In the age of media saturation and extravagant federal budget deficits, the question does comes up: Why does the United States need to spend some $750 million on international broadcasting every year? As with every taxpayer dollar spent, this question deserves an answer, and rarely has a more eloquent one been provided than the statement by expert communicator P.J. O’Rourke on the World Affairs Journal’s Editor’s blog.
P. J. O’Rourke was a recent guest of Radio Free Europe in Prague, and recounted in the blog some of his thoughts on RFE/RL’s mission to foster what he calls the Attitude of Liberty—the feeling of having “some knowledge, some understanding, and therefore some control, if only control over one’s own ideas.” In short, to provide free speech and information to peoples to whom it is denied.
Today, RFE/RL broadcasts to 28 countries, none of whom give their citizens the freedom we take for granted every day. RFE/RL is not simply about “promoting democracy,” a mission that is at once too simply stated and too complex. It is about giving thinking human beings the wherewithal to understand and make judgments about the world around them—a precondition for democracy.
In a free society all people must be communicated to, and we must be able to get communication from them in return. People must be able to talk back. People must be able to communicate with the political structure. People must be able to communicate certain information to the leaders of the political structure. Information such as, ‘You’re fired!’
And this is one of the best things that RFE/RL does. It doesn’t just make itself heard. With its call-in shows, its interactive social media, and its broad network of local correspondents and stringers, it allows its listeners and online visitors to have their say as well. Even the Taliban has been known to call talk shows at the Kabul bureau and argue with the moderator and guests.
The final example here is one of the reasons controversy occasionally envelops U.S. international broadcasting, causing Congress to get up in arms about U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent on enemy propaganda, provoking demands for accountability.
Another important issue relating to U.S. international broadcasting is the allocation of funding between Voice of America and the growing number of U.S. surrogate broadcasters in the RFE/RL mold, all of whom are managed under the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Audience share is one of the most discussed measurements—and for good reason. That’s what domestic commercial broadcasters use, so why not the government’s international broadcasters? For instance, should we cut broadcasting to countries where the government jams FRE/RL broadcasts, causing audience share to drop, such as Iran?
Looking at audience research is one of the first items on the to-do list of the new Broadcasting Board of Governors under Chairman Walter Isaacson, which met for the first time on July 30. This research determines budgets and programming decisions. Yet, reliable numbers are hard to come by in closed societies.
And in some ways, they do not affect the core mission. The congressionally mandated charters of RFE/RL have very specifically defined parameters, which have little to do with audience share and everything to do with O’Rourke’s argument.
In the case of RFE/RL the annotated U.S. Code states that:
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty should continue to broadcast to the peoples of Central Europe, Eurasia and the Persian Gulf until such as time as (1) a particular nation has clearly demonstrated the successful establishment and consolidation of democratic rule, and (2) its domestic media which provide balances, accurate, and comprehensive news and information, is firmly established and widely accessible to the national audience, thus making redundant broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. At such a time as a particular nation meets both of these conditions, RFE/RL should phase out broadcasting to that nation.
Does Iran fit that profile? Does Ukraine? Or Russia?
In other words, the RFE/RL mission is exactly about what O’Rourke calls “the Attitude of Liberty.” The mission continues as long as the birthright of freedom is denied.