No in-depth reports from the Voice of America or high-resolution photos from the State Department, but one can now find sexy images on the VOA Russian website. The Clinton-Lavrov meeting and the First Lady’s visit to the State Department revealed a sorry state of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting.
It took hours after Secretary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Lavrov had finished their joint press conference in Geneva before the Voice of America (VOA) Russian and English websites posted brief reports about the meeting. These reports were not much longer than a summary of a wire service story that one may find in a local American newspaper. A foreign audience expecting detailed coverage and in-depth analysis with multiple viewpoints from Washington would be greatly disappointed.
The Voice of America is the primary U.S. international broadcaster charged with providing news and information about the United States in English and foreign languages, but its funding and programs to many parts of the world, including Russia, have been slashed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). If foreign audiences turned to the State Department or the White House websites for timely information and analysis about the state of Russian-American relations and the Obama Administration’s support for human rights abroad, they would have been equally disappointed.
VOA’s English Service relied on a stringer in Switzerland to file her report on the Clinton-Lavrov meeting. VOA Russian Service apparently did not have money send a reporter to Geneva. If the Russians wanted a different perspective — a view from Washington — there was no instant analysis from American experts on the VOA website after the Geneva meeting about the changing relationship between Washington and Moscow under President Obama. One also did not find any transcripts of post-meeting interviews with U.S. and Russian officials or independent experts, because none were conducted.
That Voice of America still exists and was able to report on the meeting at all is in itself a miracle. In its spearheading of costly and counterproductive propaganda initiatives for the Middle East and privatization of U.S. international broadcasting assets, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which manages the Voice of America, terminated all VOA Arabic programs and slashed many other VOA broadcasts. It funded instead private entities, such as Radio Sawa and Alhurra Arabic television. Government and media investigations revealed that money moved from VOA to fund these initiatives provided more opportunities for employees of these private entities and for private contractors to engage in questionable journalism and financial fraud.
In supporting Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television, Democrats favoring private contractors joined forces with neoconservative Republican BBG members (the Board is by law bipartisan) to deprive more and more Voice of America services of their ability to accurately present American news and values to the world. Last summer, the BBG eliminated VOA radio programs to Russia, just 12 days before the Russian invasion of Georgia.
Drained of resources, the Voice of America is no longer able to practice journalism that would interest and satisfy a seriously-minded audience in countries like Russia. VOA Russian Service journalists were instructed instead to develop their now miniscule Internet audience by learning from market research and marketing techniques outlined in documents provided to FreeMediaOnline.org by VOA officials who want to remain anonymous.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the BBG-commissioned market research in Russia — which showed that Russian focus groups like Mr. Putin, don’t like to hear stories about human rights violations, and are tired of political media reporting — is beginning to have an impact at VOA. A recent VOA Russian Service report, “What American women think about Sexx,” about an exhibit of American women-artists in Moscow, was not only full of titillating images but also far longer and far more detailed than the news report filed after the Clinton-Lavrov meeting.
Such misuse of market research is a prime example of the many failures of U.S. international broadcasting. But equally serious are public diplomacy mishaps at the State Department, which were also revealed during the Clinton-Lavrov meeting and at a later ceremony in Washington to honor women who fought for human rights.
Wanting to dramatize the Obama Administration’s desire to “push the reset button” on U.S.-Russian relations, at the Geneva meeting Secretary Clinton presented Foreign Minister Lavrov with a red plastic button with a Russian word “ПЕРЕГРУЗКА” printed on top. The wording turned out, however, to be an embarrassing mistake. Lavrov pointed out that the word used means “overload” or “overcharge,” not “reset.” The correct was ПЕРЕЗАГРУЗКА.
FreeMediaOnline.org has learned that Secretary Clinton hit on the “reset button” idea in Geneva with her team. According to one source, the translator hadn’t gotten there yet, and someone who said he spoke Russian well suggested what word to use.
If the State Department still had experienced and competent public diplomacy officers, they would have made sure that Secretary Clinton’s idea, which was not bad from a PR perspective, would not be mishandled. At the very least, they would have called the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the official State Department translators section, or any Russian journalist — but apparently no one did. One former VOA Russian Service broadcaster observed that she has never seen Lavrov, who usually looks very dour, smile so much as he made fun of the mistake in the presence of Mrs. Clinton and her team.
While VOA’s coverage of the Clinton-Lavrov’s meeting was minimal at best, for several days after the meeting the State Department website provided no information in text form on what was discussed and no usable photos. In yet another embarrassing mistake, the State Department posted a photo, which stayed on the site over the weekend, claiming to show Secretary Clinton greeting Foreign Minister Lavrov, when in fact the person with her on the photo was somebody else.
The State Department did, however, post a long video of the Clinton-Lavrov press conference rather promptly. The Bush Administration public diplomacy team at State greatly favored the use of video, probably because it requires little additional effort to post on the website. But a long video of the press conference without a translated transcript is of little use to foreign journalists who work under tight deadlines, may have limited knowledge of English, and may not have high-speed Internet access. They simply won’t bother to spend time reviewing the video, taking notes, and reporting.
In the past, the Voice of America might have carried such a bilateral press conference live in its Russian-language radio program and provide instant commentary on the event. Even without live shortwave radio delivery, which was eliminated by the BBG, VOA Russian Service could have put an audio transmission from the press conference on the Internet and post a written transcript within minutes. But BBG officials made sure that VOA no longer has resources to send a Russian Service reporter abroad or to provide such coverage.
One of the functions of the now defunct United States Information Agency, which was responsible for public diplomacy, was to make sure that foreign media promptly received accurate U.S. government information about important meetings with foreign leaders, as well as copyright-free photographs, audio recordings and videos, which foreign journalists could then use at no cost and without any restrictions. After USIA was disbanded, no one at the State Department seems to want this responsibility or has a budget to carry out such functions, while the Broadcasting Board of Governors deprived VOA of resources to do serious journalistic work for countries like Russia. The State Department, which took over USIA’s public diplomacy functions, has not made arrangements for employees to work on weekends or at night to perform such trivial functions as taking photos, posting transcripts of press conferences, and uploading accurately identified, royalty-free images.
The vast majority of images on the State Department and Voice of America websites come from the Associated Press and cannot be reused by foreign media outlets unless they are also AP customers. They are useless to citizen journalists working for such websites as GovoritAmerika.us, which was launched by FreeMediaOnline.org— a San Francisco-based media freedom nonprofit — to compensate for program cuts and restrictions imposed by the BBG on the Voice of America. The website provides Russian-language information from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources and relies on copyright-free photos from U.S. government and other websites.
The meeting in Geneva took place Friday, March 6. On Tuesday, March 10, a single official photo showing Secretary Clinton presenting Foreign Minister Lavrov the red button with the embarrassing inscription — this time Mr. Lavrov properly identified — finally appeared on the State Department site. It also took four days for the transcript of the press conference to be posted by the State Department.
A similar problem reappeared a few days later during an important human rights event sponsored by the U.S. government. First Lady Michelle Obama went to the State Department to honor foreign women who risked their safety to defend human rights in their native countries, including Russia and Uzbekistan. Despite the unprecedented nature of the First Lady’s participation in such an event, neither the State Department nor the White House website posted any good quality, high-resolution photos of Secretary Clinton and Michelle Obama presenting the 2009 Women of Courage Awards to these human rights activists. Yet another opportunity for effective public diplomacy was wasted by U.S. government officials. At least in this case, the Voice of America Russian Service deserves credit for finding enough resources to post a more detailed story.
The most recent mishaps show that the U.S. government no longer has the knowledge of how to manage U.S.-funded international broadcast journalism and public diplomacy. The Bush Administration’s Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, James K. Glassman, was a great believer in using private Internet contractors to conduct public diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. government with the help of video and the latest interactive technology. He and other Bush appointees failed to understand, however, that technology cannot be a substitute for an in-depth understanding of foreign cultures and substantive experience in public diplomacy, journalism, and human rights issues.
As a former chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Glassman was responsible for terminating VOA Russian radio and TV programs and refused to resume them even after the Russian attack on Georgia. He assured journalists in VOA’s Russian Service that his preferred Internet-only strategy would work and was not concerned that no other major international broadcaster wanted to give up completely Russian-language radio and TV on-air programs.
All international broadcasters except VOA managed to maintain their audience reach in Russia in 2008 despite Mr. Putin’s continued efforts to restrict foreign and independent domestic media reporting. The British broadcaster BBC has reduced funding for its radio programs to Russia — for which it has come under criticism, and there are calls for an investigation — but it has not completely eliminated live Russian-language radio broadcasting. While relying more on the Internet and developing its Web-based reporting, BBC Russian Service has recently introduced a weekend news program in its newly refreshed radio schedule. VOA is barely able to fund a skeleton Web team to work on weekends and it no longer has funding for anything resembling regularly scheduled live radio and TV programming to Russia.
With the elimination of live Voice of America’s Russian-language radio and TV programs, VOA’s annual audience reach in Russia registered a dramatic 98% decline, from 10.3% to 0.2% (estimated based on 2008 data). Despite offering more sex and less politics, it was most likely the largest single audience decline in international broadcasting history for any major media outlet that has not completely left the market but merely changed its program content and program delivery strategy.
It seems that the legacy established by the officials eager to promote primitive propaganda and privatization of government functions still hangs over the State Department and the Voice of America. These government bureaucrats know very little about journalism, public diplomacy, and effective use of the Internet. Instead of taking advantage of the latest innovations in interactive Internet technology to promote American views and ideas abroad, they tarnished America’s image by leaving vital government PR functions in the hands of greedy and incompetent private contractors.
Several members of Congress, including Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), are trying to revive support and funding for professionally conducted U.S. public diplomacy. Senator Lugar introduced S. Res. 49 on February 13, 2009, expressing the sense of the Senate regarding the importance of public diplomacy. He also wrote an oped for ForeignPolicy.com on this topic. Another U.S. Senator, Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), has called for abolishing the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He introduced legislation that would establish the National Center for Strategic Communications, an agency similar to the now defunct U.S. Information Agency. Senator Patrick Leahy (D -Vermont) has tried to stop the BBG from eliminating U.S. broadcasts in foreign languages but his efforts have been ignored by the Board members and their executive staff.
Whether these and other calls for reforming U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting will be answered and result in meaningful legislative changes will depend on the cooperation from the Obama White House. Perhaps the mishandling of the meeting in Geneva and the inability to take a full PR advantage of Michelle Obama’s presence at an important human rights event at the State Department will encourage the Administration to look seriously into this problem. If nothing is done to reform public diplomacy and international broadcasting, the job of explaining America to the world will remain in the hands of incompetent government officials and private contractors working without any guidance, coordination or supervision.
About Ted Lipien
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was also a regional BBG media marketing manager responsible for placement of U.S. government-funded radio and TV programs on stations in Russia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in Eurasia. In the 1980’s he was in charge of VOA radio broadcasts to Poland during the communist regime’s crackdown on the Solidarity labor union and oversaw the development of VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia.
In 2006, Ted Lipien founded FreeMediaOnline.org, a San Francisco-based nonprofit which supports media freedom worldwide. He is also author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church” (O-Books – June 2008). In his book he describes the efforts of the KGB and other communist intelligence services to place spies in the Vatican and to influence reporting by Western journalists.
In December 2008, FreeMediaOnline.org has launched a Russian-language web site — GovoritAmerika.us ГоворитАмерика.us — which includes summaries of some of the more serious news and commentaries from multiple U.S. government and nongovernment sources. According to Ted Lipien, the web site is designed to compensate for the loss of information from the United States for Russian-speaking audiences due to program and budget cuts implemented by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
This report was first published by FreeMediaOnline.org & Free Media Online Blog Commentary by Ted Lipien, March 16, 2009, San Francisco.