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The War Over the Reform of US International Broadcasting

June 3, 2015

I’m catching up with a pile of reports so sorry if I’m behind the curve with this one.

In March the Woodrow Wilson Center put out a report on Reassessing US International Broadcasting. It’s based on interviews with a whole bunch of US public diplomacy veterans and other experts and reaches the conclusion that the current system is broken with too much duplication and too much autonomy from the needs of US foreign policy.

The report can be read in tribal terms; the authors, S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth Portale, were both associated with RFE/RL, and a main target seems to be Voice of America and its claims of ‘journalistic autonomy’, indeed there are couple of rebuttals here and here, and the outgoing VoA director struck back at what he saw as RFE/RL lobbying.   I’ve never found the VoA argument particularly persuasive but in reading the report I was more interested in the image of what USIB is for and the world that it operates in. The report has lots of quotes from its interviewees – which are not directly attributed – and on one hand the report suggests a high degree of consensus but on the other there are some interested divergences of opinion that the authors don’t pick up on and some themes that are quite noticeable to a foreigner but probably not so obvious inside the Beltway.

There’s a tendency in the report to slip from discussions of ‘them’ to ‘us’: for instance from ‘strategic narrative’ to ‘the American narrative’ to ‘telling America’s story to world’ which leads to statements like

‘There is a narrative to be built on how this country is based on the distrust of power’

This makes sense in an American domestic conversation but really sounds bizarre outside.

Another informant opines that we ‘should offer a narrative about ourselves that represents ourselves in the most complicated and vibrant and contradictory and boisterous way possible’ That’s the limit of what is possible in international communications – to create complexity where there was a monolithic, monochrome image.   I think this is right but there’s also a tendency to slip into a very simple, ideological story  about American values. A lot of the history of US public diplomacy during the Cold War was about managing the gap that foreigners see between ‘values’ talk and American reality, for instance on issues of race.

The report is supportive of the current reform package going through Congress but there’s a strong view that the whole system is obsolete and ought to be rebuilt from scratch but while the report recognizes the changing media and political environment is says that this rethinking is job for universities and think tanks.

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