U-SAG-M — Federal Bureaucracy’s Fantasyland
Information War Lost: Diversionary Tactics
By The Federalist
In recent weeks there have been several news accounts in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere detailing the activities of the US Government’s dysfunctional and poorly re-branded international media service: the “US Agency for Global Media” (or U-SAG-M as we call it).
The articles do not capture all the negatives of what this agency has become. The portrayals may be considered partial, incomplete and one-sided: an effort likely from agency insiders to cast the agency in a positive light, but even friendly reporters could not avoid pointing out some of the more spectacular failures, except for one: some of the partisan USAGM, formerly the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) leaders, editors and reporters, openly trying to help Hillary Clinton the 2016 presidential election with programming both in English and in foreign languages produced at the expense of all U.S. taxpayers. As of December 25, 2018, this 30-month-old one-sided partisan video could still be seen on the USAGM’s “Current Time” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) Russian-language TV and online platform.
There is no balance or context provided in this June 2016 “Current Time” report or video which still appears (December 25, 2018) on a U.S. taxpayer-funded USAGM news website.
As a result of most mainstream media not being aware of or ignoring such examples, certain common themes are repeated over and over throughout the various articles.
The reality is much what it has been for decades:
This agency is not a model of effectiveness in discharging its mission. To the contrary, this agency is:
It is aptly and correctly described as one of the worst agency in the Federal Government and consistently ranks at or near the bottom in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS).
It has significantly declined in impact and effectiveness with global publics largely adrift in a heavily saturated global media environment.
The two people most associated with perpetuating this debacle are John Lansing (agency CEO) and Amanda Bennett (Voice of America [VOA] director).
Each of the newspaper articles (available online as noted below) has its own series of comments. If agency operatives or supporters thought these articles would result in the agency basking in the warmth of universal accolades, they appear to have seriously miscalculated despite the fact that not even all or most serious abuses have been reported. There is a sustained negative thread to the comments made by readers.
Based on its record of mission failure, the National and Public Interest requires that this agency be abolished and its functions transferred elsewhere in the US Government.
The passage of time and the growing list of negatives associated with this agency make it even more so. The more time that passes only increases the depth of the dysfunction rendering the agency’s credibility virtually worthless and unrecoverable.
According to those on the US political Left, President Trump would turn U-SAG-M into a mouthpiece for his world view. Trump himself has fueled this view by expressing the sentiment in one of his Twitter statements of a need to counter CNN portrayals of the US and present the United States in a more favorable light to global publics.
Common wisdom is Trump has demonstrated that (a) he is his own news feed and (b) he really doesn’t need VOA to get his views across through official US Government media resources. His comments, in English, are most certainly translated around the world in a variety of languages such as French, Russian, Spanish, Farsi (Iran), Swahili and Hausa in Africa and others.
Add to that the coverage supplied by domestic US media, positive and negative, concerning the Trump administration. Trump has successfully made himself center stage without U-SAG-M.
Do you need to maintain a multi-million dollar agency in the face of extensive coverage by commercial media?
Not really, for many countries and languages. There are, however, some exceptions, such as, for one, public diplomacy in English and Spanish, or uncensored news in Spanish for Cuba and Venezuela, Chinese, Russian, Korean, Vietnamese, Khmer, Farsi, Arabic and a few other languages for a few other countries.
But you do need it for coverage of other news events for most other parts of the world as opposed to public diplomacy to present and explain America in its diversity and make connections with other nations? In short, some of the mission of the agency is important, but the agency itself in its perpetual dysfunctional state is not.
Feed The Hysteria: Trump Appointees Are A-Coming!
Sources for these articles worry aloud about the appointment of Trump loyalists to key agency posts. What about the current leaders appointed during the Obama Administration? Alternately, they worry about or deride the prospective nominee to be the next CEO, Michael Pack, as the nexus between Trump and Trump ally Steve Bannon. What about the current leaders’ political links in Washington to Democratic Party activists?
The worry-mongers cite the connection between Pack and Bannon as a major sign of trouble. On the other hand, the deriders mock Pack as an independent producer of documentaries operating out of his home making him into some kind of cartoon character despite his award-winning documentaries, his public service at the United States Information Agency (USIA), and his work at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
You need an “Iron Man” to deal with the extensive dysfunction inside the Cohen Building and its singular lack of impact and effectiveness as the direct result of managerial incompetence and corruption. You need to know who “the usual suspects” are and have a plan to deal with them neutralizing their impact on agency programs.
In short, Mr. Pack may be the nominee-apparent, but it may be a difficult task for him to accomplish much, particularly if he is surrounded by the embedded career bureaucracy with a vested interest in keeping Pack cornered as evident by this current campaign.
Worse, there was proposed legislation, currently blocked in the Congress, that would effectively neutralize Pack’s ability to manage by reinvigorating the dysfunctional BBG by preventing him or any other Senate-confimed USAGM CEO from firing incompetent executives without the advisory board’s approval. And even worse still, one effect of this proposed legislation could extend Bennett as the VOA director indefinitely.
How Rotten Is Rotten
Steve Bannon is something of a lightning rod for the American political Left. However, if there is one correct observation by Mr. Bannon it would be as expressed in the Los Angeles Times article:
“VOA is a rotten fish from top to bottom…It’s now totally controlled by the deep-state apparatus.”
He’s got it right.
It’s not hard for Bannon to reach that conclusion from Chinese readers’ comments on social media and even “friendly” US media articles about U-SAG-M agency, especially by looking at the comments posted by readers, most of which differ very little from Bannon’s own observation. These Americans, who have a dim view of VOA and RFE/RL placing illegal Facebook ads targeting American taxpayers who pay USAGM’s bills, may not even know that the agency has demonstrated a distinct and visceral anti-Trump bias before, during and after the 2016 election:
- Trump depicted as the male sex organ;
- Trump with the Nazi swastika superimposed on his image;
- Trump and his wife savaged by staffers in the VOA newsroom in its annual “VOA Follies” satire in December 2016;
- A vitriolic rant against Donald Trump by Hollywood actor Robert DeNiro posted on agency websites;
- Uncle Sam as a blood-sucking zombie in a promotional video in Urdu to Pakistan; and
- Periodic character assassinations directed at Republican members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and that before Trump arose on the national political scene.
What makes this even more troubling is that agency staffers appear to believe it is acceptable to inject bias and anti-Trump advocacy into agency reports as if this gains credibility for the agency. It is the kind of treatment of the nation’s Chief Executive that was unheard of by this agency before, certainly with regard to former president Barack Obama. But it now appears that anything goes: an attitude that seems to be facilitated, enabled or tolerated by Obama-era political holdovers Lansing and Bennett.
We Are The Resistance!
While there is a deep anti-Trump sentiment in the Cohen Building which may be ideological it has a foundation built up for decades around the notion that the agency is untouchable, not subject to effective oversight and direction as a Federal agency and that the agency is protected by a “firewall” against political input or direction.
There is no “firewall.”
It is not written into the VOA Charter. It does not exist as a concept or principle in any piece of enacted legislation in the history of the agency. It appeared once in a congressional commentary. The constant reference to a “firewall” as some kind of impenetrable barrier to oversight by the executive or legislative branches of government is absurd, but it is a notion that has been intentionally nurtured for years, largely through news stories like those recently published.
If anything, the agency as it exists today is a perfect example of what happens when oversight and accountability in government agencies gets derailed.
As any reader of BBG Watch knows, agency operatives think the agency’s mission is anything they want it to be, including selective execution of the agency’s Charter.
Disinformation is Our Most Important Product
The disinformation campaign takes a variety of forms. The common objective is to preserve the status quo which translates into making the agency an intractable problem that cannot be solved and takes too much effort to abolish and replace. One such example:
The “Coup” Attempt
This is one of the most outrageous claims made by agency operatives feeding the commercial press.
Allegedly a former agency executive, mounted a failed one-man coup attempt to take over the management of the agency from John Lansing the current CEO of this Federal monstrosity.
One has to understand that one-man coups do not take place in the Federal Government. The allegation has never been substantiated. It appears no documentation exists to support the claim. We are not a big fan of a former executive who was by the way promoted several times and highly praised by the former BBG Democratic Chairman. We were critical of his own oversized claims regarding the agency’s cyber-security efforts. But the “coup” allegations against him were and remain way over the top. It is consistent with the character assassination tactics of agency insiders. These individuals must have believed that the individual had connections within the Republican administration even though several key people in the White House had not heard of him before the allegations were made public. But the belief in them on the part of the bureaucracy would make him a threat. Since the allegations, the person left this agency for another. For these operatives: mission accomplished. The status quo has been preserved to live another day.
Our Global Audience is HUGE!
Here is another part of the agency’s dedicated disinformation campaign. It makes claims of large audience sizes in the attempt to legitimize the agency’s existence. The declarations are unilateral and are not supported by data such as the methodologies used, questions asked in surveys and the like. In fact part of the audience, as we discovered from an investigation conducted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the request of its retiring chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), were bought illegally in the United States with illegal RFE/RL and VOA Facebook ads targeting Americans.
However, there is a very simple way to question the agency’s reach, resonance and impact: the lack of a substantial reaction to its online content. To put it mildly, not counting the meaningless bought “Likes,” the agency’s presence on the Internet is anemic. The number of actual comments on agency program material is practically nonexistent especially when one considers a global population of 7-BILLION. The world is media-saturated and competitive. U-SAG-M increasingly finds itself without a substantial place in the global media environment, particularly in places like the Middle East and/or among Arab and Muslim populations where anti-US sentiment is pronounced.
It simply comes down to a deliberate lie intended to keep the agency alive but to no useful purpose. In a manner of speaking, the agency is representative of waste, fraud and abuse.
Scandals Abound – Senior Officials Unaccountable
VOA director Amanda Bennett likes to begin her agency memorandums with the salutation, “Friends.”
Let us be very clear:
Amanda Bennett is not your friend, if you are an agency employee.
This has historically been one of the worst places to work in the Federal Government. People like Amanda Bennett, John Lansing and the embedded bureaucracy help make it so.
Remember that when she was sworn in as VOA director Bennett made reference to the agency bureaucracy as a fantastic leadership team. This from a person who has demonstrated that she has no management or leadership acumen.
Forget about her winning a Pulitzer Prize. That has no bearing here. This award does not convey technical, managerial or leadership expertise. Either you have demonstrable leadership or management skills or you don’t.
Amanda Bennett doesn’t.
As the saying goes, with “friends” like this, you don’t need enemies.
Let’s Look The Other Way
In effect, these articles generally divert attention away from what has been going on inside the overall U-SAG-M structure while in the hands of Obama holdover appointees Lansing and Bennett, a dysfunctional board and a self-interested senior bureaucracy. Scandals and missteps abound including:
- The blow-up over an interview with a Chinese businessman Guo Wengui by the VOA Mandarin Service;
- Staffers in the VOA Hausa Service allegedly taking kickbacks from a Nigerian official;
- A bizarre anti-Semitic feature on Radio/TV Marti regarding Democratic Party mega-contributor George Soros;
- A report by the Hoover Institution which basically lays out the VOA Mandarin Service as opening itself to intimidation by Chinese communist diplomats and intelligence services; and
- Equally bizarre postings by a senior agency official on her Twitter account concerning a senior agency vacancy which in part describes the job as primarily “handholding” senior agency officials.
Elizabeth Williamson who authored the New York Times piece begins by noting,
“The American government’s broadcast service to the world has a problem: It is becoming the news itself.”
Indeed it has in part because that is the only way it can survive: by drawing attention to itself and pursuing the disinformation campaign that makes up a large share of what is to be found in these various articles.
No one piece can provide a complete or accurate portrayal of this agency particularly with its earned reputation for dysfunction which has been built up over decades of mismanagement.
A reading of the comments that follow each of these articles shows a sizeable negative view of the agency: some of it derived from attitudes toward Donald Trump and others questioning the need for the agency in a media-saturated global environment.
The following articles were reviewed in the writing of this commentary:
And also consider: