BBG Watch Commentary
“‘It’s a whirlwind of positive change.’ Summing up the recent (February 26 ) bimonthly public meeting of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the BBG), the acting chairman of the Board for that session, Michael Kempner, reflected on the unprecedented innovations and fresh energy that have characterized America’s publically-funded international broadcasting over the past six months,” Alan L. Heil Jr., former Voice of America (VOA) manager and deputy director, wrote in an article posted on the Public Diplomacy Council’s website.
READ MORE: A New Era in U.S. International Broadcasting?, Alan L. Heil Jr., Public Diplomacy Council, March 4, 2016
UPDATE: Since this post was published, the Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has appealed to the Voice of America to ensure a more balanced coverage of the Boko Haram insurgency by VOA’s Hausa Service, as reported by Nigeria’s Daily Post. An open letter to President Obama, published by another Nigerian newspaper, alleged that “in the last three to four years, during the time when BH [Boko Haram] vehemence was at its highest and severest, VOA Hausa clearly appeared to celebrate the ‘exploits’ of the insurgents.” A VOA Hausa Service editor said that these allegations were “unsubstantiated.”
SEE: Nigerian Government accuses Voice of America of helping Boko Haram terrorists with biased reporting, BBG Watch, March 8, 2016.
Former VOA acting associate director Ted Lipien, who is also one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch, took issue with “a whirlwind of positive change” and other claims of BBG successes presented in Mr. Heil’s article.
A Fantasy of Success at Broadcasting Board of Governors
By Ted Lipien
Mr. Heil’s article reminds me of communist propaganda in Poland during the final years of the Jaruzelski regime as it was becoming irrelevant and defunct in the 1980s. Solidarity activists coined the term “propaganda of success.” Precious little the communist media said was true — it was almost always the opposite of the truth — but it sounded good and perhaps convincing to those who had no idea what was going on.
Even communist media, however, would admit from time to time that not everything was perfect. I don’t question that Mr. Heil sincerely believes in what he wrote, but at least when it comes to describing BBG’s impact, he should have tried using a more believable narrative and solid data rather than relying on BBG’s “propaganda of success.” At the very least, he should have acknowledged that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the BBG “practically defunct” in 2013 when she herself was an ex officio member of the BBG Board, while Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), called the agency “broken“ only a few days ago. All committee members, Republicans and Democrats, agreed with him when they supported the BBG reform legislation, H.R. 2323.
I do agree with Mr. Heil that new BBG CEO Mr. John Lansing (and BBG Chair Jeff Shell as well) has had some positive influence at the BBG, but very little else Mr. Heil writes — particularly about alleged program successes in Russia — has any relation to reality. One can just look at a very recent example: VOA’s initial coverage on Sunday of First Lady Nancy Reagan’s death.
Marginally better Voice of America still beaten on Nancy Reagan by BBC, DW, RFI, RT, BBG Watch, March 6, 2016
VOA was not only behind BBC, DW and RFI in reporting the news, Russia’s RT offered a far more extensive although biased reporting on this U.S. news story. VOA is now slightly more responsive in reporting news than it was under its previous director, whom Mr. Heil has highly praised on other occasions, but much of its news content these days is still late and sometimes quite substandard.
I had worked at the Voice of America for many years when Alan Heil was the program manager. He did a far better job than the current management at the Broadcasting Board of Governors. But compared to the independently-run, non-federal Radio Free Europe, it was still a dismal place for VOA’s foreign language journalists like myself. Even before I fled communist-ruled Poland, I secretly listened to RFE to find out what was really happening, not to VOA which played good American rock and roll, but not much else.
When I had joined VOA in 1973, VOA foreign language broadcasters were being denied access to wire services by their own management. When Mr. Heil was program manager, RFE beat us by a wide margin in nearly every country in Eastern Europe in audience size and influence year after year. The Polish Service did not recover and did not start to have a real impact until the power of VOA’s entrenched central bureaucracy was reduced during the Reagan Administration and Mr. Heil’s role at VOA declined. Our weekly audience ratings in Poland eventually grew from about 20% in 1971 (RFE had 80% in 1970-1971) to over 40% for VOA Polish Service in 1988. A secret Solidarity poll gave VOA an even higher audience number. When I visited RFE/RL in Germany for the first time in the 1980s, I was astounded how much better managed it was compared to what I had experienced at the VOA. The BBG has largely destroyed that advantage.
What I now see is a culture of bureaucratic mediocrity being spread from the BBG to RFE/RL. Mr. Lansing cannot stop this process on his own because the BBG lacks managerial talent which was much better even when Mr. Heil was in charge of VOA programs. There is a great danger that the consolidation, which Mr. Heil so much desires, will in fact destroy any effectiveness that RFE/RL and VOA may still have on their own. Mr. Lansing is not going to stay at the BBG forever. The BBG bureaucracy, which has made the agency dysfunctional, may emerge even stronger and more powerful after he leaves. Just as the administrative consolidation of USIA into the State Department had made U.S. public diplomacy dysfunctional, any administrative consolidation of VOA and surrogate BBG media under the BBG Washington bureaucracy will be even more disastrous because BBG bureaucracy is far worse than State Department bureaucracy.
Mr. Heil makes a big deal out of alleged success of RFE/RL and VOA TV program “Current Time,” when in fact Russia and media experts call it “feeble” or “simply very bad.” Individual program segments can still be good, because both RFE/RL and VOA still have a few good reporters (the best ones have left in frustration), but the overall effort under the stifling influence of BBG’s Washington bureaucracy has been underwhelming. One prominent European journalist who speaks fluent Russian and reports from Russia regularly described it this way:
News from “Current Time” or TV RAIN [an independent Russian channel]? I would always choose TV RAIN, even though they would not attempt to give such wide panorama of events as “Current Time.” But it is about the way TV RAIN is talking to the viewers: they are the channel’s partners, their language and values are the same. Watching TV RAIN you have the feeling they would show you wise men from whom you have a chance to learn something. “Current Time” instead is a cocktail of news presented as fast food served with plastic fork and spoon, instead of a gourmet meal and real silverware. And they don’t even have a Big Mac on the menu, just tasteless no name burgers fried by inexperienced cooks.
I suspect Mr. Heil has been mislead by RFE/RL management’s picking up destructive habits of the BBG bureaucracy: use of meaningless jargon and meaningless statistics to prove they are doing well when in fact they are far behind even some of the independent Russian media outlets which operate under much more difficult conditions and with much fewer resources, but perform much better. They are engaging audiences with much greater effectiveness, as is BBC and even Germany’s DW.
The rank of any news site’s popularity in a specific country is easily calculated on alexa.com, an Amazon.com company, using a combination of average daily visitors to and pageviews on a site from users in a specific country over the past month. The site with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews is ranked #1 in that country. The lower the number, the better the rank.
RFE/RL and VOA “Current Time” site has an incredibly poor rank of 5,386 in Russia and even worse 62,164 global rank, which would include Russia’s periphery.
Independent Russian TV channel RAIN TV has rank of 223 in Russia and 3,672 global rank.
Voice of America Russian Service website has a very poor rank of 3,799 in Russia.
Radio Liberty Russian Service website has a much better rank of 402 in Russia, which proves that it should not be exposed to micromanaging by BBG bureaucrats and forced to dilute its brand by collaborating with VOA.
BBC has an impressive rank of 209 in Russia.
MEDUZA, an independent Russian news website based in Latvia, which operates on a much smaller budget than VOA or RL Russian services, has an even better rank of 178 in Russia.
VOA and RFE/RL are doing even worse against their Russian competition on social media in Russia. The journalist who made these observations is a big fan of RFE/RL and believes in its mission, but like many others he sees the culture of bureaucratic neglect and intellectual and operational laziness spreading from Washington to RFE/RL. This is exactly what Mr. Heil is rooting for and what all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republicans and Democrats, are trying to prevent with their bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill.