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Hillary Clinton on International Broadcasting

March 5, 2011

Hilary Clinton’s comments on international broadcasting to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have attracted quite a lot of attention.  In response to a comment from Senator Lugar she argued that the US was losing an information war to foreign competitors.  I won’t go through everything that she said – the comments are at about 67 minutes on this video and run for 2-3 minutes.

Clinton is trying to get more money for international activities and Lugar offers her  an open goal so it’s a bit unfair to treat her comments as if you she was writing an essay for my Communications and International Affairs class but….

  1. In her comments Clinton conflates the fact that there are a growing number of international broadcasters with the claims that they  a) actually have an audience b) that there is an effect on the audience, and c) that effect is antithetical to US interests.  I don’t have the time to work through these points systematically but the audience for these channels is small, elite and selective.  The question of media impact on elites is  very interesting and underresearched but I wouldn’t expect huge impacts on attitudes.    Someone who chooses to regularly watch Russia Today is probably somebody who already has a taste for conspiracy theories or is consciously monitoring what the Russians are saying.   The exception where international broadcasting has a deeper reach into the population is the Middle East.
  2. After commenting about the internet Secretary Clinton correctly points to the fact that tv and radio are the dominant media.  But…what she really should have said is that domestic tv and radio are the dominant media and within domestic media systems entertainment is the key content.  I think that this a central point because it limits the potential impact for international broadcasting.  There is a demand for international news content under particular circumstances or where there are limited alternative sources of media.
  3. Madam Secretary recounts a story about an Afghan general who told her that he assumed that American women walk around in bikinis all the time and that the men are all wrestlers because that was the impression that he got from watching WWE and Baywatch.  The rule of thumb is that the smaller and poorer the country the more that the broadcasting system relies on imported content.  Exposure to US entertainment content comes mainly via domestic broadcasting not international (if this gives a negative impression of the US can we expect an export ban?).  As countries devote more resources to media more of the content is domestically produced the result is that channels with the largest audiences will have more domestic content while imported content is relegated to secondary channels.
  4. Everyone who’s ever written anything criticising the prominence of messaging models in US public diplomacy will enjoy the agreement between the Senator and the Secretary about the importance of ‘getting the message out’ (and talking about ‘our values’ a pet peeve of mine)
  5. To be fair I think that Mrs Clinton has a point.  The international media environment is becoming much more complex and there are more voices in it.  In a sense the quality and quantity of the competition for the US is improving but solutions and responses need to be based in a realistic appraisal of specific audiences and the overall media environment.  It may be that the solution is not more US international broadcasting but more efforts to insert American voices into domestic media systems and into ‘competitor’ channels.
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