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Sending cross-border static: on the fate of Radio Free Europe and the influence of international broadcasting.

This interview was conducted amidst a national debate over the role of the U.S. government's overseas broadcasting services, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America (VOA). Noting the absence of the Cold War environment in which the Radios were originally developed, opponents of the services argued that they were no longer necessary, particularly in Europe.

The discussion became especially acute in Spring 1993 after the February release of a Clinton administration proposal to cut $644 million in broadcasting services from the federal budget. This step -- in line with an overall effort to streamline the budget -- would have included phasing out RFE/RL, as well as cutting the potential Radio Free Asia Service, which the Clinton administration previously had supported. Furthermore, the debate was not only about the existence of the Radios, but also about who should control them, as RFE/RL was financed through the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB), and VOA received its funding through the United States Information Agency (USIA).

BIB was created in 1973 to finance RFE/RL Inc., which is privately incorporated. Until that time, those radio stations had received funding from the CIA. After 1973, they received their funds from BIB, to which Congress appropriates money on an annual basis.

In June, President Clinton unveiled a compromise, in which he proposed to continue the "home-service" broadcasting of RFE/RL, VOA and Radio Marti[broadcast to Cuba], but to implement some changes in their structures and budgets. According to the plan, BIB would be abolished, and a new independent, bipartisan Board of Governors would oversee all U.S. international radio broadcasting. Members would be appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. The board would be part of the USIA, and would oversee VOA, RFE/RL, Radio Marti and the proposed Radio Free Asia service.

Further, Congress would appropriate funds for each radio-broadcasting program separately. The board members, however, would set the policy and control the budgets of the services. Engineering and technical functions would be consolidated under VOA, but the programming of each of the services would remain separate and distinct. Phasing out several language services from both VOA and RFE/RL is also part of the plan. The compromise, which is pending congressional approval, is designed to achieve savings of more than $250 million over the next four years.

On 7 April 1993, the Journal of International Affairs conducted an interview with Malcom S. Forbes, Jr. It focused chiefly on his eight-year tenure as chairman of the Board of International Broadcasting in the context of this debate. Forbes was appointed to this position in 1985 by former President Ronald Reagan and reappointed to the post in 1990 by former President George Bush. With the entrance of the Clinton administration, Daniel Mica, former Democratic congressman from Florida, was appointed the chairman of BIB in April 1993.

Journal: The rise in new technology has changed the face of the media industry. Information is accessed with more ease and in greater quantities than ever before. How has this new technology affected the way in which the mainstream media disseminate information to the public?

Forbes: People have more sources of hard news. Organizations from Bloomberg [Business News] to CNN are providing information instantly and electronically. The growth of these services is causing newspapers and magazines to ask themselves: "What do we cover? We can't just report events, because everyone already has that information." Journalists have to take it one step further, do what any business does and figure out what the value-added is.

That's why newspapers such as the New York Times no longer just report the news. They assume people already know it. That's why they're running more stories on social trends and more news analyses on the front page. They're becoming more like weeklies in the way they treat the news.

Journal: What new challenges or responsibilities do these new trends pose to the media as influencers of public opinion?

Forbes: A media organization has to make a decision: Should it simply present hard news -- or play a role in processing this information and attempt to explain why it would be useful to the receiver?

Forbes is fortunate because we've always published issues every two weeks, so we're not tied to reporting the news. We provide information or analysis that readers haven't received anywhere else. All of our stories have a conclusion. We don't write them unless we have a judgment to make. We not only come to a conclusion -- we explain how we reached it. We also want each story to be, in effect, a small morality tale. We want readers to say, "I've learned something from that."

Journal: The next couple of questions relate to your role as Chairman of BIB in the context of your comments just now. With the end of the Cold War, there are certainly different uses for information and information channels. For example, the disappearance of Communist regimes in East Central Europe has perhaps negated the need for an underground press. How can an organization like RFE/RL, which was created for the realities of Communism, adapt to the new political and social environment in the region?

Forbes: Just because an instrument may have been useful in one context doesn't mean it can't be useful in another. Actually, the role of RFE/RL has never been more vital. You can't have a democracy without information. Domestic media in the emerging democracies are still for the most part extremely weak. Radio and television are predominantly under the control of governments that are run -- below the ministerial level -- by many of the old apparatchiks.

That's why democrats and reformers were horrified by the proposal to shut down the Radios. That's why Vaclav Havel wrote to members of Congress; that's why even Mikhail Gorbachev said publicly that it was a crazy idea to shut the Radios, and he told our embassy he thought it was an appallingly bad idea.

RFE/RL is what they call "home service." That is, they concentrate on reporting the news from within the countries where they broadcast. RFE/RL has a network of almost 200 stringers, journalists and analysts in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. No other international broadcaster provides as much information and analysis of internal events.

In contrast, take the BBC, which broadcasts to some of the same countries as the Radios. They provide some news about what happens in each country, but not nearly to the depth that RFE/RL does. Their focus is on world news.

RFE/FL can also be contrasted with VOA, which has a more American orientation. In Poland, for instance, only 17 percent of VOA's programming is on events in that country or neighboring countries -- as opposed to more than 70 percent at RFE. In Russia, VOA may have 25 to 30 percent of its programs focus on domestic issues; but 80 percent of our programs do.

There is no more effective and cheaper means of influencing events in other countries on a daily basis than radio broadcasting. It reaches millions of people, and it's cheap, effective and non-violent.

Journal: In a recent Washington Post article, Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote, "The diplomats of the State Department have always found Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty a nuisance and an interference with the department's management of foreign policy."(2) The Clinton administration has also indicated the possibility of shutting down RFE/RL. In the context of what you just mentioned and given that you're no longer the Chairman of BIB, what do you feel are the reasons for this proposal by the Clinton administration? How will this affect the future of Radio Free Europe?

Forbes: Some state department officials don't hide their hostility toward broadcasting; they don't like it, because they don't control it. They think it upsets the governments in the countries where they broadcast. Other diplomats tell you they appreciate the Radios and that the State Department loves them. When it comes to budget time, however, radio broadcasting is always at the bottom of the list. In other words, money speaks louder than words.

As for the Clinton administration, the proposal to shut down RFE/RL came from mid-level budget officials. It was not systematically examined by any of the foreign-policy people. They've been extremely surprised by the reaction against their plan -- by the support for RFE. That's why they have now instituted a formal internal review at the National Security Council. Congress will be holding hearings on the subject. We feel that after it gets a proper examination, they will see the need for home-service broadcasting.

I think that RFE/RL will certainly continue to exist. The reason that someone proposed to put it under the USIA is that BIB is a federal, independent agency. It provides a firewall for RFE/RL's journalists. If there are any complaints about the broadcasting, they get thrown to us. We decide if there's any merit to them. We examine them. Whereas at VOA, they're always getting pressure -- although they'll deny it -- from the State Department to temper coverage. They're always having to fight to keep State Department officials away. VOA doesn't have that effective firewall.

That's one reason why their credibility is not as high as that of the BBC, for example. BBC World Service -- rightly or wrongly -- is seen as independent. VOA is seen as an arm of the U.S. government. Thus, BIB's position on reorganizing this radio broadcasting has always been to make sure that a firewall exists to preserve journalistic integrity.

Journal: Let's say RFE/RL is disbanded for some reason. In your opinion, what kind of impact would that have on the transition toward democracy and free-market economies in East Central Europe?

Forbes: Talk to those supporting democracy in the region. They will tell you that it would be devastating. Just look at who the proponents and opponents of these broadcasts are. The latter are the militarists, the ultranationalists, the anti-Semites -- all the disreputable, authoritarian figures. They would love to see the Radios go away. The reformers want them to stay, because they recognize that without the free flow of objective information, the reforms will not be implemented, and RFE/RL is the only source for this kind of information on such a large scale.

All you have to do to understand what would happen in the absence of a strong home-service broadcasting station is to look at the former Yugoslavia. A group of Serbian journalists at the European Media Fund conference in Germany last summer asked, "Why aren't you broadcasting to Serbia? Don't you realize that Milosevic, the dictator there, controls the media? You wouldn't believe the stories they do to whip up ethnic hatred and to justify their genocidal policies." VOA may do an hour of broadcasting, but it's not seen as being as effective as home-service broadcasting.

Journal: VOA has traditionally been seen as the mouthpiece of the U.S. government, as you already mentioned. RFE/RL, on the other hand, is arguably one of the few reliable sources of internal coverage of events in East Central Europe. Can you envision a merger between VOA and these two stations? If not, why not? If so, how do you think the relationship would work?

Forbes: I think that it would reduce the effectiveness of both. When you turn on a radio in this country, you know whether you have a talk-radio, news-radio, hard-rock or classical-music station. Similarly, RFE/RL has a purpose. If it were mixed up with VOA, listeners wouldn't know whether to expect a report on the Russian parliament or a beauty contest in Dubuque or fashions in Hollywood.

People see the Radios as having two distinct missions, which is why, when a VOA announcer uses the pronoun "we," it means "we Americans." But when an RFE/RL announcer says "we," it means "we Russians," "we Bulgarians," "we Ukranians," or "we Armenians." RFE/RL is seen as a local radio station that happens to be funded overseas.

Thus, the way to be more efficient is to combine engineering resources, relay-station resources and administrative resources, such as accounting and personnel departments. The programming, however, must be kept distinct -- or the effectiveness of both will be diluted.

Journal: Are you saying that RFE/RL might be willing to share its resources and help strengthen the capacity of its smaller East Central European counterparts?

Forbes: We do already. RFE/RL is the greatest job-training program for journalism in East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. All those stringers, all those people who have been gathering information, particularly in East Central Europe, have found that after three or four years they have learned not only how to gather news, but also American values in gathering news -- that it is not all supposed to be polemical, that excoriation of anyone whose views may be different is not journalism. It's a whole mindset. RFE/RL trains them in that, and then a number of them graduate, in a sense, to local media. It's not classroom training. It's on-the-job training and quick learning.

Also, RFE has found that because much of the local media are so financially strapped, they basically use RFE as a wire service. They'll rebroadcast RFE programs for their own listeners. Some papers will actually print them for their readers. We work with anyone who wants to do that and have several such agreements.

Journal: No doubt this use of RFE/RL news played a role in enhancing the growth of indigenous media in these regions. What are, in your opinion, some of the obstacles for growth of local media in East Central Europe and/or other regions around the world? What inputs are necessary to spur the development of local media?

Forbes: The first such obstacle is cultural. People in these areas are accustomed to the polemical rantings of government-owned media. They have to learn what real journalism is. The second obstacle is economic: You cannot establish stable media when the economy is in shambles. That makes it very difficult. Many newspapers, and radio and television stations pop up and then quickly go under. Due to the difficult economic situation, there are very few publications in the region with real roots. A third obstacle is government control. The government needs to play a smaller role. In many of these countries, the government controls distribution; they control access to newsprint. Those are very significant dampening factors for the development of independent media.

Journal: What conditions -- economic, political or social -- would attract more Western capital and technology to expand the indigenous media or investment in the region?

Forbes: The key is to establish a more stable economy with comprehensible ground rules. Right now, the seemingly arbitrary decisions of the government have been a big inhibition. They have had a very chilling effect. Outside investors should not have to fear they will be run out of town if they step on a government official's toes. If, for example, Russia stabilized the ruble -- which would be much easier than many Americans seem to think -- many people would be willing to take a chance.

There has been a lot of progress in Hungary, and the Czech Republic is making some real advances. But even in these two countries, there is beginning to be a pullback from reforms in government radio and television, with some curtailment of what journalists can say. Hence the need for independent media, economic stabilization and the rule of law.

Journal: What about copyright laws?

Forbes: That's the whole thing -- rule of law, intellectual property rights.

Journal: What should BIB's role as a regulating agency be? You've touched on this a little bit, but could you elaborate? What would be its ideal role, especially given that it's under the control of the Democrats right now?

Forbes: BIB was set up in to be an independent, bipartisan agency with nine members. No more than five members can be from one party. The senior Democrat on the board is Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO. You would be hard pressed to find a greater contrast between the two of us on domestic issues. We do agree, however, on the importance of the free flow of information, so we worked well together.

The role of BIB is several-fold. First, it helps ensure journalistic integrity by shielding journalists from Washington politics. Second, it oversees programming. The Radios have a "broadcast analysis department," which reviews scripts to ensure they are up to BIB's journalistic standards.

Third, BIB plays a financial role. BIB is set up as a federal agency, but it is independent with separate appropriation from Congress. RFE/RL are private corporations and we grant them money. BIB tries to ensure that the money granted is used for the purposes for which it was intended.

Journal: You have mentioned some of the competitiveness and antagonism between BIB and USIA. What would be the ideal relationship between them?

Forbes: Unfortunately, many officials at USIA see our existence as a threat to their existence, because we are a separate federal agency. Ideally, an independent, bipartisan board should be created with all the U.S. government's international broadcasting services under it -- whether RFE/RL, VOA, Radio Marti or the new Radio Free Asia Service, which Senator Biden and others are advocating and which may come to pass this year. That way, the programming integrity of each service would be preserved, but engineering, transmission and administrative services would be streamlined. That way, if the board decided there ought to be more emphasis on Asia and less on Europe, for example, there wouldn't be any turf fights.

Being under the authority of an independent board would enhance the reputation of a service like VOA. Much of their programming is as good or better than that of the BBC. But people think VOA is U.S. government, and it's tainted. That's why many journalists at VOA would like it to be independent, so they could have their work judged more fairly.

Journal: Getting back to the different networks, what do you see as the long-term role for such information networks as RFE/RL, Radio Marti and VOA? In what ways are these networks different from other international media entities such as CNN or the BBC, for example, and how do they differ with respect to their impact on domestic politics and society?

Forbes: CNN is different, because it is on television and, as far as I know, most of it is still in English. RFE/RL, on the other hand, broadcasts in the local languages. We have 23 language services. VOA, I think, has almost 50 language services. Many of the people to whom we broadcast don't have television; short-wave radio is it. Short wave is how much of the former Soviet Union still communicates, for example. Everyone has a short-wave receiving set. It's often the only way Moscow can communicate with the interior. As a result, it's ubiquitous. Even in China, very few people have television sets. A good part of the population doesn't even have radio receivers yet. In that sense, the radio services are critical. The good thing, particularly about home-service broadcasting, is that any local tyrant knows that his effectiveness is reduced without a monopoly on information.

Journal: What exactly would be the long-term role of the Radios 30 or 40 years from now?

Forbes: That depends on political circumstances. If we have benign, non-hostile regimes in the world, then no one would need this service. But, as we have learned after the euphoria wore off from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and after the failure of the 1991 coup in Moscow, we still have a long way to go.

Journal: You made an interesting point on how the Radios would affect the democratic events in China. Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, has come out in support of the creation of radio Free Asia. Has BIB done any preliminary studies on the potential impact of such a venture? How do you think the Chinese government will react to this initiative, especially if Radio Free Asia were broadcast to Tibet 2

Forbes: BIB and RFE/RL have done some preliminary cost analyses. Last year, a presidential, bi-partisan commission headed by John Hughes examined Asia and came out in favor of an Asian service. Not nearly enough broadcasting is done to a nation the size of China. VOA -- because of turf reasons -- said they do enough. They don't.

As for the reaction of the Chinese government, it would be the reaction of any authoritarian regime to information inflows that they don't control: They would hate it. But there's not much they can do about it. It's very expensive to jam these radio programs. In the old days, the Soviets spent three dollars trying to jam RFE/RL for every dollar we spent in broadcasting it, and they were not very effective.

The Radios could do for China what they did for Poland. One of the things that made Solidarity so effective in Poland, Lech Walesa will tell you, is that when something happened in Gdansk, the whole country heard about it. What ever happened in Cracow, people in Gdansk knew about it.

It's the feeling of isolation that enables a tyrant to have control if you don't know, it's like the tree falling in the forest and nobody hears it -- big deal. But if you know, you publish something. It's that flow of information that gives dissidents courage during bleak times.

But back to China. You cannot assume that because something major happened in Beijing, it's known in the interior -- other than in a very sporadic and distorted way. There are probably hundreds of millions of Chinese, for instance, who really don't know what is happening in coastal provinces in terms of economic development. It's that flow of information about what's happening in one part of the country to another part of the country that makes people say, "Why can't we have that here? I want to learn more about it."

I think Winston Lord surprised people last year when he came out in favor of Radio Free Asia. Diplomats traditionally look askance at broadcasting because they underestimate the power of ideas and information on political events. For them, diplomacy means cables and exchange programs. They don't like broadcasting because it's always getting the host government mad, always complicating efforts to establish federal relations.

For example, the United States had an ambassador in Poland in the 1980s, who is now in Romania, who objected to Lech Walesa. He thought Walesa's rise was destabilizing and hurting General Jaruzelski's attempts to reform Poland.

Journal: You've just made some references about various governments who are stifling the press in certain ways. Bringing you home a bit, there's been a lot Of debate about U.S. government censorship of media coverage during the 1991 Persian Gulf War through the use of press pools and restricted media access. Given the media's ever-increasing power in the global system, what actions can the media take to prevent this kind of government control in the future?

Forbes: During any conflict, there are phases when it is very difficult to get information. American Heritage recently had an article which traced tensions between the press and the military back to the Civil War. With respect to the Gulf War, the Pentagon saw the successful media restrictions t at the British government employed during the Falklands War and decided to restrict media access the same way.

The restrictions were effective in the Gulf War, because it was primarily an air war. The land battle was almost over before it began, so there wasn't an opportunity to get out in the field. There wasn't much to see. If it had been a ground conflict and more prolonged, the government could not have suppressed coverage indefinitely.

In the Afghan war, people got in and it was tough; it was not sitting around the poolside. Sometimes the press wants to have it both ways -- they want easy access, but they also don't like risking their necks.

In a lot of these local conflicts, there's no glamour. In Sudan, for example, you can go there, but the odds are that you are going to get hurt, so many of the press corps don't want to do that.

Journal: There have been casualties in Yugoslavia...

Forbes: You bet there are, and often they'll aim at the journalists. It's no coincidence.

Journal: Relating this particular question even a little bit closer to the United States' there's been a lot of discussion on how the Clinton administration is going over the heads of the media with town-hall meetings, reduced access of the press to the White House and so on. Can you comment on this? How can the media get more access? It seems that there is a concerted effort to repeat what happened during the presidential campaign, in which the Clinton media and campaign managers were quite effective in dealing with the media.

Forbes: I have a couple of comments on this. Town meetings are respectful, but people sense that politicians are holding something back, and despite Clinton's supposed mastery of the media, his popularity fluctuates. It's not very high right now. You can't manipulate bad news or lack of news for very long. Clinton and his people are making a mistake because they believe they can bypass the Washington press corps. And the Washington press corps is just waiting. They know this president, like every president, is going to stumble. When that happens, the media are going to settle a lot of scores with him. Even though they may like Clinton personally -- may like his philosophy -- the media don't like being given the cold shoulder. They don't like reading stories elsewhere about how the administration has mastered the Washington media.

Members of the Clinton administration are making the mistake of believing their own press clips. They fail to realize that if there is no message, or the message doesn't have resonance, all the high-tech stuff in the world isn't going to create one. The media mastery of Ronald Reagan, the mastery of Franklin D. Roosevelt, of any president, comes from knowing how to talk to the people on issues that matter to them.

One reason Clinton seemed to do so well with the media during the campaign is that they treated him more gently than they did Bush. That was their fault; there was no one on the campaign trail asking, "What about your record in Arkansas? You say you created manufacturing jobs -- that's $4.25 an hour, chicken-plucking jobs that give people arthritis in the fingers -- is that what you meant?" They never asked him those kinds of questions. It's the media's fault, not Bill Clinton's genius.

When Clinton seems to manipulate or disdain the media, the effort seems to backfire. Actually, the best way to manipulate the press is not to do it. He should let the media be the aggressors. Reagan's mastery of a press conference was letting the media scream and yell at him, while he looked very dignified and soft-spoken. People felt that he couldn't be that bad. They thought, "Look at those animals out there." Clinton does not do this.

The thing to remember is how quickly bad press can be turned around. Even Richard Nixon -- who is not known as "the great communicator" -- was able to master the media when he had something to say, as he did in the fall of 1969 when it looked like he was losing support because of the Vietnam policies. He turned it around overnight with a television speech.

Journal: Changing the subject, in certain countries such as China and Mexico, where there is a strong tradition of government control of the media, there have been significant improvements in the national economic climate. What role, if any, do the indigenous and international media play in contributing to a freer and more accurate flow of information? What role do the financial media such as business magazines play in contributing to sustaining trends toward economic and political liberalization?

Forbes: One thing tyrants sometimes don't recognize is that economic growth requires the free flow of economic information, that is, prices. Most people don't realize money is a form of conveying information, a way of telling you something about a product.

Economic liberalization over time creates a middle class and an entrepreneurial class that is accustomed to doing things on its own. For example, even in the confusion of an authoritarian country like Korea, eventually pressure to open the political system surfaced. It happened in Korea and Chile, and it's starting to happen in Mexico. It's already starting, haphazardly, in China.

I guarantee you that the more the economy grows, the more information will flow -- and the more pressures will be created for political change.

Journal: In his book The Media Monopoly, Ben Bagdikian writes about five companies that dominate the fight for the millions of minds in the global village.(3) How does this powerful corporate structure -- this mass ownership of media -- constrict the free flow of information?

Forbes: There is no mass ownership, or if there is, it's not able to influence output very much. Many people have their own computers and VCRs, and they are becoming cheaper and cheaper. The next generation will have 50,000 television channels instead of 500. When you have people communicating via computer on a wide variety of topics, it's impossible for anybody to have a media monopoly or oligarchy. The market is too fractured; there are too many players; and it's too easy to communicate for a monopoly to exist. For example, why has the networks' market share of the media fallen over the last ten years from 97 percent to 58 percent? It's the rise of cable. Yet cable is fracturing as well. It is impossible to maintain a monopoly.

Look at Time-Warner, for example. Have they done very well with magazines? No. Everyone's hoping they'll spin them off. Have they been able to acheive the "synergy" they were looking for? No. They came up with some big deals, but most of them have fallen apart. Time Warner doesn't have a monopoly of money, so they're not going to have a monopoly of information.

Journal: Bagdikian suggests that the size of media companies might be restricted in order to create more voices.

Forbes: Consumers are doing that; technology is doing that. There are more voices than ever before. People decry the decline of daily newspapers, but one reason for that decline is that people don't need daily newspapers as much. They are not the sole source of information. Other sources include talk radio, National Public Radio, CNN, the nightly news, your computer or Bloomberg. You can get information whenever you want, and if you can't listen to a program when it is broadcast, you can record it.

Journal: Where are the new potential media markets and in what form? Are we going to see more CNNs out there?

Forbes: You will see more and more cross-border broadcasting, more and more satellite services. CNN will become the Life magazine of the air -- if they don't create more services themselves first. It's too general and unfocused to survive the way it is. Niches in the market will start to form, and there will be more and more segmented programming. Niches have been developing in the print media for a long time, and this is what we can expect to happen in the future of broadcast media as well.

Journal: Thank you.

(1.) The editors would like to thank Jed H. Garfield and Betsy Glans of the Journal of International Affairs for their contribution to this interview. (2.) Jeane Kirkpatrick, "Needed Then, Needed Now: Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty Give Information About Internal Affairs That Is Especially Useful During This Transition to Democracy," editorial, Washington Post, 8 March 1993, p. A15. (3.) Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1990).
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Title Annotation:Power of the Media in the Global System; an interview with former chair of the Board for International Broadcasting Malcolm S. Forbes, Jr.
Author:Raghavan, Sudarsan V.; Johnson, Stephen S.; Bahrenburg, Kristi K.
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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