Broadcasting Board of Governors Total Meltdown 5.0 Part Two
US Government International Media Know Your Audience?
By The Federalist
If there is one thing the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has in abundance it is:
Sitting down in Miami is André Mendes, acting director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) composed of Radio and TV Marti. He once proclaimed that he kicked the Chinese out of the BBG’s IT infrastructure. On its face, perhaps it isn’t true or it may have been a transitory moment in the constantly shifting world of international cyber warfare.
Most likely, we would not know. Under his earlier watch at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency which later appointed him as interim head of Radio/TV Marti, the Iranian Cyber Army managed to hack and hijack the Voice of America website in 2011. The Iranian regime’s agents replaced the official VOA news website worldwide for several hours with a nasty meme directed at the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
And of course, there’s always the Russians, and who knows what they are up to (the BBG almost certainly does not know).
Apparently looking to get the spotlight pointed in his direction, Mr. Mendes demanded that the head of the Cuban government, Raul Castro, “tear down this (Cuban internet) firewall.” It really seemed that he was trying to put himself on the same level of historical precedent with the late former US President Ronald Reagan when he had called on former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Regretfully, Mr. Castro is not likely to be intimidated, especially not by publicity-seeking pronouncements from a BBG manager. More than likely, the Cuban government pays attention to what goes on elsewhere and watches what the Russians, Iranians and Chinese do to stymie US Government media operations. They use pressure, blackmail, other forms of intimidation and agents of influence. They almost certainly do a lot of cyber spying and hacking.
In addition, the Cubans hold some good cards. They know that US business interests are anxious to begin and expand operations into the island, as they have in Russia and China, including businesses run by some former and current Broadcasting Board of Governors chairmen and board members, and in one known case in China, even a family member of a senior BBG/VOA executive.
Perhaps most importantly, the credibility of Radio/TV Marti might possibly take a hit with its Cuban audience after such a dramatic but empty pronouncement. It will not be a good thing if people in Cuba find bombastic statements that lead to nothing–ridiculous.
Last but certainly not least is the US budget process for US international media outreach. The proposed FY 2019 budget is an indicator of where the agency stands in general and Radio/TV Marti specifically. A budget reduction, while not necessarily a fact is a strong indicator of intent regarding the agency and its entities, and a statement of confidence or the lack thereof, which we believe to be most appropriate in the case of the BBG. And in the case of the BBG, budget proposals show a big hit to Radio/TV Marti, for which only those in charge of the BBG and their management team have to take blame.
Mr. Mendes has more to worry about in what happens or does not happen in Washington and Miami, rather than in Havana.
VOA “TV” Unplugged
Senior VOA officials are dizzily euphoric over the launch of its English language TV program, “Plugged In.” This new program is hosted by Greta Van Susteren, a longtime commentator and interviewer familiar to US cable news audiences from her time on Cable News Network (CNN) and Fox News.
Van Susteren has agreed to work for VOA as a “pro bono” contributor and program host. She is not taking a salary. She is not a Federal government employee. She is not a paid contractor.
While the VOA Third Floor is seemingly a hallway of joy, the reaction in other parts of the agency is for perhaps other selfish reasons more restrained. This is not a reflection on Ms. Van Susteren, her capability or broadcast credentials. It has a whole lot more to do with poor leadership, poor management, poor employee morale and how the agency’s senior executives, whom employees blame for these things, have handled her role in agency programs.
Internally, the arrival of Ms. Susteren may be a body blow to the egos of some longtime staffers in the VOA newsroom. To appearances, it is a signal to these staffers that they are not up to the task of delivering high profile interviews or TV anchoring. Some comment that it might elevate the bar in terms of the agency’s performance while others just sit back to see how long Ms. Susteren’s tenure will last at VOA.
Also heard are concerns about accountability. “Pro bono” service provided by Van Susteren puts her outside the normal parameters for performance requirements and standards that are a normal condition for Federal employees–not that BBG and VOA officials and some managers, editors and reporters have been themselves observing the VOA Charter. Quite a few of them have been violating it right and left. In that sense, Greta Van Susteren has been far better because of her overall professionalism and a genuine effort to remain nonpartisan. Nevertheless, she cannot be officially held as accountable as VOA employees, although up to now no one has yet made any of the BBG and VOA managers, editors and reporters accountable for much of anything.
Ms. Van Susteren has a large Twitter following. Not all of her followers are happy to see Ms. Van Susteren now part of US Government media. Some of this is antipathy toward the Trump administration. Some has to do with how some followers perceive Ms. Van Susteren’s political views. And others wonder where the line exists that separates Ms. Van Susteren the private citizen and that of a media person hosting a US Government media program. Again, this is not a criticism of Ms. Van Susteren on our part. She is an outstanding media professional from whom VOA officials, editors and reporters could learn a lot. It seems to us that she is being used by the current BBG/VOA management to cover up their own managerial and programming deficiencies and failures. The only way to cure them is to replace the current management team. Not being in a leadership role or even a government employee, Ms. Van Susteren cannot solve BBG’s and VOA’s management and programming problems.
Closed Circuit TV
In the larger picture, the bottom line question becomes one of determining the intended audience of this program.
Some observe that a large segment of a rather embarrassingly small audience for agency digital or video content in English is in North America. If true, this would seriously question whether this or other programs have real impact in strategic target areas. North America is not intended as one of them.
In turn it also raises the issue of broadcasting propaganda to US citizens. Media technology in the 21st century makes this inevitable: if you have internet access and access to social media, you have access to the agency’s digital content which has been lately biased and partisan to an unprecedented degree. Again, we are not referring here to anything Ms. Van Susteren has done herself for VOA but rather to other VOA programs.
Ultimately, some critics caustically observe that the real intended audience is not foreign publics but rather Members of Congress and officials of the sitting administration in the White House. In some aspects, this latest program initiative may be intended to bolster the agency’s survivability by creating the appearance, not the fact, of impact.
Whether it is “Plugged In” or any other agency video program, the question remains: are they really indicative of the agency’s mission to reach foreign audiences in any meaningful manner or number.
In Part One of this series, we discussed the impact or lack thereof of another agency TV project, “Current Time,” directed at Russia and Russian-speaking audiences outside of the Russian Federation.
One of the things the agency dreams of doing is producing documentaries. In thinking about the Russians, we came across a documentary series in 18 segments of about 45 minutes each entitled “Soviet Storm” on the subject of “The Great Patriotic War,” or World War Two from the Russian point of view:
Using a combination of archival film footage, animation and re-enactors in authentic period uniforms and weapons, the documentary provides a detailed account of Soviet Russia at war with Nazi Germany.
Why is this important?
On the one hand, it shows the production requirements for a documentary.
More important, as we noted in Part One of this series, Russian president Vladimir Putin has placed increased emphasis on “The Great Patriotic War” as a national unity narrative projecting a salient historical period to inspire the Russian people with a sense of national greatness and the potential return of that greatness in the present and the future.
This is what the BBG is up against in its media efforts directed toward Russia. Anyone who thinks “Current Time” is on the same level as the “Soviet Storm” series is, well, dreaming at best and delusional at worst.
And this is but one example of what the Russians are doing for both domestic and foreign consumption.
Good Luck with “Current Time,” because it is clear that Putin believes, “What is past is prologue.”
But the real competition comes from independent Russian journalists, including those who have left Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) out of frustration with its management. Neither the Russian Service of Radio Liberty nor the “Current Time” TV are able to compete with some of the Russian anti-Kremlin media outlets or even individual independent journalists running their own video blogs.
An independent reporter working in the region mentioned to us stunning succes of Yury Aleksandrovich Dud, a former sport journalist now running his own Youtube channel, “вДудь” (vDud), featuring interviews with prominent Russian politicians, activists, writers, businessmen and other figures of public life. His audience exceeds millions, the numbers Radio Liberty or VOA Russian Service can not even dream about. He interviewed Alexei Navalny and many others. Yury Dud is also a commercial success; with his multimillion audience he has no problem to attract advertisers.
“vDud” YouTube channel, which joined YouTube in January 2014, has 2,578,522 subscribers as of February 20, 2018, about ten times more than “Current Time.” Having alienated its own journalists in recent public scandals, RFE/RL management cannot even dream of attracting top talent. The word of the toxic atmosphere created by the management of US international media has gotten out in public statements and open letters.
Local journalists tell us that deficit of new talent, inability to modernize, to change, and to find a language appealing to younger generations is indeed RFE/RL’s main problem. One reporter who contributes from time to time to RFE/RL programs as a freelancer told us confidentially that the quality of most of Radio Liberty content is “dramatically poor.” The reporter thinks no solution to these problems is possible under the current management.
With the social networks and YouTube at their disposal, the Russians no longer need foreign media outlets to break news. The last investigative video of Alexei Navalny on oligarch Deripaska and deputy premier Prikhodko was already watched by 5 million viewers. Radio Liberty has to find its own niche, but the senior management currently at war with RFE/RL’s journalists, including some of its young and talented multi-media professionals, is unable to do it. It is the result of management crisis, with the top people not knowing how to lead, how to harmonize work and how to make teams work together. Some of the best journalists have left RFE/RL and are openly criticizing the station’s leadership. Some of the critics are former recipients of the prestigious Vaclav Havel Fellowship.
Following a recent presentation by the BBG at George Washington University in Washington, DC former senior agency official Alan Heil contributed a piece to the Public Diplomacy Council website in which he heaped ebullient praise on the agency for “giving voice to the Iranian protests.”
The Heil column studiously avoids any mention of the abundance of negative reactions to the broadcasts by VOA and its Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty counterpart Radio Farda. Social media provides a regular outpouring of anger toward both, essentially labeling them as voices of the regime.
Heil wrote his laudatory article before Reza Pahlavi, the older son of the late Shah of Iran, warned in a video interview that U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets broadcasting to Iran — VOA Persian Service (also known as Persian News Network or PNN) and RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, both managed by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency — have been infiltrated by individuals who believe in reforming the clerical regime in Iran and who help the regime “stay in power.”
While Reza Pahlavi made his comment before Mr. Heil wrote his article, there were plenty of other similar voices. Absent from Mr. Heil’s article was any mention of an earlier Wall Street Journal editorial heavily criticizing the VOA, in particular for the content coming from the VOA Persian (Farsi) Service and ineffective cyber countermeasures to the Iranians blocking Internet content from the agency.
The end result is a piece lacking balance and perpetuating the agency as notorious for being tone deaf, dumb and blind when it comes to critical analysis of its operations, particularly justified criticism.
Referring to VOA programming to Iran, Heil remarked,
“The U.S. public diplomacy benefits were instantaneous. They included VOA interviews with NSC spokesperson Michael Anton, and interviews by VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren with Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, and Senate Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-MD).”
The reality is that VOA was late with full-fledged reporting on the latest Iran protests and started out by giving considerable airtime and online space to officials of the Iranian regime making threats against the protesters. This was duly noted by many Iranians and Iranian Americans in their irate social media comments, which Mr. Heil ignored. Interviews with US officials, some of them conducted by Greta Van Susteren came late and could not repair the damage to VOA’s credibility and reputation.
In order to reinforce the myth of VOA programming effectiveness in Iran despite plenty of evidence that anti-regime Iranians find them offensive and counterproductive, Mr. Heil throws out audience numbers that are highly misleading and taken out of context. It is not unusual for audience numbers for any kind of media to increase during crises. What matters is the impact and whether the impact is positive or negative in relation to the outlet’s mission.
This has long been a tactic of current agency officials: making unilateral declarations and hoping that the agency gets some traction from fiction. Talk about elusive “metrics” doesn’t get the job done.
To outward appearances, perhaps Mr. Heil believes a need exists to preserve some luster from VOA’s bygone era, whether real or exaggerated, to justify keeping the agency alive. Fuzzy calculations of the effectiveness of agency programs distract from real problems: lack of leadership, mismanagement and a VOA Persian Service which has long been known to be poorly managed, contentious within itself and in its program content to Iran.
The top priority of this agency is self-preservation. In reality, it is a legacy operation that is lost in contemporary times and facing challenges that were either non-existent or not as pervasive and sophisticated as in the 21st century. It has not been handling these challenges well.
With Iran, it is a fool’s errand to believe that the agency has somehow moved the dimensions of internal turmoil or dissent within the Islamic Republic that is favorable to the agency or the US Government. Many anti-regime Iranians are convinced that VOA and Radio Farda are doing the opposite: helping to keep the Iranian Islamist regime in power. Their social media comments and the recent warning from Reza Pahlavi, who is usually very restrained and diplomatic, contradict Mr. Heil’s Pollyannish assertions.
As US interests go in Iran, intended outcomes can be quite complex. Intelligent programming decisions are best made by knowing the intended audience and what the audience thinks, in Iran and elsewhere.
This agency has demonstrated repeatedly that it lacks a superior intelligent capacity to do so on a wide scale.