BBG – USAGM Watch Guest Commentary
US Agency for Global Media John Lansing Departs
By The Federalist
John Lansing, the hapless and luckless chief executive officer (CEO) of U-SAG-M (US Agency for Global Madness…err…Media) will be leaving the agency at the end of September 2019.
Mr. Lansing will be moving on to become the president and CEO of National Public Radio (NPR).
A September 5 press release by the agency contained the usual litany of claimed successes during Lansing’s tenure most notably claims of audience increases generally and specific claims relating to programs directed at Russia and Iran.
The reality is far, far different. The agency has suffered retrograde losses in audience, and most of all in impact.
As one example, BBG – USAGM Watch has found an agency chart not shared with the public by John Lansing and other USAGM officials working under him which shows that the total weekly reach among adults in Russia for his jewel achievement — the joint Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) Russian-language TV and web daily program “Current Time” — is less than one percent, more precisely 0.8%.
The agency has not and will not back up its claims with hard numbers or its methodologies. That would expose its claims to detailed scrutiny. This is particularly true in the case of its “Current Time” program to Russia and similar claims regarding its programs to Iran.
The agency’s online presence is pathetic which is in plain sight to anyone looking at the number of “likes” and “views” of agency content either on its own websites or in posts to Facebook and YouTube. A few USAGM foreign language services, which are better managed, still do show good online audience engagement, but most do not, especially Voice of America English programs with the exception of VOA English teaching content. Much of the audience engagement that some VOA programs get comes from funny animal videos — a spectacular innovation for which credit is attributed to John Lansing.
Remembering that the global population is now upwards of 7-BILLION, the agency’s real audience is not unlike a single drop of rain in a torrential downpour. In short, the agency is a non-entity in the diverse field of international media.
In so many words, the agency’s oversized claims have morphed into bigger lies repeated ad nauseum.
When you strip away the broad generalities of the press release, you will see a completely different picture:
Lansing’s tenure as the agency’s CEO has been a debacle of unprecedented proportions. It started with a trip to Russia that resulted in then-Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) chairman Jeffrey Shell getting booted out of the country before barely stepping off the plane. We are quite certain that no agency director before John Lansing would have allowed the BBG chairman to travel to Russia without a diplomatic passport and a diplomatic Russian visa. Lansing even accompanied Shell on this trip and watched him being expelled. He also allowed Jeff Shell to go to Russia on a mixed US government-private business. No experienced agency head would have OK-ed such a trip to Putin’s Russia. No agency head with even minimal foreign policy experience would have approved plans for such a trip, and even worse, participated in it. For those who may not know, BBG was the old name of USAGM.
Lansing’s tenure at USAGM continued with a list of significant scandals:
✓ Employees of a Voice of America (VOA) language service taking kickbacks from a foreign government.
✓ A VOA English editor and multiple other VOA reporters using their personal Facebook pages to platform anti-Trump and anti-Republican Party posts, violating the agency’s so-called ethics protocols and without appropriate disciplinary action.
✓ Posting on agency platforms of anti-Trump election campaign videos in violation of US laws and the VOA Charter.
✓ Accusations about anti-Semitic content in an agency program.
✓ Accusations about censorship of a VOA Mandarin Service interview with a Chinese whistleblower and alleged retaliation against VOA journalists who opposed what they saw as caving in to pressure from the communist regime in China.
✓ Failing to prevent posting of illegal Facebook ads targeting Americans.
✓ A long history of turmoil in a politically divided VOA Farsi (aka, Iranian/Persian) service.
✓ Continuous and multiple posting on agency platforms of unchallenged Russian and Iranian propaganda.
✓ Having his own hand-picked and highly-praised deputy and senior strategic advisor charged with and removed from the agency for stealing from the US government.
✓ Seeing the agency’s Arabic Alhurra service temporarily booted out of Iraq.
✓ An agency habitually ranked as one of the lowest in the Federal government in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) with no real or effective remedial action to improve the workplace on his watch.
Among the ironies here are that Lansing is a holdover appointment from the Obama administration and that the agency which comes across as harboring strong anti-Trump, anti-Republican Party and anti-mainstream conservative sentiments has in fact indulged in self-inflicted scandals not related to the administration.
An Exit Strategy, Please
Lansing was in over his head almost from the very beginning and things only got worse. To outward appearances, Lansing let a corrupt bureaucracy run the agency with little or no counter-weight from himself. The agency’s sordid reputation was a blueprint for disaster: an unaccountable collection of bureaucrats running a Federal agency. Lansing ignored the obvious warning signs with the effect of letting things happen. He ignored specific warnings about many of the scandals listed above. He could have prevented most of not all of them had he listened to advice he received and knew what he was doing. It doesn’t get any worse than having one of your own chief deputies and his hand-picked Chief strategic advisor bilk the agency (and the American taxpayer) for thousands of dollars right under your nose. He selected Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara to become VOA director and deputy director and allowed them transform them into a partisan platform for Left-wing radicalism — unprecedented in VOA’s history.
Under the circumstances, Lansing created the appearance and perhaps also the fact of being disengaged and disconnected. Worse, it made him appear professionally inept, ever a supercilious manager or in some kind of deep denial about things going on all around him.
With the scandals piling up and the agency’s mission failure increasing steadily, any rational individual would want out. In this case, a scenario that could play out might be the following:
Most certainly, Lansing has developed contacts and connections among Washington’s Left-leaning political elites. These elites look after certain people. Former BBG chairman and current USAGM Board member, Hollywood film executive Jeff Shell, is a big contributor to Democratic Party politicians. He recommended Lansing for his BBG/USAGM CEO job. Lansing may be one such individual who deserves an additional favor. He may have let it be known that he wanted out of a no-win situation that was bludgeoning his reputation. Perhaps things were put in motion to extricate him before he would have to be (rightly) fired. Actually, he should have been fired long time ago, or even better, never given the US government job for which he was spectacularly not qualified. It may have been the opportunity for Lansing’s political connections to rescue him from professional disaster.
For Lansing, the NPR post may be a better fit on many levels although even there it could lead to disaster if his job selections and decisions are not closely watched.
First, NPR has a sterling reputation, albeit with a certain tilt to the political Left. There is much more public scrutiny applied to NPR than there ever will be to the machinations inside U-SAG-M. Instead of overseeing a polyglot of around 40 languages spread across several entities, NPR is primarily an English language operation with its main focus on an American audience. In short, you are not likely to be buffaloed by the Tower of Babel represented by US international broadcasting where you are at the mercy of people telling you what language service program content is when you are not able to tell for yourself, thus being at the mercy of an embedded bureaucracy whose top priority is self-preservation…and cover-up.
Second, there is a much better chance that NPR is professionally managed compared to the nest of embedded incompetents running U-SAG-M.
Third, NPR is not a merry-go-round of scandal, poor performance and mission failure. It would be quickly and publicly shamed. Not so with U-SAG-M which hides behind its smoke and mirrors of falsehoods, disinformation and misinformation about its performance.
For Lansing, the NPR post represents the most golden of golden parachutes. There is plenty to like about this move from Lansing’s perspective.
Now the fun begins inside the Cohen Building.
Bureaucrats hate change, especially the bureaucrats inside the Cohen Building. It rattles their sense of control.
Now the question becomes who succeeds Lansing in the CEO post.
These bureaucrats desperately want to preserve business as usual. They most certainly do not want someone who is going to rock the boat or take a dim view of the agency’s poor reputation, poorer performance and big scandals. Certainly they don’t want someone to knock them off their pedestals on the Third Floor and perhaps being relegated to a windowless office in the basement of the Cohen Building.
In the present circumstances, the USAGM Board can appoint someone to the post on a temporary basis.
This is a dicey proposition because the White House has nominated Michael Pack to be the next CEO. However, Pack’s nomination is presently tied up in the Senate.
What we already know is that bureaucratic insiders with their allies in the Left-leaning parts of US media have already targeted Pack as the presumptive successor to Lansing getting practically hysterical over the prospect that Trump will try to control agency content. They claim that the agency’s credibility will be destroyed. However, in fact, the agency itself headed by Obama appointees has already performed masterfully in destroying its credibility with one scandal after another. Much of the Voice of America English content became highly partisan against Trump and in support of various radical causes on the Left. This is a major violation of the VOA Charter, which calls for balanced coverage, and has nothing to do with Trump. It has everything to do with Lansing, Bennett and Sugawara. VOA should be non-partisan and politically neutral — leaning neither to the Left nor to the Right. The VOA Charter, which is US law, is quite clear on this point.
Does the USAGM Board select someone else than Pack and run the chance that it may irk the White House?
However, any temporary selection would have to have the approval of the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who is an ex officio member of the USAGM Board and is represented during board meetings by the current acting United States Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Michelle Giuda.
The USAGM Board is a stakeholder in this as well since it is supposed to be relegated to an “advisory” role when the next presidential appointee is nominated and confirmed for the CEO position. “Advisory” means out of sight, out of mind. No more meaningless televised meetings and bilious press releases: the absence of both which would be a blessing.
If the board goes the business as usual approach, the agency should be marked for extinction. The White House should wipe it out of the annual Federal budget, transfer its functions elsewhere and eliminate this millstone around the neck of the Federal government and American taxpayer.
It no longer has the capacity to carry out its mission effectively. And that problem started long before Donald Trump became president.
Lest we forget, it had already been appropriately labeled:
And it has remained true to this description. Indeed, it has expanded and built upon it.
Whatever happens next will say a lot about the future of the agency.