On Air Enemies

U.S. media official takes aim at allies and trading partners

Opinion | Sultan Abdulai | June 2011

In an attempt to bargain for a bigger budget in October 2010, Walter Isaacson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and former head of CNN and TIME, lashed out at several of America’s allies and trading partners, describing them as threats to current U.S. interests.

"We can’t allow ourselves to be out-communicated by our enemies," said Isaacson, whose authority includes overseeing US media directed at foreign audiences. The statement was explicitly directed at Russia Today (RT), Iran’s Press TV, Venezuela’s TeleSUR and China’s soon to air 24-hour news channel.

Whilst some are touting Isaacson’s claims as pure scare tactics aimed at Congress, others dismissed them as inconsistent.

"He’s trying to be patriotically correct for the Congress. He’s trying to be journalistically correct for his colleagues and the two are really not merging here," said RT contributor and media critic Danny Schechter.

The contradictory nature of his statements become more significant in the context of the Obama administration’s attempts to strengthen relations with Russia and China, the latter being the largest holder of U.S. debt to date.

Criticism forced Isaacson to clarify his statements: "I definitely do not think of Russia today as an enemy," he said. "It’s a.., I was referring to Afghanistan."

This is simply incompetence, even if the BBG, which runs such organisations as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia, is going through what staff writer Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy Magazine described as an "identity crisis".

If Isaacson was trying to raise money from Congress, one should note that the BBG already oversees more than $750 million annually, which is more than the budget of all of the mentioned radio and TV broadcasters combined.

In what seemed like a statement of desperation, Isaacson went on to claim "truth is on our side." However, it remains unclear whether he was referring to the BBG as an institution or the United States as a whole.

The U.S. government – flag holder for openness and free speech – has refrained from commenting on Isaacson’s statements, When all is said and done, it is the credibility of the organisations that Isaacson represents that have taken the biggest hit, for which corrective work will now need to be done.

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