Voice of America's Death by 1,000 Cuts

The Middle East is not the only source of ill-will toward America and U.S. interests, but that region now receives the bulk of U.S. funding for foreign broadcasting while operations elsewhere, such as in Latin America, languish.

Though understandable, this approach may be counterproductive. Because public diplomacy efforts such as international broadcasting take years and decades to do their work, shifting massive resources to current hotspots may net little in the end. America needs a more balanced long-term strategy for its foreign broadcasting, and its overseers need to use greater creativity to spread American culture and ideas successfully.

False Savings

Every so often, shortsightedness causes lawmakers, bureaucrats, and politicians to act pennywise and pound foolish. Myopia was at play during the 1990s when the U.S. Congress slashed public diplomacy and foreign broadcasting budgets in the belief that the end of the Cold War meant peace for the foreseeable future.

More recently, poor vision has caused policymakers to regard the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as proof that most threats now come from the Middle East. In a rush to influence Middle Eastern public opinion in a hurry, they gutted the global Voice of America (VOA) radio and TV networks to create new regional broadcasting services.

However, research shows that changing deep-seated perceptions takes time and targeting through multiple channels such as supplying textbooks, supporting libraries, and sponsoring academic exchanges. Sadly, face-to-face public diplomacy efforts remain disorganized at the U.S. Department of State.

Leaving that question aside, Congress has restored most of the broadcasting budget that it cut during the 1990s. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which supervises all foreign radio and TV efforts including VOA and surrogate outlets like Radio Free Europe, will have $671 million at its disposal for 2007—a $231 million increase over 2001. 

The bad news is that VOA services in Portuguese, Central and Eastern European languages, Arabic, and (global) English have been reduced or eliminated. Ironically, as VOA managers were shifting their own Middle Eastern programming from shortwave radio to the more popular FM band and breaking into satellite TV distribution, the BBG decided to roll out brand new services—the Middle Eastern Radio Network, Radio Sawa, Al-Hurra TV, and Radio Farda to Iran—at greater cost.

According to BBG Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, federal civil-service regulations and self-serving union rules would have blocked VOA’s plans. No doubt there is truth in this, but Congress should have modernized VOA’s bureaucratic personnel structure long ago. The BBG should have asked the unions to help develop a more flexible hiring and contracting policies. VOA shouldn’t exist to provide every employee with a 30-year career and a pension.

Despite the cuts, VOA isn’t totally down and out. Next year, it gets a 5.3 percent funding raise to help it beam TV to Iran and add more programming in Dari and Pashto languages for Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the new Middle Eastern Broadcasting Network will get a 13-percent boost to expand Al-Hurra-TV programming from 16 to 24 hours a day and add more newscasts to Radio Sawa, all in the Middle East.

Long-Term Slippage

In other parts of the world, America’s image has declined since it liberated Iraq. In most capitals, China polls more favorably than the United States. Meanwhile, America’s ratings are slipping in its own hemisphere where it relies on peaceful neighbors for security. According to a comprehensive survey across 18 countries, favorable perceptions of the United States have dropped 8 percentage points over five years. An overwhelming majority of respondents in the capitals of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay think the U.S. is “imperialist.”

Latin America and the Caribbean are home to a growing population of 550 million people, half of whom live beneath the poverty line. In a shift toward populism, presidents in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina are now telling citizens that their misery is a result of America’s wealth. Elections this year could bring similar leaders to power in more countries.

VOA’s four hours of radio and a little over an hour of television per day hardly combat such misperceptions. VOA has no programming in the Quechua or Aymara languages to appeal to South America’s large indigenous populations that live where populism is surging. Even the BBG’s robust TV/Radio Mart??­ service to Cuba misses golden opportunities to reach large audiences. It recently opted not to cover Cuba’s participation in the March 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Besides increasing distribution of existing services to key regions, the BBG should be more creative. National Public Radio shows like “Car Talk” and “Fresh Air” will soon replace VOA news on Armed Forces Radio in Berlin. Instead of paying for expensive in-house production, VOA English service could license such programs to bring slices of American life to listeners in countries like South Korea, Mongolia, Chile, Uruguay, and Iraqi Kurdistan where learning English and listening to it on the radio are gaining popularity.

Hard as it may be to do, the Bush Administration, Congress, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors should look beyond what seem like immediate needs. Tomorrow’s security nightmares are already percolating in hotspots beyond the Middle East. Because influencing perceptions is a lengthy process, all of America’s public diplomacy machinery should be put in order and employed to build friendships where possible and defuse threats before they cost lives.