BBG Watch Commentary
Yet another media article on how the U.S. is trying to defeat ISIS online was published by The Hill, a top U.S. political website and newspaper, read by the White House and lawmakers. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which is in charge of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN), the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and other U.S. funded media outlets, is not mentioned. The article points out that driving efforts “to fight terrorism online as extremist Islamic groups seek to motivate homegrown attackers” is the recently set up Global Engagement Center, housed at the State Department but led by retired Navy SEAL Cmdr. Michael Lumpkin, a former top Pentagon official.
The article quotes Lumpkin as saying that the Global Engagement Center brings together “the best and the brightest” from the U.S. government and the private sector, but there is no mention of MBN, RFE/RL or VOA.
A small group of VOA Central English Newsroom reporters had announced late last year that “countering violent extremism,” while a worthwhile endeavor for other U.S. government agencies, would violate their journalistic integrity. But even without such opposition, the BBG, described by Hillary Clinton in 2013 as “practically defunct,” has been off the radar screen in Washington when it comes to countering ISIS propaganda except for repeated criticism from Congress and congressional attempts to reform the agency. VOA reporters who protested against countering Islamist extremism have very few social media followers worldwide and their reports receive almost no comments on the main VOA website from online readers.
Despite the protests and objections from a few reporters to even discuss the proposal, the Voice of America management launched “Extremism Watch Desk.” In responding later to one of the VOA critics who asked about “the confluence of government, possible pressures, and our role as a journalist,” new VOA director Amanda Bennett said two months ago in what could be interpreted as a subtle rebuke “I think there is no room in the Voice of America for pressure. But, again, if the ideas are good, I’ll take them from wherever they come.” Director of the Voice of America’s “Extremism Watch Desk” was invited to speak at the last BBG board meeting on June 23. In a panel discussion at the meeting moderated by CEO John Lansing, “representatives from each of the BBG networks gave examples of the specific ways they are achieving and measuring their impact with key overseas audiences,” a BBG press release said. It appears that most VOA foreign language service staffers do not think that truthful journalism to point out and counter propaganda and disinformation violates the VOA Charter.
“Lansing, Bennett and the agency as a whole are under scrutiny,” said a longtime outside observer of the BBG who does not want his name used, adding that “no one wants to hear about parsing language.”
“Neither Lansing nor Bennett are going to be around long enough for the kind of systemic rehabilitation the place requires,” the expert said. “They [Lansing and Bennett] may have some successes on the margins from time to time, but to get that place fully functional again isn’t going to happen without new legislation, abolishing the part-time BBG board and its enormous bureaucracy, and completely restructuring the agency and U.S. international media outreach,” two former BBG staffers, a former executive and a former technical expert, told BBG Watch.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said in February of this year that the BBG is a broken agency and is “losing information war to ISIS and Putin.” Rep. Royce and other lawmakers are pushing for the passage of legislation designed to change the structure of the BBG. BBG’s Democratic Chairman, Jeff Shell, and BBG CEO John Lansing are on the record opposing the key provisions in the bipartisan Royce-Engel H.R. 2323 BBG reform bill.
Shell, and Lansing who has been with the BBG since September 2015, insist that the agency is on a roll [poor quality BBG video starts at 36:14], reforming itself and making progress. New director of the Voice of America, Amanda Bennett, was appointed six months ago. She has ordered anti-bias training for VOA reporters after U.S. blogs raised accusations of bias by VOA reporters and commentators against Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
But in a devastating critique of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, former Republican BBG member Blanquita Cullum called a recent VOA video on Islamist terrorism “flawed and dangerous.”
“For years, the BBG, which is headed by nine part-time governors (there are currently eight, most of them on expired terms), has been widely condemned as ‘ineffectual,’ ‘unprofessional,’ ‘unproductive,’ ‘useless and perhaps fatally broken‘,” Rep. Royce said in February. “Millions of dollars have been squandered. Mismanagement and incompetence is so deeply rooted within BBG that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the agency ‘practically defunct‘ in 2013 before warning, ‘we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void’,” Rep. Royce said in a press release.
In a testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 14, 2016, Republican BBG member, Russia expert Dr. Leon Aron, confirmed the inadequacy of U.S. BBG media outreach in countering Russian government’s propaganda and suggested more Western support for indigenous free Russian-language media is needed. Dr. Aron said that “ultimately the most effective countermeasure to the Russian propaganda is not — is not — just the U.S. airwaves, but the empowering the local Russian-speaking population in the former Soviet countries.”
Like most of the U.S. media, President Obama and the White House have stopped referring to the BBG when discussing strategies to counter ISIS, as well as propaganda and disinformation emanating from Russia. That is quite a contrast with the Cold War period when Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America were considered prime forces against Soviet disinformation and propaganda and were the first ones to be mentioned in the White House statements and media articles dealing with America’s soft power against the Soviet Union.
SEE: How the US is working to defeat ISIS online, By Kristina Wong, The Hill, June 25, 2016.