December 8, 2001
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While cable TV networks Al Jazeera and CNN point fingers at each other and cry media bias, the United States government is looking for ways to broadcast its story to the Muslim world. Initiative 911, currently a 750 million dollar proposal on President Bush's desk, calls for the creation of a satellite television station to win the hearts and minds of a billion Islamic people. Initiative 911 is the brainchild of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal broadcasting entity that oversees U.S.-backed international outlets including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has championed the initiative and he joined us from the floor of the Senate.
JOE BIDEN: I'm actually literally sitting in the Democratic cloak room of the United States Senate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay, so-- Radio Free Europe and Voice of America have been around for decades, but satellite TV is a much more recent technological advance and it's a lot more expensive.
JOE BIDEN: Well it is more expensive, but the stakes are much, much higher. If, for example, we had satellite TV in 1949, '50 and '55, etc, I doubt whether anybody would have wondered whether we should have used it to broadcast into Hungary or Poland or Czechoslovakia. The twist here that's a little different than during the Cold War was that we want to target young men between the ages of 15 and 30, the recruiting grounds for terrorist and radical organizations, and the kind of program we were talking about is what, what would make a 21 year old living in Sri Lanka turn on the television to watch that particular station? It may be their version of MTV. We will go out in the same way we decide what makes somebody want to buy a Ford product in Indonesia -- we're going to go to the various folks who their version of focus groups in Madison Avenue and the rest to decide what is it? You want to sell a product!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you're talking about music; you're talking about culture; you're talking about news.
JOE BIDEN: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Senator Biden, who is going to be producing the news on the program, particularly the news that relates to the United States of America.
JOE BIDEN: The same kind of people, the same way in which the news was produced on Radio Free Europe. You had indigenous persons producing that news, knowing what the people in that region most wanted to know who are in most cases --in this case they would be Americans -- who would be native speakers as well as people in-country who are hired on to the station to do just that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well let's talk about issues of objectivity. We know that Voice of America came under fire in Washington after September 11th. The State Department tried to stop the VOA from broadcasting any of the interview it got with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader. Now are broadcasters for this proposed TV station going to be allowed to report both sides of the story?
JOE BIDEN: Yes. This is going to be more like Radio Free Europe where there have journalistic independence and criticism of U.S. policy is permitted!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you describe how that model builds in the safeguards to ensure editorial independence?
JOE BIDEN:There is no ability of the State Department to pick up the phone and call Radio Free Europe and say take that editorial off the air. It's a totally separate independent agency, and it's outside of the State Department. It is under a, a board of governors who are not on the federal payroll. Only one time in my life I threatened to filibuster legislation, and that is when we re-organized the State Department there was an attempt to fold these radios into the State Department so they'd be under an under-secretary within that department who would be able to dictate policy to them because they could hire and fire the people who were the ones who were determining the editorial policy. They cannot do that now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Senator biden, thank you very much.
JOE BIDEN: Thanks a million.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Senator Joe Biden is the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.