Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mr. Isaacson, Please Wake Up! (or: RT Strikes Back)

In his keynote address at the reception marking the 60th Anniversary of the first RFE broadcast, held at the Newseum on September 28, 2010, BBG's new Chairman Walter Isaacson, stressed the need to end the mostly top-down and "info-dissemination" approach of most of America's foreign broadcasting, emphasizing the importance of engagement with the audience:

"[...] we need to be as innovative and as creative as the founders of RFE were. This is particularly true in a digital age, an age that offers not only new channels to disseminate our journalism but the ability and, indeed, the imperative, the duty to not only disseminate journalism but to interact, to engage; to engage with people to share, to set up peer-to-peer networks rather than merely to hand down the news."

[...] the hallmarks of digital media are that they are networked, that they can be user-generated. They can be collaborative. They can be social. They encourage engagement and discourse. They are interactive and they are peer to peer. And that’s why they’re so good for us.

"[...] We will facilitate the conversations that don’t just disseminate but that share information, news and ideas. And it will be a very tricky mix that our partners in the commercial world have not yet mastered, which is how to merge great journalism with, also, the sharing of communities and peer-to-peer sharing of information."

KEYNOTE: Walter Isaacson at RFE's 60th Anniversary Reception from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on Vimeo.

He also spoke of the need to promote Internet freedom around the world (following Secretary Clinton's much-discussed E-Freedom speech  in January this year), and went into great detail about the ethos, the mission, and the relevance of America's international broadcasting in the post-modern world.
"It’s sometimes said that our international broadcasting is in a difficult position because by law and by tradition it’s tasked with two separate missions that might conflict: first of all, covering the news with the highest journalistic standards and secondly, being a part of America’s public diplomacy by accurately conveying its policies and values to the world.

Let me say to you, my fellow journalists, that I will stress and we will stress the primacy of the first of these missions, our mission of being credible journalists, because it is the best – in fact, it’s the only way to carry out the second mission. You can’t do it unless you’re credible and telling the truth, and in the end, the truth is on our side. Credibility is the key to all that we do."
Correct. Please go on...: 
"We can’t allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies. There’s that Freedom House report that reveals that today’s autocratic leaders are investing billions of dollars in media resources to influence the global opinion.

You’ve got Russia Today, Iran’s Press TV, Venezuela’s TeleSUR, and of course, China is launching an international broadcasting 24-hour news channel with correspondents around the world – spent – reportedly set aside six (billion dollars) to $10 billion – we’ve to go to Capitol Hill with that number – to expand their overseas media operations."
Oh, and that's not it. The conclusion was even more... interesting:
We’re going to win this struggle because it defines who we are as a nation, the ability to tell the truth and to believe that the free flow of information will promote the forces of tolerance and democracy. My old friend Benjamin Franklin, when he was trying to help create this nation, one of the first things he did was create a postal service. He wanted the free flow of information up and down the colonies so that we could unite.

[…] In this new, digital age in which economies are driven by information, the future belongs to those societies that thrive on the free flow of information rather than those that threaten it. That’s who we are as a nation and that’s why we’ll triumph, again, just as we did in the Cold War […]."

Pretty bold and combative... and SO reminiscent of the old rhetoric that's a little too obsolete by now! It's great that the BBG is finally, seriously, considering social media and engagement as a priority task, recognizing those as keys to enhancing the effectiveness of public diplomacy. Yet, the irony is that by the very fact of framing his speech in the context of war and struggle, Mr. Isaacson undermined his previous point of true engagement and emphasis on the interactive communication model. He also seems to have missed that many of the commercial-owned media are, in fact, making very good use of social networking and various other "engagement" techniques.

Obviously, the BBG Chairman is still very much living in the "Cold War" mode, as evidenced by his multiple references to the "good old times" (but not limited to those). In that spirit, not only did he present a black-and-white worldview of "us vs. everyone else", but he also seemed to be driven by the tempting desire to "triumph again", in the struggle for a unipolar world. His discussion of "truth" and "credibility" refers to this same point. One may ask: Whose truth? Credible, from which perspective? I'm afraid, Mr. Isaacson has got the whole idea of information diversity, engagement, and decentralization of communication - which would inevitably lead to a countless multiplicity of "truths" - badly wrong...

And the best example of this was, perhaps, the fact that Russia Today TV did actually respond to his statement, describing the channel as "an enemy". Welcome to the world where others are also actively broadcasting, Mr. Isaacson. And not only are they transmitting information, but they are also actively listening - to you, as well - and are able to respond with strong and (have to admit) very good arguments.

Here is a sequence of (four!) segments that Russia Today ran since yesterday:

Firstly, there was the controversial Peter Lavelle (though, I should say, he's making a good point here):

Then, they managed to get hold of Mr. Isaacson himself, asking him to respond: which he did very poorly, saying that he was actually referring to America's enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that in no way does he see Russia or China as enemies. They also had a an interview with the president of Venezuela's TeleSUR TV:

In the third segment, they featured an interview with Josh Rogin, the author of The Cable blog at the Foreign Policy magazine. Two days ago he wrote a post on this issue (most probably bringing it to the attention of RT in the first place):

In an "update" to his post, Rogin mentions that after the piece appeared online, Isaacson wrote an email to The Cable, "to apologize for the remark, while saying that the 'enemies' he was referring to were in Afghanistan, not the several countries he mentioned."
"'I of course did not mean to refer to, nor do I consider, that Russia, China, and the other countries or news services are enemies of the U.S., and I'm sorry if I gave that impression,' he said."
Again, seems like Mr. Isaacson forgets that not only was the video of his remarks streamed live online and is easily accessible on the web, but that the transcript is there as well, showing his comments in their context. And it really does not seem that impressions are mistaken, here.

The most recent RT segment features the ever-present Danny Schechter, who correctly (this time) points out that the major issue here is with the funding, and that to ensure continued financial support from the government, Mr. Isaacson resorted to positioning the issue within the greater American foreign policy context of proactive "democracy promotion." But again, going back to a point made earlier: can such a view be maintained in the current global and media environment?

Readers of Global Chaos will know that I am not a big fan of RT's approach to news and most of their techniques. And yet, in this case, I would support their stance, and even commend the way they took up the issue, to turn it to their advantage. As for Mr. Isaacson, he needs to truly understand the concepts of multipolarity, media diversity, and engagement. He also needs to truly recognize the fact that the Cold War is long over and that he has to abstain from comments that only undermine his credibility, along with that of the media outlets he is supposed to oversee.


  1. RT should send Isaacson a bottle of vodka and tin of caviar for the exposure. PD blessing, in my opinion.

  2. :)) It's just that in this case, Paul, I think bad publicity can in no way pass for "good publicity".. yet, they used it well, against him. In any case, I'm sure Isaacson wouldn't mind the caviar!

  3. Very interesting post...
    Puts things in a good perspective...
    But the story itself, while funny, is also sad and pathetic.
    It's like a "glorious" (or "inglorious"?) Landsknecht of the Cold War was aroused from a lethargic sleep and rushed to lead a charge against "infidels". I am sure his counterparts on the other side are rejoicing. It's like good old times returning...
    Well, speaking seriously, I think it is a good example to illustrate to students the concepts of the "Peter's principle" (in a bureaucracy) and of the R. Michels' "Iron rule of oligarchy".
    I guess self-serving Mr. Isaacson is more of a liability than the asset...

  4. exactly. it feels like there are so many people just wishing the "good old times" were back... so that they could go back to what they believe they were so good at. all this talk about social networking and the use of the Internet seems to be just a "seasoning", while the meat itself is not fresh at all...
    and i'm afraid, a lot of the programming is, indeed, increasingly a liability.

  5. Lena, I hope your report gets widely read by the BBG.

  6. Well, I hope so too. There have having many discussions on the need, relevance, and effectiveness of the various "BBG media" lately... and although I have mixed feelings about it all, I believe there is a number of ideas that can change the "grand" strategy, the tactics, as well as the content itself to make the effort much more viable. Curious to see how Mr. Isaacson handles it all! :)

  7. Have you seen Mr Isaacson's article (2004) on how the Declaration of Independence is a "propaganda" document? He states: "[T]he Declaration of Independence is, in effect, a work of propaganda -- or, to put it more politely, an exercise in public diplomacy intended to enlist other countries to the cause."

  8. Thanks for the link. Indeed, he's got a good point. The major issue I have, however, is the same - the unipolar vision in a world that will no longer sustain/tolerate that. The issue here, I believe, is that by trying to attain such a goal (and thus, by NOT truly engaging in the emerging "new order" - or whatever one prefers to call it), the US is losing out and is being increasingly marginalized. Using the Declaration of Independence to appeal to others around the world might be a great idea, but the key is stop insisting that it's THE ONLY right way ("truth"), and THE ONE that everyone else has to adopt, without any questioning... I'm afraid the number of those who won't buy it anymore is increasingly growing.