BBG Watch Commentary
If unable to see Part I of RBK-TV-VOA, Sept. 11, 2014 video, check:
In what one West European expert on disinformation and propaganda described as a “Russian triumph in terms of info warfare,” audiences in Russia to a local television program, with willing participation of U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA), heard comments that President Obama is stupid, Senator John McCain hates Russia and wants to fight it, the U.S. punishes Russia with unjust economic sanctions while President Putin seeks peace, and journalists who report on Russian troops in Ukraine offer fake information. All of these comments were made by the Russian anchor in Moscow in a TV program with the Russian Service of the Voice of America in Washington. No one from VOA specifically challenged the Russian TV host when he said that Senator McCain hates Russia and wants war.
In previous two television programs with the Voice of America, the Russian television business channel had close to total control and the VOA presenter and VOA guests were easily outmaneuvered by the Russian anchor. VOA guests in Washington were either unconvincing or their Russian was not fluent enough, but they had no chance anyway to present a strong response to Russian propaganda. In the third program last week, the VOA guest, Matthew Bryza, former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan, was excellent and made some very good points, but he spoke like a diplomat that he was. Had he spoken in any other way, it would still not have made any difference to the ultimate impact of the show on public opinion in Russia. He probably picked the best approach, but the entire set-up of the show and the Russian handling of it is designed to make sure that the U.S. side can have no significant impact in Russia. The show has been designed to help increase anti-American and pro-Kremlin perceptions.
Through no fault of his own, ultimately Ambassador Bryza, as good as he was, had no chance to win any arguments in the context of the entire program as designed and controlled by the Russian side with the purpose of delivering a strong propaganda victory for the Kremlin. The Russian host is getting meaner and better with each show, one former Voice of America Russian-speaking broadcaster told BBG Watch. He also has the advantage of being a native Russian speaker.
The VOA presenter, also a native Russian speaker, did a better job in the third program, but he is still no match for the Russian anchor who is excellent in demolishing the reputation of the United States and undermining the credibility of Americans using their own words and their own Voice of America broadcaster. He has a powerful presence on television and dominates the show. We think he might become a television hero in Russia for beating up on the Americans.
The VOA presenter even seemed to agree with the Russian host at the beginning of the program that since both President Obama and Senator McCain had made such strong statements condemning Russian moves in Ukraine, there was no chance for Russia and the U.S. to join forces and cooperate in the fight against terrorism. The Russian television audience could easily assume this was due to American intransigence. This was exactly a theme the Russian side was repeating again and again.
Media advisors to President Putin, who is waging a war in Ukraine, would never have agreed to this kind of television arrangement with VOA if they were not certain that the program helps their total war effort. Russian disinformation and propaganda play a decisive role in this conflict.
What the Voice of America management does not seem to fully realize is that this program with the Voice of America was carefully orchestrated by the Russian side. The Russians even chose the strong message-bearing title, “Cold War?,” to engage in information warfare with the U.S., make Russia look like a victim of American and NATO aggression and to use the program to attack the United States to cheers from the Russian television audience.
Even Voice of America director David Ensor admitted publicly last week that the Russians chose the title and have control of the show. The Russian host easily makes the Americans look either confused and timid or aggressively anti-Russian and war-like, and generally a threat to Russia and world peace. VOA can’t win by being meek and it can’t win by being aggressive. This program was a no-win situation for VOA from the beginning.
Voice of America director David Ensor obviously has a different opinion of the program’s effectiveness.
VOA DIRECTOR DAVID ENSOR: When national security stakes are higher, we are ready to accept calculated risks to get into markets and to reach people, for example right now, and there are blogs about this and controversy about this, fair enough. … We have a new co-production with Russian Business Channel called “Cold War?” I don’t know whether Putin is long going to allow this to continue, but he is at the moment. We have had two broadcast on so far in last two weeks… which reach 11 percent of the Russian television audience … this audience has watched while Russian and American journalists and commentators debate Ukraine and other topics over which they differ. And it is true the Russian anchor uses all the advantages, he has the microphone….the engineers work for him, it is his show, it is his audience, and of course President Putin and his policies are popular in Russia so there are many advantages from the RBC side of the argument, but nevertheless this audience is now hearing something new, both sides. … Those of you who follow this issue know that is not what the Kremlin says, they say they have no troops in Ukraine, but our guests having seen the information that is available in the West, but no so much in Russia, know otherwise.
Voice of America director David Ensor said last week that VOA is taking calculated risks with this program. He was implying that while the Russian side is in control, the Russian television audience — the channel has a 11 % reach in the Russian Federation, according to a VOA – BBG press release — gets to hear American views they would otherwise not hear in Russia. He is wrong on that point. First of all, not all of Russian media is tightly controlled and even state television channels report some Western news with an appropriate pro-Kremlin spin. President Putin is too clever to practice full censorship. The Russians are not unfamiliar with Western views on many contentious issues, but they don’t believe them.
Even under communism, the Soviet media would quote American and other Western politicians and experts criticizing the Soviet system to show how hostile they are toward communism and the USSR and to counter their arguments. Soviet media would also sometimes quote selectively from Voice of America and Radio Liberty broadcasts to counter them. What the Soviet authorities would not allow were Radio Liberty and Voice of America programs they could not control and censor. These broadcasts were jammed, but never fully effectively.
The same game of using U.S. statements against the United States is being played here. Being in control of the program, the Russian side is using it to ridicule and demolish American views on Russia, Ukraine and other international issues.
About a dozen Russia and media experts BBG Watch consulted about the program in the United States and in Europe have all told us that the Russian side is clearly dominating the discussion and winning propaganda points with their audience. In the third program, the Russians apparently agreed for VOA to use some video footage, which only the Russian channel used in the first and second program to its own advantage. Unless the Russian side told VOA what specific footage to use, which is also possible, VOA chose two short statements, one from President Obama and another one from Senator John McCain. But instead of choosing comments in which these two American leaders might explain why President Putin is a danger to world peace and Russia’s security and prosperity, VOA chose remarks in which Obama and McCain directly attack the Kremlin for what Russia did in Ukraine.
This was exactly what the Russian side wanted: to drive home the point for their domestic audience that America wants war with Russia. The whole program with VOA is designed by the Russian side around this theme, with willing participation from Washington, where VOA officials seem to have no idea of being used by for a propaganda exercise.
If unable to see Part II of RBK-TV-VOA, Sept. 11, 2014 video, check:
With the masterful handling by the Russian host of the theme of America’s aggression, using both ridicule and presenting Russia as a victim, any denials from the VOA presenter and even from such astute experts as Ambassador Bryza had no chance of sounding convincing to the vast majority of Russians watching the show, according to the experts we consulted. They might convince those who are already critical of the Kremlin, but they probably don’t need any extra convincing and are familiar with American and European opinions anyway.
Ambassador Bryza was excellent, his Russian was quite good, but the Russian anchor immediately put VOA and the VOA guest on the defensive and won the debate as far as the Russian audience is concerned. It was in fact not really a debate because the U.S. side was not given the opportunity to ask their own questions. All the questions came from the Russian channel. The Russian host quoted Senator McCain supposedly calling President Obama, “not a villain, but stupid.” He also immediately and decisively dismissed Senator McCain as an advocate for war with Russia by saying that McCain hates Russia and wants to give arms to the Ukrainians. The Russian audiences no doubt loved such a harsh and decisive attack on an American politician condemned as a warmonger by the Kremlin. No one from Voice of America objected specifically to this description of Senator McCain.
In general terms, American experts and politicians can’t win in this kind of Russian set-up. A dissident Russian politician, an outspoken Russian human rights leader, or one of the top Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists might have a much better chance to counter propaganda arguments coming form the Kremlin because they understand it much better and they know the mindset of the Russian people exposed to this kind of propaganda. That’s why they are banned from major television channels in Russia and that’s why the Russian side chose VOA for this project.
While not as egregiously in violation of the VOA Charter and therefore the U.S. law as the recently proposed VOA program for the communist Voice of Vietnam, which will not have any political news, will clearly be subject to self-censorship, and can be pulled off the air by the Vietnamese authorities, the project with the business TV channel in Russia at least allows the U.S. side to express some views critical of the Kremlin. VOA director Ensor said last week that these kinds of affiliate arrangements considerably increase Voice of America’s audience, which is true. But are they journalistically honest, balanced, objective and do they help the United States by being journalistically honest, blanked, and objective or in any other way?
In the case of the VOA-Russian TV program and the proposed VOA program for the Voice of Vietnam, the answer is no. It would be naive to assume that VOA is practicing no self-censorship whatsoever in the case of the Russian program, especially with regard to any harsh but true criticism directed specifically at President Putin. The Russian host can afford to use and did use unflattering names for American politicians, the VOA presenter cannot refer to President Putin as a ruthless dictator or the program will not air in Russia, unless the Russian host figures out a way to use it against the United State, and he probably would. As we said earlier, whether timid or aggressive, the Voice of America can’t win.
On-request affiliate content in many cases does not meet the journalistic requirements of the VOA Charter. In significant cases, such affiliate arrangement can exist only if VOA practices censorship, for example by excluding certain American voices, and self-censorship. Almost any country that has free press and has a sufficient level of economic development can get decent news coverage on its own from the United States. We are not saying that VOA reporting for affiliates cannot add some value. But if a country does not have free press or falls in the gray area, whatever VOA provides as requested by a local affiliate is likely to be subjected to self-censorship by VOA and another level of censorship by an affiliate or the local authorities. This is completely contrary to what Congress and Americans want and contrary to the VOA Charter, the U.S. law, and the mission statement of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Congress and U.S. taxpayers fund Voice of America to avoid this kind of censorship, but if VOA’s only objective is audience numbers no matter for what, then these kinds of affiliate arrangements are the way to go. They may, however, in many cases be against the U.S. law governing Voice of America journalism. Congress should insist that VOA sticks to its Charter. In one case VOA director David Ensor referred last week to Voice of America as a “state broadcaster” and in other instances called it a “media company.” VOA is neither a state broadcaster nor a media company. It is a publicly-funded or simply U.S. public media outlet with its own VOA Charter which clearly defines VOA’s mission.
In a public speech last week, VOA director Ensor strongly implied that this VOA-Russian TV project is supported by the U.S. State Department and Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel. State Department officials may want to analyze this program more carefully and to use focus groups or polls — making absolutely sure they are not compromised by Russian authorities — to see if these programs improve or harm America’s image in Russia. We think they harm it.
In our view, this show has been designed by the Russian side largely for the local consumption in Russia to prove that the United States indeed is at war with Russia. The State Department already has a social media outreach program that is many times better than VOA’s social media outreach in English. (VOA’s social media outreach is also not much better in many other languages due to mismanagement and wasteful spending by the bureaucracy on the bureaucracy.)
Our view is that for making strong public diplomacy messages in Russia, the State Department and U.S. diplomats try much harder to get on Russian television directly. Such appearances, in our view, would be much more effective and less subject to information warfare interference as the VOA-Russian TV program is. VOA, on the other hand, should strive to be in total control of its program content and to seek program delivery without compromising its journalistic standards and its effectiveness.
The following analysis of the third VOA-RBC TV program was provided to us by a West European expert on disinformation and propaganda. The expert wants to remain anonymous for sensitive professional and diplomatic reasons.
WEST EUROPEAN EXPERT ON DISINFORMATION AND PROPAGANDA: Matthew Bryza was clearly more articulate to counter the argumentation put forward by the Russian host. But the asymmetry in the communication between the Russian host and his Voice of America presenter and VOA guests persists and it is deliberate. The Russians have a clear home advantage.
The Russian producers of the Business Channel applied the finest techniques of visual persuasion, such as close ups on the anchor to underline the Russian statements.
The VOA guests, being interviewed under controlled conditions, their arguments are countered almost exclusively by the anchor in the studio who seems to be part and parcel of the information war.
An interesting part of the messaging is done by the constant repetition of the official Russian argument. The narrative field is very narrow and boils down to: “threat by NATO, unjust sanctions, no proof of Russian intervention, cold war.” These elements of speech are the ones you will find in each official declaration of the Press Office of the Kremlin.
It is also no coincidence that a clip showing Senator John McCain–who has been officially labeled a cold warrior by the Kremlin–apparently chosen by VOA, was masterfully used by the Russian side against VOA.
When pushed back, the Russian anchor interrupts the participants and uses the known lines heard elsewhere in Russian government channels such as RT, implying that Western media lie, the vast majorities of figures and facts proving an actual Russian invasion of Ukraine are actually ‘fakes’ made up in part by journalists.
VOA is well advised to stop this experiment as soon as possible.
This program will go down in history as the example of Russian triumph in terms of info warfare.
The second important messaging is this and it is clearly targeting the Russians living outside of Russia, in the former Soviet republics, like Ukraine, and in the U.S.: Given the challenge faced by the U.S., a real challenge of terrorism and what the Kremlin claims is a non-existing challenge from Russia, why does the White House focus on Russia which is not antagonizing anyone and fails to focus on the danger of terrorism? The answer leads back to the elements of language concerning the ‘cold war’. The implied answer is: because the U.S. foreign policy is in the hands of cold warriors. Russian logic, case closed.