BBG – USAGM Watch Guest Commentary
MAXIMUM HUBRIS: THE USAGM – PART THREE
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).
PUBLIC DIPLOMACY GROUPS LARGELY FAIL TO ASK TOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT USAGM STRATEGIES AND OPERATIONS
Another aspect involves what from all appearances is blind, permanent support from the very active network of U.S. – based organizations, institutions and commissions devoted to public diplomacy.
This network arose over the decades and might be called, for lack of a better description, a kind of secret society in that most Americans have no knowledge it exists — even though all of them sit right out in the open.
A parade of former officials who worked for USIA, BBG/USAGM and its various media outlets, took up residence in these places, where they became and remain a mutual admiration society with USAGM (circle jerk is an edgier expression used by a current agency employee to describe this).
Sitting atop this list is the The Public Diplomacy Council, a Washington-based nonprofit that describes itself as supporting “the academic study, professional practice, and responsible advocacy of public diplomacy.”
PDC is essentially a mouthpiece for USAGM. Members include at least a dozen or so former agency officials. One PDC council officer is a regular attendee at USAGM/BBG board meetings, extolling agency accomplishments.
Note that PDC makes clear it is an advocacy organization. It is not known to have ever held a session in recent years specifically reflecting the range of serious, ongoing problems at the agency, such as those revealed in numerous reports by BBG-USAGM Watch.
From outward appearances, PDC and other groups see little wrong with anything USAGM has done. Many in these groups recall — and are most likely to be desirous of some sort of return to — the halcyon days of the agency (while keeping options open to obtain jobs in the present-day USAGM as it escapes the congressional budget axe year after year).
There is a huge amount of cooperation and co-sponsoring between PDC and major universities that run public diplomacy programs, all of this constituting a major support network and platform for USAGM.
George Washington University has its Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication, under the School of Media and Public Affairs, headed by ex-CNN anchor and correspondent Frank Sesno (Sesno worked briefly with VOA decades ago, something not widely known).
The Walter Roberts Endowment at GWU is named after a former figure in the old U.S. Information Agency (Bill Clinton dissolved the USIA in the 1990’s to create the former BBG, now renamed USAGM).
Rarely are any of the more embarrassing controversies at USAGM raised during public events these organizations sponsor. Agency officials assume friendly audiences, and these groups oblige. After all, what self-respecting PD entity wants negative news playing out on its dime? Occasionally a member of the public will raise a troubling question about VOA’s downplaying of human rights news in some countries, but such questions, even from former political prisoners in China, are promptly dismissed by USAGM panelists as coming from uninformed individuals.
The Center for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California (where a former VOA director resides) co-sponsors events with the Public Diplomacy Council and another lesser-known group called the Public Diplomacy Association of America (PDAA is the former USIA Alumni Association).
The USC CPD constitutes an exception to the general rule of pulling punches where USAGM is concerned. Its professionally-run and edited blog encourages opposing views, such as Kim Elliott’s recent piece questioning agency audience methods and my own articles revealing mismanagement and other issues at USAGM.
The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which has close ties to the PDC, is a Washington-based group composed of former and current State Department figures and others with foreign service backgrounds, including from the USIA.
AFSA too has become little more than a mouthpiece for USAGM. In 2014, it hosted a forum with former VOA director, David Ensor (who at one point described VOA as a “state broadcaster” and stressed “close ties” with the Department of State.) AFSA also hosted Amanda Bennett, the current VOA director, an Obama-era appointee, like current USAGM CEO Lansing.
In 2015, Ensor appeared at George Washington University in a forum that failed to tackle any of the actual controversies at both VOA and the agency though at one point Sesno did raise the charge of VOA’s censorship of an interview critical of the Chinese regime.
Another of the dirty little secrets in Washington is the revolving (actually one way) door between USAGM/BBG and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees NPR.
Former agency officials frequently ended up occupying high-level positions at CPB, which like USAGM is partially funded by taxpayer dollars. In fact, at one point in the early 2000s, the late Kenneth Tomlinson was simultaneously chairman of the BBG, and head of CPB — an astounding conglomeration of power and influence.
NPR over the decades produced several stories about perceived threats — budgetary and political — to Voice of America, including this piece in 2005 focusing on allegations against Tomlinson.
But NPR has also fit the pattern described earlier of media organizations that generally ignore the serious systemic problems at USAGM, including examples of mismanagement and journalistic failures across the agency’s outlets.
USAGM REBRANDING FOCUSED ON KNOWN ALLIES AND LIKELY SUPPORTERS — NO QUESTIONS WANTED
Fast forward to September of 2018. Rolling out its rebranding from BBG to USAGM, the agency held an after work hours event at the National Press Club in Washington.
As I wrote at BBG/USAGM Watch, the event was initially declared closed. Agency officials preferred to have no probing by troublesome reporters on uncomfortable topics like audience measurement methods.
The agency was forced to back down and allow attendance by this author. It was only through a Freedom of Information Act request, that a list of invitees (redacted) was obtained.
What that list showed was that the agency sought to limit attendance to a predictable group of known and potential policy and funding influencers who were more likely to applaud everything USAGM is doing than ask hard questions.
The agency came up with one member of Congress to shower praise on USAGM. Heather Nauert, the former State Department spokeswoman, delivered a speech in which she actually said she wasn’t sure about the necessity of rebranding the agency.
Two persons (a former State Department couple) sat at a table with me as this charade played out. They seemed skeptical as CEO Lansing waxed enthusiastically about audience increases and reach — including a claim that USAGM is the leading foreign broadcaster for Iran.
USAGM MESSAGE TO TRUMP/CONGRESS: WE’RE THE THIRD RAIL AMONG FEDERAL BUREAUCRACIES, NOT TO BE TOUCHED
As this is written, USAGM wants President Trump — who like all presidents has authority to make changes in the agency’s management and funding — in its lie.
Going on three full years since the 2016 election, Obama-era managers (CEO Lansing and VOA director and deputy directors Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara — both with ties to The Washington Post) remain in position (Trump CEO nominee Michael Pack still unconfirmed by the Senate).
Some of the worst examples of politically-biased social media posts, as well as advocacy reporting (practices specifically banned by VOA’s own Best Practices Guide) have occurred under their watch.
USAGM wants the administration to swallow its claim of never-ending skyrocketing audiences, and to take the agency off the target list for further budget reduction.
Having already ramped up certain counter-disinformation programs in response to Obama administration pressure (Polygraph, countering Russian disinformation), and an Extremism Watch Desk — USAGM is doubling down.
It claims both of these projects have shot upward in online popularity (seriously, just take the agency’s word for it) along with programs like Current Time, a joint VOA production with RFE/RL.
If you believe all of this, based solely on agency statistics which are never questioned, as the old saying goes: I’ve got a great bridge to sell you.
Asserting that USAGM has a global audience of 345 million is a deception. It does not mean that at any given moment in the course of a week, that many people are actually listening or viewing agency programs.
The difference the BBC and VOA is that the BBC carefully and aggressively built a robust, efficient, global 24/7 media operation that is seen every day on millions of TV screens, heard on numerous U.S. FM stations, and arguably is in a better position to claim larger audiences.
To paraphrase a media analyst: Comparing USAGM and BBC is like comparing apples to pears.
AGENCY SMOKE AND MIRRORS GAME POSES CHALLENGE TO ANY ADMINISTRATION, AND CONGRESS
USAGM continues to engage in smoke and mirrors — failing to provide clear explanations to its own employees and to Congress. An entrenched public diplomacy community fails to urge or encourage more transparency.
Amid the mismanagement and under performance at USAGM, mainstream non-government media could have used resources at their disposal to investigate rather than being so eager to jump to its defense.
That doesn’t happen because many online and “print” media feel compelled to defend USAGM on First Amendment grounds, and against what they see as a Trump agenda targeting the agency.
The catch is that much of this is fueled by officials in the agency itself pursuing an agenda of preserving and perpetuating its existence at all costs, making full use of the audience numbers game.
By the time USAGM finally moves, as planned, from its decades-old location in the decrepit Cohen Building at 330 Independence Avenue (this appears to be at least a few years away) you can bet nothing will have changed.
The goal, for USAGM, its main federal entity VOA, and the so-called “grantee” media is to outlast not only this president — but ANY administration that threatens the funding status quo.
Next year, or a few years from now, it’s also a safe bet that USAGM audience claims (remember, this is a weekly, not necessarily hourly or daily figure) will have have reached new heights based on all of those impressions, clicks, likes, and forwards the agency cites. 375 million? 400 million? The sky’s the limit.
By just accepting USAGM’s smoke and mirrors, Donald Trump may well end up perpetuating a well-known part of that swamp he vowed to drain, one that in the view of an increasing number of taxpayers, should have lost its immunity a long, long time ago.
The challenge for members of Congress, whatever their political label, is to stop paying lip service to USAGM claims that defy even basic levels of belief.
Until that happens — with House and Senate hearings that ask tough questions rather than just showering praise on USAGM and doling out additional hundreds of millions year to year — absolutely nothing will change.
. . . and the rebranded USAGM will be laughing to the bank.
[A closely related update: The Washington Post reported on April 12th that the State Department will merge two bureaus that for years focused separately on communicating abroad as part of a broader effort to counter disinformation campaigns by Russia and China.
Described by the Post as the biggest structural change at State in 20 years, the move would combine Public Affairs and International Information Programs into a new Global Public Affairs bureau with a combined staff of about 300.
State was already home to the Global Engagement Center (GEC), created in 2017 defense legislation to “counter propaganda and disinformation from international terrorist organizations and foreign countries….” and “lead, synchronize, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interests.”
Wow, a mouthful. So, what exactly will the new State Department bureau be doing that GEC was, or was not? What happens to GEC? What was it that GEC actually accomplished? What about the nexus between the new State bureau and USAGM?
One initial significant note: Quoted in the Post report was none other than Shawn Powers, mentioned at the beginning of this article and identified variously as both acting Chief of Strategy, and Senior Advisor for Global Strategy and Innovation for USAGM, who also headed the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.]
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.