Washington Wednesday – Speaking up for America overseas

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 24th of June, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: Washington Wednesday.

When you hear the term “public broadcasting,” you probably think of National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting Service. NPR and PBS are household names here at home, funded both publicly and privately.

The United States also funds 100 percent of several other media outlets meant for international audiences. They include Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

EICHER: In 2018, President Trump nominated Michael Pack to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media. That’s the government organization overseeing all of these outlets.

The Senate sat on Pack’s nomination for nearly two years, largely because of his reputation as a conservative controversialist. The Senate did approve Pack’s nomination just this month, with only Republicans voting in favor.

REICHARD: Pack quickly removed the heads of all the agency’s outlets. The shakeup is raising questions about other changes on the way. 

Joining us now to talk about all of this is Mark Pomar. He worked with Radio Free Europe and Voice of America in the ‘80s and ‘90s and he served as executive director of the Board for International Broadcasting. 

Today, he’s a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. Thanks for joining us today!

MARK POMAR, GUEST: Well, thank you.

REICHARD: I’d like to start with a brief history of these international media outlets we taxpayers fund. Why do we need them? How did they get started?

POMAR: Well, they started during times of crises specifically during wars. Voice of America, which broadcasts in many different languages—up to 40 languages—started during World War II, several months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And it was critically important to communicate to the world during World War II. And after the war there were some voices expressed in Congress about maybe closing it down, the war is over, we succeeded. But the Cold War started up shortly thereafter and the Voice of America was seen as an important instrument for continuing to broadcast the American message, to explain American policy, and to make sure that our values are heard and understood throughout the world.

Radio Free Europe also comes out of war, but this time it’s the Cold War and it was started in 1950. Radio Liberty in 1953 and they were directed exclusively at the communist East Block, as we used to call it. Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other countries. And the idea behind it was really fascinating. The idea behind it was we would create a radio station as if it were broadcasting in the country to which we broadcast. In other words, the Polish service of Radio Free Europe would be a free Polish service situated in Munich but broadcasting as though it were situated in Warsaw. And there was a lot of understanding in the Truman years, the Eisenhower years that this was an extremely important way by which we would help the people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union get information and understand what was going on in the world.

REICHARD: I see you spent a decade working for many of these outlets, and you did it during critical times in history for the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. How important a role would you say Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty played during that time?

POMAR: Well, let me briefly tell you that when I started in 1982, the height of the Cold War, we were being jammed. Radio Liberty had been bombed in 1981 by we presume security services of Eastern Europe. By 1992 with the fall of communism, Voice of America and Radio Liberty were welcomed in Eastern Europe, given offices, praised by democratically elected leaders. I attended the 40th anniversary of Radio Liberty in Moscow. Gorbachov came. The who’s who of the Russian sort of democratic movements came. We were honored everywhere. So in the 12 years that I worked, from the middle of the Cold War to the end, that role was recognized throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

REICHARD: Of course, things have changed, haven’t they. The media landscape is much different today. So how do these outlets work now? Is their foreign policy role as critical today as it was then?

POMAR: Well, in some ways I think it’s even more critical. But they work differently. Shortwave radio broadcasting is gone. In other words, the delivery of the product has changed tremendously. And as it should, of course. The challenges are different. We face a hostile world. We also face something we did not have in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We have a very aggressive China. Chinese media, international media, the largest in the world—bigger than the U.S., bigger than the U.S. plus BBC plus Europeans. And they are very aggressive in making sure that the Chinese version of the world and their views are being heard throughout Africa, Latin America, Middle East, you name it. 

We have an aggressive Russia that has RT and Sputnik and is very, very aggressive in terms of promoting its message, its views, its anti-Americanism. I mean, something that I would hope all listeners to this program realize is that level of anti-Americanism throughout the world, which we somehow have to contend with. And we don’t join them in being propagandistic, but we have to find ways in which we communicate who and what we are as a country and as a people. 

And the challenges were different in my time. We had communism, we had a Soviet Union that was waging a cold war against us. Now the situation is different but it’s no less dangerous.

REICHARD: You’ve mentioned this in a way, but I wonder how does the rest of the world view American-funded media outlets?

POMAR: Well, it depends very much where. We only broadcast not to any country that is technically our ally and has an open system. There’s really little reason to broadcast—although, worldwide English can be heard everywhere. But, generally, you broadcast to areas that are troubled, that are a foreign policy concern to the United States, and countries that may have very little access to any other form of media. 

Just to give an example, while Poland was communist and while we broadcast Polish service of VOA, Polish service of Radio Free Europe, once Poland became part of NATO and is an open country and you can buy and listen to anything you wish, it makes no sense for us to broadcast. So, there is that criteria. It is strategic broadcasting, if you would. There’s a strategic component to it, but that does not mean that it’s propagandistic. Quite the contrary. The strategy being we have a dangerous world around us. We have a world with which we have to interact and a world with which we want to trade, a world with which we want to have good relations. 

And one of the ways is to reach the public in those countries with some sense of what and who the United States is and what we stand for and what our culture is and what we care about. A lot of the programs of VOA and Radio Free Europe were not political. They were music, they were film, they were religion. Why? Because this was communism and it was an atheistic country and there was no religion to be talked about. We broadcast church services on VOA and Radio Liberty on holidays because that was a strategic thing to do at that time. You wouldn’t necessarily do it now because religion is quite open in Russia. But you may find it very important in China or you may find it very important in parts of the Middle East.

REICHARD: My final question. You mention politics in that answer. The Trump administration took issue with the way Voice of America covered the coronavirus story, particularly with regard to China’s role in it. His opponents think he’s turning international news outlets into a propaganda machine to benefit himself. What do you make of it? 

POMAR: Trump is not the first to come in and try to fire. There have been others who have tried to do this. Well, I can’t comment on the Chinese program for the simple reason that I don’t know Chinese and I did not follow it. I do participate on the Russian TV VOA and Radio Liberty as a guest. And so I’m on and I do follow their programs. I think they cover it very, very professionally.

There’s an old adage at VOA and I remember that when I was there. VOA as an organization does not comment. It is not pro. It is not anti. In other words, the Voice of America is not any one administration’s voice. The administration has a say. It can nominate people to run it. But it’s supposed to represent the diversity of the United States, not any one particular party.

REICHARD: Mark Pomar is the former assistant director of the Russian Service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the former director of the USSR Division at the Voice of America. He also served as executive director of the Board for International Broadcasting. Thanks so much for joining us today!

POMAR: Well, I’m delighted and I wish you all the very best. Thank you.


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