BBG – USAGM Watch Guest Commentary
MAXIMUM HUBRIS: THE USAGM – PART ONE
NUMBERS GAME, TAXPAYERS AS CHUMPS, AND DONALD TRUMP
By Dan Robinson
How one of the worst federal agencies perpetuates itself at the expense of an unknowing public, with the help of Congress and public diplomacy high society.
USAGM – BBG Watch readers — discerning as they are — know that things that they hear from the U.S. Agency for Global Media (formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors) — how to put this — strain credulity.
Such is the case with the recent piece published in the University of Southern California Public Diplomacy Blog by Shawn Powers, acting Chief Strategy Officer for USAGM, responding to an article by Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott, a retired official who played a key role in audience analysis at USAGM for decades.
USAGM’S GLOBAL REACH: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE. By Shawn Powers, CPD Blog, April 3, 2019.
THE USAGM AUDIENCE INCREASE: LESS STARTLING THAN MEETS THE EYE. By Kim Andrew Elliott, CPD Blog, March 27, 2019.
Let’s review briefly: Elliott, in his USC article refers to the claim by USAGM CEO John Lansing, that agency programming “was consumed by 345 million adults weekly worldwide — an unprecedented year-on-year increase of 67 million from 2017.”
Questioning the agency’s methodology, Elliott said there “is no year-on-year increase”. About a 6.2 percent increase claimed by USAGM in China, Elliott says that “beggars belief and indeed is not to be believed” (this quote appeared in a separate but similar version Elliott wrote for an offline for subscription radio-related publication).
HEADLINE: In the space of just 3 years or so, USAGM/BBG claimed not just 67 million audience size claimed by Lansing, but had previously claimed a 50 million increase.
Making not just one such claim, but two, in the space of just three years, requires a lot of chutzpah — we would call it maximum hubris.
Hosanna — praise the mighty USAGM! The agency clearly expects American taxpayers, and members of Congress, to just lap this up and open their pockets.
Can you imagine anyone in the strategy/analysis offices of USAGM actually coming out and saying something in public to contradict this claim, say, to assert a decline in audience size?
Absolutely not. To do so would be to jeopardize their high five and six-figure jobs at the agency where retaliation against naysayers has been a well known issue for decades (a few years ago, one USAGM employee described the atmosphere as: “very bad, somewhere between Kafka at his most grotesque and Woody Allen at his most absurd”).
MAIN OBJECTIVE: STAY ALIVE, AVERT CUTS
The raison d’être of USAGM, at this point in its history, is (1) to stay alive (2) avert budget cuts (3) and persuade Congress to sustain and increase funding in perpetuity.
Let’s review the significance of what Kim Elliott wrote: this was the first time in the history of this agency that anyone, let alone someone with the experience and knowledge he possesses, had the audacity to question audience methods and results.
That shouldn’t be seen as an anomaly. It should provoke additional questions, and a review of certain facts:
- Wasn’t it convenient that USAGM figures jumped 113 million during a period when it had been under criticism for under-performing (Obama administration pressure forced the agency to initiate new projects such as the Extremism Watch Desk, and Polygraph).
- Isn’t it convenient for USAGM to be able to show Congress, which had proposed extensive reforms of the scandal-plagued agency, that it somehow sharply increased audience figures and what is called “reach” starting with a 50 million + spike?
- USAGM/BBG employees themselves have quietly questioned audience figures — quietly because they fear saying anything publicly risks retaliation or not being seen by management as a team player.
Observing the latest agency audience claims, one former decades-long VOA correspondent put it this way: “VOA audience…up, up, up. Just ask them.”
That nicely frames the problem: USAGM has spent decades cultivating members of Congress who tend to believe anything it says, to persuade them that USAGM has performed at levels far above reality.
AGENCY OFFICIALS DERISIVE OF ADMINISTRATION BUDGET CUT EFFORTS
Anyone receiving a document such as USAGM’s 2018 Performance & Accountability Report, particularly lawmakers lacking curiosity and/or resources to take a deeper look, is inclined to just open the funding floodgates.
Congress did so during the last budget year, helping USAGM/BBG avert the first sharp Trump administration budget cut. Lawmakers boosted agency spending to $808 million.
USAGM officials are still patting themselves on the back on this. CEO John Lansing and other officials mentioned this funding coup in recent Town Hall meetings.
The objective is clear — play out the clock, avoid any budget cuts as far as possible into the future, while milking congressional contacts to ensure that lawmakers will resist any administration effort to save additional funds by targeting USAGM.
LAWMAKERS AFRAID TO ASK TOUGHER QUESTIONS
The number of lawmakers from either major party who are knowledgeable enough to challenge the propaganda emanating from USAGM, has dwindled.
A recent hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs provided an excellent example.
Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) began a question to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this way:
“Are we just watching the change in Europe and the anti-American, anti-U.S. – clearly observations, or is there something that we are doing to counter this?”
Lowey asked Pompeo for “his view” of what Voice of America “is doing”.
Wow. His view? Did the congresswoman, or other committee members, have a view themselves? Do they already KNOW what the agency is doing? Hard to say.
Was Lowey pre-briefed about the string of scandals at Voice of America under Obama-era management that undermined the agency’s credibility and reputation, such as it still exists?
Did she recall the report by former House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce that found USAGM was illegally targeting Americans with Facebook ads?
(The report found: “. . .serious questions about the strategy, effectiveness and legality of USAGM activities. . .” and identified: “Potential Smith-Mundt Act violations, Questionable Content, Apparent Breakdowns Across USAGM Networks” which the report said “raise important, broader questions about USAGM strategy and management.”)
Do lawmakers recall that the USAGM-managed Office of Cuba Broadcasting aired an anti-Semitic video targeting George Soros…or that members of VOA’s Hausa service staff were fired for accepting bribes from a Nigerian government official?
Has memory already faded of numerous other scandals involving advocacy journalism at VOA, the posting of anti-Trump memes and comments by VOA journalists? How about violations of tax law by the agency relating to contractors it employs?
We may never know. But it’s guaranteed that Lowey and others were swarmed by USAGM officials peddling the agency’s reports and claims of a 117 million audience increase in less than 3 years.
QUESTIONS CONTINUE ABOUT AUDIENCE METHODS
Let’s get back to the response authored by Powers.
“If USAGM was having the impact it claimed,” one global media analyst says, “the stories [the agency] is sharing would be much further up the news agenda in many other countries.”
Some disclosure: media analysts familiar with international broadcasting issues often prefer to remain anonymous. They frequently have ongoing involvement in the field. Odd, but a reality I encounter frequently when writing about global media.
The analyst continues:
“Where are the reference metrics? VOA’s YouTube gallery shows items with a few hundred views per story. Is that good? What was the cost per viewer? Was the item just a fluff piece of Americana or a serious issue that would interest a target audience? BBC breaks stories. Where are the stories that USAGM has broken and what was the result? That is the kind of research that matters.”
“Measuring clicks and whether a story has been shared is [open] to fraudulent bots,” the analyst says. “What does that tell the individual program makers? Not a lot. It is like the millions of views on YouTube. Does the best content get the most views? No.”
The issue of breaking news is interesting because USAGM lagged for decades in this area. Indeed, compared to non-government media USAGM “breaking news” is but a speck.
Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his assignment as senior White House correspondent from 2010 to 2014, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent. Views expressed here are his own.