Is U.S. government funded international broadcasting living up to expectations?
Or, as Representative Dana Rohrabacher (Republican, California) has put it, "Is America's Overseas Broadcasting Undermining our National Interest and the Fight Against Tyrannical Regimes?"
That was the title of an April 6 hearing he convened in his role as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Rohrabacher told a standing-room-only hearing that he was concerned that U.S.-funded international broadcasters, which are overseen by the presidentially appointed Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), might be putting too great an emphasis on objective news reporting and not enough on the promotion of American values and interests.
"First and foremost, American strategic communications and public diplomacy should seek to promote the national interest of the United States through informing and influencing foreign audiences," Rohrabacher said. "This is often referred to as 'the war of ideas.' The role and responsibilities of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is not only journalism."
The BBG is the independent government agency that oversees all U.S. civilian international broadcasting, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio and TV Martí, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks' Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television.
All told, U.S.-funded broadcasters distribute programming in 59 languages to an estimated weekly audience of 165 million people via radio, TV, the Internet, and other new media.
In the proposed 2012 government budget, the BBG requested some $767 million in funding for its overseas media programming.
Rohrabacher's subcommittee is part of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has been led since January by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican, Florida).
As chair of that powerful committee, she has pledged to examine U.S.-funded internationally focused entities -- including the State Department and United Nations -- with an eye toward sharp reforms.
In a May 2008 article published in the "USA Today" newspaper on U.S. broadcasting into Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen was quoted as saying that Radio and TV Martí's programming should support Washington's position above all.
"It is not a 'Let's have all this diversity of thought,'" she said. "The mission is clear: It's to advance our U.S.-Cuba policy."
Critics of Ros-Lehtinen's stance argue that putting a premium on journalistic integrity and objective reporting is a better way to advance U.S. interests in the long run.
They say doing so provides an example to people under authoritarian governments of how democracy provides a space for different voices and a robust exchange of ideas.
Others argue that if U.S. broadcasting is only aimed at promoting the current White House administration's policy, it will lose credibility with its audience -- an outcome that authoritarian leaders would welcome.
S. Enders Wimbush, a Broadcasting Board governor who testified at the hearing, said U.S.-funded media entities are effectively challenging the world's authoritarian regimes. Why else, he asked, would the governments of countries like China and Iran be working so hard to block them?
"The government of Iran, as we know, does what it can to jam both the [Voice of America's Persian News Network] and [RFE/RL's Radio] Farda broadcasting and to interfere with their Internet sites. PNN broadcasts are jammed on satellite [and] Radio Farda's medium-wave signal has been jammed since shortly after its inception," Wimbush said. "Things haven't always been perfect in these places, but these are pretty good measures of effectiveness."
Rohrabacher countered by saying that Radio Farda and the VOA's PNN have sometimes "used official Iranian government sources for their reporting."
He said, "Giving air time to the Iranian government is a misguided effort to have a journalistic balance. The American tax payers should not be furthering the Mullah's repressive views."
Wimbush was also asked about a recent reorganization of U.S. broadcasts into China; Voice of America's shortwave radio broadcasts to the country is set to be scrapped this year as the company increases its Internet-based media efforts to China.
Rohrabacher recently described the cutback as an example of the United States "cowering before China's gangster regime." At the April 6 hearing, he warned that China's English-language propaganda is rapidly expanding.
In response, Wimbush said that while the number of shortwave radio listeners in China is declining, the number of Internet users in China is on the rise. He added that shortwave broadcasts will not be abandoned altogether, but rather reassigned to another U.S. broadcaster, Radio Free Asia.
Philo Dibble, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing Iran policy, noted that just as U.S.-funded media outlets devote more resources to the Internet, the State Department is also realigning its focus.
"It's also important that, as the chairman (Rohrabacher) pointed out, to recognize that people who use the Internet can be tracked. Therefore, they need not just the ability to access certain websites, but they need the ability to protect themselves as they do that, and they need the ability to hide, essentially, whatever they have downloaded, from the authorities who may be seeking it," Dibble said. "It's that kind of -- not just technology -- but training in security practices and other similar aspects of the portfolio that the State Department is working on."
Also testifying at the hearing was Robert Reilly, a former director of Voice of America. He said that the goal of U.S. broadcasting was once to provide listeners with hope, something that cannot be achieved by reporting the news.
"Reliable news was always a part of U.S. broadcasting, but the mission was never reduced to just that," Reilly said. "When the Dalai Lama called the VOA Tibetan Service 'the bread of the Tibetan people,' and when [Burmese democracy activist] Aung San Suu Kyi called the VOA Burmese service 'the hope of the Burmese people,' do you think they were referring to the news? Hope is a theological virtue -- it is not engendered by the news."