Nevada: Cutting English- language broadcasting will silence America's voice

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Apr 2 13:04:55 UTC 2007

Cutting English- language broadcasting will silence America's voice

Guy W. Farmer Special to the Appeal April 1, 2007

Anyone who cares about America's deteriorating image in the world should
be worried about what's happening to our government's leading
international broadcaster, the venerable and respected Voice of America
(VOA). If Congress adopts Bush administration budget proposals, VOA
English-language services will be slashed in order to direct more "light"
programming at the war-torn Middle East. At first glance, this proposal
might seem to be reasonable, but it is seriously flawed because
English-language programs have long been a cornerstone of VOA's worldwide
broadcasts. The Bush administration wants to cut $26 million from VOA
English so as to increase programming to Iran and the Middle East. "Nobody
can question that need," wrote ex-Voice Director John Hughes in the
Christian Science Monitor, "but it shouldn't be undertaken at the expense
of other programming that has proved effective. There is still a huge
English-language audience for VOA, not the least among leaders and elites
who speak English in countries where it isn't the predominant language."

"The funds requested to keep the radios telling America's story is a
pittance when compared with the enormous spending on military operations
in Iraq and Afghanistan," Hughes added as he joined 10 other former VOA
directors in a bipartisan appeal to Congress seeking restoration of the
budget cuts, which would keep 15 important languages on the air. The motto
of the old U.S. Information Agency, "Telling America's story to the
world," is exactly what the Voice should be doing as part of an overall
international public diplomacy strategy. That was USIA's mission before it
was unwisely folded into the State Department by the Clinton
administration in 1999. We're still paying the price for that mistake as
world public opinion turns against us in the wake of President Bush's
ill-considered decision to invade Iraq four years ago. Although a
country's image is only as good or bad as its policies, a well-coordinated
public diplomacy program is absolutely essential in times of crisis. While
public diplomacy can't "sell" unpopular policies, it can place our
policies and actions into an understandable international context. We
can't force everyone to like us, but we can help them to understand us

Veteran VOA broadcaster/historian Alan Heil sounded the alarm three years
ago when he wrote the following: "Seven months after 9/11, VOA's Arabic
Branch disappeared at a single stroke, virtually unnoticed in the American
foreign affairs community, Congress or the American media." VOA Arabic was
replaced by something called Radio Sawa, "a predominantly pop music and
entertainment service" aimed at youthful audiences. And in a gratuitous
slap at the Voice, "Sawa management prohibited its staff from using VOA's
carefully sourced central newsroom material," which didn't make any sense.
The Sawa decision was made by the quasi-independent Broadcasting Board of
Governors (BBG), which assumed responsibility for all U.S. government
international broadcasting following the State/USIA merger. The Board also
established a similar service for Iran called Radio Farda. Even though BBG
claims that Farda is the most popular international radio station in Iran,
critics say its music format has undermined its foreign policy message. I
agree and question why American taxpayers should fund multi-million-dollar
radio stations that carry minimal policy "freight."

It appears that BBG has traded carefully targeted audiences of foreign
opinion-leaders and policymakers for mass audiences of young people who
want to listen to the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake when
many commercial broadcasters are serving up the same fare 24/7. As Alan
Heil wrote in his prescient 2004 essay, "The disappearance of VOA Arabic
at a time when it was needed most ranks among the greatest tragedies in
the history of U.S. international broadcasting." And now Congress and the
White House are compounding the tragedy by targeting VOA English for
crippling budget cuts equal to approximately one-tenth of what Congress is
spending on Alaska's fabled "Bridge to Nowhere." Can you say "pork?" "U.S.
policymakers consider broadcasting (to be) a pillar of U.S. public
diplomacy, stressing its role in promoting freedom and democracy," the
prestigious Council on Foreign Relations recognized in a recent research
report. But in that same report a senior Senate Foreign Relations
Committee staffer described America's 21st century radio voice as
"muddled." "If the goal here is to make them (Middle Eastern audiences)
understand the full complexity of America and America's role in the
world," he commented, "I don't think they (Farda and Sawa) have the
sophistication needed to do that."

Me neither, and that's why I oppose the transfer of more than $25 million
from VOA English to pop music stations just as I oppose spending one more
taxpayer dollar on Radio and TV Marti, which broadcast to Cuba. No one can
see or hear Marti's programs because Cuba effectively jams their
broadcasts. Nevertheless, the Bush administration continues to throw
millions of dollars at the Miami Cubans in order to keep them in the
Republican column at election time. I hope my ex-USIA and VOA colleagues
can save the Voice's flagship English-language service but given the
current toxic political climate in Washington, it may go silent - and that
would be another great tragedy in the history of American public

 Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, supervised Voice of America
Spanish-language broadcasts to Latin America during the period 1977-79.


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