PHOTO: The power of Russia’s information machine is shown in a Voice of America map in which Crimea was no longer part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory. The map was corrected after protests.
BBG Watch Commentary
A proposal advanced by Voice of America (VOA) foreign correspondent in London Al Pessin to combine VOA with other U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasters, including Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), into a single administrative entity would be, in our view, prohibitively expensive and wasteful unless the federal part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) agency were to be completely reformed, which only Congress can do. If the BBG were to remain a single entity, such a reform would have to mean a complete de-federalization of the Voice of America, in which case VOA would largely lose its reason to exist.
Al Pessin, who has been a VOA reporter, editor and manager for 38 years, seems to be expressing a different view in a Defense One op-ed, although he is not quite clear whether the new entity should be federal or non-federal. He is currently a U.S. Government employee working abroad as a correspondent under a special U.S. Foreign Service assignment, although he does not report to the U.S. State Department and under the VOA Charter does not take policy orders from the State Department or the White House. It was noted in the article that the views expressed were his own.
VOA EUROPE CORRESPONDENT AL PESSIN: “Meanwhile, the United States is preparing to reaffirm and deepen the fragmentation of its global information operation. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., have reintroduced their bill to reorganize the way the United States speaks to the world through government-funded broadcasts. But the bill would perpetuate the waste, ambiguity and duplication of the current U.S. international broadcasting structure. And it does so when effective U.S. broadcasting is needed most — in the midst of the confrontations with a newly provocative Russia, a China rising not entirely peacefully, and Islamic extremists with sophisticated social media campaigns.”
“Instead, to be more effective in the global competition of ideas, the U.S. should consolidate its international broadcasters into one entity with one mission.”
“Call it ‘The American News Network.’ And make its mission to tell the truth about world events and U.S. policy, culture and values, and to include a broad range of comment and discussion on those subjects.”
READ MORE: From VOA to Radio Free Europe, the US Needs a Single News Voice Abroad, Al Pessin, Defense One, July 16, 2015
Not even the bipartisan H.R. 2323 reform bill, which Mr. Pessin criticizes in his article, calls for de-federalizing the Voice of America, but it does call for a major de-bureaucratization of the BBG, and thus major efficiencies and savings for U.S. taxpayers. The legislation would keep VOA separate from non-federal, grantee surrogate media outlets such as RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).
Mr. Pessin argues instead for consolidation but without specifying federal or non-federal status of any new entity. “To fight Russian and ISIS propaganda, Congress should merge the government’s diverse information services,” Mr. Pessin wrote. In our view, legislators from both parties wisely want to preserve VOA’s semi-official status, because without it in the age of Internet and CNN, VOA makes no sense among numerous U.S. and international private and some state-funded media outlets. U.S. legislators also wisely want to keep non-federal surrogate broadcasters independent and protect them from the dysfunctional federal bureaucracy. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “practically defunct.” Mr. Pessin seems to suggest that too much decentralization and independence are the problem when in fact too much bureaucratic centralization already in place is responsible for the BBG being called “defunct,” “dysfunctional” and “rudderless.”
The question that should be asked is why would anyone go to a privately-run Voice of America for American and international news in English if they can get the same news of a much higher quality and quantity from The New York Times? Granted, The New York Times does not have foreign language editions. Its language is English. But who in the digital age needs VOA English correspondents when VOA English News Facebook page for the entire world has slightly over 1 million “Likes” and The New York Times Facebook page has 9.7 million?
BBC World News Facebook page has 10.8 million. Isn’t news coverage in English from The New York Times vastly superior already to VOA English news coverage? Almost anyone would agree that it is.
By the way, VOA language services do not often use translation of VOA English news correspondent reports, which usually get very few social media “Likes,” whether in English or in translation. Most of the reports that we saw from VOA English foreign correspondents covered the same topics as The New York Times or CNN. VOA also uses on its website reports in English from AP and Reuters. They get even fewer “Likes.”
In his article, Mr. Pessin is not clear on Voice of America’s de-federalization, de-bureaucratization and removal of content and reporters with minimal social media following. If they were to remain, his proposal, in our view, would extend enormous federal government’s inefficiencies onto much better managed non-federal entities–RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN)– which now together with VOA are overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Here is one example of costs versus audience impact and audience engagement inefficiency which we believe Mr. Pessin’s proposal would perpetuate unless what he has in mind is a complete de-federalization of the Voice of America and any new entity that would replace it. The Voice of America has a class of foreign correspondents who hold special U.S. Foreign Service assignments. We have checked and found that one such VOA Foreign Service foreign correspondent can make up to $150,000 dollars per year in base salary alone. With added benefits, such as free housing for the correspondent and his/her family, extended home leave and home leave travel every few years, regular annual leave, family health care while abroad, cost of living adjustments for some of the more expensive foreign cities, in some cases free private elementary and high school education for children, and generous federal retirement, a single VOA Foreign Service status correspondent can easily cost U.S. taxpayers up to a quarter of a million dollars a year, if not more. This does not include office rent and other office expenses, official travel, foreign support staff salaries and benefits, which can be substantial in many countries, etc., which could easily add another million. The VOA London bureau where Mr. Pessin works costs U.S. taxpayers’ approximately $1.8 million per year.
We are not sure what Mr. Pessin would propose to do, but this extremely costly U.S. Foreign Service arrangement for VOA foreign correspondents is clearly archaic in the digital age. In our view, it is also an affront to journalism and the VOA Charter for VOA correspondents to hold such Foreign Service assignments even if they do not include all the privileges granted to U.S. diplomats. These special Foreign Service appointments for VOA correspondents should be eliminated by the BBG, if possible, or by Congress, if necessary. Perhaps this is what Mr. Pessin has in mind, in which case we would applaud it, but this is not at all clear from his article.
Still, special U.S. Foreign Service status Voice of America correspondents are hardly the greatest public expense within the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The greatest waste for U.S. taxpayers, in our view, is the large and constantly expanding class of both VOA and BBG officials holding SES and GM-15 positions. The constantly growing International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) BBG bureaucracy added close to 40% of positions to its ranks in recent years while eliminating numerous broadcasts. It is not clear from Mr. Pessin’s article what should happen to them, if anything. H.R. 2323 would eliminate most of the IBB bureaucracy.
But if the focus is just on news, journalism and impact, the results are just as bad. We checked on on the output and, most importantly, impact through social media of some of the special Foreign Service status VOA correspondents based abroad. We found that one of them usually had about six to eight online reports per month, very few of which were translated into other VOA languages. In the last 30 days, we found six reports for one correspondent, a few of which had a video version in addition to online text.
We’re not going to pass judgment as to whether six or even ten online reports per month from a VOA foreign correspondent is a lot or not. Perhaps it could be worth the price if these reports had thousands upon thousands of online views, thousands of Facebook “Likes,” and generated hundreds of comments from readers. None of the reports we saw during the last 30 days from one VOA correspondent working in an important of the world were particularly long or showed any significant audience engagement through social media.
Productivity aside, thanks to social media, it is easy to judge what kind of impact these reports had with the audience. What we found was that on average a single report from the correspondent would have less than 10 Facebook “Shares” and no more than one or two comments from readers on the VOA English news website. It is not clear from Mr. Pessin’s article what he proposes to do about these VOA foreign correspondents some of whom have less than 50 Twitter followers compared to thousands Twitter followers for BBC or New York Times foreign correspondents.
We also checked how many of the reports in the last 30 days from one VOA English correspondent were translated into one of VOA’s most important foreign languages. Our search had shown that in the last thirty days none appears to have been translated into one of the two major foreign languages critical to VOA’s mission in the region in which the correspondent works. One of the reports translated in previous months by a VOA foreign language service had 1 (one) Facebook “Share,” even though the target country is experiencing a major military conflict and does not block the Internet.
News reports on similar topics during the same time from BBC, RT, and The New York Times showed thousands of Facebook “Likes” and hundreds of comments, either on their websites or on their Facebook pages. VOA stats were slightly better on the VOA English Facebook page, but they were still nowhere near what BBC, RT or or even the State Department Facebook page were showing for their posts. In fact, the State Department Facebook page had many more “Likes” and “Shares” than the VOA Facebook page for posts on the same topics.
Mr. Pessin’s article does not explain how consolidation and expansion of the current system of management would help to resolve any of these problems and challenges rather than to make them even worse. His article is basically the continuation of his previous “Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real June 2014 Los Angeles Times op-ed,” although this time at least he does not refer to the bipartisan legislation as “the Royce bill.” Still, he fails to mention that the new bill was approved unanimously in a bipartisan vote by Republicans and Democrats serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as was the previous H.R. 4490 bill, which was also passed unanimously by the House in a voice vote but not presented for a vote in the Senate.
Social Media Voice of America Site Stats English News Foreign Correspondent’s Reports In A 30 Day June/July 2015 Period
VOA Report 1: 6 Facebook “Shares” | 1 Comment
VOA Report 2: 3 Facebook “Shares” | 0 Comments
VOA Report 3: 100 Facebook “Shares” | 0 Comments
VOA Report 4: 7 Facebook “Shares” | 2 Comments
VOA Report 5: 2 Facebook “Shares” | 1 Comment
VOA Report 6: 3 Facebook “Shares” | 2 Comments
Is this worth $150,000 to $250,000 per year in salary and benefits alone, not counting office and support costs? Hardly.
One might ask why would anyone want to extend this kind of VOA news reporting and social performance onto non-federal BBG media entities? Executives in charge of the IBB have shown they are incapable of running sophisticated social media campaigns.
Examples of Social Media RT Site Stats for Similar English News Reports During the Same Period
RT Report 1: Facebook “Likes/Shares” 3,600 | 425 Comments
RT Report 2: Facebook “Likes/Shares” 2,100 | 71 Comments
In his article, Mr. Pessin has an interesting story how a young Russian woman working in London might have been fooled by the Russian propaganda on the Russian annexation of Crimea. “This educated woman living in an open society thought the Russian version of events just might be true,” Mr. Pessin wrote. We are sorry to disappoint Mr. Pessin, but a lot of Voice of America news reporting of the kind he wants to consolidate with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, in our view, actually helps to promote the Kremlin’s narrative and confuses international audiences. Here is an excerpt from a VOA report:
VOA: “The survey of Crimeans after the Russian takeover showed they are overwhelmingly happy to be part of Russia, with nearly three-quarters of those surveyed saying their life will improve as part of Russia rather than Ukraine.”
VOA failed to report that the poll in Crimea ordered by the Broadcasting Board of Governors officials shortly after the Russian occupation and conducted in the atmosphere of fear and intimidation was fundamentally faulty. The VOA report did not even mention the oppressed Crimean Tatars minority (about 12 percent of the population).
This happened in June 2014 under the previous VOA director. We are sure that the new interim VOA director would not allow such reporting. We have noted some recent improvements in VOA news coverage. But why would Congress want to risk putting the entire U.S. international media outreach operation under the central control of BBG bureaucrats who thought that spending U.S. taxpayers’ on a poll in an occupied territory gripped by fear and uncertainty was an excellent idea? Mr. Pessin is not clear who should run the new consolidated entity and to whom any new CEO would be accountable. In its early years, VOA also had one federal CEO who turned out to be a disaster as a manager and a journalist.
U.S. legislators are losing patience. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) reintroduced this year his proposal to completely defund the Voice of America. He had a similar proposal last year.
REP. MATT SALMON: “My eighth SOS bill is aimed at cutting yet another duplicative, federal program and saving you 212 million dollars by doing so. While originally commissioned to provide a ‘clear and effective presentation’ of U.S. policy, Voice of America (VOA) has veered from its original mission and become a government-funded news outlet. The United States already funds organizations that disseminate unfiltered news to regions of the world that lack a free press.”
“Technology has also rendered Cold War relics, such as VOA, obsolete. The rise of the Internet and social media, especially in closed countries have connected the world in ways we could have never imagined, and with their success, and other U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasting programs, it makes fiscal sense to eliminate this superfluous, federally-funded entity.”
Compared to Rep. Salmon’s bill, the bipartisan reform legislation, H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2015, introduced by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), and the Committee’s Ranking Democratic Member, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), seems to be a reasonable compromise. It would preserve the Voice of America and strengthen the surrogate broadcasters.
We are not sure whether Mr. Pessin is familiar with VOA’s early history. VOA started out as a single consolidated federal entity that performed so poorly and engaged in all forms of news censorship and propaganda, including censorship of U.S. domestic media, that Congress nearly defunded it even during World War II. In the early years of the Cold War, the Executive and the Legislative branches worked together to create Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to do the job of countering Soviet propaganda and disinformation that VOA had failed to do.
We are afraid that the Russian woman in London who gave Mr. Pessin only her first name, “Olga,” because she was afraid that “the KGB might be monitoring,” (the KGB been replaced by the FSB years ago) would be poorly served if his proposal were to be enacted. We hope Mr. Pessin’s solution won’t be accepted for Olga’s sake and for the sake of many who still can get higher quality news from the BBG’s surrogate broadcasters and even from some of the underfunded VOA foreign language services mismanaged by the combined BBG and IBB bureaucracy.
Mr. Pessin offers no explanation why any new centralized bureaucracy would be any better than the current one unless all failed managers and reporters were to be replaced en masse and the entire operation with the exception of VOA de-federalized and made accountable to Congress and American taxpayers. Any reform should start with retiring most of current BBG and IBB executives and eliminating the special U.S. Foreign Service status for VOA English foreign correspondents with its archaic and costly privileges. If that is what Mr. Pessin has in mind, we would applaud him. But Mr. Pessin’s article unfortunately does not seem to be making the case for this kind of reform.