The June 26, 2013 U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the foreign language broadcast services funded by the United States government offered an imperfect example of Washington political elites successfully sidestepping the obvious. What most of the participants wanted to talk about was reorganizing entities like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, possibly by turning them over the State Department; adding language broadcasts like Ibo and Sindhi; eliminating existing language broadcasts in Greek; eliminating the 23 duplications of language services such as Russian, Spanish and Burmese; and the failure of the Persian News Network to cover the most recent presidential election in Iran. Inevitably, anti-Castro, Cuban-American Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen offered comments in defense of Radio Marti.
Only one of the participants dared to probe the problem that producing propaganda undermines the journalistic credibility of a news source. Democratic New York Rep. Elliott Engel asked two important questions: “Is there any common ground on the overarching mission of U.S. international broadcasting? Is it possible for broadcasters to provide authoritative, accurate and objective news while at the same time advancing U.S. interests?”
None of the three testifying witnesses or committee members offered a convincing formula for transcending that contradiction. Former Broadcasting Board of Governors member Enders Wimbush responded gamely that the broadcasting by the various entities should be “journalism with an edge.” Right. Well, perhaps euphemisms become indistinguishable from resolutions when you have been lost in the gray zone between journalism and propaganda long enough.
What went completely unchallenged during the hearing was the assumption that the U.S. government must continue to fund foreign language broadcasts about its foreign policy views with its own propaganda organization. Much of what was said in defense of the curiously un-challenged proposition that such an organization was needed involved praise for the role that Radio Free Europe had performed in weakening Soviet communism. Such views will be of great importance should the Soviet Union return from the grave.
Had they wanted to challenge that assumption they might have asked a question something like this: Given the uncritical reporting of announcements made by the White House and State Department by American news sources, why not simply subsidize broadcasts of relevant portions of their news covered translated into the desired foreign languages? Compare the news reports about the Syrian Civil War from Voice of America with those from National Public Radio or Fox News, and you won’t see any significant differences. Does it really matter whether the entity beating the war drum for U.S. covert and military intervention in that tragedy is a government owned entity, a non-profit entity with commercial endorsements, or a commercial entity? There is absolutely no shortage of journalism with an edge when it comes to reporting the Middle East.
Naturally, there would be competition between the various American news sources for the contracts to broadcast their news in translation. Political fights to favor some over others would be inevitable. Imagine the sort of compromise wherein specific target language populations are distributed among the different American news sources in the same way that British colonial authorities in Sub-Saharan Africa distributed exclusive rights to missionize specific ethnic groups among the Christian denominations. CNN would get Chinese, Fox Farsi, Bloomberg Burmese, etc.
Absurd you say? Well yes… alliteration in sequence is silly and subjecting 110 million Farsi speakers to Fox News would be cruel. However the current arrangement is also absurd. Continuing to operate government owned news/propaganda entities makes no sense in a world where news sources are proliferating across old and new media. Captive foreign audiences hungry for accurate and objective reporting in news broadcasts provided by the U.S. government may be appealing but it is unrealistic.
Organizations sometimes outlive their usefulness. When that happens the proper thing to do is not to find a more efficient way to do what is useless, but to dismantle them.