CubaNews / September 2008
By Larry Luxner
Stock-market guru, TV commentator and magazine publisher — James K. Glassman has done it all. For years, this self-professed libertarian has peddled his controversial views on everything from growth-stimulus tax programs to global warming.
And now, for the first time in his career, Glassman is drawing a government salary as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
As such, the 61-year-old executive leads the Bush administration’s much-hyped “battle of ideas” — a lofty, some say unrealistic, effort to get foreigners to like Americans while discouraging extremist violence through diversions like sports and entertainment.
CubaNews recently caught up with Glassman, spending 42 minutes in his seventh-floor office at State Department headquarters.
“Public diplomacy is, very simply, communicating with the public,” he explained. “In official diplomacy, a foreign minister might try to persuade another foreign minister to do the right thing. What we do is talk to publics, not foreign ministers. The way we define public diplomacy is understanding, engaging, informing and persuading foreign publics. It’s a big mandate, obviously.”
Glassman took on his latest challenge in June, replacing Texas Republican activist and longtime Bush aide Karen Hughes, who once said that one of her greatest accomplishments was “transforming public diplomacy and making it a national security priority central to everything we do in government.”
Glassman’s office spends approximately $900 million a year, of which two-thirds goes to public affairs.
“Most of my time is spent on one aspect of public diplomacy that we call the war of ideas,” he explained. “In terms of dollars, it’s not particularly significant. But two years ago, the president designated the undersecretary of state as the lead in the war of ideas.”
Until recently, Glassman was also chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a completely separate operation with an annual budget of roughly $800 million. He continues as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s representative on that board.
The nine-member BBG supervises all U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasts including the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Network and, of course, the Miami-based Office of Cuba Broadcasting — which oversees Radio and TV Martí.
A Harvard graduate, Glassman told CubaNews he emphasizes educational and cultural exchanges — a “very well-run operation” that brings about 50,000 visitors a year from all over the world to the United States, many of them students and academic experts.
“This is kind of traditional public diplomacy,” he said. “We think the best way to get people to have good opinions of America is putting them face-to-face with Americans.” However, that way of thinking apparently doesn’t extend to U.S. policy on Cuba, which under the Bush administration has made it next to impossible for average Americans to visit the island.
At the same time, the White House has stepped up support for “transition to democracy” programs in Cuba and recently allocated an extra $10 million to purchase a specialized aircraft to boost TV Martí transmissions to the island.
Since 1985, Washington has spent nearly $500 million on Radio and TV Martí — despite documented allegations of mismanagement within the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and widespread criticism that TV Martí broadcasts are jammed by the Castro regime and virtually impossible to receive.
That’s nonsense, says Glassman, whose outer office features a poster honoring May 21 as Cuba Solidarity Day.
“TV Martí is reaching more and more Cubans,” he claimed. “Over the last couple of years, we have devised ways of broadcasting much more effectively, mainly from airplanes. TV Martí now operates on two separate frequencies, Channel 13 and Channel 20. We do know from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana that people are watching it.”
Glassman says that as Cubans get more ac-cess to satellite dishes, viewership will rise — notwithstanding the Castro government’s attempt to intercept TV Martí’s signal.
“We’re not commercial broadcasters. What we’re trying to do is give people in countries like Cuba access to the truth about what’s going on in the world — accurate news, public affairs and cultural programming. So if the people of Cuba are exposed to hundreds of channels on satellite broadcasting, that’s fine with us,” said Glassman, who has visited the Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s facilities in both Miami and Key West.
“What Radio and TV Martí do that no one else is currently doing and no one else will do is tell people in Cuba what's happening in their own country,” he said. “They may be watching Miami TV, but Miami TV is not going to tell them about food shortages or a demonstration that recently occurred on the outskirts of Havana.”
Best-known for his market analyses and commentary on economist and equities investing, Glassman has been a reporter and columnist for more than 40 years. Among other things, he’s the author of an overly optimistic 1999 book, “Dow 36,000” and former resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
As a syndicated columnist, his articles have appeared in every major U.S. newspaper and magazine including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Forbes and Reader’s Digest. From 1987 to 1993, Glassman was editor and part-owner of Roll Call, a twice-weekly newspaper that covers Congress. Before that, he had a long career in magazine publishing, as president of The Atlantic Monthly, executive vice-president of U.S. News & World Report and publisher of The New Republic.
Some of Glassman’s articles: “The Bottomless Well: No Need to Curb Energy Consumption”, “How to Avoid Investing in Crooked Businesses”, “Amtrak is Anti-American”, “The Two Faces of Lou Dobbs” and “The Certainty of Catastrophic Global Warming is a Hoax.”
Glassman claims the State Department “does not dictate” the content or objectivity of U.S. government broadcasts in any way — whether the listener is in Havana or Hanoi.
“This is real, unbiased and professional journalism, showing all responsible opinions on different subjects,” he claimed. “We are not simply a mouthpiece of the administration.”
Glassman added: “The BBG serves as a firewall between the State Department and the broadcasters, so if some ambassador gets ticked off about something VOA broadcasts, he has to go through the BBG.
“It’s an important distinction Congress felt was necessary, in order to give our journalists the independence they needed. So our operation, unlike those of other countries, is not a propaganda tool or even an advocacy tool. We explain American policies, but we do show opinions that are opposed to our own.”