US International Media Information War Lost
By The Federalist
If there is one thing officials of US International Media have in inexhaustible supply, it would be buffoonery.
Consider the latest offering, an agency blog post of March 23, 2017 written by Jeffrey Trimble, a functionary of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
(By the way, with the elimination of the Broadcasting Board of Governors [BBG] as a body directly responsible for “managing” the agency, why do we still need the IBB? Something for our friends in the Congress to consider. But we digress. Sort of.)
You may recall Mr. Trimble:
- Some years ago, the recipient of a $10-thousand dollar bonus on top of a six-figure salary, for doing what of substance, perhaps keeping the BBG at the bottom of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and confidence in senior leaders (FEVS) scores for many years.
- The longtime manager under whose partial watch the Office of Inspector General (OIG) found numerous violations of U.S. government laws and regulations at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
- The person charged with writing a review of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service 2012/2013 management crisis. A report, by the way, which as far as we know has never seen the light of day nor has it ever been spoken of, the IBB/BBG not being strong believers in accountability or transparency.
- The person who, along with John Lansing (the agency chief executive officer) accompanied former BBG chairman Jeffrey Shell on his “trip of ejection” to Russia. Mr. Shell was traveling on a regular passport. Did Mr. Trimble advise Mr. Shell that it was dangerous and not a good idea for the BBG chairman to go to Putin’s Russia on a private business trip holding a regular passport and that he should only be going to Russia, if at all, on an official U.S. government business, using a diplomatic passport? With Mr. Trimble watching the whole incident, which he apparently failed to anticipate and prevent, Mr. Shell was not allowed inside the country and put on an international flight out of the country posthaste, while Mr. Trimble, Mr. Lansing, and Thomas Kent, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) president, were permitted to enter Russia. Mr. Shell later praised Mr. Trimble and called him an American “Patriot.”
- The person who, along with others, for many months couldn’t negotiate the release of RFE/RL Azeri Service reporter Khadija Ismayilova from a prison cell in Azerbaijan.
Now comes Mr. Trimble’s blog post recounting a recent appearance by James Glassman (a former BBG chairman and former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy), Amanda Bennett (the current Voice of America [VOA] director) and Geoffrey Cowan (a former VOA director) at a March 16, 2013 meeting of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and a panel discussion on “The Past, Present and Future of Voice of America.”
To the obvious:
To all appearances, this event was an attempt to preserve the VOA at all costs. What is at the core of “preservation” is the status quo: leaving the agency the way it is in its perpetual state of:
- “Regular Bottom Feeder” ; “Going Backward” Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson “Federal Insider,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2016.
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
This is the objective: to wall off the agency from any meaningful attempt at reform or reorganization: both of which are desperately necessary IF the agency is to hang around for much longer in the 21st century.
Readers should also note that the White House has directed agencies of the Executive Branch not to publicly discuss funding as proposed by its Fiscal Year 2018 budget. In this context, the panel discussion could be seen as an attempted sleight of hand to sidestep this guidance. If you include in the discussion the “future of Voice of America,” you are, in fact talking about operations and that means talking about funding, directly or indirectly.
Mr. Trimble glowingly claims that Bennett “stole the show” during the presentation by offering the story of a North Korean defector who talked about North Korean officials in its foreign ministry reviewing VOA broadcast materials (referred to as “reference radio materials”) and further opining on the importance of the broadcasts toward reunification on the Korean peninsula.
Mr. Trimble asserts, “That’s impact, folks.”
It’s not. A VOA newsroom reporter described it as “Unbelievable!”
In reality, it is highly likely that “impact” is vague and ambiguous.
The priority issue involving North Korea is its accelerated nuclear arms program, in particular its ballistic missile program. There is no indication that VOA broadcasts are having any moderating impact on North Korean leadership thinking other than what we see – figuratively and literally – as the trajectory of North Korean strategic priorities.
As to impact effecting the North Korean population, there is even more reason to question Trimble’s oversized claim.
Even if the broadcasts were viewed favorably by the North Korean population, it is, in effect, being held hostage by the actions of its government. Control over the population is maintained and reinforced by acts of extreme brutality.
For the North Korean people, their top priority is survival in what remains one of the world’s most draconian regimes. Harrowing stories are many about people attempting to flee from the regime, including a series some months ago broadcast by Washington, DC radio station WTOP and its exemplary national security correspondent, JJ Green.
(Note: VOA claims that it has established an “investigative unit,” one would think intended to produce a program like that heard on WTOP. In fact, it appears to be yet another hapless enterprise, with the consequence that a local radio station like WTOP “stole the show” on Bennett and the VOA).
One could conclude impact of VOA programs on the tightly controlled North Korean population, in terms of regime internal and external behavior, would appear dubious.
In the past, VOA repeated or quoted North Korean propaganda, as in this video showing well-stocked stores and well-fed children of the communist elite in North Korea, a nation known for starving its ordinary citizens, and describing the North Korean capital city Pyongyang as “vibrant and busy with activity.”.
On a roll with his grandiose vision, Mr. Trimble plays an all-time agency favorite: audience numbers. He is in charge of counting them. He is in fact in charge of setting the goals and evaluating his own performance. It is hardly an independent or objective evaluation.
Here Trimble states,
“The Advisory Commission, which is charged with appraising U.S. Government public diplomacy including U.S. International Media, also heard about VOA’s unprecedented global audience growth in 2016, up nearly 50 million to nearly 237 million weekly.
That’s impact too.”
In truth, no it’s not. Here’s the real deal:
Agency audience numbers have long been suspect, as well as the agency’s methods of estimating audience size.
- We know people like Mr. Trimble and other agency officials very, very well.
- We know the games that can be played when grouping survey responses of various kinds to show enormous positives in terms of mission impact (supporting freedom and democracy) when in fact they include entertainment programming (cute animal videos) and countries like Mexico that have free media. They also include paid program placement.
- We know the way the agency takes audience estimates of local radio and TV stations on which the agency has placed programs, which are often pre-censored by VOA in violation of the VOA Charter to pass local censorship laws, and has projected estimated audiences as real audiences to real accurate and uncensored news programming.
- We have never seen – nor has the agency publicly published – its audience questionnaires to show the kinds of questions asked and how responses are grouped to show positives over negatives.
In addition, social/digital media – which the agency hopes will be its best chance for survival – shows less than mediocre results. Indeed, internal weekly reports from VOA show “views” or “likes” to its stories to be beyond pathetic for any major news organization.
As we have mentioned in the past, even if the agency’s audience numbers are taken at face value, they should be measured against a global population of 7-Billion and growing. Spread out among VOA language services and the populations in various target areas, the impact is diluted and very thin. Also, comparisons with numbers from YouTube and Facebook where agency content is posted do not support the internal agency claims of glory. Russia’s RT, which contrary to Mr. John F. Lansing’s (Mr. Trimble’s boss) claim, does not have a greater budget than the BBG, beats the Voice of America on YouTube stats many times over.
Last but not least, we cannot resist a poke at the panel in the picture accompanying Mr. Trimble’s agency blog post.
In the picture, left to right are Mr. Glassman, Ms. Bennett and Mr. Cowan.
Mr. Glassman, who has years of U.S. government and private sector managerial experience, looks as if he does not like the idea of Ms. Bennett “stealing the show,” whatever that means.
Ms. Bennett, in the middle, looking as if she had said something that perhaps annoyed Mr. Glassman, or may be not. It could have been something else, or nothing.
And last, the ever-affable Geoffrey Cowan who also has held multiple high-level public service jobs.
Rather than “stealing the show,” Ms. Bennett may have torpedoed what could have been a real discussion by launching into a self-promotory presentation that impressed Mr. Trimble so much. A real discussion might have focused on what has happened to the BBG during the many years Mr. Trimble was there occupying key managerial positions. He obviously prefers dog and pony shows for a good reason.