US battles for influence over the airwaves

The battle for influence over the international airwaves has opened a new front—in Washington.

Better to win the war of ideas than have to win a war,” testified Robert Reilly, former director of Voice of America.

Current and former leaders in US international broadcasting testified before the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 6, 2011 about the American foreign broadcasting’s ability to compete with other international news outlets.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) expressed concern about the rise of English-language Chinese media, including Xinhua and CCTV.

Do you recognize this paper? It's published by the Communist Party of China.It's distributed widely, I think it comes to every one of our governmental offices. Do we have a similar publication that goes to the people who are in the Chinese government?” Rohrabacher asked the Broadcasting Board of Governors and State Department officials.

American international broadcasters target China, Iran, the Middle East and other nations through the Voice of America, Al Hurrah and others, but audiences are shrinking.

The BBG [Broadcasting Board of Governors] and others in 2010 showed that only 0.1% of Chinese listened to the Voice of America in Mandarin,” testified S. Enders Wimbush, Chair of the Broadcasting Board of Governors Strategy and Budget Committee.

Just a decade ago, American and British outlets like CNN International and the BBC dominated the international broadcasting market. But analysts like Georgetown University lecturer Chris Chambers said that today’s multi-polar world is reflected in its multi-polar broadcasters—like France, China, Venezuela, Iran, Qatar and Russia.

This new media landscape has top officials in Washington worried that US broadcasters are losing influence.

We are in an information war and we are losing that war. Al Jazeera is winning, the Chinese have opened a global multi-language television network, the Russians have opened up an English-language network. I’ve seen it in a few countries, and it is quite instructive,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 2, 2011.

Chambers said that American foreign broadcasters’ diminishing audiences are the result of the US’s desire to influence rather than inform.

With the amount of money we're talking about, [Hillary Clinton] could literally set up a Voice of America on steroids,” he said. “That's not what's going to happen. They're going to try to go into these countries and probably try to buy news, a true propaganda arm rather than a news gathering and reporting outlet, which is what RT, the Chinese network and Al Jazeera are going to be. Yes, they're going to have their messages but they’re real news networks. They're pretty much where CBS, ABC and NBC were 30 years ago before things fell apart and got re-corporatized.”

But while many laud the need for freedom of information abroad, others seek to have it silenced at home.

A group called America’s Survival Inc. organized a press conference entitled “Al Jazeera, Global Jihad and the Suicide of the West” at the National Press Club April 1, 2011. Speakers included an event with Cliff Kincaid, Lee Kaplan and Pamela Geller.

This is a very dangerous time, you must get activated,” Geller, the executive director of the Stop Islamization of America organization, told about 30 audience members. “Your children will not grow up in any world you will recognize. You will not like what comes after America.”

Geller and Kincaid denounced RT and Al Jazeera as “Jihad TV.”

American taxpayers are helping put Jihad TV on the air,” Kincaid said.

It’s a propaganda campaign, and right now we are at war. Would you have Goebbels broadcasting during World War II, would you have Tokyo Rose?” Geller told RT. “This is a war in the information battle space, and I think your side is doing an incredibly brilliant job. I tip my hat to you. I think we are unprepared.”

Kincaid and Geller have asked Republican Congressman Peter King (R-NY) to include RT and Al Jazeera in his highly controversial hearings on the radicalization of Muslims in America.

We think Congressman King is off to a good start with his hearings about internal security threats in the form of radical Islam. We do think it ought to be expanded to look into foreign propaganda channels like Russia Today on American soil. We’d all also like to look at Al Jazeera,” Kincaid told RT.

Kincaid and Geller’s campaign came even as Americans increasingly turn to foreign broadcasters like France 24, Al Jazeera, RT and TeleSUR for fresher views as US corporate media focus on entertainment news and punditry.

We've opened up these huge gaps because we're more interested in reality TV and conflict and people bashing the president than having people on the ground finding out what the problems are. And when you do that you can produce a product that people here and around the world are going to respect,” said Chambers.