BBG – USAGM Watch Guest Commentary
MAXIMUM HUBRIS: THE USAGM – PART TWO
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).
MAXIMUM HUBRIS: THE USAGM – PART TWO
AGENCY “INVESTIGATIVE” JOURNALISM USED AS PART OF SALES PITCH
Part of the USAGM strategy and its sales pitch in recent years has been to attempt to draw attention to what it calls its new “investigative” journalism being carried out, primarily at VOA. It sweeps a range of story types into this category to paint a picture that it is now some sort of vital news breaking machine.
The opposite is true. USAGM investigative efforts pale in comparison to the larger and more significant breaking news seen daily from CNN, MSNBC, and U.S. print media.
“Print” of course is no longer just that, but major investigative online forces that dominate the landscape with efforts and staffing revitalized and in high gear to cover breaking news in the era of Trump.
Needless to say, so-called investigative journalism at USAGM, which officials have tried to make a big deal about, is nowhere near being as well funded and resourced as any one of numerous known news breaking media organizations.
While admirable, a story about an immigrant being killed by a New York garbage truck driver (ProPublica co-published the story with VOA) is a long way from the kind of daily huge breaking stories that other media put out hour by hour, day by day.
Will the USAGM, a government agency, begin “investigating” issues relating to the Trump administration policies, tactics, and personnel? Will VOA investigate multiple scandals within its own USAGM agency? No chance. How about corruption in Congress? That would be a bridge too far for USAGM.
BBC CONTINUES TO DOMINATE GLOBAL MEDIA LANDSCAPE
The BBC describes itself as “The leaders in global breaking news.” There’s a reason for that. It’s actually true. Whereas the largest USAGM entity, the Voice of America, still often struggles with breaking news responsiveness and immediacy.
Four or five years ago VOA managers (with support from agency management and BBG board members) suggested that VOA should no longer worry about not being seen as a breaking news organization.
If someone had said something like this in BBC’s newsroom, they would have been ridden out on a rail. Some VOA journalists questioned this approach, but in the end fell silent amid the oncoming juggernaut.
VOA language services, many unprepared to function as the kind of careful newsroom that VOA used to have, were given access to wire services for the first time.
Today, VOA’s global English website — and language service sites — show a preponderance of wire service content, and have become in essence, pass throughs for commercial news agencies like Reuters, AP, and AFP.
For years, USAGM entities, particularly VOA, used deceptive posting tactics that make it seem as if stories are being reported by VOA itself, from a range of international datelines, when in fact those stories came from wire services.
Anyone using RSS feeds, whether on mobile or on computers, can see many stories posted by VOA that are actually wire service stories (see earlier comments here about VOA becoming a “pass through” service for commercial wires.)
Meanwhile, over the past two years or so, VOA began using the services of what it calls a “contributor” — the former FOX/MSNBC anchor Greta Van Susteren — in an attempt to boost VOA’s online and social media numbers. More about this in a separate upcoming article.
USAGM EMPLOYEES DOUBT AGENCY AUDIENCE FIGURES
Back to the bullet points above. USAGM’s own journalists came to question audience figures. Proof of this can be seen today in comments made by former and still current agency managers and reporters.
On a Facebook page populated by current and former agency employees, one former senior official commented on the article published by BBG/USAM Watch (the only independent watchdog reporting on the agency) about the Elliott criticisms.
This former official questioned whether the agency could claim a level of effectiveness by just counting gross numbers.
A former VOA reporter said that he had always known that numbers as reported by Gallup for the region to which his service was broadcasting were simply not based on any real data (the reference is to the former BBG’s $50 million five year contract with Gallup to conduct surveys in target countries). The numbers, he said, “have always been wrong, or without statistical confidence.”
A current VOA reporter, who I will not name to protect the person from potential harassment and retaliation by management, said:
“The audience data never have been explained to me by VOA leaders. I and I think many other journalists, have no idea how the audience numbers are determined, because we’re not told in a straightforward way what the methodology is.”
This employee added that he certainly “hopes” the VOA audience is growing. No problem there — all he has to do is take the word of agency management!
What this speaks to, at minimum, is a gross lack of transparency over decades by USAGM in audience figures were flung out to congressional funders — while the agency utterly failed to explain in acceptable detail how numbers were arrived at.
TAXPAYERS ARE THE CHUMPS
The U.S. public, by the way, are the chumps in all of this. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the agency’s reason for existence decayed (and its performance, particularly in the digital realm, began to founder) Americans were simply told over and over again that it provided enormous value for the dollar.
USAGM appears no longer to be making a case, dubious at best, outrageous at worst, that its programming could substantially help reduce domestic lone-wolf terrorism.
Media outlets that make up USAGM are, of course, visible to Americans even though the law still does not allow the agency to deliberately produce and direct programs to Americans.
But the agency continues to propagandize members of Congress, and Americans in general, aiming to persuade everyone that it should be perpetuated fiscal year after fiscal year.
Agency subterfuge — including the ongoing numbers shell game — is assisted by the fact that USAGM can point to online viewership of its sites that includes viewers from the United States.
AMERICANS QUESTION FUNDING FOR USAGM
Meanwhile, articles in non-government media about the agency, usually focusing on scandals at VOA and other agency USAGM media, show an increasing number of Americans questioning why tax dollars are still being spent on USAGM.
A few examples (names and online ID’s removed to protect privacy):
“[A] waste of taxpayer funds — shut it down and fire all the contractors and employees.”
“It’s a dinosaur and needs to go the same way.”
“I’d trust BBC over VOA any day. [BBC’s] straight-up news is an international ornament.”
A reality in the Trump era is that those who would normally criticize the agency and public spending on it, will jump to defend it on free press grounds, what I call the “it’s all we’ve got” syndrome.
Liberals and conservatives alike often buy the agency’s propaganda about its alleged great “bang for the buck.” Conservatives — especially those favoring cutbacks in federal spending — are braver in calling for shrinking or even closing USAGM.
Creating more defenders of the agency is, of course, exactly what agency managers from the CEO on down hope to achieve: “For the price of an F-15, you John Q. Public are getting all of this output from hard-working, committed USAGM workforce.”
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.