USAGM CEO John Lansing ignored early warnings of ads targeting Americans

BBG Watch Commentary

U.S. Agency for Global Media CEO John Lansing, who had been appointed in 2015 during the Obama administration, had ignored early warnings of taxpayer-funded USAGM media entities such as the Voice of America (VOA) targeting Americans in violation of the Smith-Mundt Act.

Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), has issued a report on the investigation of some of the Smith-Mundt Act violations at USAGM under John Lansing’s watch.

USAGM CEO John Lansing, who has been in his position since 2015, had received warnings in private emails as well as through BBG Watch articles posted online where he could read them.

Similar warnings were sent to both Democratic and Republican members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which had an oversight role and has now an advisory role after the agency changed its name earlier this year to U.S. Agency for Global Media.

Voice of America Director Amanda Bennett who was hired by Lansing also did not respond to similar early warnings sent to her e-mail address about questionable advertising and other abuses of journalistic standards by VOA.

BBG Watch has been pointing out that a significant segment of the VOA audience is in the United States, especially for VOA English online content. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, some VOA reporters and many VOA reports included one-sided attacks on Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in VOA coverage as well as in their personal Facebook and other social media posts. These serious violations of the VOA Charter have continued well after the 2016 elections and into Donald Trump’s presidency.

 

When Voice of America sided with Clinton against Bernie Sanders and broke U.S. law, BBG Watch, September 8, 2017

 

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump camps accuse Voice of America of state-media bias, BBG Watch, June 17, 2016

 

Both Lansing and Bennett were in charge of the agency’s operations at that time. Some of such VOA Charter violations still continue.

One VOA video report in 2016 featured a Trump opponent describing him as “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid“ without any response or balance. After some time and outside public criticism, the VOA video was removed from an official VOA Facebook page. Lansing later told NPR that the agency has the greatest respect for the U.S. President.

Lansing had also been warned much earlier about anti-Semitic content in some of the agency’s programs but took no effective actions to stop and prevent such journalistic abuses until recently when reports appeared in mainstream media. After the early warnings, more anti-Semitic attacks occurred in USAGM programs.

 

SEE: USAGM Holdover CEO Was Warned in 2017 About Anti-Semitism in His Agency’s Programs, BBG Watch, October 31, 2018

 

Lansing and Bennett had been warned also earlier in private e-mails that some VOA reporters were calling Donald Trump obscene names and posting obscene memes on Facebook. Some of these private Facebook posts remained online for many months. They were not, however, being advertised by USAGM as they appeared on private but publicly accessible Facebook pages of individual VOA reporters. However, VOA news reports produced by the same VOA reporters, some of whom are featured on VOA’s websites as expert journalists, were being advertised at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

Lansing finally took action to stop official domestic advertising practices by the agency after an article about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) illegally targeting Americans with Facebook ads had appeared in The New York Times, but, according to Chairman Royce’s report, some of the domestic advertising continued at USAGM even after the publication of the New York Times expose and a BBG article with additional evidence of such advertising.

 

SEE: Facebook, Russia, Trump – Did Voice of America violate U.S. laws?, BBG Watch, September 7, 2017

 

In any democracy, such activities by outside governments who happen to be undemocratic and hostile toward the United States is worrisome. But what could be even worse and more worrisome are activities by U.S. federal government officials and employees trying to influence U.S. vote using U.S. taxpayers’ money when they should be countering hostile propaganda from countries such as Russia or China.
 
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ALSO SEE: RFE-RL targeted Americans with a pro-Kremlin Facebook ad EXCLUSIVE NEW EVIDENCE SUPPORTING NYT REPORT, BBG Watch, July 19, 2018

 

BBG Watch has also learned that about ten days ago a U.S. expert on Soviet and Russian propaganda who occasionally contributes articles to U.S. newspapers on this subject sent a screenshot of the controversial RFE/RL Facebook ad with the Russian propaganda theme to BBG CEO John F. Lansing and alerted him about this development. The expert received no response from Mr. Lansing. Earlier similar warnings to Mr. Lansing and Voice of America (VOA) director Amanda Bennett that both RFE/RL and VOA have been buying questionable Facebook ads with U.S. taxpayers’ money have also received no response.
 
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Lansing reportedly told one individual who sent him private warnings about examples of mismanagement in the agency that the person who specialized in countering Soviet propaganda was not a journalist and should stop contacting him using his private email address. He reportedly copied his rejection of advice and personal criticism of the person who tried to advise him to several key Broadcasting Board of Governors officials.

The review by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and his committee staff found that insufficient management and devolved operating structures for digital advertising at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America allowed for repeated violations of the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits domestic dissemination of content developed by the State Department and U.S.-funded entities. An examination of six VOA language services found at least 860 Smith-Mundt violations over a two-year period. Violations continued even after the New York Times report, and the launch of a USAGM task force designed to address the issue.

 

 
 
 

 

Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 21, 2018
https://go.usa.gov/xEaeS

Chairman Royce Releases U.S. Int’l Broadcasting Oversight Report

Washington, D.C. – House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) today released an oversight report outlining failures in management at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) that led to repeated violations of the Smith-Mundt Act.

This report is the product of a three-month investigation launched after a July New York Times piece exposing Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Facebook ads that illegally targeted audiences in the United States. The review by the Chairman and his committee staff found that insufficient management and devolved operating structures for digital advertising at RFE/RL and Voice of America (VOA) allowed for repeated violations of the Smith-Mundt Act, which prohibits domestic dissemination of content developed by the State Department and U.S.-funded entities. An examination of six VOA language services found at least 860 Smith-Mundt violations over a two-year period. Violations continued even after the New York Times report, and the launch of a USAGM task force designed to address the issue.

I strongly support the USAGM mission of providing objective, accurate and timely news to people in countries where a free press does not exist,” Chairman Roycesaid. “As terrorists and repressive regimes in Russia, Iran and North Korea increasingly weaponize information to undermine our democratic values, the U.S. needs strong, agile and independent-minded international broadcasting to stand up for freedom and truth.

“Reforms to empower a CEO at USAGM have produced progress, but there is still more work to be done. As this report details, failures in management and structure at RFE/RL and VOA produced repeated digital ads that violated U.S. law. Management of digital operations must be strengthened not only to ensure compliance with the law, but to produce more effective digital content.

“I hope the next Chair and Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to work closely with USAGM to hold our broadcasters to the highest professional standards. That is what they want, and what our country needs. We’re faced with a misinformation onslaught, and we’ve got to get this right.”

The report, entitled “U.S. International Broadcasting in the Digital Age: Getting Advertising Right” is available for download HERE.

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