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Fixing U.S. International Broadcasting – At Last!

10:05 AM, Jul 3, 2014 • By DENNIS MULHAUPT and S. ENDERS WIMBUSH
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The muddle deepens when one considers U.S. international broadcasting’s dual purpose.  The notional division of labor for U.S. international broadcasting is, first, to support America’s public diplomacy by explaining American policy and “telling America’s story” to listeners and viewers worldwide while offering a menu of objective news and information. The second function is to provide “surrogate” media services focused on local news, with analysis and commentary, in societies where media are not independent or are easily influenced or intimidated.

The public diplomacy role—explaining American policy and telling America’s story—belongs to the Voice of America, or should.  The “surrogate” broadcasting role was originated and made famous by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty during the Cold War, which is the model for the other grantee organizations.  But in reality, the division of labor between public diplomacy and surrogate broadcasting is in the eye of the beholder, with the blurring of responsibility most notable at the Voice of America, which duplicates a number of the “surrogate” language services of RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia. At the same time the VOA’s broadcasts to some markets, for example to sub-Saharan Africa where it is the only U.S. broadcaster, are mostly “surrogate” by design.

Meanwhile VOA’s public diplomacy function is out of favor with many at VOA, who complain that it should be an independent news agency free of compromising associations with U.S. policy. Back to the taxpayers, who might be forgiven for asking why they should be footing the bill for adding more “news and information” to an saturated global media universe—already exploding from thousands of traditional, new, and social media sources in virtually every corner of the world—without so much as a mention of America’s interests or points of view. What’s the point? Where’s the return on investment?

In early 2011, we were two of three principal authors of a radical plan that addressed all of these issues. That plan called for refocusing VOA’s mission and consolidating the grantee networks into a single organization, where strategic priorities could be set and assets shared; a chief executive officer to manage all U.S. international broadcasting’s day-to-day operations (thereby getting the board out of management); and the elimination of competing broadcasting efforts spread across the five networks. The BBG voted unanimously to adopt the plan. Almost immediately one or two members consistently and successfully blocked efforts to implement it. Today, more than three years later, not much has changed: no consolidation, no CEO, and little progress on ending duplication and waste. And U.S. international broadcasting remains as distant from any connection to our nation’s foreign policy objectives as ever. 

The United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490) will change this.  It incorporates most elements of our proposed plan and goes one better:  it abolishes the BBG.  This bipartisan bill, sponsored by Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and ranking member Elliott Engel, calls for strengthening the congressionally mandated and longstanding missions of the VOA (public diplomacy) and the grantees (surrogate broadcasting), and it creates urgently needed new oversight and management structures for each to implement them effectively.

First, the legislation replaces the BBG with the U.S. International Communications Agency (USICA), which will have direct jurisdiction over only the federal agency, which is over the VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.  (The International Broadcasting Bureau, an anomaly from the earlier reform acts, will be abolished.)  USICA will have its own CEO, who will be responsible for day-to-day management of the agency. 

Second, HR4490 will consolidate the surrogate Radio Frees—RFE/RL, MBN and RFA—into a single grantee organization, the Freedom News Network, with its own board and CEO apart from USICA.  Surrogate broadcasting, a powerful foreign policy soft power instrument, will get a new impetus and stronger strategic connections to broad U.S. foreign policy objectives as well as a new, worldwide mandate.

Pushback on the proposed legislation, which passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously in June, has been light, with even the VOA’s unions in support.  Some veterans of VOA have expressed concern that the Royce/Engel reforms could lower the firewall between U.S. international broadcasting and meddlesome policy bodies, especially the State Department.  

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