Broadcast News

By Dick Kirschten

May 1, 1999

A new agency with a bold mission is set to boost America's broadcast efforts overseas.
By Dick Kirschten
dkirschten@govexec.com

I n October, a newly independent agency-with a long and exotic history-will join Washington's bureaucratic ranks. Its mission: to supervise taxpayer-supported broadcasting activities abroad, which for more than half a century have sought to foster democratic values and to undermine America's ideological foes.

The agency, which will be known at the outset as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), somewhat ironically gained its autonomy as the result of a four-year struggle to streamline the nation's foreign policy apparatus and consolidate control under the Secretary of State.

International broadcasting, however, has never fit the classic mold of politely conducted diplomatic negotiation. Led by the flagship Voice of America (VOA)-and abetted by so-called "surrogate radios," which aim to provide a substitute channel for the free flow of information in countries where authoritarian governments control the news-broadcasters seek to win the hearts and minds of peoples, not leaders. In pursuing their journalistic missions, they sometimes give the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters heartburn.

Taken as a whole, the overseas broadcasting enterprise is the product of two separate philosophical forces that have shaped U.S. foreign policy over the past half-century. One is the militant anti-communism of the Cold War era; the other is "American exceptionalism"-the belief that the U.S. experiment in democratic governance stands as an example for the rest of the world to emulate. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, a bitter debate arose over broadcasting's role in a foreign policy that needed revamping to reflect the changed realities of the post-Cold War era. Critics argued that stations created to pierce the Iron Curtain had outlived their usefulness. They opposed starting a surrogate radio in Asia, saying that it would only duplicate ongoing VOA efforts. And they dismissed as a waste of money radio and television initiatives to weaken Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Therefore, when the BBG opens its doors this fall as a free-standing entity with an annual budget in excess of $400 million and a staff of more than 2,500 employees, it will mark a significant victory for broadcasting boosters. BBG has brashly carved out new missions in high-profile areas-including China, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo-where conventional diplomatic attempts to resolve conflicts or curb human rights abuses appear stymied. The new Radio Free Asia (RFA) is on the air and the controversy-plagued Cuban stations, Radio Marti and TV Marti, have just opened new headquarters in Miami, where they enjoy spirited support from anti-Castro exiles.

The BBG's operational units will include the VOA, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and a television and film unit called Worldnet. It also will oversee-and dispense federal grants for-the activities of two surrogate radios, RFA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), both of which operate as privately incorporated entities.

Insulated from Interference

The chief reason for the BBG's existence, however, is to shore up the credibility of the various stations by insulating reporters from political interference. That's why Congress balked at permitting the function to be subsumed into the State Department along with the U.S. Information Agency, its current parent agency, under last year's Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act.

The 1998 legislation to unify diplomatic functions under the Secretary of State folds USIA and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency into the Foggy Bottom organizational hierarchy and requires the administrator of the still-autonomous Agency for International Development to report directly to the Secretary of State.

Lawmakers insisted that the BBG, which had been created four years earlier to improve coordination of the various broadcast operations, be granted independence. While stipulating that agency's activities must be "consistent with broad foreign policy objectives of the United States," Congress nonetheless endorsed the argument that, in order to be effective, government-sponsored broadcasting must not be seen as merely a megaphone for U.S. policy.

The authors of the 1998 foreign affairs reorganization law decreed that the radios should operate at an "arm's-length distance" from the State Department and that the BBG should serve as a "firewall" that shields broadcasters from interference that might compromise "the integrity of [their] journalism." At the same time, the conference report on the legislation noted, the BBG provides the State Department with "deniability" if foreign governments complain about specific broadcasts.

But it's not just other governments that are likely to have complaints. For example, in the confrontational campaign to reshape-and attract support for-a post-Cold War mission for RFE/RL, all targets appear to be fair game. In March, an RFE/RL report on Kosovo peace talks declared that the American leadership was "unwilling to back up its tough rhetoric with equally tough action." Noting a renewal of attacks against Kosovar citizens, the report added, "it remains to be seen whether the Serbian forces will again have nothing more to fear than tough words from American officials."

Such reports are part of a prolific public relations effort mounted in recent years by RFE/RL's Washington-based communications office under Paul A. Goble, a State Department expert on Soviet nationalities during the Reagan and Bush administrations. Goble worries that Americans are "dangerously naive" about conditions in the former Soviet Union and need to become better informed. In his view, as stated in a 1994 newspaper commentary, the United States is RFE/RL's "most important target country."

The Washington profile of the European-based radios was raised further in 1997 with the appointment of Thomas A. Dine as RFE/RL's president. Dine, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) from 1980 to 1993 and more recently director of U.S. foreign assistance efforts in the former Soviet Union, is a well-wired Washington operator with a penchant for attracting favorable publicity.

Under Dine, RFE/RL remains as unpopular as ever with authoritarian regimes that seek to stifle voices of dissent. The radios' Prague headquarters, for example, recently received bomb threats, believed to come from Iraqi-linked terrorist groups. In a recent interview, Dine expressed pleasure that his broadcasts are hitting raw nerves, "Where we are hated the most is in Belarus, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan," he says. "They attack our broadcasters by name."

Dine's stations now broadcasts in 26 foreign languages to 24 countries, and he knows his target region well. But his knowledge of Congress is perhaps even more vital. Since taking the job in August 1997, Dine has won funding to launch new services aimed at Iran, Iraq and the Albanian population in Kosovo. "These are the engines that pull the train and get us back in the headlines," he boasts.

The Cold War may be over, Dine adds, "but there is still a war. It is war about dictatorships vs. democracy." Republicans on Capitol Hill-particularly in the House-have been strongly supportive, he says. "They don't want us to go out of existence."

CIA to Peace Corps

International broadcasting is a wartime innovation. The VOA was launched in 1942, just a year after the creation of an Agency for Foreign Intelligence and Propaganda. After World War II, overseas information and cultural activities were extended by the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act, which specified that their aim henceforth would simply be "to promote better understanding of the United States."

Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are children of the Cold War. Established in the early 1950s as clandestine operations of the CIA, their objective was to help America win "a bloodless victory over Communism." Radio Free Europe went on the air on July 4, 1950, with initial broadcasts in Czech and Slovak. A year later, Radio Liberty began transmitting directly into the Soviet Union. Radio and TV Marti came to life in the 1980s, with a push from President Reagan.

At the outset of the Clinton administration in 1993, there again was a need to reassess U.S. overseas information policies in an era of nominal peace. Clinton was eager to pull the plug on the European radios because they had outlived their usefulness, but he favored creating a new surrogate radio in Asia and leaving the Cuban stations alone.

At a moment when RFE/RL's fate looked bleak, a former employee fondly penned a revealing remembrance of the cloak-and-dagger antics of the decades when the stations were "black radio" operations run by the CIA. From the outset, wrote Stanley Leinwoll, an engineer who toiled for the stations for 36 years, "the purpose was to spread discontent, in some cases to disinform, to encourage counter-revolutionary activities and, ultimately, to free the peoples who were under the yoke of Communist tyranny."

Although many of the broadcasts were jammed-and at one point the operators of the radios resorted to bombarding their targets with leaflets dropped from helium balloons-Leinwoll judged the CIA-directed scheme an unprecedented success. And there was plenty of excitement, as well. The early history of the broadcasting operations, he wrote, included "spying and counter-spying, dirty tricks, espionage and counter- espionage, poison plots, intelligence gathering, a bombing, and at least three assassinations."

In the early 1970s, the CIA's financing of the operations became publicly known and the radios' connection to the intelligence community was formally severed. In 1973, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were consolidated into a single privately incorporated entity overseen by a government-appointed board and supported by grants from Congress.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, prominent journalists were recruited to restore objectivity and credibility to the radios and provide an example for dissidents working underground to establish independent press channels within the Soviet bloc.

In 1994 legislation, Congress rebuffed moves to pull the plug on RFE/RL but resolved that it should look for private sources of funding. The law also provided start up funds for RFA. To coordinate operations and avoid overlap, all of the radios-including the VOA-were brought under the direction of the BBG, which at that point was to operate as a USIA sub-unit.

Today, the European radios appear to have emerged fully from their shadowy and sometimes subversive past. Dine entered public service in the early 1960s by joining the Peace Corps, the program launched by President Kennedy that exemplifies the self-confident spirit of American exceptionalism. Like other Peace Corps volunteers, he believes that Americans can make a real difference in the world by openly offering a helping hand and setting a good example.

After spending two years in the Philippines, Dine enrolled in graduate school to study South Asian history and soon thereafter landed a job as an aide to Chester Bowles, the U.S. ambassador to India. He returned from Delhi in 1969 at the height of the debate over the war in Vietnam and became an aide to the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, a leading critic of the U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

After a decade of staff work on Capitol Hill, Dine plunged more directly into the public eye by signing on to head the staff of AIPAC, the American Jewish community's formidable pro-Israel lobbying organization. During his sometimes-bruising 13-year stint with AIPAC, the group enlarged its membership from 8,000 to 55,000 and greatly enhanced its capability to tap grass-roots support across the country.

After leaving AIPAC in 1993, Dine spent four years at the Agency for International Development, traveling extensively in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as the agency's point man for the former Soviet Union. "The focus was on restructuring banks, creating stock markets and spurring economic development," he says. "It was interesting stuff," Dine adds, but the radios' mission of "trying to develop a free press in a part of the world that really doesn't understand a free and independent press really hits my tune."

New Missions

Although it becomes independent Oct. 1, the BBG will still need to make some structural adjustments-and perhaps seek a name change-before it evolves into a fully functional agency for international broadcasting.

A major question is whether the agency can be managed effectively under the direction of a part-time board. At the outset, the BBG will be run by Marc B. Nathanson, who joined the board in 1994 and became its chairman last November. Nathanson, a pioneer in the cable television industry, is the chief executive of Los Angeles-based Falcon Cable TV, a firm that serves more than 1 million subscribers in 800 communities in 26 states.

Nathanson's predecessor, David W. Burke, a former president of CBS News and executive vice president of ABC News, suggested in an interview that the board chairman's job should be made a full-time position in order to meet the demands of operating the agency on a day-to-day basis. "Otherwise, the chief of staff runs it," Burke says.

At present, four principals-Evelyn S. Lieberman, who wears two hats as director of the VOA and of USIA's International Broadcasting Bureau; Radio Free Asia president Richard Richter; RFE/RL president Dine; and BBG chief of staff Brian T. Conniff-report separately to the board, which tries to meet monthly.

The short-term challenge facing the board, Conniff says, is to make arrangements to absorb some 80 additional employees who currently support broadcasting functions but will be transferred from USIA's payroll to BBG's. When the dust has settled, Conniff estimates that BBG's budgetary requirements for the coming fiscal year will amount to $453 million. The agency, which will remain in its Washington quarters, where VOA studios are located, will have 2,758 employees. It will support-through grants-an additional 734 employees at RFA and RFE/RL.

Conniff, the USIA's former inspector general for international broadcasting, is no stranger to administrative shake-ups. He wrote a 1993 investigative report that exposed unauthorized housing expenses and other lavish spending practices involving RFE/RL's top managers, who were then based in Munich. His report dovetailed with a General Accounting Office finding that top RFE/RL officials were being compensated at rates up to 28 percent higher than VOA officials in comparable overseas positions.

As a result of those criticisms, RFE/RL-which until 1988 had not been subject to IG scrutiny-has seen its budget slashed by nearly two-thirds, from roughly $220 million a year during its Cold War heyday to its current level of $72 million. It has shut down its extensive Munich operation and shifted to rent-free headquarters provided by the Czech government in Prague.

The budget cuts, however, have not limited Dine's horizons or ambitions. Since taking charge, in August 1997, he has enlarged RFE/RL's mission statement to encompass an area that stretches from "Central Europe to the Pacific, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from Russia to Central Asia to the Persian Gulf." In an interview, Dine added that he also wants to transform the radios from a shortwave regional broadcasting outlet to "an international communications organization that puts out publications and is active on the Internet."

It's not just the surrogate radios that can be provocative, however. The VOA also creates static in diplomatic circles from time to time. Earlier this year, the State Department fielded complaints about a VOA broadcast of an interview with Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, who subsequently was captured by the Turkish government and faces trial as a terrorist. To the relief of VOA officials, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin defended the broadcast as demonstrating that "our media is actually free."

The VOA got into a dicier situation in December 1997, when its Mandarin language service planned to broadcast an interview with recently released Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. U.S. Ambassador to China James Sasser intervened, arguing that plans to broadcast the televised interview into China would damage U.S. efforts to win the release of other imprisoned dissidents. White House National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger weighed in on Sasser's behalf, as did former USIA director Joseph Duffey.

The confrontation put the BBG "firewall" to the test. Burke, who was then chairman, ordered the VOA to go forward with the disputed telecast. In a statement to the press, he said the inquiries about the propriety of the VOA broadcast had been "improper."

As the BBG looks to its future as an independent agency, it can rest assured that it will be tested again and again. There are still plenty of critics who think that the objectivity of government-funded journalists will always be suspect. One of them is Catharin Dalpino, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, who is writing a book about U.S. policies aimed at promoting political change in China.

Dalpino, who served in the Clinton State Department as a deputy assistant secretary deputy for human rights, said her forthcoming book will be quite critical of Radio Free Asia, which she regards as "a waste of money" that has more to do with domestic political symbolism than with helping indigenous movements in the region.

"Wherever we feel there is an ideological enemy, we're going to have a Radio Free Something," she says.

Dalpino said she has reviewed scripts of Radio Free Asia's broadcasts and views the station's reporting as unbalanced. "They lean very heavily on reports by and about dissidents in exile," she says. "It doesn't sound like reporting about what's going in a country. Oftentimes, it reads like a textbook on democracy, which is fine, but even to an American it's rather propagandistic."

The Brookings scholar also believes Radio Free Asia's approach is outdated. For starters, she says, "most of the authoritarian governments in Asia are at least 50 percent successful in jamming the broadcasts." Further, she says, "it sort of presumes a model of peasants in a bamboo hut huddled around a shortwave radio in the middle of the night." What's really happening in Asia, she said, "is that the movers and shakers in these countries are parked around their PCs getting onto the Net."

Dalpino takes a more charitable view of the VOA's Asian broadcasts "because it's our flagship national radio and every [major] country has one." She added that the VOA's editorials "are sometimes quite propagandistic, but that's what a national radio does."

The debate over American dabbling in the field of propaganda dates back at least to World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson created a Committee on Public Information to trumpet America's virtues. The committee lived the shortest of lives, functioning only from 1917 to 1919.

The establishment, in 1999, of an independent overseas broadcasting agency will not resolve the argument, but it should at the very least help strengthen the ability of government-funded journalists to report the facts as they see them.

Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor at National Journal.


By Dick Kirschten

May 1, 1999

http://www.govexec.com/magazine/1999/05/broadcast-news/6021/