The Summit and Beyond: The Big Picture
Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War Lost
By The Federalist
The meeting between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is now a part of history. Where things go from here remains to be seen, but we can reflect on the event and offer some observations from the perspective of the big picture and more finely in the performance of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA) in particular.
Almost immediately the political Left and human rights groups began to howl outrage over Mr. Trump’s verbal largesse in talking about the North Korean leader.
One should consider that any lasting positives from the summit would have been short-lived if Mr. Trump used the summit as a platform for brow-beating the North Korean leader on his country’s abysmal human rights record, suggestions or demands for regime change or anything else that at present would be well beyond US reach without significant North Korean cooperation.
Instead one should look at the summit within historical context and precedence. Here are some, not all, of them:
The Kim family has ruled North Korea from 1948 to the present. The family is all that most Koreans both North and South know, particularly the North Koreans who live within the totalitarian system imposed by the Kims. This is important particularly when people outside North Korea start clamoring for “regime change.” The Kim family and those around them certainly have a dim view of that scenario. And there are plenty of unknowns attached to any sudden, traumatic change in the power structure remembering that this is now a country with a nuclear stockpile.
Next, the United States and North Korea have technically been at war since 1950. Open warfare traversed the period June 1950 to July 1953. Since then the parties have stared at each other across a demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th parallel. Over the years, there have been tense flare-ups including the sinking of a South Korean destroyer by the North Koreans, live artillery fire from North Korea pummeling an island held by South Korea along with horrid treatment of Americans held by the North Koreans including Otto Warmbier. There has also been the steady and relentless progression of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the point now where it is possible the North Koreans have a deliverable nuclear weapon capable of reaching Japan, US territories and perhaps the US mainland itself.
Against this background, Mr. Trump is the only sitting US president to meet with the North Korean leadership (former president Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-Il to secure the release of Americans held by the North Koreans).
In its effect, Mr. Trump has made an important historical first.
In the American political Left’s fury with Trump’s depiction of Kim Jong-Un, it is worth noting that it indulges in some historical amnesia because certain past events do not comport with its anti-Trump narrative. For example, it fails to note the Nixon administration establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Mao’s China provided substantial support to the North Koreans during the Korean War and continues to support the regime to this day. Human rights violations under Mao were widespread, particularly those during the Cultural Revolution. And of course one cannot forget the suppression of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in more recent Chinese history.
One can add that the United States has had continuous relations with Russia during the Soviet period going back to Stalin, through perestroika and now present-day deterioration in the relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Also, there is the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and Myanmar. The latter is particularly noteworthy because of its human rights abuses toward the Rohingya minority. And there are many issues in disagreement with the Cubans.
In short, there are historical examples where the United States established relations with governments that do not subscribe to the American view of republic governments or the fair treatment of its citizens. Clearly, the United States has a developed “long view” toward the future and its ability to extend its influence where it may have been limited at best, in the interests of US global engagement and security.
When examined in this context, a breakthrough in the stalemate on the Korean peninsula is necessary, particularly with the countries often periodically on the knife’s edge of nuclear war.
Now the “devil is in the details,” as the parties move into new diplomatic territory.
Stripped of the rhetoric in American media, the US-North Korean summit deserves worldwide media attention that it got. It was and remains important.
And that brings to comment about the Voice of America (VOA) in relation to the summit.
Who Is The Audience?
Front and center in the VOA coverage was an interview of Mr. Trump conducted by Greta Van Susteren. It was one from among other interviews given by Trump.
VOA got some temporary U.S. domestic traction for itself from the interview, largely in the form of criticism from liberal media of what Mr. Trump said in response to questions from Ms. Susteren. With the passage of time, this traction has begun to recede if not largely fallen below the media radar as it has been overtaken by the revolving news cycle and other events.
VOA and BBG public relations people could barely contain themselves, claiming that Trump had spoken to the people of North Korea.
Well, no he didn’t. He spoke with Greta Van Susteren.
His answers were obviously not carefully prepared beforehand to send what could be called a special message to the people of North Korea. That would require some planning and some work on the part of the BBG and VOA executives.
This is not a semantic argument. It is a matter of the BBG/VOA trying to make the interview larger and more dramatic than it was.
And there’s more.
Sources sent a photograph of Mr. Trump, Ms. Van Susteren and the VOA technical staff assigned to cover the summit.
What is noticeable is that you will not see anyone representing the VOA Korean Service in the photograph. What kind of message does this send to the people of North Korea. Not a very good one. It also does not send a good message to the VOA Korean Service journalists. This is yet another thing that Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett forgot to plan for.
For its part, the VOA Korean Service did not provide any live coverage of the signing of the US-North Korea agreement. Much of the summit was outside its normal broadcast time, which BBG and VOA executives failed to extend even during evening and early morning hours which could have provided decent radio reception on shortwave and medium wave frequencies in North Korea. Could have but didn’t because BBG and VOA executives failed to plan for it.
That does not mean the Korean Service staffers were not hard at work preparing material for broadcast before and after the summit. But they were largely invisible from the event, from Greta Van Susteren’s interview with Mr. Trump and afterwards. And that is a glaring omission, given the historical significance of the summit. It is an incredible loss of face for the VOA Korean Service which goes hand in hand with perceptions of the service’s credibility.
Thus you get the impression that the Van Susteren interview was something more like a promotional video for VOA and Van Susteren. Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that the bulk of what VOA does has been relegated to a minor role as the Van Susteren love fest rolls on. The caption on one of the photo of President Trump with Greta Van Susteren released by the White House identified her but did not identify her affiliation with the Voice of America. It was all about Greta.
Who’s The VOA Audience?
But the real issue is impact. For all the ballyhoo that the agency made of the interview (largely, but not limited to its own internal cheerleading memos by CEO John Lansing and VOA director Amanda Bennett), the overall audience reach where it counts the most, i.e. in North Korea, was not particularly significant, and Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett did absolutely nothing to extend VOA radio broadcast hours to North Korea and the number of frequencies for the summit. If they thought that the North Koreans could get the VOA news from the Internet, they were wrong.
Again, we put our view in a context:
For an agency that has been around for over 75 years, its audience numbers are catastrophically low. How do we know this?
The agency makes grandiose, oversized claims of its reach on social media that just don’t add up. Consider this:
The agency has digital content available 24/7 in 40 different languages. You can do the math: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 40 languages. That amounts to about 6,720 hours of time the agency needs to cover with its digital content. And it requires periodic if not regular updating on many platforms.
Information obtained from our sources shows the agency rarely puts up numbers out of the 100s in “likes” and “comments” for its Internet content. Rarely, as in the case of the Trump/Van Susteren interview, do you see numbers of “likes” or “comments” in the thousands.
With these many hours to be covered, it appears that the preponderance of the agency digital content goes largely unnoticed to trigger any meaningful audience engagement, judging by the paltry numbers seen on social media.
For an agency that claims to have a “digital first” priority, this is a disaster that repeats itself 24/7 over and over again, hour after hour, day after day.
And that is just the digital media.
Similarly, the agency’s audience numbers for its direct broadcasts on radio and television appear to be very low.
At the end of the day, one must conclude that there is something very wrong with this agency: that agency program content is not reaching intended audiences.
Some of this is directly attributable to lack of accessibility.
*Some agency content is being actively blocked in China and Iran. The easiest to be blocked is the agency’s Internet content (remembering that the agency claims a “digital first” priority).
*Some of the lack of accessibility may also be attributed to individuals not having the income needed to purchase or rent Internet time to view agency program content.
*Some may also be attributable to lack of infrastructure that supports 24/7 electricity in the intended target areas.
*Worse, it would appear that potential audiences take advantage of other media choices both domestically and abroad and on the Internet where the content is accessible.
In short, there appear to be a myriad of reasons. But the end result is the same: agency program content suffers from limited reach and extremely limited audience engagement. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
And please note that much of the agency’s Internet traffic and many of the “comments,” for which the numbers are already small, come from:
North America, mostly from the United States.
At this point, the agency seems to have only one priority audience:
At the end of the day this seems to be the only audience agency officials really care about. The agency can – and most likely does – produce slick videos to show to Members of Congress and congressional staff. But beyond the offices on Capitol Hill, it seems that not many more people see what VOA produces.
Die-hard agency supporters, particularly among current and former employees, dispute criticism of the agency’s performance, particularly when it appears on the BBG Watch website. They cite the memos from Lansing and Bennett as evidence of what a great job the agency is doing.
But in reality, these memos underscore points of weakness and are misleading or based on outright falsehoods such as the statement in a BBG press release that
“During the June 11-12 summit, BBG networks surged broadcast hours[Emphasis added]…”
That statement is false. It is a lie. The networks did not “surge” broadcast hours to North Korea where it really counted — the Voice of America Korean Service did not. Radio Free Asia (RFA) did replace its formerly repeat hours in Korean with new live programming, but RFA’s Korean hours were also not extended for the summit, not even by one hour.
The industry understanding of “surged broadcasting” has always been adding new broadcast hours and thus extending broadcasting time — not filling existing repeat hours with original programming. Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett did not order more radio hours to North Korea. Radio Free Asia did the best with what it already had. Mr. Lansing did not provide VOA or RFA with extra broadcasting time for their radio transmissions to North Korea. Did he really think that the North Koreans would listen to VOA and RFA broadcasts on the Internet?
Even if you take these memos at their word (for the amount of work agency employees are putting into program content) at the receiving end, beyond the agency and internal cheerleading by Lansing and Bennett the impact is anemic. Maybe worse than anemic.
If one looks at the situation dispassionately, one would likely conclude that this agency is in serious mission distress. It’s the kind of distress that doesn’t get fixed quickly or with some minor tweaking. It’s the kind of distress that requires a serious decision about the agency’s future.
The kind of weakness we see in the agency’s performance is the kind that would require millions if not billions of dollars to correct and would take years if not decades to accomplish.
The elephant in the room:
7-BILLION people on the planet.
When you average only a few dozen, a few hundred or a few thousand “likes” or “comments”—many of them from the United States—you are really not getting the job done and getting to the right audience—the North Koreans for example. You are not engaging with the audience. The agency is invisible: spending close to 700,000,000 dollars a year in taxpayer funds.
And lest you think otherwise, throwing more money at the agency doesn’t fix the agency’s problems. Indeed, the end result is that it often exacerbates them.
There are roughly 75 million people on the Korean peninsula: 25 million in the North and 50 million in the South.
When Mr. Trump was interviewed by Ms. Van Susteren, he did not speak to any of them and didn’t do so until the VOA Korean Service went back on the air much later after the summit concluded. Even then, the VOA Korean Service did not have much radio time because Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett failed to plan for it.
Taken in its entirety, is the state of affairs waiting for the next CEO to be confirmed by the US Senate to oversee the agency. But what is also waiting for the designee is a group of political commandos inside the Cohen Building which intends to protect themselves and this record of failure, targeting the nominee for political attacks and intending to obstruct any meaningful reorganization of the agency.
It’s already started. It’s part of standard tactical practices by these individuals.
Is it worth it?
The answer is: the agency’s mission is worthy. The agency is not.
It’s time to close the agency outright and absorb its functions elsewhere in the Federal Government.