Sunday, July 17, 2011

Are Technoexperts Replacing Broadcast Journalism?

I think so. I get the impression the US State Department is seriously side lining the activities of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors. Statements by Hilary Clinton earlier in the year would indicate that they are far more interested in "technoexpert" projects and the main competitor in the information technology war is China. These new projects focus on giving information access to "freedom" groups in foreign countries rather than broadcasting into those same areas. It's becoming a pull strategy rather than push.

The US State department is doing all kinds of technology projects (read Internet Firewall getarounds) in various target areas. But it is also organising more and more very strange content projects like TechWomen. I note the list of partners for the Anita Borg Institute includes Thomson Reuters and the US National Security Agency. Strange bedfellows. Room for all kinds of confusion and misinformation there. But that's probably part of the plan. It looks like the people who used to run clandestine radio stations and black propaganda projects are now doing the same kind of thing on Twitter, Facebook and the web in general. However, there is a difference. The radio stuff was targeted at specific audiences. The web activities go global very quickly. All this kind of Strategic Communication was outlined in Nick Davies' book "Flat-Earth News". He concluded that technically it was very clever. But on a content side it was very crude and ineffective.

The US BBG is supposed to be coming out with a new strategic plan very shortly, now that new directors for both Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have been appointed. Very curious.
Hilary Clinton had some interesting remarks when she testified on funding for US State Departent programs and foreign policy priorities March 2nd. The most telling comments came when she appeared to be off script. Note her remarks about how the US has basically one main competitor in the world - China, almost exactly 41 minutes into the session.

For those of us following international broadcasting affairs, the remarks that start 50 minutes into the session are one of several remarkable comments during this long session.

It looks to me like the State Department and US International Broadcasting are doing all kinds of uncoordinated activities all connected with "new media". You don't want to sit through 2 hrs 40" of testimony, but there are some interesting highlights if you can manoeuvre through the rather erratic  C-SPAN player.

(45'54") We hear about websites for entrepreneurs running in Egypt.

(50'52") We learn that the US is engaged in an information war.

“In fact viewership of Al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners,” she added.

Clinton said that the US has dropped the ball since the Cold War, when VOA and others US broadcasts were influential. “We have not really kept up with the times,” Clinton argued.

“We are in information war and we cannot assume that this youth bulge that exists not just in the Middle East but in so many parts of the world really knows much about us. I mean we think they know us and reject us, I would argue the really don’t know very much about who we are,” she said, noting that America’s legacy of the Cold War, World War Two, and President Kennedy are lost on newer generations.

Clinton’s State Department has tried to keep up, especially on social media, where this year they have started Tweeting in Arabic, Farsi, and other languages.  “Al Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multi-language television network, the Russians have opened up an English language network (Russia Today, or RT which they call themselves now). I’ve seen it in a couple of countries and it’s quite instructive.”

They must have been "high fiving" it in Doha and Moscow with endorsements like that!  Even though Clinton didn’t name names, she was placing the blame for “ceding what we are most expert in to somebody else” on every administration since Reagan, including that of her husband. But what really struck me were the offhand comments much later in the testimony, when she revealed that the competition is really with the Chinese. That struck home bearing in mind the 36000 Chinese that were in Libya until the uprisings compared to Westerners. I'm wonder who's responsible for the destruction of a Chinese oil installation in Libya? 

According to the LA Times, and several other sources, China has evacuated an estimated 36,000 of its workers from war-torn Libya, chartering buses, sending jetliners, even dispatching its navy to escort civilian rescue vessels. Beijing state-controlled media have trumpeted the effort as a sign of China's strength. But China's deep involvement with the North African dictatorship has also exposed a vulnerability in the world's second-largest economy. China is now the third-largest buyer of Libyan crude behind Italy and France. European and American oil firms have worked in Libya for years, but their governments have long sought to punish Kadafi for terrorist ties. Meanwhile, China has stuck to a hands-off policy it has dubbed "non-interventionism."

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