International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard for Dysfunctional and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost: Bureaucrats With A Grudge
by The Federalist
Kim Andrew Elliott is a US federal government employee of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and, in our view, something of a surrogate IBB spokesperson via his blog, no matter how hard he tries to deny it.
His blog, which sometimes has interesting and useful content on non-IBB-related issues, never fails to disappoint. When it comes to US international broadcasting, it’s usually part of the IBB “gift that keeps on giving.”
The latest target of Elliott is an article by Robert Schadler
(“14 Years of Undermining Public Diplomacy,” US News and World Report, October 1, 2013). Here’s the link:
Schadler laid out an argument how US Government public diplomacy is still feeling the effects of decisions made by the Clinton Administration. He lists them as bullet points. Here they are:
One: Dismantling the United States Information Agency (USIA).
Two: Absorbing certain USIA functions into the State Department.
Three: Putting US Government international broadcasting under the part-time Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
Four: What Schadler calls “lack of adult supervision,” speaking to the often vacant and often ineffective position of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy.
Five: Described as fatal wounds to effective public diplomacy: two State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports, both critical, one regarding the BBG and the other regarding the “Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP).
Six: We quote this one directly: “the worst of all: no strategic vision about what the U.S. government should be doing to inform (and perhaps even influence) key foreign publics. After all, great energy and hard work can’t replace knowing what you’re trying to accomplish.” (Emphasis added)
What happened during the Clinton administration may have been a significant part of the current problem. But that does not absolve succeeding administrations from making corrections. Instead, the agency has been allowed to drift…right into the hands of an IBB that is not a paragon of virtue or a testament to improving the efficiency of the Federal Service.
What is evident is that the importance of what the agency does has lost the competitive edge it felt under the Reagan administration. With the passage of time, the conditions that may have argued well for mission success have been lost to a new dimension of communications in which global media has exploded exponentially. If the agency felt it could rest on its laurels, real or imagined, that may have been a serious miscalculation bringing us to where we are today.
Let’s examine how Mr. Elliott handles the points raised by Mr. Schadler.
Disclaimer on the Kim Andrew Elliott’s website:
“In this website, views expressed by Kim Andrew Elliott are his own and not necessarily those (in fact probably are not those) of his employer, the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, or its parent agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors.”
We believe that this disclaimer is in itself a good representation of how Mr. Elliott privately, and the IBB publicly in other venues, communicate with and treat the American public, members of Congress, and members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Latest in the bring-back-USIA-and-put-USIB-back-under-it occasional series.
Kim Andrew Elliott reporting on International Broadcasting, October 8, 2013.
Before we get started, you will note that the tone of Mr. Elliott’s comments is, in our view, a fairly representative reflection of an IBB group character trait. We can’t be sure to what extent he is part of that group. He may say that on his “private” blog he represents only himself and that most of his view may be contrary to those of his employer. We believe that this disclaimer on his “private” blog is highly misleading. Current and former IBB and VOA employees who have criticized the management have been targets of reprisals from the management. Mr. Elliott seems to be the only current IBB or VOA employee allowed to post his “private” views on ongoing agency issues without suffering any negative consequences. His IBB bosses are obviously not displeased with what he is posting on his “private” blog.
What character trait do we have in mind when talking about Mr. Elliott’s bosses?
You see it. We see it. This is all part of the standard IBB tactic, not uncommon for an organization that is on the run, trying to cover its tracks, trying to divert attention away from a decade or more of being a demolitions team intent upon destroying existing US Government broadcasting assets and replacing it with something that will take decades and BILLIONS of American taxpayer dollars to potentially approximate success – success which is by no means guaranteed as official US Government broadcasting slips further behind other government international broadcasters and media alternatives.
You will also note the effete sarcasm that, in our view, Mr. Elliott employs. This is another favorite IBB tactic: especially when someone is getting too close to the truth of what is going on inside the Cohen Building. It’s the same kind of demeaning rhetoric the IBB has used against other critics.
When you read the Elliott remarks you need no better example of how US Government international broadcasting has become nothing other than a tool of a pernicious bureaucracy.
We should not be at all surprised that US Government international broadcasting has fallen into such dysfunction and has become defunct. While others may wish to believe otherwise, we believe that the point of no return has been reached and passed; meaning that it is beyond repair, and as Robert Schadler points out, is terminal.
As a practical matter, US Government international broadcasting is on artificial life support, by way of its Federal budget. Under IBB manipulation, the agency represents a colossal waste of taxpayer funds.
And make no mistake about it: if it had to function on its own without that “free money,” it would die a very quick death.
Let’s examine the remarks of Mr. Elliott, the apparent surrogate of his IBB bosses:
Elliott: “USIA worked so closely with, and was so subordinate to, the State Department and its embassies that it was a de facto branch of the State Department. Restoring USIA is not the panacea that will restore popularity to the United States. It would merely restore a bureaucracy and several suites full of senior level plum jobs, many of which would just so happen to be populated by the senior fellows of the think tanks who call for the revival of USIA.”
Federalist: When you want to talk about a bloated bureaucracy, let’s look at the IBB. It has become the tail wagging the dog. Agency employees have long had a variety of derisive terms to describe the Third Floor of the Cohen Building including “Mahogany Row” and the “Hall of No Jobs,” referring to the 3300 Corridor of the Cohen Building where the IBB and senior Voice of America (VOA) officials reside. Along with these plum jobs comes being rewarded for poor performance, including cash awards for as much as $10,000 for senior executives. Mr. Elliott is not a senior executive and we don’t know what bonuses, if any, he got. But, in short, Elliott and the IBB are guilty of “the pot calling the kettle black.” What Elliott describes is already in place inside the Cohen Building.
But more interesting is this: “Restoring USIA is not the panacea that will restore popularity to the United States.”
Elliott dismisses the historical record: the fact that USIA was often the equivalent of “boots on the ground” in various strategic parts of the world. USIA managed embassy libraries. It conducted exhibits that to all appearances were very popular wherever they were conducted. Last but not least, USIA arranged tours by leading contemporary musicians, including jazz musicians who were often considered to be revolutionary out-out-of-the- box experimenters, often accompanied by the legendary VOA jazz music program host, Willis Conover.
During the USIA period, particularly in later years, VOA programs were some of the most successful in VOA’s history, with large audiences around the world. Granted, there were instances of USIA editorial interference, which were often successfully resisted by VOA journalists and VOA directors. Interference with editorial content from current IBB and VOA executives is far worse, and it cannot be resisted, because they are in control of resources and have all the power.
Mr. Elliott should keep in mind that during the USIA period, no one called VOA “dysfunctional” or “defunct.” On the contrary, repressive regimes feared VOA, but they don’t fear it now.
Does the world miss USIA?
Apparently, one could successfully argue that it does. But more importantly, so do the American people because it gave global publics some firsthand view of the United States: face-to-face encounters with Americans and examples of our culture, literature and music.
We may never know the complete story of USIA success. Books have been written here and there but the definitive history remains a missing, key ingredient. Some key players have passed from the scene, taking important segments of the story with them to the grave. Others have moved on to other chapters of their lives. We are left with the proverbial glass half empty and half full.
In place of USIA, we have the pompous, arrogant, sarcastic, overbearing and mean-spirited IBB, trying to revise history to pursue an agenda, loaded with disinformation, character assassination, self-interest and self-aggrandizement.
Quite a trade-off.
And we are all suffering.
Elliott: “As for US international broadcasting, I’ve written before that, as a VOA broadcaster, I miss USIA about as much as a Lithuanian misses the Soviet Union. Under USIA, VOA was sometimes pushed toward one editorial line, then pushed towards another editorial line. It was sometimes loosely controlled, and sometimes tightly controlled. Many VOA managers were rotated USIA foreign service officers, some who embraced the journalistic mission of VOA, and some who did the opposite.”
Federalist: Guess what, folks? There are still State Department Foreign Service officers inside the Cohen Building. Most of the time, they have been chiefs of some VOA language services. Others have held higher positions. Two ambassadors at one time or another, including the present, have or are serving on the BBG.
But let’s examine the matter of editorial content. What we are talking about here is a portion of the VOA Charter. That section of the Charter states as follows:
“3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.”
In short, Elliott rails against a mandated component of the agency’s mission. With a succession of administrations, it is the normal course of business to expect that editorial content will change. Why? Because these administrations have different policy goals and expectations.
Whether the agency has carried out this task effectively or not may be a reasonable subject for discussion, along with the programs used to convey these policies to global publics.
But the fact remains: explaining US policy is consistent with the provisions of the Charter. It is an inherent part of the business of US Government international broadcasting.
The question is: is it being done clearly and effectively?
To outward appearances, it is not. Cutting back direct broadcast transmissions, relying upon websites with outdated news, being a platform for recycled third party news items, taking a hatchet to broadcast programs that facilitate the discussion of US policy, understaffing and under-resourcing the VOA Newsroom…all are contributing factors to an agency that is as described: dysfunctional and defunct and being set up to fail.
Elliott: “Under USIA, VOA was not consistently independent. Without independence, an international broadcasting effort cannot achieve credibility. Without credibility, there will be no audience. The audience for international broadcasting is seeking real news, not public diplomacy.”
Federalist: Ah, yes: one of the favorite Elliott/IBB canards: “independence” and “no audience.” The truth of the matter is that US Government had a fair share of credibility before and during the USIA experience. What has changed? During the USIA period, VOA had enormous audiences, most of which are now gone.
You guessed it: the IBB.
Let’s make a point very clear:
This agency has never been independent. It has several sets of guardians, some better, others not, in keeping an eye of the cast of characters on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building: the Congress, the White House, and the State Department.
And here’s another one as part of the White House: the National Security Council (NSC). Numerous times, the NSC has weighed in on programming decisions (not necessarily editorial content): to expand or reduce programs and adopt others. Ditto with the Congress.
And more than likely, this agency will never be independent because of the record established by the IBB.
Message to the IBB: You guys have blown it. You have smashed your argument for “independence” to smithereens. You nuked it.
By becoming dysfunctional and defunct.
The audience seeking real news has gone elsewhere…and in some quarters not too friendly toward the United States.
Consider what else you’ve done:
Let’s start out with your failed five-year, Soviet-style strategic plan, which is really synonymous with trying to push the consequences of failure into the future, hoping to stay ahead of a reckoning that comes with accountability, something the IBB detests viscerally. Do you want an example?
Let’s talk about political character assassination of BBG members. And by the way, it started long before Ambassador Victor Ashe arrived on the scene with his vision of accountability and transparency. We know these IBB types very, very well and they know what we’re talking about.
What distinguished the Ashe scenario is the audacity and outrageousness: putting gross insubordination and rebellion on public display, most but not all contained in the OIG report on the BBG – which to outward appearances seems to have been a wholesale reflection of the IBB in revolt.
And the IBB is at it again: intimating threats that it will sue current BBG members if the board intends to take executive action to rein in an IBB and hold it accountable.
We’ve said this before, a deep and thorough examination of what the IBB has been doing would likely quiet those threats in a hurry…and the IBB bureaucracy may be looking for legal representation for other reasons.
The IBB use of the term “independence” is synonymous with one thing and one thing ONLY:
The IBB wants no one walking the halls of the Cohen Building talking about accountability and transparency. They most likely already know that they will have a hard time explaining their actions. The kind of deep and thorough examination of their actions might likely result in them wishing that the only thing the Congress might do is to legislate them onto the sidelines and into obscurity.
It’s that bad, ladies and gentlemen. These IBB cannot be entrusted with an agency representing the American people. And further:
The IBB should not be rewarded for or given immunity from being held accountable for their actions.
Under the circumstances, accepting the IBB status quo is ludicrous.
In like thinking with Mr. Schadler, we believe the IBB needs “adult supervision,” and that’s putting it mildly.
Elliott: “The lack of an audience does not concern Mr. Schadler. He derides the BBG for being “fixated on ‘audience size’.” Implied here is that the BBG should be fixated on sending a certain message to the world, regardless of how many people are listening. We see many real-life examples of this communication strategy. They are the people walking the streets, some with shopping carts, engaged in animated conversations, but talking only to themselves.”
Federalist: Lack of audience demonstrates that the United States has lost its resonance with global publics. If Mr. Schadler is not concerned with audience size, as Elliott claims, he should be. To give one example:
Roughly one billion people around the world identify themselves as of the Muslim faith. If one-tenth of one percent of this aggregate number are jihadists, we have a very serious problem. What we already know is that the jihadist message has resonance that propels people to act.
Instead of finding a counter-message that has resonance with population groups containing potential jihadists, the agency spends millions of dollars on Gallup polling data about media use in places like Somalia.
OK. There are jihadists in Somalia. Even if Gallup tells us how jihadists and others communicate, that information has not helped the IBB to make good decisions with regard to other countries.
What’s the message we are providing that country – on any platform?
The “geniuses” on the Third Floor have lost it. Somalia is a war zone, at the very least a country on the verge of being a failed state, the kind of “social order” jihadists favor. The United States inserted a Special Forces team into the country to capture or kill members of a jihadist cell. The IBB acts like Somalia is a go-to destination for your vacation plans.
But let’s get to the latter part of Elliott’s sarcastic comment:
“We see many real-life examples of this communication strategy. They are the people walking the streets, some with shopping carts, engaged in animated conversations, but talking only to themselves.” (Emphasis added)
Thank you, Mr. Elliott. This is precisely what is going on inside the Cohen Building.
And leading this “conversation” is the IBB, joined at various times by senior VOA officials.
We see our own real-life examples of this communication strategy: the IBB bureaucrats, peddling nonsense in staff meetings with employees, internal memos congratulating the staff on programs that are not being seen, heard or read, self-promoting press releases trying to drum up the American public into a domestic constituency (a form of propaganda), wasting tens of MILLIONS of dollars on polling research that has all the outward signs of being a diversionary tactic, instead of going out and determining why the agency’s audiences have fallen off a cliff and lest we forget creating a hostile work environment for agency employees.
You need not go onto city streets to observe people “engaged in animated conversations, but talking only to themselves.”
There are plenty of them on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.
At the end of the day, the story line remains the same:
The IBB would rather do something bad, really bad and ultimately destructive of the agency’s mission rather than admit that they are incapable of adjusting to contemporary circumstances.
The IBB has made US Government international broadcasting synonymous with:
Update: The VOA newsroom and the VOA web team were alerted by a VOA correspondent to the White House meeting between President Obama and Malala and given all the information well ahead of time but failed to post a comprehensive and journalistically solid news story.