U.S. International Broadcasting: An Untapped Resource For Domestic And Ethnic News Organizations

Walter RobertsFor anyone interested in the Broadcasting Board of Governors and/or U.S. government broadcasting, I recommend reading this updated report-turned-chapter written by Shawn Powers: U.S. International Broadcasting: An Untapped Resource For Domestic And Ethnic News Organizations (180kb PDF, also available as a Google Doc).

The news media landscape is rapidly changing in the wake of technological progress and the altered ways in which information is received and disseminated require adjustments in the contemporary media regulatory framework. Just as advances in science and health sectors require governments to adjust their laws accordingly, so do advances in information technology. The advent of the Internet, a global infrastructure able to disseminate information instantaneously from anyone to anywhere in the world, calls into question the value of laws written in the first half of the 20th century with the intent to limit the direction of news and information broadcast by particular organizations.

Currently, U.S. public service broadcasting, which is severely underfunded in comparison to the rest of the world, is also legally separate from U.S. international broadcasting, a technical firewall that inhibits effective collaboration between the two entities. As a result, U.S. funded international broadcasting is prohibited from disseminating its journalistic features within the U.S., a legal ban that hinders the use of its significant journalistic resources by both public and private news networks, including a large sector of ethnic media that could surely benefit from the 60 languages that American international broadcasters report in. This chapter argues for further collaboration between government funded international broadcasting and its domestic counterparts--both public and private--and for an adjustment in policies in order to accurately and intelligently adapt to the reality of today's information ecology. ...

It is important to note that international broadcasting from other governments is increasingly available throughout the United States as well. Moscow's Russia Today is available via the Internet and on cable systems throughout the East coast. China's state-run CCTV is also available throughout the US and on a few major cable providers. Ditto for Japan's NHK World, France's France 24 and Iran's Press TV. Qatar's Al Jazeera network, much more controversial than any U.S.-funded broadcaster, is available via the Dish Network for a small fee. Its sister station--Al Jazeera English, which is less sensational and more polished--is available in over 17 million American homes. In January 2009 as tensions rose between Hamas and Israel, it was the network of choice for Americans (via the Internet) for news about Gaza. If Americans can access foreign statefunded broadcasters, shouldn't they also be able to tune into their own government's programming? ...

As the quality of news, especially international news, continues to decline, and as the domestic news media--both public and private--continue to face financial challenges, there is one untapped resource that remains off of the radar of most domestic news media, despite its long history of providing timely and accurate information: U.S. international broadcasting. Regretfully, few have argued for removing the Smith-Mundt Act's restrictions in order to facilitate collaboration between the two, despite the fact that it would cost zero additional government resources and likely improve the quality of information produced by both American international broadcasting and its domestic news media. This oversight stems largely from the cultural and political stigma surrounding international broadcasting. The perception persists that it is government propaganda, an impression that, accurate or not, is no longer relevant in a world where information sovereignty is a thing of the past. Americans are bombarded with so-called "propaganda" from foreign governments all of the time. Territory-based restrictions on the flow of information no longer make sense in a world where identities, languages and politics increasingly transcend national boundaries. It is time to adjust our information policies to reflect today's new reality, and soon, as both the domestic news media and U.S. international broadcasting are falling behind their international competitors. ...

Shawn documents the use of BBG media and the availability of foreign government media inside the U.S. as well as debunks the arguments that the BBG is simply a front of U.S. propaganda. Shawn, USC-alum and now an Assistant Professor at Georgia State University, made his chapter available to MountainRunner for publication in advance to its appearance in a forthcoming book edited by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard's Will the Last Reporter Please Turn out the Lights: The Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done To Fix It (New Press, 2011). This is an update of Shawn's previous report of the same name.

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Image: Walter Roberts, former Associate Director of the United States Information Agency.