"The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics -- a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam." That's what President George W. Bush told the world in his now-famous address to Congress on September 20. Everyone in Washington has fallen into lockstep on the issue: Muslims in Pakistan are with us. The same goes for Saudi Arabia. The U.S., it seems, has already won the battle for the hearts and minds of peace-loving people everywhere. Or maybe not.
The fact that so many Muslim states have joined the coalition against terrorism should be a victory for the Voice of America, the nation's primary government-sponsored information machine. It delivers supposedly objective news through radio, Internet, and other broadcast media to information-starved people around the world. Rather than heaping praise on VOA, however, members of the House Committee on International Relations spent Wednesday morning questioning the organization's efforts to inform the teeming millions on the vaunted "Arab street." In fact, more than a few people think U.S. propaganda efforts have been an abject failure.
"Our efforts at self-defense, which should be supported by every decent person on this planet, instead spark riots that threaten governments that dare cooperate with us," Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) lamented. "How has this state of affairs come about? How is it that the nation that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?" From the other side of the aisle, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) agreed: "The mass riots we see in the streets of Indonesia, Pakistan, and other nations is [sic] proof positive that we are losing this aspect of the war."
A bipartisan group of congressmen blame that alleged defeat at least in part on VOA, which drew fire last month for running ran part of an interview with the head of the Taliban. Critics ask why U.S. taxpayers should fund a radio broadcast that gives equal time to the bad guys. "Being truthful doesn't mean you always have to give the other side's opinion," carped California Republican Dana Rohrabacher. He charged that VOA had a pronounced anti-American bias in general: "It's a disgrace."
On the receiving end of this assault sat Charlotte Beers, whom the Senate confirmed as the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the U.S. State Department just eight days earlier. In that position, she controls VOA and a host of other "public diplomacy" organizations. She gamely denied the bias charge. Rohrabacher responded to the newcomer with a zinger: "Whoever told you that, you should start questioning their opinion."
Now there's a movement to bypass VOA in the region. Committee member Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has proposed the Radio Free Afghanistan Act, which would spend $14 million over the next two years for a system that would broadcast throughout Afghanistan. According to a Royce press release issued on Oct. 2, "Radio Free Afghanistan is urgently needed to inform Afghans what their ruling Taliban government was doing, and to tell the truth about world events, including the September 11 terrorist attacks."
Isn't that supposed to be VOA's job? In its 1960 charter (signed into law in 1976), VOA was envisioned as a "consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective and comprehensive." In this regard, its model is the government-sponsored British Broadcasting Corporation, a widely respected news organization. But not so fast: Section two of the charter says, "VOA will represent America, ... and will therefore represent a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thoughts and actions." In this guise, the one that Royce and Rohrabacher seem to prefer, VOA is more like an honest propaganda ministry. Unfortunately, the two incarnations of VOA have a hard time coexisting. (VOA does present the State Department's views, but it labels them as such.) News organizations broadcast enemy diatribes; propaganda ministries do not.
VOA has a long history of political squabbles; you may recall the Reagan-era blow-up over calling the anti-Sandinista contras "freedom fighters." But as technology develops, VOA's real battle is to justify its news role at all. It continues to draw listeners with farm-advice programs and similar narrowcasts, and to play a role in unwired parts of the world. But we're moving out of the short-wave era; it's now an age of global TV and the Internet, and VOA is competing with everyone from CNN to Al Jezeera, and innumerable specialized sites, even as Congress continues to debate its purpose.
As for Radio Free Afghanistan, its day may have already come and gone. The function of similar services, such as Radio Liberty (which broadcast to the old USSR), Radio Free Europe (which served the Eastern Bloc), and Radio Marti (which beams to Cuba) has been that of a surrogate "home" service, offering domestic information not available in closed systems. But will a post-Taliban Afghanistan be a closed system? If so, the proposed radio service will have to account for the U.S. role in creating it.