.

This is as a good a time as any to reread my Censoring VOA article at ForeignPolicy.com:

Earlier this year, a community radio station in Minneapolis asked Voice of America (VOA) for permission to retransmit its news coverage on the increasingly volatile situation in Somalia. The VOA audio files it requested were freely available online without copyright or any licensing requirements. The radio station’s intentions were simple enough: Producers hoped to offer an informative, Somali-language alternative to the terrorist propaganda that is streaming into Minneapolis, where the United States’ largest Somali community resides. Over the last year or more, al-Shabab, an al Qaeda linked Somali militia, has successfully recruited two dozen or more Somali-Americans to return home and fight. The radio station was grasping for a remedy. …

Read the rest here.

Interagency failure: DHS detains VOA reporter for 10 days

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security detained a Voice of America reporter for 10 days. The man, Rahman Bunairee, had the proper visa and documentation to show he was coming to the US for a year – the primary reason of which was to escape Taliban threats. But the DHS completely disregarded both the paperwork and the requests – including formal petitions – from the Broadcasting Board of Governors to release Bunairee.

Even after his release – helped by intervention from the State Department – DHS revoked his ability to work here, leaving a critical member of America’s information team to counter Taliban and Al Qaeda information on the sidelines. Worse, the BBG nor any other part of the Government can help him financially because of DHS’s decision.

The situation has not changed after a month. Imagine if DHS made what amounts to a unilateral decision on a member of our military – uniform or civilian? The is beyond a failure of interagency cooperation.

This beyond-boneheaded decision undermines not only our ability to engage in the struggle for minds and wills played out primarily in AM and FM in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the “market” Bunairee used to work and had to physically escape from – it also sends a message to other reporters currently and potentially working for America.

I recommend you read Jeffrey Hirschberg’s column in The Washington Post for more.

Broadcasting Board of Governors: empty seats at the public diplomacy table

The Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG, is the agency overseeing all United States public diplomacy broadcasting, that is non-military broadcasting for audiences outside of the territorial US.

It is also the name of the Board that governs those broadcasts that nominally consists of nine members, eight of which are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. By law, no more than four members may be from the same political party (in effect, four Republicans and four Democrats). The ninth member is the current Secretary of State (ex officio).

The BBG is also the agency everybody seems to love to hate.

In the spirit of the popular incumbency chart published here on the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, below you’ll find a unique chart and timeline on the membership of the Board that you won’t find anywhere else.

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Monitoring What You Say

In 1948, 70-75% of Voice of America broadcasts were outsourced.  The National Broadcasting Corporation, now more commonly known as NBC, had complete control over the broadcasts it produced and sold to VOA.  For a radio series named “Know North America,” its purpose clearly established by its name, NBC hired a Cuban author and a Venezuelan supervisor to produce the series in Spanish for Latin America.
In one episode, a Latin American is shown around Cheyenne, Wyoming, and told the history of the state by a guide.

Tourist: “Do we still have Indians in Wyoming?”
Guide: “Yes…Our Indian maidens run in races dressed in nothing but feathers.”

In another episode on Texas, the Latin American asks, “Don’t you have a saying that Texas was born in sin but New England was born in hypocrisy?”

Needless to say, NBC and CBS, who had a similar arrangement with VOA, lost their contracts and VOA took full control over their products.

Fast forward to the present and to a post by Mike Waller at his Political Warfare blog about a music video titled “DemoKracy” by a Swedish-Iranian band.

From Mike:

The “reporter,” shown at right holding the microphone in the first part of the video, is the VOA employee, Melody Safavi, whose married name is Arbabi. This blogger has learned that VOA fired her after an Iranian former political prisoner filed a complaint to Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, but her husband Saman Arbabi, who directed the video, reportedly is still on VOA staff. …

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which governs VOA, has long denied problems with its controversial Iran services. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has been raising concerns for a year about the broadcasts to the Islamic republic, but the BBG and State Department were dismissive. Last spring, this blogger also submitted a set of written questions to outgoing Under Secretary of State Hughes at the request of a senior aide, and received a written response that ignored or evaded the answers. It’s time for BBG and State to catch up with the new leadership at RFE/RL and tackle the larger problems of US broadcasting into Iran.

I think Mike gives too much credit to BBG being able to sort anything out (although with James Glassman’s pending appointment to be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, it may not matter what the BBG could do). The BBG has a history of denying problems.  The same goes for Karen Hughes.

The real issue here is the trust the Congress has of the BBG and its operations. This same concern is what led to the establishment of what was then called the Advisory Committee on Radio Programming and is now known as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.  How then to establish the trust and credibility of the BBG with the Congress?  This would include establishing the baseline on the purpose and allowances for the BBG’s operations.