FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, December 16, 2008, San Francisco — In The Huffington Post article, “Alhurra TV: Uncle Sam’s Boondoggle” Dr. Nancy Snow has pointed out a number of serious problems with the U.S. government-funded Alhurra Arabic-language television program for the Middle East and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which manages Alhurra. Dr. Snow, an Associate Professor of Public Diplomacy in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, New York, and a Senior Fellow in the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, had predicted that this privatized propaganda enterprise based on outdated Cold War surrogate broadcasting models and mistaken marketing concepts, would result in a failure and would increase rather than reduce anti-Americanism abroad. She and many other public diplomacy experts were right in advising against the creation of Alhurra and the dismantling of the Voice of America broadcasting to the Middle East.
In the process of privatizing U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, both Republicans and Democrats serving on the BBG were eager to destroy the Voice of America (VOA) Arabic Service, which followed far stricter journalistic standards of accuracy and balance and was required by law to represent the entire spectrum of American opinions. Dr. Snow is right in pointing out that Alhurra was not just a creation of fabulously incompetent and ideologically-driven neoconservatives. Alhurra may be therefore difficult to get rid of precisely because Democrats were just as guilty of supporting this enterprise as were neoconservative Republicans.
But if the Obama Administration wants to have a fresh start in the Middle East, it should reverse the privatization of U.S. international broadcasting. Alhurra should be abolished or completly redesigned despite the leading role in supporting this failed experiment played by the staff of Senator Joe Biden and his former chief of staff, the newly appointed U.S. Senator from Delaware Edward E. Kaufman (one of Alhurra’s strongest supporters on the BBG). Alhurra’s godfather on the BBG was Norman Pattiz, founder of the U.S. radio syndicate Westwood One. He is another prominent Democrat and one of Biden’s financial backers.
Mistakes by both Democrats and Republicans led to the current problems in U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. The elimination of the United States Information Agency (USIA), which launched in earnest the privatization of U.S. public diplomacy, was the initiative of the Clinton Administration. At the time, the dismantling of USIA had strong bipartisan support. The creation of Alhurra was the Bush Administration’s initiative, which also received bipartisan Congressional approval. As with the Iraq war, the initial decisions were based on false analysis and empty promises and are now regretted by many who had supported them.
Unfortunately, the misguided privatization of U.S. international broadcasting has not been limited only to the Middle East. In an attempt to bring even more money for Alhurra, the BBG engaged in the process of eliminating or reducing Voice of America broadcasts to a number of strategically important countries and regions, including China, Tibet, Russia, and India. Jobs of U.S. journalists who could have stopped propaganda and bias were eliminated in favor of hiring private contractors who were not subject to the same rules as those followed by the Voice of America.
In a major public diplomacy and foreign policy blunder, Edward E. Kaufman and D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, another liberal Democrat, joined ranks with James K. Glassman, the BBG’s most recent neoconservative chairman, in voting earlier this year to terminate yet another critical Voice of America program. The BBG ended VOA radio broadcasts to Russia while ignoring strong opposition from many concerned Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress who warned them not to proceed with these cuts.
VOA Russian radio broadcasts went off the air just 12 days before the Russian army attacked Georgia. The BBG refused to reverse its decision, ignoring desperate pleadings from VOA journalists to allow them to resume their job of broadcasting radio to the war zone. James K. Glassman personally told VOA employees that these broadcasts would not continue. Yet this incredible fiasco did not stop Glassman’s friends from calling on the Obama transition team to allow him to keep his current State Department post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.
One of the reasons neoconservative Republicans joined forces with Democrats in an effort to silence VOA Russian radio was to help Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), another private broadcasting entity which is incorporated in Delaware. Shortly before the summer war in the Caucasus and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the same group of Democrats and Republicans on the BBG also voted to eliminate VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia, Ukraine, and India. When terrorists struck in Mumbai, VOA no longer produced radio programs in Hindi to India. By a miracle, VOA radio broadcasts to Georgia and Ukraine were temporarily saved because the BBG staff did not act fast enough to end them before the Russian attack on Georgia.
It should not be a surprise that privatization of U.S. international broadcasting would lead to decisions which harm U.S. national security interests and result in major journalistic failures. Some of these failures, which were highlighted in the study prepared the Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, University of Southern California, are described at length by Dr. Snow. It’s also no surprise that the BBG wanted to keep the study secret even from members of Congress.
As Dr. Snow points out, there were plenty of earlier warnings which the Broadcasting Board of Governors chose to ignore. Fortunately for media freedom and journalistic ethics, a news event — a conference in Teheran which gathered those who deny the reality of the Holocaust — became an unexpected test of the BBG’s privatization and marketing strategies and eventually led to investigations which exposed both journalistic and financial abuses.
Reporting by FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit, which had dealt with international media and NPR reporting on the conference in Teheran, was responsible for the initial inquiries on how Alhurra and other BBG-run entities covered various statements by Holocaust deniers.
According to ProPublica.org, another nonprofit investigative journalism website, one Alhurra Television report that had particularly upset lawmakers was from an Iranian reporter who told viewers that there was no proof that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Use this link to the ProPublica.org web site to view the Alhurra report with English subtitles: http://www.propublica.org/feature/alhurra-video
View FreeMediaOnline.org report: “Holocaust conference in Iran: Al Jazeera offers more balance than National Public Radio (NPR) reporter; objective coverage from most other international media” (In response to criticism, NPR later aired a number of reports to correct its initial reporting. The BBG has been silent about such mistakes and attempted to limit journalistic inquiries.)
Reports which violate basic U.S. journalistic standards became common on the U.S. broadcasting entities privatized by the BBG, as the Alhurra study demonstrates. The Voice of America could not provide a more balanced reporting to counter such abuses because its programs have been reduced or eliminated by the Board and the Bush Administration.
In addition to the effects of privatization and the lack of sufficient oversight, BBG’s marketing strategies, introduced by Norman Pattiz, also contributed significantly to biased reporting and journalistic failures. Political interference with journalistic program content was made part of the BBG’s strategy of “marrying the mission to the market.” Private consultants hired by the BBG were telling Alhurra and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) not to focus too much on human rights issues since such an emphasis might offend highly nationalistic audiences and lead to lower ratings. Norman Pattiz and his consultants also told BBG broadcasters that they can improve their audience reach through music and entertainment programming.
One reason privatization became a major focus for the BBG was the inability of the Board members to force VOA journalists to take orders and compromise their journalistic ethics. Saving jobs of private contractors overseas while eliminating U.S. positions at the Voice of America also became a priority for BBG members and their staff.
In the case of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, D. Jeffrey Hirschberg and BBG’s executive director Jeffrey Trimble wanted to maintain a large private contractor presence in Russia despite strong evidence that the Kremlin’s secret police has been busy intimidating and blackmailing RFE/RL journalists who are Russian citizens and are subject to Russian laws. (Russian law prevents these contract employees from disclosing to RFE/RL and the BBG that they might have been approached by the FSB, the successor agency of the KGB.) To protect their bureau in Moscow from being closed down, Radio Liberty managers put a positive spin on Putin’s comments about the murder of independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. View FreeMediaOnline.org report.
More recently, a Russian human rights organization, the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, has criticized Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) for giving an entire hour of airtime to a Russian politician known for his racist views and verbal attacks on Blacks and other ethnic and racial minorities. View FreeMediaOnline.org report: “U.S. Taxpayers Pay for Spreading Racist Views on Radio Liberty in Russia: What Would Barack Obama Say If He Knew…”
Many independent experts and organizations, including the Public Diplomacy Council, have called for a major reform of U.S. public diplomacy. The Obama Administration should show that it wants U.S. public diplomacy to have a fresh start by abolishing the Broadcasting Board of Governors and un-privatizing Alhurra Television. The new Administration has no need for private U.S. propaganda radio and TV operating without proper supervision and accountability.
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was also a regional BBG media marketing manager responsible for placement of U.S. government-funded radio and TV programs on stations in Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in Eurasia. He is founder and president of FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit which support media freedom worldwide, and author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church” (O-Books – June 2008). In his book he describes the efforts of the KGB and other communist intelligence services to place spies in the Vatican and to influence reporting by Western journalists.