Fixing U.S. International Broadcasting – At Last!
We believe this concern is overblown. In fact, the new bill reaffirms the important safeguards enshrined in the VOA Charter passed by Congress and signed by President Ford almost 40 years ago. But, the Voice of America is America’s voice, not an independent agent like CNN. No one can plausibly imagine that “political neutrality” is part of its raison d’être, nor should it be. And, in fact, our global audience is not naive, they generally are aware of the networks’ U.S. government connections (indeed the U.S. link is continually pointed out by their own government’s propaganda, yet they choose to listen or watch anyway). Research also shows consistent patterns of audiences wanting more discussion of U.S. policy, opinions, and attitudes, not less, on issues of concern to them.
In today’s global media environment, much of it implacably anti-American, presenting honest and objective discussions of American interests, policies and strategies has never been more important. We believe that this, first and foremost, is what American taxpayers expect from their investment in VOA.
The surrogate networks, too, are seeing their historic mission gain urgency. Events in Ukraine are a wakeup call that the competition over local media is a central battleground in the struggle against aggressive states like Russia. Asia and the Middle East are particularly challenging media battlegrounds where surrogate media is critical. The trend of authoritarian regimes to censor local news is growing alarmingly, and the surrogate broadcasters present an existential challenge to these efforts. Most important, the surrogates puncture these regimes’ preferred narratives, which many compliant local media tailor to their regime’s preferences while willfully ignoring evidence of their mendacity. Think of how Russia overloaded local media with pernicious narratives of its motives and actions in Ukraine.
This is a more complex, nuanced, and competitive environment with many more players. Russia, China, Iran, and Middle Eastern states are investing massively to increase their media reach, sophistication, and credibility. We need to face facts: our competitors are making serious public diplomacy inroads at the expense of American and Western values and interests throughout the world. The Freedom News Network, assuming the legislation passes, will have its work cut out and will require substantial support from Congress. This low cost, high impact competitive instrument should become once again a reinvigorated part of America’s soft- and smart-power.
We are engaged in a global war of ideas and U.S. government-funded media can be one of the strongest and most cost-effective means we have to compete successfully. The proposed reforms are badly needed, long overdue, and deserve support. Like all efforts to reform things that have been badly broken for a long time, HR4490 is not perfect. But it is an important—indeed, admirable—effort to set necessary reform in motion. It is also a heartening example of real bipartisan cooperation to achieve important results. From our experience on the front lines of U.S. international broadcasting, this urgent reform cannot happen soon enough.
Dennis Mulhaupt served on the BBG from 2010-2013, chaired its governance committee and was alternate presiding governor in 2012-13. S. Enders Wimbush served on the BBG from 2010 -2012 and chaired its strategy and budget committee. He served as director of Radio Liberty from 1987-93.
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