Is anybody out there watching? Charlie Wick's latest flop.
We should have been heroes. U.S. soldiers had just splashed ashore the sunny isle of Grenada and routed the cabal of local communists and visiting Cuban construction workers. But when Charles Wick, director of the United States Information Agency, visited Western Europe during the 1983 invasion, he encountered almost unanimous condemnation from America's allies and the European press. According to one of his USIA subordinates, "Wick came back and said, "God, they're killing us over there! Maggie Thatcher is saying the U.S. should never have gone into Grenada. What can be done?''
Following instincts finely honed during decades as a Hollywood agent and producer, Wick moved quickly. If the critics are taking you to the cleaners, why not make an end run and get your message to the audience directly? There was no time, however, for a full-fledged production number--cobalt blue waves lapping up against pearl white sands, Frank Sinatra in sunglasses and a flower print shirt, a "Let Grenada be Grenada' theme song. So Wick settled for rounding up Jeane Kirkpatrick, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, two Caribbean prime ministers, and a pair of State Department officials for an unprecedented intercontinental video press conference, simultaneously beamed to five European capitals.
In the eyes of White House and USIA officials, Wick's gambit worked; the European reaction quickly faded. Wick sensed that he was onto something. Soon, administration officials were appearing twice a month on a new intercontinental interview service. But why stop there? By the fall of 1984, Wick was seeking advice from top figures in the field of international telecommunications, including Rupert Murdoch, the Australian press magnate. An American diplomat familiar with the situation says Murdoch played a critical role in familiarizing Wick with the possibilities of new satellite technology. It was after meeting Murdoch, says the diplomat, that "Wick saw the potential for thinking big.'
The result was WorldNet, a $15 million-a-year, satellite-aided television network designed to bolster international support for American policy. In launching the project this spring, Wick warned that the Soviet Union was out-spending the United States in international propaganda by a margin of three to one, and was already sending TV broadcasts to Western Europe. WorldNet would help close the Broadcast Gap and counter Soviet disinformation aimed at our allies. "In the confrontation between our free world society and our totalitarian adversaries,' said Wick, "WorldNet is a highly cost-efficient alternative to military hardware.'
As initially conceived, WorldNet would beam an hour and a half's worth of news and feature reports to European networks--all at no charge to the customers. (Plans also were set in motion to supplement the flagship English language production with shows in Spanish, French, and Portugese.) And from USIA's Washington headquarters came the marching order to the troops in the field: employees in Western Europe's embassies would serve as WorldNet field agents, convincing Europe's television networks to begin pulling the programming directly from the satellite.
There's just one small problem with WorldNet: almost no one is watching it. Since the first broadcast in April, only a handful of small cable stations in northern Europe has agreed to run WorldNet. No major European network, commercial or state-supported, has accepted the USIA's invitation to run any daily WorldNet programming. Some Europeans haven't exactly minced words about it, either. "Not a second of that will appear on my show if I have any say,' says Hans Friederichs, who will soon be the news anchorman for West Germany's most-watched television station. "You have to see it this way: no self-respecting American network would take something like that from another government.' Friederichs also echoes a widespread sense of surprise--if not shock--among European journalists that Washington would imitate Moscow's ham-handed techniques in trying to shape the truth for its allies.
I first caught up with WorldNet this summer during visit to the American embassy in Paris. Embassy personnel had set up 30 or so chairs in a sober, wood-paneled room illuminated by a single chandelier. At precisely two o'clock, a bank of television monitors lit up with animated color pictures: a violin, a microscope, a baseball mitt, a cowboy hat, the U.S. Capitol. "Star Trek'-like theme music played in the background. An upbeat male voice announced, "Live from Washington, D.C., this is "America Today.''
The camera then cut to a man and woman anchor team, framed by oblong relief maps of the world. A half-hour news segment opened the show. It consisted of briskly paced news stories, many of which had played on the American network news the evening before, though in different form: the Supreme Court's decision against prayer in the schools, reports of Soviet air attacks in Afghanistan, U.S.-Japanese trade talks, and a glowing portrait of the new Grenadan prime minister's meeting with George Shultz.
"America Today' is remarkable only in its quick American pacing and effervescent tone; the banter between the two co-anchors is reminiscent of a morning talk show. In addition to "America Today,' an average week of WorldNet also includes a rotating series of mini-documentaries such as "Journey through the Solar System,' which chronicles American space exploration. "American Images' presents the lives of average Americans in different occupations (a devotee of CBS News would expect Charles Kuralt to pop up at any moment). There is even a daily five-minute English language lesson. ("Many Americans eat dinner at a buffet: b-u-f-f-e-t.') The "interactive' interviews with American officials that launched the whole venture run twice a week. U.S. diplomats in each embassy are expected to arrange for Euopean journalists to attend these latter sessions.
During several visits to the U.S. embassy in Paris, my sole company in the audience consisted of two bored-looking foreign service officers. That translated into not a single French viewer, since the only place in France receiving the program was the embassy itself. The same scene was repeated during several other visits to American missions in Geneva and Bonn.
WorldNet is only one example of Wick's impact on the USIA. A friend since their Hollywood days, President Reagan has consistently supported Wick's plans for expanding USIA; the result has been a remarkable 75 percent budget increase since 1981, rivaling the percentage increase for the Pentagon. As Wick boasted earlier this year in an interview with Parade magazine, "I don't know anything about foreign affairs, and I don't know anything about journalism, but I do know how to make things happen.'
He certainly seems to have demonstrated all three attributes in launching WorldNet. With strong White House backing, Wick's budget request for fiscal year 1986, including $15 million for WorldNet, sailed through the Office of Management and Budget. Wick didn't get everything he wanted from Congress; the International Operations subcommittee in the House refused to approve a domestic version of WorldNet. But if anyone in Congress had any serious qualms about the goals or feasibility of WorldNet itself, they didn't voice them then.
The first sign of trouble came when the European Broadcasting Union, a clearinghouse for international news film and reporting, turned down a two-week trial tape before WorldNet even had begun official operations this spring. The Union has since carried only a few WorldNet products, such as footage from the space shuttle, when there has been no other source for the film. But aside from occasionally drawing on WorldNet as a library of film clips, foreign networks have shunned the service. "It's never difficult to establish the American viewpoint on something; we can do that through our Washington bureau,' says Jim Akhurst, foreign editor for Britain's commercial Independent Television Network.
There are about 240 West European correspondents based in the United States, according to the the USIA. In addition to the Broadcasting Union's Euro-vision Exchange, most European television stations have their own exchange agreements with one or more of the four major American networks. Among these U.S. journalists and their editors and desk chiefs in Europe, there is little affection for WorldNet. Courtenay Tordoff, deputy foreign editor for BBC-TV in London, says the British television network "is not involved in a propaganda war for or against the Soviet Union. We are not putting out propoganda for anybody. . . . No one cares what the USIA thinks.' Sven Kuntze, foreign news correspondent for ARD-TV in Bonn, observes: "We have the feeling that this news service is a way to kick our correspondents out of the business.'
Allowing for a touch of hyperbole, Kuntz is not that far off about the USIA's motivation. John Walsh of the USIA's Office of European Affairs insists that the agency doesn't "want to suggest that the European correspondents are doing a bad job.' But Walsh concedes that "WorldNet has the potential for presenting a U.S. viewpoint without the filter of the [foreign] correspondents here. . . . If we can get a message out directly, we want to do that.'
So what exactly is the message? Well, things are a little unclear on this score. Working through the USIA's policy guidance office, the State Department informs the producers of "America Today' of the administration's "line of the day' on such issues as import quotas, support for rebel forces in Nicaragua, or Star Wars. The policy guidance staff can veto stories or ask that they be delayed until a particular administration spokesman is interviewed. But beyond these directives, the purpose of WorldNet gets fuzzy. Alvin Snyder, head of the USIA's television and film service, says that his goal is to illustrate that America "is the best society, people are the happiest, they dress better, they have more fun, their music is good. It's the Pepsi Generation!' Tim White, co-host of "America Today,' concedes, "We're not sure yet who the audience is. . . . We hope to put it out there and wait for an audience to come to us.' White is lucky that his job security doesn't depend on the ratings.