On the evening of November 18, 1977, a Romanian journalist named Monica Lovinescu was severely beaten by assailants in the courtyard of her Paris home. Jimmy Carter had been President for nearly a year, détente with the Soviet Union was deteriorating, and global tensions were on the rise. In Paris the pacifist, antinuclear peace movement was beginning to gather steam.
Lovinescu was an essayist, short story writer and literary critic whose weekly programs for Radio Free Europe (RFE) were immensely popular in Communist Romania. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu feared the influence of Lovinescu’s work, so much so that he ordered his secret police, the Securitate, to silence her. Concerned about French and American investigations, and desirous of retaining Romania’s relatively open policy with the West, Ceausescu insisted that the attack be carried out by a PLO group, not by his Securitate directly, and not with the aim of killing Lovinescu. The intention was rather to leave her “as a living corpse”, as one of Ceausescu’s aides later put it. The vicious beating that night left Lovinescu in a coma. But she recovered. And within months she returned to her microphone to press on with her defense of dissident writers and her discussion of Camus, Arendt, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, Kolakowski and Miloscz.
Lovinescu was the daughter of the influential novelist and literary historian Eugen Lovinescu and the wife of literary critic (and fellow RFE broadcaster) Virgil Lercuna. Her mother died in a Communist prison. Lovinescu was passionate, disciplined and eloquent. She used radio brilliantly as a “weapon of enlightenment”, as one of her admirers put it.
One of my first trips as President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) was to Bucharest in 2007 at the invitation of the Romanian President for a ceremony honoring our Romanian Service. An early, deep memory I have from that time was learning about the iconic Lovinescu. Her death in April 2008, at the age of 85, led to calls in the Romanian parliament for a state funeral and to petitions from human rights groups to name a major boulevard in the capital after her. Her life and work were a testament to courage, the power of open information, the force of ideas and, not least, the influence of U.S. international broadcasting on behalf of all three.
Two decades after the demise of Soviet Communism, U.S. international broadcasting still has an important role to play in advancing U.S. foreign policy aims, but confusion over purpose and inadequate resources have limited America’s broadcasting potential. U.S. government-sponsored broadcasting has the potential to become again a central element of American soft-power strategy, if we are willing to make the changes necessary to bring our unchanged principles into a changing 21st-century political and technological environment.
Cold War Clarity
Men like Winston Churchill, George Kennan, John Foster Dulles and many others saw the Cold War principally as a struggle of ideas. As Churchill put it in his 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, the West suddenly found itself caught up in a new “cause of freedom and democracy”, this time staring down the threat of an emerging Communist empire in which “the power of the state is exercised without restraint.” Churchill called for “clarity of thought” and for “grand simplicity of decision” as he challenged Americans to accept what he forecast as a period of “awe-inspiring accountability.”
Thanks to the clarity provided by the high stakes involved, U.S. broadcasting was strategically focused in pursuit of a simple, clear mission: to counter Communist propaganda worldwide, and to break the information monopoly maintained by Communist parties in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union by providing accurate news and a free flow of information, ideas and debate to those trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Many hundreds, even thousands, of dedicated people from dozens of countries spent years believing in and engaged in this mission, even though they never really knew for sure how effective they were in weakening the grip of Communist governments and advancing democratic values. There were times, no doubt, when many involved must have wondered if they were just pounding sand. Some four decades later, we discovered just how effective their efforts had been.
Monica Lovinescu had not been alone in making a mark. Through her work and that of countless others, U.S. broadcasting had provided intellectual nourishment and moral encouragement to millions. In Poland Solidarity leader Lech Wa??sa, and in Russia President Boris Yeltsin, credited U.S. broadcasting for helping to end Communism. In 1991, Estonian President Lennart Meri nominated Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for the Nobel Peace prize. (Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma won that year, not at all a bad choice as Nobel Peace Prize committee reasoning goes.) In 2006 former RFE/RL journalist Tom Ilves became President of Estonia. U.S. broadcasting had become synonymous across the region with freedom and democracy, integrity and credibility. When novelist Herta Mueller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009 she was asked at the Frankfurt Book Fair whether she had listened to Radio Free Europe growing up in Cold War Romania. Mueller’s reply minced no words: “I listened several times a day and those who did not do so were idiots.”
There were two sides to America’s broadcasting coin. One side, the Voice of America (VOA) told America’s story. Its first broadcast, “Stimmen aus Amerika” (Voices from America), was aired in German in 1942 and aimed to counter Nazi propaganda. “The news may be good or bad for us—we will always tell you the truth”, was the tag line. By the end of World War II, VOA was broadcasting in forty languages. While it had started as a non-governmental enterprise, VOA became part of the State Department in 1945. It was transferred to the United States Information Agency when USIA was formed in 1953.
Voice of America was public diplomacy, and it served as a consistently reliable source of news. It also represented the broad spectrum of American thought, society and institutions in a fair, professional and consistent way. The Voice, as its fans would come to call it, developed a huge following. Jazz producer Willis Conover, who produced concerts for the White House and the Newport Jazz Festival, and who became known for helping to desegregate Washington, DC night clubs, was among the most famous of VOA broadcasters. His rich baritone voice, his deliberative style of delivery and interviews with a steady stream of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Stan Getz made Conover a celebrity in the Soviet Union and a legend for millions of jazz lovers throughout Eastern Europe.1
The other side of the broadcasting coin, Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), originally two separate organizations, had a distinct but complementary mission to the Voice of America. RFE and RL were outgrowths of the deliberations of the National Committee for a Free Europe, an anti-communist association formed in New York City in 1949, whose leadership included, among others, U.S. diplomat Joseph Grew, the U.S. Ambassador in Tokyo on December 7, 1941, CIA Director Allen Dulles, the younger brother of John Foster Dulles, and Reader’s Digest owner Dewitt Wallace. RFE and RL were established as “surrogate broadcasters” with the mission of providing listeners the domestic news and information denied them by their own governments. So while VOA was about “us”, RFE and RL was about “them.”
As with VOA broadcasts, Communist governments tried to jam RFE and RL broadcasts, and audiences huddled under blankets to learn from them about culture, history and political and economic trends in their own countries. Founded in 1950, RFE broadcast to Central and Eastern Europe. RL began broadcasting three years later to the Soviet Union in Russian and 15 other national languages. The CIA originally funded both organizations. In 1971, CIA financing ended as Congress directly assumed that role, and in 1976 the two organizations were merged into a single entity, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). As with VOA, there is no end to testimonies as to the power of RFE and RL to keep hope alive and morale from crashing through the floor behind the Iron Curtain.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the ensuing collapse of Soviet Communism, three schools of thought emerged about the future of U.S. international broadcasting. The first maintained that with the successful conclusion of the Cold War it was time to close up shop. The second school contended that U.S. broadcasting needed a continued presence across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Communism may have come to an end, went the thinking, but the transition to democratic institutions, supported as they must be by democratic values, habits and behaviors, would be difficult in many places. It would be foolish to declare victory prematurely. Still a third school looked further east and saw the rise of China as a potential threat to American global interests; on Capitol Hill and among policy intellectuals there were calls to establish a Radio Free China.
Post-Cold War Confusion
Two decades later, the world looks much different from the way most Americans thought it would, and the postwar debate of the future of U.S. government-sponsored broadcasting now looks different as well. The unipolar moment of American hegemony has faded in the harsh light of 9/11 and the Great Recession. Western values, once thought to be nearly universal best practice, now face a far more hostile environment in many parts of the world. The West itself now suffers a new malaise, with leaders on both sides of the Atlantic struggling to control debt and resume robust economic growth even as an increasing number of voters have begun to doubt the competence, let alone the wisdom, of their elected leaders. The European Union is in trouble, new powers have emerged, and the security of the global commons has become more uncertain in the face of non-state and trans-state challenges, even as the power of American military reassurance on behalf of that commons looks to diminish.
It’s no wonder, then, that U.S. international broadcasting looks muddled and seems to have lost its strategic moorings. Let’s take a brief look around the broadcasting landscape.
• VOA and RFE/RL are still in business. VOA has become a hybrid of surrogate and public diplomacy work. RFE/RL’s surrogate broadcast continues to include Russia, the North Caucuses, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, the Balkans and Central Asia and has expanded to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran. It’s no surprise that with VOA’s mission creep, there are calls now to end duplication between RFE/RL and the Voice of America.
• The world of U.S.-sponsored broadcasting has grown far wider than its original European ambit. It now broadcasts in 58 languages around the world. Today, for example, broadcasting to Cuba still goes on, long after Cuba has ceased to pose a threat to the United States as a Soviet proxy off the coast of Florida. Started under Ronald Reagan, “Radio Martí” (named after Jose Martí, the 19th-century champion of Cuban independence from Spain) began broadcasting in 1985. Nearly three decades later, some conservatives, encouraged by the Cuban émigré community in Miami and New Jersey, still call for regime change and want Radio and Television Martí to lead the way; liberals want engagement with the Castro and soon-to-be post-Castro government and see Radio Martí as a hindrance to more effective engagement.
• The Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) were established after the attacks of 9/11. (Astonishingly, in retrospect, there was little interest in broadcasting to the Muslim world before 9/11.) MBN’s Arabic-language Radio Sawa (“together”) was launched in 2002, with an emphasis on American pop music aimed at influencing young Arab audiences. Then in 2004, MBN started Alhurra (“the free one”), a satellite television enterprise broadcasting to 22 countries in Arabic across the Middle East. Alhurra has functioned as a hybrid, mixing VOA-type elements of public diplomacy with surrogate programming. Conservatives want Alhurra to spread democracy and American values in the Middle East, many of them imagining, or assuming, that such goals are both achievable and in the U.S. national interest. Liberals want America to be better understood in this part of the world, and to be popular to the extent possible—again, imagining or assuming that these two goals go well together. Some critics of MBN see a useful role for broadcasting, but only if assumptions born from ignorance of Middle Eastern societies can be rectified and the radios reconfigured accordingly.
• Radio Free China never materialized, but Radio Free Asia (RFA) was established in 1996 as a surrogate broadcaster for East Asia. RFA broadcasts in nine languages, including Mandarin, Tibetan, Burmese and Korean (to North Korea).
Given the diversity of broadcasting activities, it is no surprise that questions of duplication, inefficiency and above all general confusion about purpose have come to dominate the debate about the future of U.S. broadcasting efforts.2 But despite the confusion and many genuine problems, the most important thing to remember is, simply, that broadcasting still works. I visited Tashkent as President of RFE/RL in summer 2008 and heard from a small group of students why they were fans of our Uzbek service. They conceded that they believed RFE/RL was really “CIA radio”, but explained that their loyalty and listenership had to do with the simple fact that RFE/RL news was accurate, trustworthy and reliable. They said it provided a much sought after alternative to state-controlled media in Uzbekistan, a country whose press freedom is ranked by Freedom House on par with that of Burma and North Korea.
In Kabul in the spring of 2010 I heard first-hand of the impact of RFE/RL’s Afghan service (its local brand is “Radio Azadi”, which means “Radio Liberty” in Dari). The station enjoyed a nearly 50 percent audience share, surpassing both domestic and other international competitors. Radio Azadi is staffed by a team of Afghan colleagues at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, a bureau in Kabul and a stringer network that reaches into all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The U.S. military listens to Radio Azadi. So does Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In a meeting with tribal leaders, I was told that villagers in remote areas were known to adjust their daily prayer schedules so as not to miss important programs. Radio Azadi offers programming on health care, politics, economics, reports of corruption, music and women’s issues. When it’s seen as useful and credible by its audience, surrogate broadcasting is powerful.
Seven Steps to More Powerful Wavelengths
For all these reasons, we need to fix what’s broken in the broadcasting delivery system. Seven relatively small steps can make a big difference in realizing U.S. international broadcasting’s full potential.
First, we must know history better to understand well that few of the current challenges we face are entirely new. It’s true that Cold War clarity of aims helped shape the general purpose of international broadcasting, yet it’s also true that things were never as clear then as we remember them to have been. In a June 1948 memorandum a VOA official complained to State Department colleagues that, “U.S. foreign policy can be implemented satisfactorily only if we know what it is.” Those who lead the U.S. broadcasting effort today should not wait for perfect and perfectly uniform directives, or they will have to set a place at the table next to Godot’s.
Nor should they become unnerved by Washington politics. VOA had barely been incorporated in the State Department when, in the early 1950s, 31 members of Congress (thirty Republicans and one Democrat) complained about liberal bias, appeasement of foreign dictators, duplication with other U.S. government information programs and the misuse of funds. Broadcasting will always rest at the intersection of American attempts to balance interests and values in our foreign policy. Liberals and conservatives have always argued over tactics, editorial choices and tone. They will continue to do so, which is fine. It’s the American way, and VOA itself will report it to the world with pride.
Second, we need to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). As is widely but not universally known, today the family of U.S. international broadcasters—VOA, RFE/RL, Radio Martí, MBN and Radio Free Asia—is overseen by the BBG, which is the outgrowth of several organizational reforms that saw the broadcasting mission go into and then back out of the United States Information Agency. The BBG has been the organizational framework for the broadcasting effort since 1995, and an independent agency since USIA was decommissioned in 1999. It is set up as an eight-person, bipartisan board appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, with the Secretary of State as the ninth, ex officio member.
The BBG’s chairman should be made a full-time appointment, not a part-time position as is now the case. Leading U.S. broadcasting is a formidable challenge considering the breadth and complexity of the issues and the size of the BBG’s budget. A decade ago the BBG oversaw more than 3,200 employees and a budget of $535 million. The BBG’s 2012 request is for $767 million. Managing an operation of that magnitude is no sane person’s idea of a part-time job.
What’s more, the BBG should explicitly end its tradition of operating as a collective CEO. The BBG needs fully empowered leadership whose remit also includes a more active voice in selecting candidates for board membership. In its 16-year and at times rocky and dysfunctional history, the BBG has gained a reputation for comprising dedicated and suitable as well as many unsuitable board members, whose qualification to serve seems remote at best. No one can stop a White House from treating the BBG as a political patronage opportunity, but “patronage” can and should mean identifying individuals with relevant backgrounds and skill sets.
Third, we need to build a strong domestic constituency for broadcasting, which requires repeal of the anachronistic Smith-Mundt Act. Officially called the U.S. Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, Smith-Mundt set the terms by which the U.S. government can engage audiences overseas. Since 1972, the Act has prohibited domestic access to information intended for foreign audiences on the grounds that technically, as absurd as it may sound, content from U.S. international broadcasting should not be available to the American public. New technologies have rendered Smith-Mundt obsolete anyway, but taking it off the books would help Americans to more fully appreciate—and engage themselves—with the work of international broadcasting. The BBG still boasts more than 3,000 employees today, a good number of them journalists deployed around the globe. At a time when the number and skills of foreign correspondents has been sharply declining, U.S. broadcasting is a treasure trove of international news gathering, insight and analysis. American news outlets, think tanks and universities should tap this resource. The BBG should therefore develop a strong profile and presence on behalf of broadcasting within the United States and seek to develop partnerships with leading American institutions. Through these partnerships, the BBG should think creatively about building a constituency for additional funding. Times are tough, but the entire RFERL budget adds up to the cost of just four Apache helicopters.
Fourth, we must identify the necessary resources and develop better systems to improve the quality of BBG-sponsored journalism. Journalist training is central to broadcasting’s success. For decades U.S. international broadcasting has been blessed by exceptionally dedicated journalists who share a common belief in pluralism, tolerance and decent accountable government. Because so many come from authoritarian and war-torn countries, however, levels of professional journalistic training often vary. As a result, the proper recruitment, training and supervision of broadcasters is of paramount importance.
There is always a danger, of course, that the passions of exile politics will mix dangerously with the obligation to produce accurate, fair-minded reporting. That danger affected RFE/RL during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and it could easily affect a range of activities in the future. At present, each broadcast organization does what it can for training and supervision with the resources at its disposal. It’s not nearly enough, however. The BBG should identify funding to establish a first-rate center for journalistic training that would help to boost standards of professionalism across U.S. broadcasting. Only quality journalism can establish the necessary credibility with audiences that permits broadcasting to fulfill its mission.
Fifth, we must decentralize the operation. The majority of journalists working for U.S. international broadcasting are based in Washington, DC (headquarters for VOA and Radio Free Asia), in Springfield, Virginia (headquarters for the Middle East Broadcasting Network) and in Prague (headquarters for RFE/RL). This arrangement may make some organizational and bureaucratic sense, but that doesn’t mean it’s journalistically sensible, especially in the case of surrogate broadcasting. Journalists need to be close to the subjects they are covering.
Two of the strengths of U.S. broadcasting are its overseas bureaus and substantial stringer networks. These strengths can be augmented further. While in some cases it’s simply not possible to deploy safely U.S.-funded journalists inside authoritarian countries, the principle of “the closer the better” generally holds. Both VOA’s Persian service and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda should develop, for example, a robust network of reporters in Dubai, Yerevan, Baku and Istanbul—a ring around Iran. This would allow easier, direct access to important exile communities, as well as the steady stream of Iranians flowing through these cities for business, university study and tourism.
Sixth, we should explode the myth that internet and social media have rendered U.S. broadcasting obsolete. It’s true that technology has changed the model, as it has changed the model across journalism. Facebook, Twitter and other social media have meant that monopolies on information are now virtually impossible to maintain and competition abounds. In Afghanistan a village elder has a Blackberry. In Iraq, teenagers download video content (including jihadi material) on cell phones. Iran has become the third-largest blogging nation in the world after the United States and China. When a young woman named Neda Asha-Soltan was gunned down during protests in Tehran in June 2009, government-sponsored news broadcasts in Iran concealed her murder, but it went almost instantly viral through the internet, and images of her last moments alive shocked millions around the world.
This does not mean, however, that U.S. international broadcasting has outlived its usefulness. In the first place, the new technologies do not give an obvious advantage to “good guys” against “bad guys”, whether the latter are authoritarian governments or authoritarian social and political movements. To assume otherwise is very naive.3 Moreover, U.S. broadcasting operates with a particular purpose, which should always distinguish itself from commercial media and the myriad other voices that fill today’s cyberspace. U.S. funded broadcasting is a means, not an end. It should never be viewed as a values-free proposition.
Finally and centrally, we must place all efforts, including current plans for reorganization, in the context of our purpose and mission. U.S. international broadcasting is guided by American idealism but it is not charity. Its purpose, again, is to advance American interests in the world.
The current Broadcasting Board of Governors is presently contemplating a major reorganization. Chaired until this past January by celebrated biographer and Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson, the BBG is caught in a Washington environment defined by severe budgetary constraints. To be sure, there is a compelling need to eliminate inefficiencies, real pressure to save money and a case to be made for simplifying the organizational untidiness and complexity that has taken root in broadcasting over the past 15 years. Isaacson, a former working journalist who served as CEO of CNN, was well suited to lead the effort, but as of this writing that effort is leaderless. The next chairman needs to be at least as capable a leader. (At present, Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, serves as “interim presiding governor.”)
There remain two great aims for U.S. international broadcasting today, and both need refocusing beyond the seven steps just noted. One has to do with democracy assistance.
Democracy assistance is a sphere of work claimed by Freedom House and the four constituent parts of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It is to this conceptual realm that surrogate broadcasting properly belongs, yet there are no strong connections between the BBG and the NED, though both have a similar status as independent government-funded organizations. The BBG should consider merging its two surrogate broadcasters, Radio Free Asia and RFE/RL, and then explore greater collaboration and synergies with the NED, Freedom House and other organizations committed to democracy promotion. Such a merger would connect a broadcasting region that spans Russia, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
The second great aim of U.S. international broadcasting is public diplomacy. Effective public diplomacy is crucial to foreign policy success. Russia and China grasp this. Both countries have been pouring billions into public diplomacy efforts. There is a great deal of study to be done about how competitor nations—and terrorist groups, for that matter—think about public diplomacy strategies.
U.S. public diplomacy is not a matter of deception or manipulation, slick propaganda or Madison Avenue marketing. America has a complex, compelling story to tell. It’s the story of both Enron and Steve Jobs, of banks and businesses large and small, and of unrivaled entrepreneurial success. There is extraordinary reporting to be done on race, religion and ethnicity in modern America; on science and technology, music and culture, and America’s remarkable ability, at least up until now, to self correct, adapt and compete in a changing world. Much of the planet remains deeply interested in this story, for in many ways America is the first universal nation. For our side, we have policies to explain, ideas and arguments to share, and America’s fundamental decency to convey. It’s time for introspection and humility in America, but not time to lose either our self-confidence or our global voice.
Writing in the November 2011 issue of the New Criterion, British historian Andrew Roberts chides Americans for losing faith in the American dream and American exceptionalism. Writes Roberts:
American culture is infused with highly romantic myths, fictions, dreams, phantasms, and ideals, which keep her vibrant, confident, chivalrous, and exceptional. The stories of Omaha Beach; of the Wild West; of Mr. Smith going to Washington; of the Frontiersman; of the huddled masses who work hard and ultimately succeed; of the Alamo; of the victim of persecution who can finally speak truth to power; of Custer’s last stand; of George Washington who couldn’t tell a lie; of the farmer in the Norman Rockwell painting exercising his freedom of speech in a town hall meeting; of the “Spirit of 76”; of the rail splitting president bright up in a one room cabin; of the writer in the garret who pens the Great American Novel; of how any child can grow up to be president; of the winter at Valley Forge; of the shining city on the hill; of the defense of Guadalcanal and Bastogne; of Paul Revere’s ride.
It’s in America’s interest to see to it that public diplomacy takes up these themes, intelligently, responsibly and imaginatively, and with sophistication. During the Cold War American individualism neatly converged with the aspirations of the majority of citizens behind the Iron Curtain who yearned to shed collectivism and free themselves from Communist rule. Today American culture, at its best and at its worst, plays differently, especially in parts of the Muslim world. This is one reason why commercial media, the blogosphere and Twitter will never substitute for thoughtful public diplomacy work.
American public diplomacy needs the full and active support of American broadcasting. To this end the BBG should clarify the identity of the VOA and the MBN. Both have developed needlessly complex personalities. Too often taxpayer-funded broadcasters have bristled over the notion that their independent journalistic work should be subsumed as an element of American public diplomacy; yet it must be. The BBG carries the responsibility both to place the work of broadcasting in the service of its mission, and to protect the integrity of the journalism produced under its banner. These ideas are not contradictory; they are rather mutually reinforcing.
Both VOA and MBN should re-focus on U.S. public diplomacy efforts, but MBN should maintain its independent status. Like Radio Free Asia and RFE/RL, it is a 501(c) (3) and, as such, a grantee of the Federal government. VOA should be de-federalized to permit greater flexibility in recruiting and managing personnel. This will mean an end to VOA’s union, a step that will almost certainly have to wait for a Republican Administration.
Surrogate broadcasting was always “about them.” Public diplomacy (including VOA) was always “about us.” Any reorganization of broadcasting should reflect these two distinct yet complementary missions. U.S. international broadcasting needs above all simplification and clarity of purpose. Times and technologies change, but a return to some of the most important basics can help us get the most out of broadcasting’s soft power today. There is still plenty there to be gotten.
1Dave Brubeck participated as well. See “Cool Jazz and Cold War”, The American Interest (Spring 2006).
2An April 29, 2004 GAO report, “U.S. International Broadcasting: Challenges Facing the Broadcasting Board of Governors”, is emblematic of the kinds of criticism that have been put forth.
3See Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs, 2011).