It’s Alive! The USAGM Dystopia

OPINION

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

It’s Alive!

The U-SAG-M Dystopia

By The Federalist

“Dystopia” has a broad range of definition. In part, it is used to describe “…a place, society or situation in which (the reality of) conditions and the quality of life are dreadful.” Most of the time it is posited as a hypothetical as found in movies or in novels by George Orwell. But it can also be used to describe real-world conditions (communism, fascism and socialism) the consequences of certain ideologies which produce genuinely horrible outcomes.

 

Even the name of the agency (United States Agency for Global Media which we refer to as “U-SAG-M”) makes it grandiose, overbearing, other-worldly fantasy; something akin to an alternative universe (which it is and demonstrates almost daily).

 

A key component in a dystopia is propaganda which becomes apparent when the agency’s operations are described by its officials.

 

Consider if you will a recent U-SAG-M press release (“Big Achievements and What’s Next,” February 2019).

 

The good news is that it was released late on Friday, February 15 when most of official Washington is beating a hard path out of DC for a three-day holiday weekend and probably couldn’t care less about fictional pronouncements by John Lansing, the agency’s current chief executive officer.

 

Further good fortune: his missive was overtaken by other events; namely, the Trump administration announcing a national emergency surrounding the funding and construction of a border wall between the United States and Mexico intended to interdict illegal immigration from Latin and South America giving even less reason to pay attention to Lansing’s nonsense.

 

Nevertheless, Lansing’s missives are always on our radar because they are a gift exposing numerous fantasies surrounding this agency.

 

One thing you must know from the outset: this press release represents little more than self-serving propaganda. It lacks substance. Lansing makes oversized and generalized claims without presenting facts to support the claims in this cliché-ridden press release:

 

“2018 was a banner year for (USAGM)…a reflection of our modernization reforms and forward momentum…”

 

What Lansing avoids describing is what needed reforming. And as far as “forward momentum” is concerned this is another way of describing the typical agency paradigm: motion without movement. Make no mistake about it: the agency is behind the curve in terms of being a reservoir of forward thinking individuals.

 

In terms of making some kind of great leap forward in technology or program delivery, there is nothing the agency is doing that isn’t being done by other international media outlets save for one thing: these outlets are more effective.

 

Lansing goes on to describe the agency,

 

“…expanding professional and independent news and information to the most repressive media environments in the world…”

 

Well-informed individuals know agency programs are regularly, routinely and systematically blocked in “the most repressive media environments in the world,” including but not limited to Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, etc.

 

“…we have refined our approach to focus on programming that is innovative and in-demand, and we have increased our competitiveness across all platforms, including constantly assessing and responding to changing information needs to fine tune how we engage our audiences…”

 

How? It is left to the reader to divine what Lansing is talking about. And as far as competitiveness is concerned, the agency is well behind other international broadcasters in terms of reach, impact and effectiveness. If anything, the record demonstrates that the agency is disengaged from potential audiences: the lack of a solid social media presence on services like Facebook, YouTube. It commonly produces paltry numbers in “likes” and “views.” In short, the agency is functionally invisible.

 

And here is one of our perennial favorites:

 

“…we are reaching more and more people each year. In 2018, USAGM programming was consumed by 345 million adults weekly  worldwide—including radio, television and internet—an unprecedented year-on-year increase of 67 million from 2017. We made significant strides in penetrating some of the most critically strategic and difficult markets in the world: China, Russia and Iran…” 

 

Wowser.

 

We are well-acquainted with the agency’s numbers games. These numbers are works of fiction. Anyone can see it clearly from the lack of comments on the social media pages. Even “likes” are very few, and we know that the agency was buying them with Facebook ads. If you go to the link embedded in the press release, you will be taken to an internal agency document lauding its claims including:

 

“…The audience estimate is based on surveys • conducted within the past five years; • in more than 100 countries and territories; and • that represent 3 billion people in markets around the globe…”

 

This is how we look at the agency’s claims:

 

If and it is a big IF:

 

345 million adults weekly worldwide in 100 countries and territories, is the United States included? But even without the United States, how much of the claimed audience consists of meaningless social media clicks bought with ads and how much of the claimed audience is from self-censored paid rebroadcasts devoid of any human rights message? Add to that the global population is upwards of 7-BILLION people and the results are even further diluted.

 

Impact? Well, not really.

 

The other thing the agency remains noticeably silent on is the survey process: the questions asked, the manner in which the agency lumps a range of “positive” responses into one whole, etc.

 

Here’s another thing:

 

The agency has been systematically eliminating direct radio broadcasts which the haughty “brain trust” of agency officials consider to be a bygone legacy broadcasting platform. The agency appears intent to reduce its radio component to “podcasts.”

 

There’s a problem with this:

 

The question is whether or not the agency gets a one-for-one trade-off: for each radio listener lost in a country that blocks access to agency’s news websites and monitors its internet users, does it get a person accessing a podcast?

 

More than likely: NO.

 

A radio – a shortwave radio – is infinitely more affordable than a PC, an ISP provider or a smartphone and not as easily interdicted by the powers that be in any “repressive media environment.”

 

Lansing attempts to make a big deal out of the agency’s coverage of President Trump’s State of the Union address and the Democratic response. There may have been a time when the agency would have been one of the few sources of these broadcasts internationally. But it is not the case now, including simultaneous translations. The world has matured on the broadcasting map. The agency is no longer alone.

 

One more thing worth mentioning:

 

When one studies tabulations of views to agency websites, English among the group, what you see is numbers that struggle to get out of the hundreds. Rarely do the numbers come up to low tens of thousands. There is no way this translates into the kind of numbers Lansing claims as the agency’s weekly adult audience.

 

Notevenclose.

 

And it is doubtful that the agency’s language services fare much better.

 

Lansing goes on to claim,

 

Alhurra Television overhauled its look and feel and added new and improved programming to better meet the needs of its increasingly young and sophisticated audience.

 

Here, if you click on the link in the press release, it takes you to an internal televised meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). In short, the gathering which attempts to assert what a great job the agency entities are doing. Once again, the proof is in regional attitudes toward the United States. In the Middle East it isn’t too positive to put it mildly. No matter how Lansing tries to portray it, Arab and Middle East audiences know Alhurra represent: a media outlet for the US Government.

 

What U-SAG-M represents is a string of failed or missed opportunities. Almost twenty years into the 21st century, the agency is searching for some substantive impact and effectiveness. What it comes down to is credibility. And on that score, the agency is being challenged by abroad array of media alternatives representing divergent points of view and populations not willing to buy into the U-SAG-M world view. As the saying goes, “All politics is local.” And in today’s world that means survival. It means keeping your head down.

 

The human rights and vulnerability of journalists is another separate issue. As a practical matter, U-SAG-M is a poor spokesperson for the former and an even poorer defender of the latter whether it is its own people or others. Journalists are viewed negatively except as a convenient soft target when they get too close to “local politics.” Those in power have demonstrated a willingness to take extraordinary and not uncommonly excessive measures to protect their power. Challenging the powers that be carries big risks and sometimes with little to show for it.

 

As we see it, there is little if any tangible evidence that Lansing’s claims hold up under scrutiny.

 

But even more insidious are the conditions inside U-SAG-M.

 

It is not a happy or friendly place. Indeed, the agency is notorious for a hostile, anti-employee environment. It routinely ranks at or near the bottom of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) since the survey began years ago. If you haven’t figured it out by now, senior agency officials do not care how their performance is viewed by the employees (or contractors). Employee views regarding agency “leadership” is decidedly negative. There is a palpable atmosphere of fear and intimidation which plays very well with the autocratic, almost totalitarian philosophy of its management structure, political appointees and career bureaucrats alike. Make no mistake: these individuals are proud of the manner in which they project negative outcomes intended to beat down the employees into submission.

 

Among the agencies of the Federal bureaucracy you would be hard-pressed to find a darker and more insidious atmosphere than the one created by U-SAG-M officials. They glory in it. They revel in it. And a good reason why is that there is no meaningful accountability of these officials whether they be political appointees or members of the career bureaucracy.

 

Leaving holdover political appointees from the previous administration in place who have either directly or indirectly contributed to a variety of scandals within this agency is one part of the problem. Lansing and Bennett should have been replaced with competent leadership at the appointment level long ago.

 

Among the career bureaucracy one thing that needs to be done is to remove them from the evaluation process and have their performance and standards measured independently. These careerists have played the system for years, filling file cabinets full of Outstanding evaluations and often rewarding themselves with cash awards.

 

In all cases, these conditions are unacceptable and must be reviewed and changed.

 

Otherwise, the only meaningful thing Michael Pack or any future appointee can do is facilitate the transfer of functions of this agency to elsewhere in the Federal Government. In its current construct, the agency is useless and a blatant example of mission failure.

 

As this press release demonstrates, truth is a very elusive commodity with Lansing and the rest of official U-SAG-M.

 

The Lansing press release is nothing more than the U-SAG-M con game.

 

The Federalist

February 2019

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. C Street Observer

    “year-on-year increase of 67 million” What an absolute farce. This is a massive charade designed to fool Americans — and specifically Congress — into thinking that this agency is operating competently, and that it is still needed. Is there no one on Capitol Hill who gets this?

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