Home / Politics / Eulogy to Rebirth? US International Broadcasting Struggles to Find its Way—With the Help of Al Jazeera

Eulogy to Rebirth? US International Broadcasting Struggles to Find its Way—With the Help of Al Jazeera

It was a brief ceremony for the deceased. The eulogy was given by US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, on a brilliant Washington, DC morning, October 1, 1999. The assembled were reminded by Secretary Albright that this was a time to rejoice, and not to mourn, because the accomplishments of the departed “will always be honored and forever revered.”

The deceased, aged 46, was the United States Information Agency (USIA), laid to rest at the site of its former building, renamed Department of State annex #44. The USIA’s ashes were to be scattered throughout the Department’s 5,000-person workforce and a nine-person Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) across town, a few blocks away from the US Capitol Building.

It was nearing the end of President Bill Clinton’s second term in office. The Cold War with the Soviet Union, in which the USIA had played a key role by bringing news of the world to those behind the Soviet-imposed Iron Curtain, was now toast. America was preparing to move into the 21st century, but many felt the old USIA was stuck in the century about to end. Although the number of TV sets in the world had more than tripled in the 1990s, the USIA was still spending $18 on shortwave radio for every $1 on TV. Yet information now was passing freely across formerly closed borders via an increasing number of satellite TV channels, with a growing variety of programming.

Critics felt that if the USIA were a private corporation, it would be considered a distressed company in need of an overhaul, and new management would be brought in to resuscitate it. Vice President Al Gore, who managed what was called the “reinvention” of US public diplomacy, said a “more agile” foreign policy would be its result. But later it would become clear, following 9/11, that reinvented public diplomacy had become “a mess,” in dire need of another overhaul.

From the Cold War to 9/11

It was a very different world in 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the independent US Information Agency (USIA), to remind Europe that it was the US that helped to rebuild the devastated continent following World War II. He felt that while the US was working to restore Europe to prosperity through the Marshall Plan, “European governments did little to inform their own people about the steps we were taking to help them.” The USIA became the parent organization of the Voice of America, and would take over from the State Department the administration of international educational and cultural exchanges.

The early 1950s also saw the founding of two US-sponsored broadcast services, Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), which brought local news to information-deprived listeners behind the Iron Curtain. Funded initially by the Central Intelligence Agency, FRE and RL were known as “surrogate” or substitute services, with domestically targeted RFE programs beamed to Communist Eastern and Central Europe, and RL home broadcasts aimed at the Soviet Union, to provide news that was not covered by state-run systems. The locally oriented surrogate services were organized under a Board for International Broadcasting (BIB), which granted the radios money provided by the US Congress. As the grantor, the BIB provided a “firewall” between those radios and pressures within the US federal government to influence content. The task of the VOA, meanwhile, was to tell America’s story in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as elsewhere around the world.

During the Cold War, the US Congress in April 1964 issued a White Paper stating its clear-eyed vision for America’s public diplomacy:

Certain foreign policy objectives can be pursued by dealing directly with the people of foreign countries, rather than with their governments. Through the use of modern instruments and techniques of communication it is possible today to reach large or influential segments of national populations—to inform them, to influence their attitudes, and at times perhaps even to motivate them to a particular course of action. These groups, in turn, are capable of exerting noticeable, even decisive, pressures on their governments.

But in the world of the 1990s, when the Soviet “evil empire” no longer posed a threat, Americans turned inward. Issues that affected them personally were on their minds—unemployment, the cost of living, health care, keeping Social Security solvent, education—all became national obsessions. The White House and the US Congress lost interest in USIA, and its shortwave radio broadcasts. It was time for America’s public diplomacy effort to tighten its belt, to help pay for politically important domestic programs.

Public diplomacy’s downsizing also was called “consolidation,” in addition to being referred to as its “reinvention.” Parts of the USIA, including its overseas educational and cultural exchange programs, were sent packing back to the Department of State, from whence they came in 1953. A new position of undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs was established that absorbed USIA activities with the exception of its broadcast services.

Those non-military broadcast services were placed under another bureaucracy, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), where radio services, considered to be outmoded or duplicative, would soon be abolished. Under the BBG were the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Cuba Broadcasting, and Radio Free Asia. More services would be added following 9/11, including the Middle East broadcast networks, Radio Sawa and TV Alhurra, among others. All were placed behind an invisible “firewall” of the BBG to keep would-be manipulators from the White House, State Department, Congress, and elsewhere at a safe distance.

Eight non-government members of the BBG are nominated by the president for six-year terms, based on their political party registration, evenly distributed between Republicans and Democrats. The ninth member is represented by the State Department, which has the “swing” vote.

Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, Chairman (R). former editor-in-chief for Reader’s Digest magazine, and former director, Voice of America

Joaquin F. Blaya, (D) Former chairman of Radio Unica, a Spanish-language radio network, and CEO of the Telemundo Group, Inc., America’s second-largest Spanish-language television network.

Blanquita Walsh Cullum (R) President of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts.

D. Jeffrey Hirshberg (D) Partner in Kalorama Partners, a consulting firm that deals with corporate governance and risk management.

Edward D. Kaufman (D) President of Public Strategies, a political and management consulting firm

Norman J. Pattiz (D), founder of Westwood One, America’s largest radio network organization, and creator of Radio Sawa and TV Alhurra. (Pattiz announced his resignation Jan. 1, 2006, shortly after this piece was written.)

Stephen J Simmons (R) Chairman and CEO of Patriot Media and Communications

Karen Hughes, US Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy 

The BBG Comes Under Fire: Partisanship Battles and Investigations

The “big three” BBG members are unquestionably its chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson; Norman Pattiz, chairman of the BBG’s Middle East committee, who recently announced his resignation, effective March 2006, and Karen Hughes, the new undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

Tomlinson, a former director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration and a former editor of Reader’s Digest magazine, is a conservative Republican, the party of President George W. Bush. Until this past November, he had worn two hats, one as the BBG chairman, the other as the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the funding arm of US public TV stations, the US Public Broadcasting System, and National Public Radio. The CPB has a board structure similar to that of the BBG, with its members nominated by the president and evenly representing the Democrat and Republican political parties.

As CPB chairman, Tomlinson provoked the ire of political opponents by commissioning a programming study, without first consulting with his board, to gauge the political objectivity of a particular program series. Tomlinson also spearheaded the production of a follow-up program series that he envisioned would help to restore political balance to public TV offerings, an action which some felt exceeded his authority. During an investigation by the CPB inspector general of these and other alleged abuses—an investigation requested by two senior Democrats in Congress, Representative David Obey of Wisconsin, and Representative John Dingle of Michigan—Tomlinson’s term as CPB chairman expired in Sept. 2005. He resigned from the board before the IG’s report formally was issued on November 15, 2005.

That report cited several additional alleged violations, such as political employment tests and threats that taxpayer-supported programming funds would be illegally withheld if political objectivity was not achieved. In a statement distributed with the IG’s findings, Tomlinson replied that charges that he violated US federal law by attempting to restore political balance to public broadcasts were “malicious and irresponsible.” Tomlinson continued: “Unfortunately, the inspector general’s preconceived and unjustified findings will only help to maintain the status quo, and other reformers will be discouraged from seeking change.”

Tomlinson also has come under attack in his capacity as Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The State Department’s office of inspector general last summer launched an investigation of Tomlinson’s BBG stewardship after allegations of mismanagement were raised by Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Congressman Howard Berman of California, both Democrats. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) also began investigating charges of mismanagement at the US government’s Arabic broadcast services, Radio Sawa and TV Alhurra, which are overseen by Tomlinson and the BBG.

On November 10, 2005, both Tomlinson and the director of America’s Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Mouafac Harb, who directs both Sawa and Alhurra, testified before the International Relations Committee of the US House of Representatives. One alleged abuse involves accusations that Harb awarded lucrative sole-source agreements to contractors from his native Lebanon, as well as to others who did not go through a competitive bidding process to gain contracts. Some of these contracts exceeded several millions of dollars. Other committee concerns covered a variety of accusations, from lavish travel and excessive entertainment expenses, to costly language translation services and a newsroom computer network at Alhurra’s headquarters that its critics claim continually crashes.

The hearing was soft on both Tomlinson and Harb, but the BBG’s woes do not end there. Some former Voice of America employees whose jobs were cut when Radio Sawa replaced the VOA’s Arabic service have filed suit against Tomlinson and the BBG for unfair labor practices.

Deirdre Kline, spokeswoman for the Middle East Broadcasting Network, insists Alhurra "fully complies with all applicable federal, state, and local employment laws and regulations. All contract and procurement agreements … have been in compliance with [federal] procedures and regulations."

Financial Woes and the Search for a Public Diplomacy Czar

The reorganization of US government broadcasting got off to a slow start in 1999. The new post of undersecretary of state for public diplomacy lay vacant for almost two years. Charlotte Beers, a successful New York advertising executive, was first to hold the public diplomacy post, but she would not be sworn into office until after 9/ll. Her “Shared Values” paid TV spots, costing more than $15 million, showed Arabs and Muslims living productively and happily in the US, but did not go over well in the Middle East in the few areas where TV stations agreed to air them.

Beers resigned her office for health reasons during the run-up to the Iraq war, but admitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “The gap between who we are and how we wish to be seen, and how we are in fact seen, is frighteningly wide.” Her successor, Margaret Tutwiler, a former ambassador to Morocco, remained only briefly as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

During this period the Broadcasting Board of Governors continued to cut shortwave radio services. Chairman Tomlinson says the board had to make “tough budget decisions” to find the money for the US government’s Middle East broadcasting projects, Radio Sawa and TV Alhurra. “We have eliminated most of the central European (shortwave) radio services and reduced world-wide English from 24 to 14 hours daily,” he explained, stressing that “we have accepted the reality that satellite television, medium wave and FM radio is to the future what shortwave was to the past.”

Some veteran observers of US international broadcasting take issue with this approach, however. They complain that the substantive long-form Voice of America and Radio Free Europe Arabic services, which had audiences of opinion-makers, have been abolished, to make room for America’s Alhurra TV broadcasts, and light, youth-oriented pop radio music stations with news briefs, such as Radio Sawa, and the newly-formatted Radio Farda service to Iran.

Tomlinson acknowledges that budget cuts have taken their toll on America’s public diplomacy efforts from the outset. “You have to remember that US international broadcasting in the year 2001 was operating from a depleted base,” he told TBS. “In the decade following the end of the Cold War, federal spending on US international broadcasting had been reduced to a very real 40 percent.”

Pattiz Versus Tomlinson

The second of the “big three” at the Broadcasting Board of Governors is Norman Pattiz, a Democrat. A wealthy broadcaster who founded the largest radio network in America, Westwood One, Pattiz spearheaded Radio Sawa, and later TV Alhurra, as head of the BBG’s Middle East Committee.

In defense of Radio Sawa’s pop music format, Pattiz boasts of its large and growing audience of young people, as compared to the Voice of America’s small audience numbers for its Middle East Arabic service, before it was taken off the air. Says Patttiz, “it doesn’t matter what you say if no one is listening.” Radio Sawa’s detractors argue that its mostly music format has shown no measurable impact on furthering US foreign policy objectives. Pattiz’s TV Alhurra has likewise been criticized for lack of impact.

Pattiz counters that Alhurra, which debuted almost two years ago, in February 2004, is gaining viewers in the Middle East, and is felt to be a reliable news source among the majority of its viewers, according to the AC Nielsen rating service. Pattiz says tens of millions of viewers are reached daily in 22 countries by Sawa and Alhurra combined. But independent marketing polls in Iraq consistently show that in head-to-head competition with other TV news and information channels, Alhurra’s ranking as a prime source of news is miniscule. And critics claim that no poll has demonstrated the ability of US government broadcasts to gain support for US Middle East policies. Bruce Gregory, a former USIA research official, says Alhurra will show it is getting its job done when its coverage creates buzz in Middle East cafes and marketplaces, as has Al Jazeera.

In addition to being talked up in the Arab street, Alhurra, the gem in the BBG’s crown, must demonstrate to US congressional oversight committees its unquestioned effectiveness. The BBG’s annual budget estimate is $650 million for 2006, but discontent with US public diplomacy efforts is growing, especially in Congress, which holds the purse strings.

Tomlinson and Pattiz speak kindly about each other, but critics say that serious tensions exist between the two. Columnist Robert Novak writes that Pattiz and Tomlinson “was no marriage made in heaven.” Novak quotes a source as saying that “Tomlinson viewed Pattiz as a Hollywood control freak.”

Pattiz’s backing of John Kerry, who ran against President George W. Bush in the past presidential election, has obviously not gone down well at the White House, which has refused to re-nominate Pattiz as a BBG governor, a position he continues to fill in a recess appointment, which can go on indefinitely.

To put pressure on the White House to re-nominate Pattiz to the BBG, the ranking democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, recently delayed the confirmation of Dina Powell, of Egyptian heritage, as assistant to Karen Hughes at the State Department. “The BBG represents all the partisan bickering that takes place in Washington,” complains Mark Helmke, Professional Staff member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helmke told TBS that the BBG is “the most partisan group of individuals in Washington today.”

Congressional Oversight and ‘Listening Exercises’

“US public diplomacy is a mess,” and “lacks vision,” laments Helmke, who believes the BBG must take its share of the blame. To help clean up the mess that Helmke says exists, and to instill “vision” into US government broadcast management, more than 60 major public diplomacy studies, reports, and official US government hearings have been generated to date to help reinvent US public diplomacy once again.

The Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, concluded in its report Changing Minds Winning Peace that the “fault lies not with the dedicated men and women at the State Department and elsewhere who practice public diplomacy on America’s behalf around the world, but within a system that has become outmoded, lacking strategic direction and resources.” The Pew Research Center reports the reality that “Attitudes toward the US have gone from bad to worse,” despite the BBG’s efforts. “If somebody from the Government Accountability Office comes in there and looks around,” says Helmke, “they would probably shake their head and say, ‘What’s going on here?’”

At this writing, there is one Republican vacancy on the BBG, and the terms of five of the nine members have expired, including both Tomlinson and Pattiz. Another BBG member is expected to switch political party affiliation, to align the group evenly. The ninth position is filled now, for the first time in two years, by the third and newest undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Karen Hughes.

Hughes is one of the board’s “big three” operators, and its most influential member. As the ninth member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who has a swing vote, and most of all as a confidant of President Bush, she intends to explain and promote the foreign policies of the Bush administration. But the large entourage of reporters who covered her “listening trip” to the Middle East in September, her first visit ever to the area, critiqued her every move in perfect harmony. According to former foreign service officer John Brown, who reports on world media coverage for the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, there were few “kind words” for Karen Hughes, “either from the left or the right.” One of many students she met with in Egypt lectured her on US swagger and arrogance; a woman in Saudi Arabia told Hughes it was unimportant for Saudi women to drive because they have drivers. News reports suggested that Hughes was unprepared for what she encountered on her trip, and was rejected at every turn. On a later visit to Indonesia her reception was much the same.

Karen Hughes: A New Direction?

Because Hughes’s visits were billed in advance as listening exercises, she is only now beginning to show how she is putting to use what was learned on her trips abroad, to help strengthen America’s dialogue with the Arab and Muslim world. Karen Hughes has proven to be a skilled practitioner of public relations in the more than ten years she has served as a senior advisor to President Bush. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in journalism, and worked as a news reporter for KXAS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, President Bush’s home state. During his six years as Governor of Texas, Karen Hughes was his communications director, where she helped him win two gubernatorial campaigns and his 2000 presidential campaign. In the White House Hughes supervised the Office of Communications, the Press Secretary, media affairs, and speechwriting, and served as a senior consultant in Bush’s successful 2004 re-election campaign.

At the State Department Secretary Hughes has authority over its press and public affairs, international information programs, and cultural and educational exchanges. Although she is but one member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, with the clout of President Bush behind her, she has the potential to become the most influential member of the BBG’s “big three.”

Karen Hughes began to display her authority during her appearance before the House International Relations committee November 10. There, she disclosed that she has charged US ambassadors and public affairs officers in the Middle East to appear regularly on Al Jazeera to explain US policies. She also suggested to her BBG counterparts that when Muslim clerics tour the United States on trips arranged by the State Department, the clerics’ visits ought to be covered by Alhurra’s TV news cameras. Hughes also disclosed to the Senate committee that during her Middle East trip last fall, she informed embassy diplomats, including ambassadors and their press staffs, that they would be evaluated for future advancement based in part on how effectively they performed their public diplomacy activities, especially via TV.

It is expected that Hughes will also be very much involved in selecting US spokespersons who would appear on Al Jazeera’s new English-language channel that is scheduled to launch this spring. Oddly, while Al Jazeera English will be available to viewers in the US and elsewhere via satellite, Alhurra will remain off-limits to audiences in America. That is because Congress passed a law shortly after World War II banning the domestic dissemination of broadcasts produced for international audiences in the US and its territories. The Smith-Mundt Act was passed while memories were still fresh of how the Nazis propagandized their own people during the war, but there many in Congress feel that the time has come to eliminate this domestic dissemination ban so that American taxpayers and the US Congress, who fund the government’s international broadcasts, can see for themselves what they are getting for their money. Should the Smith-Mundt act be amended, Al Jazeera can take due credit for influencing US foreign policy by being the main catalyst for the repeal of an important 50-year-old piece of legislation.

Karen Hughes’s boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, also suggests that changes are in store for the government’s broadcasting services. Secretary Rice told a congressional budget committee earlier this year that public diplomacy should be restructured “in ways to make it more effective,” to better inform populations abroad. She suggested that more involvement by the State Department can be expected in the news content of the US government-sponsored Arabic language broadcast services. Although Alhurra and Radio Sawa were making progress, Secretary Rice said, “more would be expected of them.”

So what are the options for US transnational broadcasting? Mark Helmke tells TBS that the debate in Congress will continue to become more critically probing towards US Middle East broadcasting. It is his view that the kind of in-depth debate over US Middle East broadcasting that should have been held before Radio Sawa and TV Alhurra went on the air, should he held now. “They came in with a pretty hard sell the first time around,” said Helmke. So what are the options for US transnational broadcasting? Says Helmke: “It might have made more sense to have trained five really good Arabic spokespersons to appear regularly on Al Jazeera and other Arabic channels, than to start our own satellite channel.” It seems Karen Hughes is moving in this direction.

According toJonathan Marks, former Radio Netherlands program director, and an astute observer of international broadcasting: “Alhurra is very much in a shouting mode, rather than a sharing mode. … I think Future TV in Lebanon is making the dream TV channel [format-wise] that should have been Alhurra. They have cherry-picked comedy and lifestyle shows from the US like Friends and added live discussion forums taking place in an open-air studio in Beirut. Their Web site encourages interactivity. If they are clever, they have the power to become the Al Jazeerra for the under 30s.”

Former US ambassador to Yemen, William Rugh, tells TBS that US Middle East broadcasting should undergo “regular program reviews by respected native [Arabic] speakers [including] polls that compare the channels head-to-head with the competition, and honest evaluation of what they are accomplishing.” He said defenders in Congress have “no idea what impact” Radio Sawa and Alhurra are having, but like the idea, so that US Middle East broadcasting will “become a sacred cow that nobody will touch.” 

The one to watch is Karen Hughes. If she stays the course as President Bush’s top public diplomacy chief, she may bring a focus to the US effort that has been missing since the abandonment of the US Information Agency. She has not only the support of President Bush, but also is seen as a pragmatic and forceful executive by many in the US Congress, and quite capable of assuming the strong leadership that has been lacking in US public diplomacy.

As former Secretary of State Madeline Albright remarked at the USIA’s wake in 1999, when the Agency was being re-invented as a “mess,” this may at last be the time for US government communicators to rejoice and not to mourn. That is if Karen Hughes, who expects some help from Al Jazeera, can resurrect the spirit and vision of the storied former communications agency, which would have been 52 years old today.

About Alvin Snyder

Alvin Snyder is a former director of the US Information Agency’s global television and film service, a former White House special assistant to the president, and the author of Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies, and the Winning of the Cold War, Arcade Publishing.

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