FreeMediaOnline.org, Free Media Online Blog, GovoritAmerika.us, April 6, 2009, San Francisco –During President Obama’s most recent visit to Europe, the White House website was rarely updated with news reports and photos and had no new entries at all on Sunday, April 5 when the President was visiting Prague, the Czech Republic, where he made an important foreign policy speech in which he called for a nuclear free world. The very few new postings and photos on the White House website during the trip appeared often many hours and sometimes days after similar important events took place.
For at least a couple of days after President Obama’s meeting with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev, there was no official photo of the two leaders on the White House website. The meeting took place in London April 1, ahead of the G20 summit. During President Obama’s trip to Europe, the slide presentation on the White House website prominently featured photo’s from Vice President Biden’s earlier trip to Latin America. The State Department website did not post any official photos from Secretary Clinton’s meetings during the most recent European trip.
Screenshot of the White House website on Sunday, April 5, 2009, 9PM EST shows that it had not been updated for more than 24 hours while President Obama was visiting Prague, the Czech Republic and making an important foreign policy speech.
It appears that the Obama Administration officials were not prepared for the usual public and media outreach expected from the White House during presidential trips abroad. They also could not count on much support from the State Department. During the previous two administrations, U.S. government’s public relations functions abroad, also referred to as public diplomacy, were eliminated or outsourced to private contractors.
The United States Information Agency (USIA), which was responsible for public diplomacy, and could have provided guidance to the new White House staff, was abolished in 1999. USIA’s international broadcasting functions were moved to the newly created Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), and its exchange and non-broadcasting information functions were given to the newly-created Under Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. Many U.S. diplomats with experience in media relations were assigned to other diplomatic and administrative positions and much of their expertise has been lost.
During the Bush Administration, the BBG, rated in a recent Office of Personnel Management (OPM) survey as the worst-managed Federal agency, and a succession of political appointees at the State Department, increasingly relied on private contractors to conduct U.S. government’s public relations and international broadcasting functions, often with disastrous results.
Charlotte Beers, Bush’s first appointee as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, was a former Madison Avenue advertising executive. She launched a privately produced magazine targeted at Arab youth and TV commercials featuring American Muslims speaking about the tolerance and happiness of life in the United States. Both initiatives, which cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars, were complete flops.
Bush’s last appointee to this position, James K. Glassman, was responsible in his earlier function as the BBG chairman for ending Voice of America (VOA) Russian-language radio broadcasts just 12 days before Russia’s military incursion into the Republic of Georgia last summer. As a result of the BBG’s decisions under his chairmanship, VOA’s audience reach in Russia registered an unprecedented 98% drop in just one year. (From 7.3% in 2007 to est. 0.2% in 2009.)
One bright spot during President Obama’s European trip was the effort by some of the U.S. embassies to provide media with background information and official copyright-free photos that were missing from the main State Department website. The U.S. missions in London and Prague offered extensive photo galleries and additional useful materials for journalists.
Screenshot of the State Department's official blog on Monday, April 6, 2009, 3AM EST shows that it has not been updated since Friday while Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama continued their European trip.
The State Department website and the websites of the U.S. embassies in the other countries visited by President Obama provided only basic information and copyrighted AP photographs. The State Department’s official Dipnote Blog was not updated Saturday, April 4, or Sunday. April 5, and on previous days offered mostly AP photos.
State Department officials in Washington are not accustomed to working on weekends. During Secretary Clinton’s earlier visit to Europe, it took several days before the State Department website posted an official photo from her meeting in Geneva with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Unfortunately for foreign journalists and bloggers who may have expected a copyright-free photo and more background information from the State Department website, the Clinton-Lavrov meeting also took place just before the weekend. Because of budget cuts and other restrictions imposed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Russian Service of the Voice of America did not have money to send its reporter to Geneva to cover the meeting. It did mange, however, to send a reporter to Europe with President Obama and provided timely coverage. The performance of the White House and the State Department in terms of information delivery and public diplomacy during President Obama’s European trip on the other hand left much to be desired.
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