Agency for Global Media USAGM or Broadcasting Board of Governors BBG Under John Lansing
US International Media Information War: Lost
By The Federalist
Same As It Ever Was
The more things change, the more they stay the same even when given a new name. The end result: it’s still the same old stuff.
On Wednesday, August 15, 2018 the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) issued a press release:
“New Name, Same Mission – Come Celebrate!
According to the press release,
“On August 22nd, the BBG will officially change its name to the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). All employees and contractors are invited to a celebration with CEO & Director John F. Lansing.”
It looks like Lansing has added another title.
If you happen to miss this event, you haven’t missed anything because,
The only thing worth celebrating is eliminating the BBG and the replacement of Lansing and Amanda Bennett (the hapless Voice of America [VOA] director).
This is a non-event because it leaves in place the same people responsible for wrecking the agency and its mission including a bloated and generally incapable and incompetent bureaucracy.
A name change does not equate with improvement. And in general terms, improvement in accomplishing the mission of the agency is well beyond the reach of this collection of bureaucrats and officials.
A cosmetic name change cannot alter the agency’s dismal record – more than likely to be reaffirmed by the results of the latest Federal employee survey which are a few weeks in the offing. The individuals in charge of this agency are committed to protecting themselves at the expense of virtually everything else that is important: the agency’s employees and the agency’s mission, impact and effectiveness.
There is something else that has caught our attention:
Sources report a planned “closed event” to be held at a public location (The National Press Club) in Washington, DC on Wednesday, September 12, 2018.
With no prior government service, no public diplomacy, no foreign policy or international media and no international/cross-cultural communications experience, John Lansing, assisted by his multiple senior aides, seems not to grasp how inappropriate such a closed meeting about a U.S. Government tax-funded communications agency looks from a public relations perspective to domestic and foreign observers. Seeking private counsel in a government office is perfectly appropriate on a case by case basis. Calling for a large closed meeting at an otherwise public venue in Washington, DC (of all places, The National Press Club) on topics dealing with a U.S. Government agency shows an extreme lack of sensitivity and judgement. No former United States Information Agency (USIA) head or other senior USIA official would have made such a faux pas and open himself to outside criticism. They would have known how foreign propagandists and domestic critics would have reacted to closing a U.S. Government media meeting to the public. U.S. media should insist on being given access to this “closed event” called by a holdover U.S. Government official collecting a federal salary and presumably paying for the event with U.S. taxpayers’ money.
Our understanding of subject matter in this “closed” event is as follows:
The presentation is supposed to acknowledge changes to the global media environment in which information is being “weaponized” and press freedom is in decline.
Keep in mind that anything presented at this event will be twisted in such a way as to preserve the agency without regard to its lack of mission effectiveness.
We suspect the agency will make the usual claims of (unverified) audience numbers as it will with where agency programming can be seen, heard or read along with delivering on the “BBG mandate.” The lack of impact will be ignored.
It is also expected that the agency will continue with its fantasy of projecting itself as a “corporate” entity and attempt to use this as a justification or outcome that will make it more effective as a tool of US foreign policy – an outcome that will have the die-hard “journalists” in the Voice of America newsroom in a frenzy.
This has been described as a “closed event” (taken to mean not open to the public or the press), something bound to raise eyebrows, especially when it comes to an agency widely regarded as the worst-managed agency in the Federal government with the lowest employee morale. It creates the appearance of holding something out of the reach of public scrutiny.
We don’t know the criteria for selecting attendees or what is expected of their participation other than to listen to a recitation of what a great job the agency is doing and how it is on the cutting edge of global information in the 21st century (not!).
To break down the event as we understand it:
Changes to the Global Media Landscape
Should the agency presenters continue to lay claim to its audience numbers, reality would demonstrate an altogether contrary view. It is now possible to analyze BBG program effectiveness particularly on the Internet which the agency claims to be one of its top priorities. Consistently, the agency has demonstrated numbers of views, likes and genuine public comments from outside of the U.S. that are so far below the global consciousness as to be subterranean.
“Corporate restructuring” appears to be connected to its name change to “U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).” But calling it “corporate restructuring” is a misnomer. This is a Federal agency, not a corporation. The people running the agency have no clue what the substance of “corporate restructuring” really means or what it entails and it is patently absurd to believe these people know what they are doing other than preserving their self-interests.
And in the real world of “corporate restructuring” it often means of getting rid of non-performing elements or individuals things which may not be applied to this dysfunctional agency.
The audience numbers the agency cites are largely fabricated with paid rebroadcasting of pre-censored fluff programs, paid Facebook advertising bought with U.S. taxpayers’ money, as well as targeting of U.S. audiences in violation of the agency’s congressional mandate and U.S. laws. The agency has been out of the public eye for years because it has lost its previous impact. The agency’s claims have been much the same for much of the 21st century and we are now eighteen years in and counting. Remember too that the global population is in the 7-BILLION range. Diluted over “100 countries in 58 languages,” as the agency often claims, the agency’s figures become worse than unimpressive. The result: no real impact. If the agency had impact, the U.S. media would write about it and U.S. Presidents would talk about it as well, as they did during the Cold War. They don’t.
One strategic consideration that is increasingly working against the agency is this:
Authoritarian regimes, large and small, have determined that the agency is an easy soft target, both in fact and perception.
Let’s deal with perception first:
The United States Government is seen to be weak in certain areas including international broadcasting. Some of this is the direct result of the agency’s cutbacks in its broadcast reach, particularly in the area of radio. For example, just a week ago the agency ended its radio broadcasts to the Republic of Georgia, ceding if you will the information advantage to the neighboring Russian Republic.
The agency also appears to have been largely ignored by the previous Obama administration which rarely if ever used the agency as a means of projecting explanations of US policies and interests. If Obama himself ever appeared on a VOA program at all, other than as a sound byte, it is largely forgotten.
The agency is even more ignored by the Trump administration.
It is well established that the US political Left is apoplectic about the agency being turned into a Trump propaganda mouthpiece when in fact the Voice of America has become a personal mouthpiece of some of its extreme Left-leaning officials, managers, editors and reporters.
To the point of VOA becoming a Trump propaganda mouthpiece, the hysteria seems far overblown. Trump has demonstrated he has his own media outlet: his Twitter account. What appears in his Twitter feed is instantaneously grabbed by media outlets around the globe and likely translated into as many languages as the BBG claims to be broadcasting in. Even if only translated from English to Mandarin Chinese, Farsi, French, Spanish, Russian, Swahili and other major language groups, it is well within the realm of possibility that Mr. Trump has a larger audience than what the BBG has.
Let’s turn our attention to the factual side:
Various governments which one might describe as authoritarian have taken direct action against the BBG:
Russia: This is a no-brainer. The Putin government is as bold as the day is long. Imbedded in our memory is the action Russian authorities took to boot former Obama administration BBG chairman Jeffrey Shell out of the country, with travel companions Jeffrey Trimble and John Lansing dumbstruck as Shell went figuratively winging off to Western Europe like a soccer ball on steroids. BBG employees are routinely harassed by Russian authorities. BBG entities have been fined for non-conformance with Russian “foreign agent” regulations.
China: Of late, the Chinese have been on a roll. In April 2017, there was an abrupt ending by VOA director Amanda Bennett and her senior staff to a VOA Mandarin interview with a controversial Chinese businessman Guo Wengui. If Chinese communist officials managed to achieve this on U.S. soil (Bennett claims there was no pressure form China), one can hardly be surprised that they have now also briefly arrested VOA reporters inside China in connection with other interviews with Chinese figures. The placing on a forced administrative leave of VOA Mandarin Service journalists who opposed the ending of the Gun Wengui interview gave a clear signal to communist China from senior VOA and BBG officials that they can push around VOA and Broadcasting Board of Governors management with impunity.
Cambodia: In advance of recent elections, Prime Minister (i.e., strongman) Hun Sen pulled the plug on BBG broadcasts and has also targeted certain Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts for his ire. In Cambodia, if your name comes up in the negative from Hun Sen, it’s as good as being dead. Fortunately, RFA reporters if mentioned by name have had the sense to get out of the country when Hun Sen has been provoked.
There may have been similar incidents elsewhere as well. But you get the picture. Outside of some foot stomping and tantrum-throwing press releases by Lansing or Bennett, the message is clear: these governments have little or anything to fear from the BBG because the agency has lost the impact it once had.
Let’s remember too that BBG mantra about “supporting freedom and democracy. That has pretty much gone bust. It’s a message that is off message to the agency’s mission. You won’t find that phrase in the VOA Charter. Much as the BBG would appear to wish it otherwise, the VOA Charter is the mission statement for the Voice of America. Anything else is nonsense and counterproductive, the BBG mantra in particular because it is seen to be synonymous with regime change, particularly in places with little or no experience in participatory democracy and have none of the instruments of government or delegation of powers to make it happen, not to mention cultural traditions or history. More importantly there is the matter of self-determination: people finding their own way as processes of government change internally without outside interference.
In short, the BBG doesn’t have the answer to much of what ails the rest of the world and in some cases can very easily make things worse.
As far as the “information battlefield” of the 21st century is concerned, the agency talks a big game, but it is the equivalent of a battlefield formation still using spears and shields against very sophisticated and technologically advanced adversaries.
The agency is far behind these adversaries and may never catch up, particularly under its current leadership and fossilized bureaucracy.
If the White House or the Congress want to do something meaningful with US international broadcasting, it has to find another way with new and competent leadership.