US Government International Media Information War: Lost
By The Federalist
A recent article was brought to our attention concerning the Farsi language broadcasts to Iran by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) through the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Radio Farda and their various media platforms.
The actual title of the piece:
The author of the piece is Bryant Harris. He is described under the article as “Al-Monitor’s congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM.”
We recall that Barbara Slavin, who vigorously defended the Iran nuclear deal as an outside contributor to Voice of America programs and a freelance VOA program host, has been also a columnist for Al-Monitor.
Many Iranians in and outside of Iran have been highly critical of BBG Iranian-language programs in recent years. One of them is a former RAND analyst Alireza Nader, @AlirezaNader.
Interesting summary of problems with US Persian language broadcasting. US broadcasting has always been a powerful tool but has failed to live up to its potential regarding #Iran. https://t.co/UbIvJyBf6b
— Alireza Nader (@AlirezaNader) July 12, 2018
Radio Farda is a deeply problematic organization. It uses US tax payer funds 2 promote reformist (regime “moderates”) propaganda favoring the Islamic Republic. & nothing has been done about it. Instead, Radio Farda employees who have tried to do the right thing have been fired.
— Alireza Nader (@AlirezaNader) June 29, 2018
Some of such criticism of the Broadcasting Board of Governors–VOA and RFE/RL–can be seen on Twitter under the hash tag #ReformBBG, as well as in newspaper and news site op-eds in the United States.
In his Al-Monitor article, Mr. Harris gets one’s attention right away in a different way from the usual complaints by using the word “weaponize”:
“Congress is seeking to weaponize US-funded Persian-language news programs, opening a new front in the Donald Trump administration’s confrontation with Tehran.”
On its face, this appears to be a provocative statement seemingly intended to elicit an emotional reaction from the American political Left and perhaps also the political Right. The use of such terms as “weaponize” or “propaganda” can discredit congressional and other efforts designed to reform the highly-dysfunctional agency.
Mr. Harris writes,
“Lawmakers and administration officials from both parties have long accused the BBG of being dysfunctional and ineffective, with many viewing its Iran programming as particularly bad due to staff infighting motivated by political bias. With both parties agreeing that taxpayer-funded news outlets should do more to advance US interests, Republicans are zeroing in on Iran coverage, hoping to push for a more overtly anti-Tehran narrative.”
Mr. Harris has it right about the BBG. Dysfunction and ineffectiveness have become bedrock characteristics of this agency. Whatever BBG officials are doing, the end result is a perpetuation of these characteristics with a heavy dose of bureaucratic incompetence and self-interest intended to preserve business as usual and deny the scope and extent of the agency’s mission failure.
And he has it right about the internal dynamics of the Farsi language services: the Persian Service of the Voice of America and Radio Farda of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Some managers and staffers can be generally identified as (a) those supporting the former monarchy in a new democratic form, (b) those supporting “reformers” within the Iranian regime, and (c) those sympathetic to Iranians who want to replace the theocratic Iranian regime with a secular, pro-Western democratic government.
In microcosm, this may be an apt representation of Iranian society itself.
However, it’s bad for continuity or clarity in program content to Iran by US Government broadcasters.
What the Congress is doing is this, according to the article:
“…Senate appropriators last month unveiled annual foreign aid legislation that directs Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to work with the BBG to ‘coordinate Iran counterinfluence programs funded by the act.’ The Trump administration is asking Congress for $12.2 million for Voice of America’s Persian service for fiscal year 2019, and another $6.2 million for Radio Farda.
Specifically, the pending Senate bill directs the State Department and the BBG to ‘counter the false assertions made by the Government of Iran against the United States … describe the support such Government provides to terrorist proxies … and describe the impact the support to such proxies causes to the people of Syria, Yemen and other areas where they operate.’”
It may be wishful thinking that Secretary Pompeo is going to get the level of cooperation from the BBG in terms of “coordination.” He doesn’t have the time or staff to oversee what would be required to get the agency in line with intended objectives. Even if he did, the BBG bureaucrats would raise the “Firewall” issue and obstruct such efforts in many other ways.
We know the bureaucrats of the BBG very, very well. They have burrowed deep in the agency. They have been there a long, long time. Their standard tactic is to avoid, delay, obstruct or otherwise not take any effective remedial action to address a host of festering problems existing at every level of the agency’s operations.
And the bureaucrats inside the agency are counting on Pompeo to be occupied elsewhere as he is presently with the delicate and difficult negotiations with the North Koreans over their nuclear program.
You remember that Rolling Stones song, “Time Is On My Side?” That would be an appropriate theme song for the self-serving bureaucracy of the BBG. They certainly believe that time is on their side: they intend to outlast the Trump administration (whether it is one or two terms doesn’t matter). It gives them time to lock in their top priorities: protecting their six-figure salaries and building up their retirement annuities.
Quoted at length for the piece is Thomas Hill, a former staffer with the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who worked closely with committee chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) on BBG reform legislation.
Mr. Hill observes that in the Congress there is sympathy for the view that the US does not have an effective diplomacy messaging tool in Iran.
Mr. Hill’s long experience with the BBG leads him to observe that a large share of the problem comes from the competing views of employees within the Farsi language services. More specifically, it may be the competing views between the management and some of the broadcasters who do want management reforms. To that end, he notes that while Congress should keep a watchful eye on what’s going on, legislation doesn’t get at the heart of the internal problems.
We concur firmly with Mr. Hill’s observations.
As for the BBG, in typical fashion it went outside the agency to examine the problem. As noted by Mr. Harris, Kenneth Weinstein, the BBG chairman, contacted Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council to study the Iranian broadcasts. As Mr. Harris writes,
“The US international media toward Iran needed to be less de minimis,” Berman said at a Hudson Institute event on the BBG’s Iran services in May. “We’re seeing a lot of coverage … and it was just facts. There wasn’t really a lot of analysis, there wasn’t really a lot of contextualization.”
“We saw what appeared to be imbalances in terms of opinions expressed on the airwaves,” he added, “in terms of who was approached, in terms of what their views were on things like the Iran nuclear deal, among other things.”
Indeed, a summary of the American Foreign Policy Council report said the BBG’s Iran coverage was insufficiently critical of the Iran nuclear deal.
“Little to no effort was made, either by hosts or journalists, to explain the limitations of the agreement itself, or the detrimental side effects generated by it,” the report notes. “Similarly, in the media reports reviewed, only minimal effort was made to explain the reasoning and rationale behind the Trump administration’s different, and far more negative, view of the agreement.”
Like the Senate appropriators, the American Foreign Policy Council called on BBG management to ensure “that the news stories covered include detailed and comprehensive discussion of US positions and arguments, as well as any relevant data that debunks or invalidates incorrect Iranian regime assertions.”
From whatever quarter, the expectation is that any recommendations will be ignored by BBG management up to and including the BBG CEO John Lansing and VOA director Amanda Bennett.
Neither one of them has a grip on the agency. They rely upon a “fantastic leadership team,” or “arc of success” management — as top BBG leaders and BBG board members have described the failed BBG/VOA senior management team — to conduct agency operations. In this agency’s case, that’s the formula for the agency’s ongoing mission implosion.
At The End of the Day
Mr. Harris concludes his article quoting Thomas Hill,
“The Iran piece of the BBG has been one of the most problem-plagued elements of the whole enterprise,” said Hill. “You have various competing groups, from monarchists, from the regime apologists and shah people … who can’t get along based on their historical affiliations inside Iran.”
There you have it.
The Farsi services are not anomalies. They are part of an agency with systemic, institutionalized failures.
Dysfunction and lack of effectiveness equate with:
Incompetent and inept management.
You don’t have individuals in positions of responsibility to organize these services and hold the feet of their management to the fire, detect lapses or weaknesses in program content and take immediate and effective remedial action.
Managers inside the Farsi services and outside of them cannot be relied upon to direct a reform effort.
As a result, the same problems compound themselves daily resulting in a perpetual state of dysfunction. To turn things around would require a 24/7 effort across all media platforms: radio, television and the Internet.
Be mindful that this kind of effort would require substantial time, hands-on management and money which is now tied up in multiple high-level bureaucratic positions filled by failed managers.
And all the while any new individuals directing a remedial effort would be exposed to withering attacks from inside the bureaucracy with a known taste for personal and professional character assassination.
As you read through the piece there appears to be a consensus that these services are messed up. There are recommendations as to what needs to be done. But at the end of the day, there is no material effort to fix the problems, just a lot of talk. There is no effort to impose or force a fix. Leaving it to BBG managers is the proverbial foxes guarding the hen house.
You also get the feeling that there’s a passive/aggressive thing going on in under-reporting the divergent view the Trump administration has toward Iran from that of the Obama administration. To outward appearances holdover Obama appointees seem intent upon preserving the Obama “legacy” which some might equate with a false narrative of success.
At the end of the day the problem is this: the agency no longer knows how to follow the principles of the VOA Charter. If it executed the Charter faithfully, the scope of the problem might be reduced. But in order to do that you need competent leadership: within the service and above the service. It’s not there and it’s not going to get there with the people encumbering senior positions in the agency. They’ve been there for years and the new ones of the same caliber have been brought in by Mr. Lansing and Ms. Bennett. They have their own vested interests to protect not the least of which is denying that there is a problem. They all need to be replaced with a new competent management team. The agency can’t get the basics done much less things of higher significance.
The article doesn’t address the fact that some elements of Iranian society characterize VOA Persian as the “Voice of the Mullahs.” That should be a serious wake-up call. But nothing changes because no one in the agency’s senior positions is being held responsible or accountable.
Mr. Harris misidentified Michael Pack as “Michael Peck.” Mr. Pack is the presumptive nominee of the Trump administration.
If he nomination is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he will have to deal with an agency wallowing in pervasive dysfunction and take successful corrective action. Whether he can do this remains to be seen.
In addition, the administration has to run its Supreme Court nomination process for Brett Kavanaugh. It’s going to be a battle. In a manner of speaking the American political Left is having a group seizure over the prospect of him being Justice Kennedy’s replacement.
As a result, it doesn’t appear the administration has much time for an agency that it seems to have already written off.
A worse prospect is the world is increasingly writing the agency off. It has little if any substantial impact with foreign publics, certainly little if any favorable impact.
“Weaponizing” news and information by the BBG is the author’s characterization. That is not what Congress wants. It wants the agency to be effective in countering misinformation, disinformation and other forms of ideological rhetoric coming from Iran and elsewhere.
The agency needs to carry out its mission. It needs leadership to see that it does. The agency has neither at present.
The incompetence and ineptitude within the BBG makes one option increasingly likely:
Find a replacement for the BBG and the entities it controls.