The (Really) Big Lie
US International Media Information War Lost
By The Federalist
An often-heard description of the Voice of America (VOA) by senior agency officials and some employees is that of “an independent news company.”
This is absolutely false.
VOA has never been, is not now nor is ever likely to be an “independent news company” comparable to private sector, commercial US media.
The extent to which the agency intends to perpetuate this falsehood bears examination because it denies the agency’s mission in the context of the VOA Charter (prominently displayed on BBG Watch) and its place within the US Government.
What is the intent behind making this blatantly false statement?
One intention would be to create an impression that the agency is just like any other US media organization like CBS, NBC and others.
Clearly, it is not. What independent private sector media outlet is required by law (VOA Charter) to present U.S. policies clearly and effectively and to present discussions on these policies, as well as to reflect all of America rather than any single segment of America? The answer is: none.
So, why carry on with this charade intended to dupe people?
The effort seems to be an attempt to acquire some level of credibility with foreign audiences and perhaps also to legitimize itself with commercial broadcasters and be seen as an equal with them. VOA does not want to be categorized as a propaganda mouthpiece and thereby attempts to distance itself from its status as a Federal agency and any effort to make that characterization.
It is almost certain that commercial broadcasters do not see VOA as an equal, but that doesn’t stop the agency from attempting its false portrayal as such.
As a consequence, this intentional misrepresentation actually serves to damage the agency’s credibility.
Let’s make the reality clear:
VOA is within an agency of the United States Government.
As an integral part of the United States Government, it has no independence other than the fantasy dancing around in the heads of its senior officials.
There is an intended objective here and it is simply this:
“Independence” Means No Accountability/Oversight
This is the agency’s bureaucracy’s core objective. It does not want its operations scrutinized by anyone, least of all other elements of the Federal Government. That means:
- No accountability through the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the State Department or the Office of the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy or the newly formed “Global Engagement Center” presently anchored within the State Department.
- No accountability/oversight by the Congress.
- No accountability/oversight from the White House.
- No accountability through watchdog public sector outlets (whether it be BBG Watch or the press at large).
In short, the agency wants and intends to be allowed to go blithely about doing whatever it wants to do without any sense of responsibility or accountability for its actions and without interference from any quarter, inside or outside of the US Government.
The net effect: this agency makes itself into a rogue operation inside the Federal Government while being 100% funded by US taxpayers.
And that makes the agency dangerous as its downward spiral in mission failure continues and accelerates.
Abject mission failure by this agency has reached a threshold. It cannot be ignored. Nor has the agency demonstrated or can it be reliably expected to take effective remedial action on its own initiative. Making fundamental corrections to deep problems within this agency must be applied from other elements in the executive or legislative branches of US government. This agency has made itself a model for lack of inter-government cooperation even when its “business as usual” posture makes it a serious liability.
The Congress has been perhaps the most visible in dealing with this problem agency through legislation intended to take some initial corrective action: making the dysfunctional Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) advisory and having the chief executive officer position subject to presidential nomination/appointment and confirmation in the Senate. This is wholly appropriate given an abysmal track record established by the agency.
As this process began to unfold in recent years, the agency’s bureaucracy and its acolytes have launched an all-out bureaucratic war against reform.
The opening to this battle was an editorial in The Los Angeles Times, written by a now retired VOA employee demanding, “Back Off Congress.”
The appearance of the editorial in The Los Angeles Times was neither accidental nor coincidental. It was a “hit” piece, targeting Ed Royce (R-CA) chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who has been instrumental in pushing for reform of the agency, VOA in particular.
Agency officials went way off the reservation by commending the author of the piece by no less than then-VOA director David Ensor in one of the editorial meetings of the VOA newsroom, the agency’s epicenter of defiance.
Not surprisingly, in this agency, its undoing (and potentially its demise) has come from within. “Back Off Congress” put the agency on the map as a problem. And there it remains. It has continued to fan its internal house fire with “companion” pieces found in The Washington Post and elsewhere, a tactic which continues to this day, although without much in the way of lasting public traction in support or defense of the agency.
This behavior is indicative of the agency’s arrogance: it refuses thoughtful consideration or acknowledgement of its failures and at the same time, expecting the Congress to continue to throw money at what the agency has made itself into: an insoluble problem.
The whole idea of independence for this agency is laughable just from a funding standpoint. Without life support by way of Congressional funding authorization, this agency would die a very quick death, wholly incapable of generating any commercial revenue to operate. Indeed, even within government, should the Congress or the administration become totally fed up with the place and zero out the agency’s budget, the agency would collapse.
The State Department
The State Department is anathema to VOA.
The VOA is anathema to the State Department.
These agencies really don’t like each other.
And they are likely to like each other even less if budget rollbacks for VOA and State make their way into congressional authorization legislation for Fiscal Year 2018 which begins on October 1, 2017.
VOA sees State as the prime instigator in turning the agency into a propaganda organ with State interference in its program content. In truth VOA’s own worst enemies are within its leadership, as to be discussed below.
In turn, State sees VOA as an irritant at best and a detriment at worst to the formal statecraft of diplomacy. From the State perspective, it’s bad enough to have the commercial media questioning what it’s doing. It’s worse having VOA doing it from within the government.
Indeed, the idea of VOA creating an “investigations/documentary” team is absurd. But that’s what it claims to be doing. It is not a stretch to say that VOA would find itself without any “friends” inside almost all of the Federal Government, particularly the White House, Congress and State. Going off the reservation in this manner would virtually assure a move to close the agency and not waste any time doing so.
VOA does not like the prospect of being subsumed or connected to a Global Engagement Center with its ties to State and other Federal agencies or to Countering Violent Extremism (another executive branch policy initiative) all of which is intended for greater integration of government assets to deal with very real threats to US security – in the homeland and abroad.
The White House
Depending on who occupies the White House, so goes VOA’s relationship to that person and policy as generated from within. Seemingly, the Obama administration had little use for VOA; and in the waning weeks of his administration, Mr. Obama signed legislation to get the ball rolling on needed reforms of the agency.
Now, with the Trump administration, VOA – particularly the defiant cabal in the VOA newsroom – has gone visceral.
As noted above, the VOA “journalists” fear what they deem as “interference” from any quarter in the rest of government, in this case with its program content.
But in reality, no one from State or elsewhere in government under Obama or Trump administrations asked VOA “journalists:”
- To post vulgar depictions of now president Trump to their publicly accessible personal Facebook pages
- To post to a VOA Facebook page a vulgar rant by actor Robert DeNiro against Trump (you know Hollywood – that epicenter of great American political thought!) translated into a foreign language and under a VOA logo without any context or balance
- To make insinuated comparisons of Trump to Lenin, Stalin and Mao
- To make tasteless depictions of Trump, his wife and his daughter in the VOA newsroom “VOA Follies” over the Christmas holiday – and doing it while in duty status.
- To badger with leaks to media White House transition team members who have been detailed to the agency attempting to get a sense of what the agency is doing – or not doing.
- To post “investigative” and other articles glorifying terrorists and Somali pirates.
- To compare White House statements to the press to “manure.”
- To demand in writing that agency officials renounce State Department and White House policy directives countering violent extremism as was done by VOA newsroom protesters in a display bordering on insubordination for Federal employees
The conclusion – the only conclusion – to be reached is that this agency is out of control, populated by defiant ideologues, not journalists, in the VOA newsroom.
Thinking that the VOA newsroom is some kind of paragon of “journalistic virtue” is a distinction it does not deserve. Indeed, “journalistic virtue” is something of an oxymoron in today’s climate of opinion and advocacy by US media.
In VOA newsroom-speak, “independence” is synonymous with rebellion, facilitated, aided and abetted by pronouncements by senior agency officials.
Is this an agency operating in the national and public interest?
It is not.
The task ahead is to move forward intelligently to replace senior agency officials who are holdovers from the previous administration and in turn buttress those changes with additional internal action to remove defiance as an agency standard of performance.
Simultaneously, the legislative process of reorganizing US Government international media should continue to move forward on its objectives.