BBG Watch Media
“Websites operate in broadcast fashion: We publish, you read. We’ll allow feedback at our discretion. The White House website and other departmental sites have lots of information, but they wander into propaganda territory at times,” Tom Temin wrote in an opinion article posted on Federal News Radio 1500 AM website.
The author does not mention the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) even once even though the agency in charge of U.S. international media outreach claims that it counters hostile foreign propaganda with accurate news and is at the same time criticized for failing to do so effectively and for trying to cover up its failures with its own public relations efforts.
READ MORE: Federal websites can spill over into propaganda, Tom Temin, Federal News Radio 1500 AM, June 3, 2016.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors website includes a lot of bragging and misleading information. It does not allow comments on its posts. It often offers meaningless audience claims while hiding the fact that the BBG has a minimal weekly audience reach and impact in countries like Russia. However, the BBG’s own website’s public relations impact appears to be truly insignificant for a communications agency which gets close to one billion dollars annually from U.S. taxpayers and has a large contingent of public relations specialists on its federal payroll.
Here are some recent counts of Facebook “Likes” (as of June 5, 2016) for press releases on the BBG website, but, in our view, public relations is not what is wrong with the agency. The problems go far deeper.
Alhurra Goes To The Egyptian Streets With New Program, BBG Press Release, June 1, 2016 – Facebook Likes: 0
Ismayilova Freed From Prison But Intent On Justice, BBG and RFE/RL Press Release, May 25, 2016 – Facebook Likes: 2
Voice Of America Journalist Arrested And Beaten In Angola, BBG and VOA Press Release, May 26, 2016 – Facebook Likes: 2
Unless they highlight problems and the need for reform, the political establishment and U.S. media are ignoring the Broadcasting Board of Governors not because the BBG is not issuing press releases but because the agency has become largely irrelevant in Washington under its recent boards. This was painfully obvious from an article written by Washington-based freelance writer Amanda Abrams in which she discusses the S.2692 – Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). The article also summarizes a panel discussion on disinformation and propaganda which was held at the Atlantic Council to present the bill. The Broadcasting Board of Governors is mentioned only once in the article, and only in passing. The agency is not mentioned for anything it does but in reference to how much it costs U.S. taxpayers. The article says the BBG’s annual budget from Congress is $750 million. The FY 2017 budget request calls for $777 million for the agency.
Yet again, the BBG is essentially ignored even though some of its elements and individual journalists are capable of excellent and much needed news reporting and analysis. Their achievements go unnoticed because the agency itself is dysfunctional and its performance highly uneven and overall inadequate.
The Portman-Murphy bill would have never been introduced during the Cold War when the Voice of America operated under the United States Information Agency (USIA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) operated under their own separate board. They were phenomenally effective in carrying out their different missions before the BBG was established in 1999. Likewise, legislations such as the Portman-Murphy bill would have never been introduced if the Broadcasting Board of Governors was doing its job right at the present time, which many experts say it can’t do under its current institutional structure.
Critics also say that putting one CEO in charge of the BBG, or even abolishing the BBG board, is not a complete solution to a much deeper problem with the agency and the State Department. Both Senator Portman and Senator Murphy acknowledged this fact when they proposed their legislation and essentially ignored any role under their bill for the BBG.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors was also not mentioned in a recent Washington Post op-ed on the danger of Russian disinformation. The op-ed’s authors were Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum and British journalist and propaganda expert Edward Lucas.
The danger of Russian disinformation, Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas, The Washington Post, May 6, 2016
Fighting Back: New Bill Aims to Counter Russian Disinformation, Amanda Abrams, Atlantic Council, March 17, 2016.
In an Epoch Times article on U.S. government’s efforts to counter disinformation, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is mentioned only once, and only in passing, with no reference to anything that the BBG might be doing now to counter hostile propaganda.
US Senate Bill Seeks to Shine Light on Foreign Disinformation: Chinese and Russian propaganda seen as threat to US national security and democracy, Joshua Philipp, Epoch Times, May 23, 2016.
The ultimate vote of no confidence in the Broadcasting Board of Governors is the Thornberry Amendment to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It was introduced by Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and passed by a voice vote by the House. The amendment authorizes the BBG CEO to establish a non-profit organization to carry out the mission of the Voice of America and includes a Sense of the Congress that the VOA mission should remain unchanged from that articulated in another reform bill, H.R. 2323, which passed the House but was not picked up in the Senate.
The Thornberry Amendment also proposes to eliminate the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The amendment as passed will go to the Senate which can either accept it, or give their own version which would necessitate the House and the Senate going into conference where its points can still be argued. BBG CEO John Lansing stated in an e-mail message to staff that “the House amendment as written would NOT require that VOA be de-federalized or abolished, or require the loss of any jobs or positions.” This interpretation from CEO Lansing came late and did not reassure many VOA journalists. Lansing also told them that “It is worth stating that there is a long journey from the passage of an amendment to it becoming law,” but he did not address the question as to why such legislation would be introduced in the first place. The amendment does not specify what establishing “a non-profit organization to carry out the mission of the Voice of America” would mean for current VOA journalists and other staffers who are federal government employees.
Additional BBG Watch Commentary
During the Cold War, the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL) were mentioned all the time in media articles dealing with any kind of U.S. government-funded media outreach abroad or U.S. government’s public relations efforts about such outreach with regard to U.S. foreign policy. Opponents in the United States, in Western Europe and communist regimes in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union called these U.S.-funded broadcasts “propaganda,” while much more numerous supporters of VOA, RFE, and RL referred to them as providers of news and commentary in defense of freedom and against communist censorship. In any case, VOA, RFE, and RL were constantly on the media’s radar screen. In the United States, positive media publicity far surpassed any negative publicity.
These days, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives seem to think that if they only had a better public relations outreach, members of Congress and the American public would immediately recognize what a wonderful job they are doing. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors does not have a public relations problem; it is a problem of the lack of vision, the lack of a clear strategy, and general dysfunction and incompetence of the agency’s senior management staff.
Unless leadership by highly competent foreign policy and media experts is provided and structural problems with the Broadcasting Board of Governors are fixed — including hiring of foreign policy and other experts instead of friends and acquittances of current failed managers and executives — constant beefing up of the BBG public relations office with new highly-paid federal managers and employees is not going to help.
If the Broadcasting Board of Governors is not being criticized these days for being a broken agency and ““losing the info war to ISIS and Putin,” (House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Chairman Ed Royce, February 23, 2016), it is being completely ignored.
In either case, this is bad for the agency and its employees, especially the Voice of America, which is being threatened by Congress with de-federalization — a move that could be even more disastrous.
One of BBG Watch media experts observed:
In effect, the agency’s social media public relations effort is a failure because it doesn’t register in any meaningful way. And when it does, more often than not, it is in a negative way.
The next is indeed the propaganda angle. It’s interesting that there hasn’t been more in the way of critical remarks about the agency’s activities since they are available domestically to anyone with a computer or mobile device. This goes to the above. It’s off the radar.”