Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War Lost
By The Federalist
On May 12, 2018 an op-ed piece appeared in The Washington Post co-authored by Amanda Bennett (Voice of America [VOA] director) and Dong Hyuk Lee (chief of the VOA Korean Service):
What the reader should see this editorial in a context: namely, this is an agency – one correctly labeled as the worst agency in the Federal Government – desperately attempting to demonstrate that it is still relevant in the 21st century.
Experience shows that it is not.
Certainly, the agency’s mission as codified in the VOA Charter is still relevant. It will always be relevant. However the agency itself has demonstrated that it is increasingly dysfunctional and inept.
One of the reasons for this state of affairs is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) which runs VOA and other US Government international broadcasters. Another reason are the persons in charge of VOA and some of these broadcasters.
The VOA Charter differs substantially from the BBG mission statement. The VOA Charter can be found on the BBG Watch homepage. Compare it with the BBG Mission Statement:
“The mission of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.
The Agency’s mission is reinforced by those of the individual broadcasters that are overseen by the BBG.”
There is a difference and it is an important one.
The BBG claims that its purpose includes supporting “freedom and democracy.” That sounds fine and lofty to us. But for others, it is perceived as code language for:
Regime Change at the discretion of unelected and unaccountable BBG officials, entity heads and broadcasters.
What we know about the Kim regime paints a gruesome picture on many levels but all contributing to an oppressive existence for the North Korean population.
Most certainly, regime change is what the Kim family fears the most based on the legacy the Kim family has created for almost 70 years.
As a result, one should not expect the Kim family to go quietly in the night.
Regime change is likely not looked upon favorably by those around the Kim family, including the North Korean military.
Amanda Bennett, the VOA director, should be more cautious in public statements – statements which certainly have been read by North Korean intelligence officials – while at the same time VOA broadcasters need to be better managed so that they don’t repeat North Korean propaganda or any other propaganda without effective balance. It all amounts to good journalism rather than advocacy journalism and pointless bragging to American media.
To put it bluntly, someone needs to tell Ms. Bennett not to engage in blatant self-promotion of the inept agency and the inept entity she leads with ever-increasing doses of inept leadership.
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un are scheduled to meet for a one-day summit on June 12 in Singapore. There is any number of opportunities for the meeting to go off the rails. Amanda Bennett’s unnecessary and pointless editorial is one of them.
The North Koreans are already getting edgy because of military exercises being conducted by the US and South Korea, a regular occurrence but one which the North Koreans always find reason to react to negatively. They have moved to cancel a summit with South Korea.
What are the North Koreans going to do with the information Amanda Bennett claims the North Koreans crave?
Yes. It is true that “information” is being smuggled into North Korea, commonly on flash drives. Much but not all of the “information” appears to be cultural in nature showing the rest of the outside is not at all like North Korea.
But as North Koreans know, one must be very discreet about viewing the information and one’s surroundings and even more circumspect with what to do with that information.
It is all too easy for the BBG, Amanda Bennett and others to talk about “freedom and democracy” sitting in their offices in the Cohen Building. The reality on the ground in North Korea is something altogether different with severe penalties attached to what the regime deems to be illicit or illegal activities.
We should not forget what happened to American Otto Warmbier in the hands of the North Korean regime.
Aside from the penalties, there is the fact that no one alive in North Korea today has experience with the daily fundamentals of freedom and even less with a political and economic system known as democracy.
Amanda Bennett and others are oblivious to the obvious. One of the most obvious is that things don’t always play out the way they are dreamed about on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.
Consider Russia. Putin’s Russia. And also consider China. Or Iran. Or Iraq.
Indeed, if you want to read what amounts to a case study in how quickly things can go off the rails, a good place to start is:
The smear that killed the ‘reset: Putin needed an American enemy. He picked me. By Michael McFaul. The Washington Post, May 11, 2018.
This details the experience of Michael McFaul as President Obama’s US ambassador to Russia.
In a manner of speaking, the BBG mission statement is a dangerous thing in the hands of inept officials who can’t stop talking in public and pursue their personal ideological causes. When they speak carelessly about the BBG mission they imply an intended outcome of taking these regimes and turning them upside down. When that happens, violence and chaos have proven to be the likely result. In the case of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, nuclear weapons and internal turmoil are not a good combination.
By no means are we sympathetic to draconian conditions elsewhere in the world. But change can either be abrupt and violent or graduated and peaceful. If graduated, the intent should be minimizing the negative consequences on the effected populations and not treating them as potential collateral damage.
We make note that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has lifted the hiring freeze at the State Department.
One of the elements in State that needs robust staffing is its Global Engagement Center.
In our view, this office may be the logical successor to the BBG, VOA and other US Government international media, particularly with the bungling that has been the trademark of Amanda Bennett’s and BBG CEO John Lansing’s “fantastic leadership team.”
Engagement is what is needed: not bellowing about “freedom and democracy” to North Korea from a comfortable office inside the Washington beltway.
To this point, Pompeo has blazed a trail on the Korean Peninsula. It would be prudent to stay on course as/or if the summit plays out next month in Singapore.
If the summit is productive, the timing would be fortuitous to begin a process to realign US Government international media and make it effective in the 21st century. But leaving it in the hands of the current leadership could have disastrous consequences as they may want to return to replaying North Korean Korean propaganda, as they did before, the same way they were replaying propaganda of the so-called “reformist” Mullahs during the recent anti-regime protests in Iran, which resulted in a diminished audience and credibility. They simply don’t know how to think strategically, how to strike a good balance, and how to respond to dynamic and different situations in different countries.
The job of U.S. international media outreach cannot be left in the hands of unsupervised, amateur, partisan ideologues of whatever type. It requires thoughtful analysis not careless rhetoric. Judging by some of her latest public statement, Amanda Bennett would do well if she also stopped talking in public about China and Russia and think twice what to say and how to say it before addressing VOA foreign language broadcasters on critical employee morale issues. There are good ideas among the staff, but they are not likely to speak their mind and provide feedback to Amanda Bennett and John Lansing having seen what has happened to VOA Mandarin Five and seeing those two surround themselves with failed managers.
At the end of the day, the BBG and Amanda Bennett can only speculate as to what the North Koreans “crave.” They are not able to attach any credible priorities as to what comes first in these “cravings.” As a practical matter, there are many more important things in their immediate day to day than VOA broadcasts. Words from the VOA don’t put food on the table, clothes on your back or meaningful shelter to be followed by substantive reforms to legal and participatory processes.
The message to the BBG, Amanda Bennett and others is to shelve the rhetoric and stick to the letter of the VOA Charter.