Issues in the News: Royce Report on USAGM Illegally Targeting Americans with Facebook Ads
U.S. International Media: Information War Lost by USAGM
By The Federalist
“…Oversight is not a game. It is a core constitutional function, a cornerstone of the structural checks and balances on which our federal government is built. Congress cannot carry out its constitutional duties without the power to investigate whether the laws it enacts are being faithfully executed and whether the money it appropriates is being properly spent…”
Ronald Welch (dean of the University of Baltimore School of Law, former assistant attorney general for legislative affairs [2009-2012] chief counsel to former senators Harry Reid and Edward M. Kennedy) writing in The Washington Post, Sunday, January 6, 2019.
In December 2018 the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) released an oversight investigation report authored by its former chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) who has retired from the U.S. Congress in January 2019. The investigative report centered on the agency disseminating its program content to US citizens, mostly through social online media including Facebook.
Here is the report:
“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.” (emphasis added)
Why This Is Important?
As noted above, even after the agency’s practices were revealed in the New York Times piece cited in the HFAC report and even after the formation of a task force by the agency (now the US Agency for Global Media or “U-SAG-M” as we call it).
The report looked at only six of about 40 language services at the Voice of America (VOA). Just with the six services alone it found 860 violations of the Smith-Mundt Act.
On its face, the practice of targeting audiences in the US appears to be deliberate and likely systemic. If the investigation went even deeper into the rest of the VOA language services it may have likely found more violations.
It also demonstrates that the so-called U-SAG-M task force was largely ignored or dismissed.
For decades, there has been a see-saw debate over the content of agency programs including whether such programs constitute propaganda. Hence the “firewall” (a favorite VOA term of art for other reasons) represented by the Smith-Mundt Act which prohibits deliberately targeting US citizens as part of its audience.
The agency likes to loudly claim that it is “an independent news company.” This is laughable. Most of the civilized and informed world knows that the agency is part of the US Government. Some people might argue it was a tool of President Obama’s advisor Ben Rhodes who during the Obama administration famously addressed the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) when the agency was known under that name. It is now still in the hands of John Lansing (USAGM CEO) and Amanda Bennett (VOA director) who were appointed by the same BBG Board which was later reduced in legislation to an advisory capacity but whose membership assembled during the previous administration has not yet changed. BBG Board members were subject to confirmation by the US Senate, but even under previous legislation the administration in power had a majority on the Board and could influence agency decisions. Even if critics get some things wrong on a US Government organizational chart, USAGM is still part of the US Government and in the hands of officials appointed by the President. Allowing its officials to serve indefinitely would make the agency completely unaccountable as opposed to being now almost completely unaccountable.
As a Lansing-Bennett-legacy-defining American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) Iran study, commissioned by the BBG itself, showed, under their watch the agency engaged in censorship of U.S. and Iranian critics President Obama’s Iran policy, became a one-sided advocate for the Iran nuclear deal, as well as a conduit for Iranian regime propaganda. Thomas Kent is former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president who was selected by John Lansing and presumably approved by the BBG Board. He has since left RFE/RL. Lansing and Bennett are still with the agency. The same management team that was in charge of VOA programs to Iran before the devastating AFPC study was issued is still in charge of these programs. Accountability is clearly missing.
Some might also argue that the best form of oversight is to allow US citizens to judge agency program content for themselves. In the Internet age, they can. In comments posted on social media, thousands of Iranian-Americans and Chinese-Americans have blasted the agency’s programs for pro-regime bias. They saw the programs on the Internet because outrageous mistakes and biased reports will be shared on regardless of any marketing.
Justly concerned about such potential bias and abuses, propagandizing to Americans at taxpayers’ expense is not what the Congress decided upon. Thus, the agency is directed to go hands-off in targeting US audiences. Facebook ads by the agency to market programs to Americans are illegal. Spending taxpayers’ money on them, which the agency did, is illegal.
The agency under its current holdover leadership has been ignoring the spirit and the letter of the Smith-Mundt Act and the VOA Charter to the ire of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Worrisome is the drift of this agency in particular away from the congressionally mandated VOA Charter in a movement toward mirroring US domestic media (which for all practical purposes can be accessed globally through one medium or another). This drift means that, like US domestic media, the direction is less toward objective reporting of the news and more toward political and partisan advocacy. We may have a Republican administration, but the officials in charge of the agency were appointed during the previous Democratic administration. None has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate, thus lacking the additional vetting by both parties for experience and suitability. The so-called bipartisan BBG Board which approved their appointments was in fact controlled by the Democrats.
This agency has exhibited a demonstrable anti-Trump bias from the time of the election campaign in 2016 to the present. Numerous examples have been cited by BBG Watch over this period.
Media pundits from both the American political Left and Right have been speculating what will happen to this agency in the Trump administration.
In reality, not much to this point.
It still muddles along doing whatever it wants until and even after it gets caught in a transgression including that cited by the HFAC report. Media outlets with apparent sources inside the Cohen Building paint a dire and draconian picture of what could happen but to date hasn’t materialized in any meaningful way. They draw a connection between Michael Pack (the administration’s nominee to be the next agency chief executive officer) and Steve Bannon, a former confidante of President Trump with whom he had a disagreement and was forced to leave. The connection is slim. Pack is viewed as a conservative. The present Obama era team at USAGM is viewed as liberal. Pack is also an award-winning film documentarian who produced documentaries for PBS. He has previous US government and public diplomacy experience at the former United States Information Agency (USIA) where he was in charge of its Worldnet Television programs. He was also an executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. None of the current USAGM executives has such government, public sector or public diplomacy experience. Pack reportedly collaborated with Bannon in producing two documentaries. Some of the members of the current USAGM management worked for or had links to liberal media outlets. They were not vetted by the U.S. Senate as Pack will be if he is to be confirmed. He will be scrutinized; they were not in a same extensive manner. That is how the political process in the US works. Each administration appoints key executives to be in charge of various important government agencies. They are usually subject to confirmation by members of both parties in the US Senate. In a constitutional, federal democracy, it is one of the ways how high-level government officials can be vetted and held accountable. The current USAGM management team has not been exposed to this higher-level of scrutiny because it was not required under the previous legislation. It is now required.
For his part, Pack has remained largely down below the radar since he was nominated and re-nominated. That hasn’t prevented him from being savaged in a “guilt by association” campaign, but there is really little that Pack has done to demonstrate that he would support an egregious tilt to the agency’s program content. He could hardly do any worse than the current team and could do much better if–as he has promised–he will try to restore and defend the VOA Charter.
Nevertheless, one should expect a barrage of negative speculation to burst forth once Pack is officially up for a nomination vote before the US Senate. If he survives that process, the worst lies ahead of him with a bureaucracy known for its use of character assassination, particularly against Republican appointees and a well-known intent to derail any meaningful and necessary reforms of this agency.
But we digress, slightly.
In Search of…An Audience
As the report notes, 860 violations of the Smith-Mundt by six VOA language services, even after a report in the New York Times and the formation of an alleged U-SAG-M task force.
One has to wonder why the agency had to establish a task force in the first place. Violations in number and scope of this kind are not the kind of thing that goes unnoticed in the hallways of the Cohen Building.
As we note, it is likely that the activities behind these violations were deliberate and systemic.
We would argue the easy answer might be this:
The agency has progressively been going off the grid as far as direct radio and television broadcasting. For decades, this was the one medium where VOA and the other U-SAG-M services had an audience.
But for agency officials, radio broadcasts and even television broadcasts are passé.
What agency officials have intended is to mine what they see as the fertile landscape of online media.
The agency also produces video content which they call “television.” But this too seems to be directed more toward accessibility online.
To date, much of what we see in this shift in priorities has been a bust.
And in the process the agency has lost its relevance.
This is not to say that the strategy of digital expansion is wrong in itself. However what is clear is that the agency has lost its global position and is drowning in the myriad alternatives to its programming, some of it better and some of it worse.
The agency makes unilateral declarations of audiences in the millions. However, when one seeks out its content on Facebook, YouTube or the agency’s own websites, the numbers are significantly less. More often than not you see numbers of “likes” only in the dozens, sometimes the hundreds–less than a provincial U.S. newspaper or TV station might get–rarely larger than that, making all audience claims by the agency suspect. Comments on VOA English website reports are extremely rare, usually one or two, if any. Comments on Facebook and Twitter are often from Americans. if there are more than a few “likes” or “comments,” they have most likely been bought with paid advertising.
Anything that tricks up the agency’s numbers is a plus. Hence, what appears to be a “look the other way” attitude toward Smith-Mundt violations before, during and beyond the U-SAG-M task force.
What we look for is impact and resonance. For the agency, in perhaps the majority of cases, both have vanished. There are still some pockets of successful programming. But they appear to be the exception, not the rule.
In short, the agency will take any numbers it gets from a domestic US audience. Abroad, through a combination of alternative media and direct action by foreign governments to block agency programs have left the agency with little more than empty space.
It would not be hard to conclude these are desperate times inside the Cohen Building.
And that’s not all.
Political Skullduggery, Pettifoggery and Hanky-Panky
In late 2018, there was an attempt to insert an amendment into congressional legislation that would have severely hand-tied the next agency CEO, whether it be Michael Pack or anyone else.
In general terms, the objective of this legislation was two-fold: maintain the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) as an operational entity and not an advisory one and to perpetuate the appointment of Amanda Bennett as VOA director.
Be assured that the VOA – in bad shape before Bennett became director – is now in much worse shape with her occupation of the director’s office. Scandals abound. The quality of its “journalism” has been in accelerated decline. In short, having Bennett bunkered in the VOA director’s position indefinitely (as seems to be the intent) maximizes the agency’s failures and minimizes any remedial effort or minor successes.
On its face, it appears that this amendment is an example of maneuvering by anti-Trump elements both in the Congress and the Cohen Building.
It is kind of silly in a way: at the end of the day, the president can ask for the resignation of any political appointee in an administration, particularly one from a prior administration.
But had it been enacted, this amendment would have been another roadblock for the administration to overcome, as it appears it was intended to be. Such is the visceral antipathy toward the Trump administration in various quarters.
However, what is worse, it would have made it easier for agency apparatchiks intending to continue with business as usual perpetuating what is now largely a myth that this agency as presently constituted is somehow relevant in the 21st century instead of a relic from a bygone era. It has little positive impact and even less resonance.
What To Do?
Clearly, the status quo is not an option. But after that it becomes a roll on a roulette wheel to find an alternative. The agency’s mission (as codified in the VOA Charter) is still valid today. However, it has become so mangled at the hands of those in charge today that it is barely serviceable, credible or reliable.
If the agency ceased to exist today and some of its functions transferred to other agencies and entities, life would still go on. And the US Government would still have a massive media infrastructure to get its messages through by individual departments in the Executive Branch, non-federal entities, and similar efforts in the Congress. And of course, there is the domestic US media which has a global reach in today’s world.
It might be unfortunate to see the agency go. But in the hands of its current officials, it has gotten to nowhere and has gotten there fast.
And that makes the agency as good as done. If it is to be saved, it needs a new new vision and, above all, new leadership. It must be viewed by all Americans as non-partisan and in the national interest. The current agency leadership team has failed on all counts. John Lansing and Amanda Bennett have endangered the jobs of those Voice of America employees who support the VOA Charter and even the jobs of those who agree with them. They also failed non-federal employees who have remained faithful to their entities’ original mission.