Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War? What Information War? The Agency Is Dead – Unprecedented Irrelevance
By The Federalist
Forbes magazine ranks Russian president Vladimir Putin as the world’s most powerful person:
“Russian President Vladimir Putin Tops Forbes’ 2015 Ranking Of The World’s Most Powerful People,” Forbes, November 4, 2015
He is followed in the #2 position by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Slip, sliding away is Barack Obama, president of the United States. Mr. Obama’s stature has been slipping and may slide even further before he exits the White House in January 2017.
Hard times, indeed.
But not at all surprising.
Russian history is replete with examples of strong leaders. It is not often a pretty picture. With a country as large and often contentious from a governance perspective, what often rules the day is an understanding of the application of power.
Mr. Putin is clearly a student of Russian history. His government regularly uses themes that play heavily on Russian pride, Russian nationalism and the Russian global perspective. It may not always be accurate or correct, but it doesn’t have to be. It is all in the perception. And with Mr. Putin, the Russians are back on the block and in the business of projecting power globally. Mr. Putin makes clear that this is the time for Russia to pursue its destiny.
In the meantime,
The United States appears to be stumbling badly through the 21st century. Things change and not always for the better. Again, we come to the matter of perception. In certain international circles, the United States is perceived to be weak and ineffective. We’ll put the Russians at the top of that view, but there are others. Ultimately, this turn of ill fortune rests on the desk of the president of the United States.
Clearly, one of the great failings of this administration is its inability to have a coherent voice with global publics. That puts the focus on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
For years, this agency has been ranked at/or near the bottom of the annual Federal workplace surveys (Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey – FEVS) conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). It is not accidental. It is a clear and unmistakable representation of how the agency is run and its incapable, incompetent and ineffective senior officials. These fossilized bureaucrats are capable of doing one thing and one thing only: preserving a status quo that is all about them.
Abject failures like the BBG survive, not because it is doing a splendid job, but because of other pressing national priorities. That does not mean that certain people in Congress don’t recognize the problem.
This agency is adrift and on the fiscal equivalent of life support.
And as part of that end of the day scenario, we place a large part of the responsibility for lack of action in the White House. In effect, the message that rings loud and clear is that the White House is a facilitator and enabler of BBG dysfunction.
In what seems like ages ago, at the time of the appointment of Andrew Lack to be the first chief executive officer (CEO) of the BBG, we remarked that there isn’t anyone alive or dead who can resuscitate the agency. It seemed a rather bold declaration at the time, but it still holds true.
In the intervening time between Lack’s arrival and rapid departure and the appointment of John Lansing as the current CEO, things have gotten progressively worse, not better, for the agency.
This is not a reflection on Mr. Lack or on Mr. Lansing. Rather, it is recognition of core, underlying issues. The largest of these is the absolute refusal of senior agency career bureaucrats to take ownership of the agency’s total mission failure. This is not surprising since it would provide Lansing with cause to remove them, if not out of the agency altogether, at least be reassigned to tasks well out of the limelight and the major decision making process.
These bureaucrats create crises, allow crises to happen, and then offer to solve them, but can’t. They are responsible for numerous abuses, illegal contracting practices and waste of taxpayers’ money, as documented repeatedly by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) investigations and reports; and yet nothing happens to them. In an ultimate irony, they are asked by the BBG Board to investigate problems they themselves had created, contributed to, or allowed to happen. They make themselves indispensable to BBG Board members and other key figures because there is no one else. They guarantee the failure of each successive BBG Board and anyone else the BBG choses to put in charge. No one can figure out how to replace them. Little wonder BBG’s employee satisfaction index remains one of the lowest in the entire federal government. They spread the anti-employee management culture from one BBG entity to another.
Still in key positions, these same careerists are poised to undermine any effort by Lansing or anyone else to blow a hole through business as usual and introduce a new operating paradigm. As we have learned from past activities, certain individuals are not beyond engaging in character assassination and other tactics to force individuals out of the organization seen as a threat. They had targeted BBG members before. Make no mistake about it: these people are vicious and mean-spirited. They are deserving of nothing but contempt.
If Mr. Lansing hasn’t figured it out already, he will ultimately come to the realization that he is surrounded by individuals committed to perpetuating the conditions existent in the agency and send him packing at the earliest possible moment. By then, it will be too late for him, for the BBG Chairman, for the BBG Board. These bureaucrats were and are the guarantors of the agency’s failure and the failure of whoever is put in charge and decides to rely on these failed managers.
Make no mistake about it: on all levels, the agency’s problems are pervasive and unfixable. In both the short and the long term, the best solution to this problem is to abolish the agency and transfer its functions elsewhere. We wait. We are patient. It is inevitable.
Lost In Space: Cyberspace and Elsewhere
At this juncture, the agency is desperate to find a place for itself in the changing currents of “messaging,” which seems to have taken over in government parlance as a replacement for “public diplomacy.”
We no longer live in an age in which providers of news and information hold themselves to the highest standards of objective, unbiased and fact-based news and information. The new age is one of advocacy in which various providers promote a certain point of view and interpret events from that point of view.
Worse, the Internet is rife with individuals and organizations which have no standards whatsoever and promote wild theories if not outright misinformation. A so-called “citizen journalist,” with no credentials whatsoever, but with access to the Internet, can promote misshapen narratives at will and without accountability.
Propaganda, particularly malicious propaganda intended to provoke people to act, is king at this stage of the 21st century.
In this unstructured environment, the agency is struggling.
Two things now work against the agency in this regard:
First, by its own hand, the agency has reduced and intends to eliminate altogether its radio broadcasts. By their nature, these broadcasts had tremendous spatial penetration and reach those who are most desperate for news and information despite expensive efforts to uniformly jam the broadcasts. In short, the substantive message got through to those who need it the most.
Second, program content by indigenous broadcasters has become increasingly sophisticated, often focused around entertainment programs, but also including news presentations. These broadcasters are not shy about embracing advocacy and being slick about it.
But even more worrisome is the rise of negative resonance to agency programs. Comments on BBG websites are often dominated by hostility toward the agency specifically, and the United States in general. While some of this may be the work of Internet “trolls” and other malicious individuals, the consequences and impact cannot be underestimated.
This loss of resonance has resulted in the turn toward “messaging” as well as legislation introduced in the Congress intended to address the agency’s mission failure.
As a result, we now have BBG officials running through the corridors of government trying to find something that registers with decision makers in order to keep the agency alive when it is most assuredly – DEAD.
A recent BBG Watch posting goes into great detail about an appearance by BBG governor Matt Armstrong in a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). The analysis can be found here:
“Matt Armstrong calls Voice of America a ‘fundamental counter to propaganda’, exaggerates successes, ignores failures,” BBG Watch, October 25, 2015
It is not necessary to repeat the analysis provided by BBG Watch, which focuses on dismal social media and other audience engagement statistics, especially for the Voice of America. Instead, we see what is reported as illustrative of a much larger issue.
Looked at cumulatively, the agency is as described:
Senior agency officials, including those of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America (VOA) have succinctly butchered the agency’s mission: so much so that the VOA in particular can no longer stand on the merits of its own Charter.
The process of disintegration has been underway for some time. Comparatively speaking, in terms of time, it didn’t take long for this cabal of careerists to put the agency on the trajectory of “crash and burn.”
With its credibility shot away, these officials began a process that we call “deluxe pandering:” trying to sell the agency to any particular audience of the moment in order to survive.
Here are some of the more flagrant examples:
Claiming to have a “strategic plan,” which has been generally repudiated, including by some BBG members, as “neither strategic nor a plan;”
Trying to sell itself as a “news company,” a favorite of former VOA director David Ensor, which the agency never has been, is not now and more than ever never will be;
Claiming to adopt a “digital first” strategy, emphasizing media platforms reliant upon digital service providers. Consistently, the agency has lagged far behind other media services including but not limited to the digital platforms of other traditional international broadcasters and those of the 21st century which would have to include Google, Facebook, YouTube and others. In addition, agency content is routinely blocked in Russia, China, Iran and elsewhere.
In general, the target of this pandering is the Congress which provides the agency’s funding.
Unable to stand on its own merit, the agency, as Mr. Armstrong’s testimony suggests, is trying to attach itself to the coattails of other government programs or agencies, whether it is the concept of “messaging” over public diplomacy or being an integral part of US national security. In the past, an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee might have raised more than a few eyebrows when one considers the often repeated suggestion that the agency be considered “independent.” Clearly, those days are over, at least for the foreseeable future. Now, with Mr. Armstrong and others, in order to survive, the agency must recalibrate itself.
The path of “messaging” is no salvation for the agency. Indeed, it has the appearance of layering more failure on top of what has been experienced within the State Department, in the effort to counter a robust effort by Islamic extremists, particularly across the
Internet in order to recruit followers, provide descriptors of how to construct IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and conduct individual acts of terrorism.
Mr. Armstrong demonstrates great vigor in his portrayal of the agency. However, his testimony might be viewed as subjective at best and misleading at worst, ignoring the many examples, across all BBG entities, of how little impact the agency is having in molding global public opinion and preserving the credibility of its services. Any credible treatment of the agency’s deficiencies would demonstrate that in many respects, it is its own worst enemy.
(Not) Knowing Your Audience
Recently, the BBG conducted a meeting at the facilities of Radio Sawa/Alhurra television outside Washington, DC.
If you understand the completeness of the agency’s disintegration, the public sessions of these meetings take on the atmosphere of a fantasyland, totally disconnected from reality.
This latest meeting at Radio Sawa/Alhurra may indeed be the ultimate expression of such.
At this juncture, it could be argued that the United States has no coherent or effective policy in the Middle East, other than to pass from bad to worse: incapable of crushing the Islamic extremists, training effective indigenous fighting forces to take on the extremists, alienating the Israeli government and not being able to identify terrorist activities before the fact and interdict the terrorists.
Radio Sawa/Alhurra television is among the same debris field as the broader US policy. Created to change the paradigm in the Arab and Muslim world following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, this service has been spectacularly successful: in seeing attitudes in the Arab and Muslim world shifting from bad to worse.
Frankly, much more intense scrutiny of the Radio Sawa/Alhurra project is very necessary. Unfortunately, it appears to be viewed as part of the larger malaise afflicting the BBG mission as a whole.
When questioned about its audience research, Brian Conniff, the head of Sawa/Alhurra remarked,
BRIAN CONNIFF: “We measure reach of course, but as everyone now seems to agree, reach is now not the paramount issue, it is the people who watch, is it making a difference? In our surveys we ask a series of sub-questions, do you trust us, does it improve your understanding of democracy, does it [enhance] your understanding of American foreign policy, a whole series of questions, and we believe the answers to those questions, when aggregated in a certain way, provide more insight into the impact than we have ever had before.”
We disagree with Mr. Conniff on the point of “reach” when it comes to audiences in regions such as the Middle East; it may be different in China, which blocks BBG Internet sites. It most certainly is the paramount issue. The attempt to develop “messaging” at the State Department and the BBG is a clear indication that Sawa/AlHurra has no effective reach, as if conditions on the ground don’t make it obvious to anyone with a grip on the reality of the situation.
In talking about the survey questions, Mr. Conniff remarks,
BRIAN CONNIFF: “…we believe the answers to those questions, when aggregated in a certain way, provide more insight into the impact than we have ever had before.”
“Aggregated in a certain way.”
What does that mean?!?
Here’s your answer: it means nothing! It is doubletalk to avoid a direct answer. It is nonsense. It is bureaucratic gibberish.
Anyone with an eye on what is taking place in the Middle East knows that this is baloney; and that would include the Russians, the Iranians, the Israelis and Islamic extremists. They would likely reach the same conclusion: that these remarks are not rational.
The meeting also included a discussion of Sawa/Alhurra programming including a project to inform Iraqis about processes related to asserting themselves and basic rights.
Anyone picking up the Washington Post, including an illustrative series of articles by reporter Terry Sullivan would think that Sawa/Alhurra is from an altered universe:
“Life in the Islamic State – Washington Post Five Part Series,” by The Washington Post, October 1, 2015
So what is going on here?
Looking at the agency from a budgetary standpoint, we see the BBG as a (less than) billion dollar failure in a Federal budget of more than a trillion dollars. As a budget line item, it is a placeholder. It is there to preserve the agency’s mission if and when at such time someone determines what to do with it and how to fund either a successor agency or the transfer of BBG functions elsewhere in the national government.
But keep in mind, that the failure of this agency is exponential and compounded with every passing day.
We believe strongly that the mechanisms and the personnel are not in place to undertake a major, successful sea change in the agency’s fortunes. Laying it all on CEO John Lansing is unreasonable, particularly if he remains saddled with the people responsible for the agency’s disaster-in-progress. Allowing these individuals to remain in place should not be an option.
They have to go.