The Debate

Asking the Right Questions About U.S. International Broadcasting

Before reforming U.S. international broadcasting, Congress must decide what its objectives are first.

Asking the Right Questions About U.S. International Broadcasting
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Congress is currently examining the government’s role in international news broadcasting, but are they asking the right questions?

The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently passed a bill to reform the U.S. Government’s international broadcasting apparatus. There have been issues with America’s international broadcasting for years, and the legislation makes long needed management adjustments that will streamline processes and generally enhance the official American voice around the world. But while there are many good things in the bill, it brings to mind the open question as to why America has international broadcasters in the first place.

On one hand, public diplomacy, which includes international broadcasting, is intended to build relationships and advertise our nation’s purpose, ideals, culture, and exceptionalism. On the other hand, public diplomacy also supports, explains, and defends foreign policy in an effort to achieve specific goals.

These are both perfectly rational objectives for public diplomacy and for the nation. But do they conflict? Does the U.S. want its state broadcasters to serve as independent journalists providing objective news coverage for populations otherwise subjected to nothing but propaganda and conspiracy theories? Or does it expect its state-funded broadcasters to strictly advocate U.S policy? Are these choices mutually exclusive?

Can Voice of America be assigned, for instance, to produce – as worded in the pending legislation – “accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and related programming that is consistent with and promotes the broad foreign policies of the United States?” Or is that asking the impossible – assigning an entity to perform two potentially opposing tasks? To examine the potential complications, let us consider VOA’s assignment in depth.

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First, does “of the United States” actually mean “of the current administration?” If so, does our international broadcasting necessarily promote one party’s, branch’s, or administration’s policy over another?

Second, are “the broad foreign policies of the U.S.” implied to be the ideals and principles outlined in America’s founding documents? If so, obligating our international broadcasters to report when U.S. policies are inconsistent with those values serves not only to put those ideals into practice, it encourages consistency of word and action and thus enhances national credibility.

Or, are “broad policies” inclusive of policies relevant to specific issues at hand, such as military action, sanctions, treaties, or immigration policy?

But perhaps the most difficult question to answer is why America needs international broadcasting in the first place. Does it want Voice of America to be the “spokesperson” of the United States? If so, then shouldn’t VOA be strictly supervised by the Executive? Then again, is a government spokesperson credible to a skeptical audience? And doesn’t the U.S. Government have enough spokespeople, anyway?

Congress needs to be mindful of what it is indicating it wants through this legislation. Does it want accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and programming for information-starved foreign audiences? Does this programming also have to be consistent with U.S. foreign policy? What happens when that is impossible?

Does this legislation tacitly acknowledge that supporting some U.S. policies requires tweaking “objective” coverage – and our values – to promote those policies? If U.S. foreign policy is always consistent with our founding ideals and principles, coverage should not have to be mandated to promote this. It would seem that Congress, through this legislation, recognizes that it is not.

Before Congress passes any bills altering the current system, it should seriously consider the answers to all these above questions, objectively, and keep in mind the varying reasons a foreign audience would want to tune-in to American international broadcasting in the first place. International broadcasting may be a tool intended to serve the foreign policy goals of the United States, but it must also serve the needs of the foreign audience to be useful and effective.

Matthew Wallin is a fellow specializing in public diplomacy at the American Security Project. Jed Willard is the Director of the FDR Center for Global Engagement at Harvard College.