By William Fisher
One of America’s most experienced broadcast experts believes that Karen Hughes – the high-profile Bush confidante nominated to help the State Department do a major makeover of the U.S. public diplomacy – may not be able to lay a glove on one of its key programs: international broadcasting.
Alvin Snyder, Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, says U.S. public diplomacy broadcast efforts are protected by a “firewall” that makes them off-limits to people from the State Department, or anywhere else.
Snyder told me, “One of the basic tools in the U.S. public diplomacy arsenal is its international broadcasting channels. But there's a big ‘firewall’ that makes the U.S. government's international broadcasting channels off limits. The wall is policed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a government-funded but independent corporation governed eight private sector politically appointed members – four Republicans four Democrats. The Secretary of State is the ninth member of the BBG in case there's a tie vote.”
“The purpose of the firewall is to keep broadcast channels independent from government influence”, Snyder says, “and that government would certainly include the State Department.”
The BBG’s broadcast resources include the Voice of America, the Arabic-language TV Alhurra and Radio Sawa, the Iranian service's Radio Farda, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Cuba Broadcasting's Radio and TV Marti, and the support group for all this, the International Broadcasting Bureau.
The BBG replaced the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) to oversee all U.S. government non-military international broadcast services in 1999, with the passage of the 1998 Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act.
Snyder has a long career in broadcasting, starting a writer, news editor and executive news editor of CBS News. He won a Grammy in 1966, together with CBS News President Fred W. Friendly and Sheldon Hoffman, for work a Columbia Records album, "Edward R. Murrow: A Reporter Remembers - the War Years." He helped create the White House Office of Communications during the Nixon Administration, and went on to become Special Assistant to the President.
Following Nixon’s resignation in 1974, he became a TV producer at the U.S. Information Agency and in 1982 became its Director of the TV and Film Service. He is the author of "Warriors of Disinformation" and is currently a Senior Fellow at USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy. He writes a weekly "WorldCasting" column.
Snyder told me, “If the ‘firewall’ is off-limits to Ms. Hughes and her team, what they will have is the rest of what was inherited from the USIA, such as educational and cultural exchanges, and the Bureau of Public Affairs, important aspects of U.S. public diplomacy, which appear to be alive and well.
However, he adds, “It remains unclear what impact Karen Hughes will have in strengthening U.S. public diplomacy efforts abroad, since she lacks authority over its most visible broadcast services.”
The BBG says that it has more than 100 million listeners, viewers, and Internet users around the world each week. However, its content had been widely seen as ineffective in communicating U.S. messages and winning friends for America.
What should be done to improve U.S. international broadcasting efforts now?
In the Arab world, Snyder says, “Alhurra’s target audience ought to be those who seek information through TV satellite news channels, whoever they are, and we ought to see for ourselves how well Alhurra is doing this.”
However, Snyder says, “It’s impossible to review a television channel’s programs that you haven’t seen. That’s the situation with Alhurra. According to a 50-year old law, U.S. government broadcasts targeted for oversees audiences may not be broadcast domestically. That means if you live in Peoria or Pittsburgh or anywhere else in America, the only way you can see Alhurra’s news broadcasts is to come to its studios in Springfield, Virginia, near Washington, DC.”
The law is the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which forbids domestic distribution of U.S. government media content meant for overseas audiences.
Snyder quotes retired ambassador William Rugh, former U.S. envoy to the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, as saying that defenders of U.S. public diplomacy efforts in Congress “have no idea what impact America’s broadcast services are having abroad, but they like the idea, and so it gets funding.”
Snyder told me, “That’s yet another reason Congress ought to lift the ban on domestic dissemination of U.S. broadcasts abroad -- to better inform themselves.”
But, Snyder points out, “That law was designed in and for another era, when memories were still fresh of Hitler's propaganda pounded into audiences in Nazi Germany.”
As a consequence, he adds, “Even informed Americans are kept in the dark about how our tax dollars are used to promote U.S. interests through international broadcasting.”
The result, Snyder says, is that “America may soon see the English-language service of the controversial Arabic channel al-Jazeera, but not Alhurra.
Snyder called on Congress to repeal the law.
I asked Snyder how today’s public diplomacy broadcasts compare with those of the Cold War era.
“Our efforts then were most effective when broadcasts informed listeners about themselves. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty provided information about what was going on in the rest the world that impacted on targeted audiences. They also told listeners about what was happening in their own closed societies, that they didn’t know. The Voice of America provided straightforward news and information from a trusted friend,” he said.
He noted that “a lot of audience research was done by the U.S. Information Agency Foreign Service professionals on the ground abroad who knew their target audiences a whole lot better than we did. Ideas for program content flowed from them to us, and we received a lot more than we could handle. This could done just as effectively in today’s world.”
President Bush nominated Karen Hughes to be Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and she is expected to be confirmed by the Senate next week. Her deputy, already confirmed, is Dina Habib Powell, former White House personnel chief, who is now an Assistant Secretary of State with principal responsibility for educational and cultural exchange programs.