BBG Watch

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy program sponsored a panel discussion on reforming U.S. international media outreach currently overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency with its own bipartisan board. The discussion, which took place in Washington, DC on April 22 centered around a new study, “Reassessing U.S. International Broadcasting,” co-authored by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former RFE/RL executive Elizabeth M. Portale. They interviewed some 30 individuals with extensive experience in foreign policy strategy, international relations, international broadcasting, public diplomacy, and promotion of human rights and democracy.

According to the Wilson Center’s description of the panel discussion:

“By many accounts, U.S. international broadcasting’s mission is unclear, its attachment to U.S. foreign policy strategies tenuous, and its organizational structure ineffective. Many see the entire enterprise as broken.”

S. Enders Wimbush, who in addition to being a former BBG member also served at one time as director of Radio Liberty, said that the study of the Broadcasting Board of Governors is a call for action:

S. ENDERS WIMBUSH: “Fix it or redesign it, get moving on this. … Certainly not everything is bad, but if these interviews from our perspective represented accurate summation of a lead thinking on international broadcasting then this perception becomes its own reality and we’d better come to grips with that.”

Elizabeth Portale emphasized one of the key findings of the study that U.S. international broadcasting should be linked with promotion of democracy.

ELIZABETH M. PORTALE: “U.S. international broadcasting needs a sharper, more coherent mission that actively promotes rather than simply supports democracy. These are words and you can parse the words, but the stronger point being made was to promote. USIB should also they said address and combat competitive threats in the media environment and also should advance U.S. interests, goals and values.”

Those interviewed for the study included former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former chairmen of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Marc Nathanson and Amb. James Glassman, former Voice of America directors Geoffrey Cowan and Robert Reilly, former RFE/RL President Dr. Jeffrey Gedmin, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, former Freedom House President David Kramer, Dr. Francis Fukuyama, and several other prominent American scholars, diplomats, journalists and media experts.

A link to the entire study is HERE.

The discussion was led by A. Ross Johnson, Senior Scholar Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution and former Radio Free Europe director.

James K. Glassman, a former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, argued for a much closer link between U.S. international media outreach agency and the State Department and the White House as did reportedly most of U.S. foreign policy, human rights, broadcasting and journalism experts interviewed by S. Enders Wimbush and Elizabeth M. Portale.

JAMES K. GLASSMAN: “Taxpayers don’t know what they are paying for and I should add that my experience was that their elected representatives don’t know what they’re paying for either. … U.S. international broadcasting must be part of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. It must be in the direct chain of command. It is not now.”

A. Ross Johnson called for a more subtle link with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, but seemed to agree with Mr. Glassman and the study that there should be a stronger link of some kind that currently does not exist.

A. ROSS JOHNSON: “The Royal Charter of the BBC required it to be in constant touch with the Foreign Office, even at the level of service directors, and yet to maintain its editorial independence. And I think the BBC had figured out how to do that. And so if the [BBG] firewall means that you don’t deal at all with the foreign policy and national security officials in the U.S. government that strikes me as a deficiency and we ought to be smart enough to figure out how to correct that.”

R. Eugene Parta, retired director of audience and opinion research at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty called for uniting Voice of America and Radio and TV Marti with surrogate broadcasters and de-federalizing both VOA and OCB. He also argued against making VOA part of U.S. public diplomacy.

R. EUGENE PARTA: “I’m going to make a different argument here and that is going to be one that Ross and I have made in the past here and it is for bringing together VOA and the surrogates into a single organization. … This is only a suggestive example. I’m not working out in advance how these things should work. But this is an idea of what might be possible in the future in a unified structure which would in time be less expensive, more efficient and could engage in true strategic information efforts.”

Former RFE/RL president Tom Dine disagreed with Mr. Parta that combining VOA with surrogate broadcasters would make U.S. international media outreach more effective.

TOM DINE: “OK, Gene, you said we are effective in the following places. Audience, for instance. So, how would a new structure, how would the President of the United States — in my experience, the President of the United States could give less than a damn about the whole thing, or the Secretary of State, etc. — so, how would the new structure, new branding, whatever it is, affect the audience? If it’s pretty good now, how can it be better?”

R. EUGENE PARTA: “Tom, as you know, things can always be better.”

TOM DINE: Well, of course, I’ve lived my life that way, but that doesn’t solve anything here.

R. EUGENE PARTA: “What you would have is a structure that would target specifically each one of your broadcast areas with a coherent, integrated strategy for broadcasting. You would also certainly be more efficient because you would not have overlapping, duplicating operations.”

TOM DINE: You made a point, you and Ross, in a variety of papers and presentations which I’ve heard over the years that the more international broadcasters there were: German, French, British, and American particularly, the bigger the impact against the Soviet Union. You made that loud and clear. Why are you trying to break it up?

R. EUGENE PARTA: “I’m not trying to break it up, Tom. During the Cold War it was a much simpler world that we were dealing with.”

TOM DINE: “Granted.”

R. EUGENE PARTA:“You didn’t have this plethora of information coming in from all sides. The technology has changed. Just about everything has changed. And during the Cold War, yes, you would’t find the stronger support of surrogate broadcasting than I was. But I was also a strong supporter of VOA as a separate operation doing what it did, and BBC doing what it did. We’re in a very, very different world right now. I fear that if VOA were given a strong public diplomacy operation, mandate, that it would in fact be deleterious to VOA itself. I think that it would lose impact. It would lose audience and I fear that it would be in not too long condemned almost to irrelevance.”

Another former RFE/RL president, Kevin Klose, disagreed with claims that there exists unnecessary duplication between VOA and surrogate broadcasters. Both Dine and Klose appear to be strong supporters of keeping surrogate broadcasters and VOA separate.

KEVIN KLOSE: “Can it be organized in a constructive way in which VOA and the surrogates and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting can be given the freedom that is essential to credible provision of fact-based, contextual, coherent news presentation no matter what the language? It’s enormously important that that be out there and that it not be part of a diplomatic mission. The diplomatic mission [should] be strengthened.”

Outgoing Voice of America director David Ensor said that VOA has already high audience numbers. He also argued against making VOA part of U.S. public diplomacy outreach.

DAVID ENSOR: “I do not think, with respect to my friend Mr. Glassman, that putting Voice of America in the State Department would make it more effective. I think it would make it much less so because, frankly, independent journalism what gets us our 172 million [estimated VOA weekly audience], or if you count all of company, 250 million [estimated BBG weekly audience] people listening, hearing, and reading us. Independent journalism is what does that.”

Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said that keeping surrogate broadcasters separate from VOA would be much more effective. He suggested said that any new legislation to reform the BBG should take this approach. Mr. Gershman also said there is complacency in claims of high audience numbers since U.S. international media outreach is falling behind the competition. “We are getting beat right now. We should remember that,” Mr. Gershman said.

CARL GERSHMAN: “I do think, I sense a certain complacency in some of the statements that were made. We have all of these hundreds of millions of listeners, isn’t it wonderful. We are getting beat right now and we should remember that. And I think that argues for some new legislation to revitalize the structure. I’m not for starting over again. I’m not for unifying. I think the critical question is VOA. And if you can accept the fact that is should be a Voice of America, but not a voice of USG [United States Government] in some narrow, what you think of as propagandistic sense, well I think that’s great. And I think if you define the mission clearly. I think this is … the problem. I think we can argue whether it’s best to have two separate structure. I think it’s best to bring the surrogates under a separate NED-like structure. Everybody I’ve talked to [said] it would be healthier that way. So the real question is VOA. Do we want public diplomacy that is not CNN? And then what it would be? What is its mission? How do you explain that story? You were very good when you [David Ensor] talked about ‘when we explain Ferguson’ and so forth. I was in Prague in December and the only issues at a big human rights conference were Ferguson and torture. We have a big problem to do here. But if you can do that well, and that has to be defined in a mission, I don’t think it’s a matter of taking orders from the President or the Secretary of State, I think it’s giving people a clear mission and then seeing if they’re carrying it out well. I think that’s the critical issue. I think that’s the purpose of the legislation [to reform the BBG]. And I think it would be a useful exercise to have the legislation so that we could at least have a fresh start. Not throwing everything away and starting again, but a fresh start in building up what we already have.”

BBG Watch reported earlier that VOA was initially for several days practically absent with news reporting from Ferguson compared to RT, BBC and other international and U.S. media.

Audience numbers mentioned by Mr. Parta seem to indicate that most of the Voice of America’s audience growth has been in Latin America where most countries already have free media. According to Gallup, which does audience research for the BBG, in the last few years VOA’s audience in Latin America has grown from 3 to 28 million, Mr. Parta noted. This would account for much of the reported audience growth under VOA director David Ensor who will soon leave his position. Top VOA and BBG officials have been far less transparent on audience figures in Russia, Iran and China and almost completely silent on audience engagement numbers through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and website comments which put VOA far behind its competition.

VOA now also counts as audience those who are exposed to short locally-placed reports or features, some of which are pre-censored by VOA to exclude political news in order not to offend stations and governments which allow rebroadcasting but only of content that does not threaten their broadcast licenses or local political leaders. Even to achieve such content placement, BBG and VOA must make payments to local stations.

In response to the study presented at the Wilson Center event, the BBG’s interim CEO and director, André Mendes, defended “the actual measures and demonstrable impact of our networks,” as reported by VOA:

ANDRE MENDES: “While we respect the intent of the report’s authors and distinguished interview subjects, we see a disconnect between the external perceptions of the BBG and the actual measures and demonstrable impact of our networks.”

Mr. Mendes said the report contains many well-known criticisms of the agency. But he also said, “We see evidence of the effectiveness of our programs from our audiences around the world, from 2,500 on-the-ground media partners, and from professional research and other credible measurements of audience engagement,” VOA reported.

However, at least in the case of Voice of America, with only a few exceptions VOA services and many VOA reporters have minimal audience engagement numbers on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They also generate insignificant number of readers’ comments.

During the Wilson Center discussion James Glassman said that “broadcasting is an outmoded concept and an outmoded word.” “BBG should be in the business of communicating,” Mr. Glassman explained, mentioning the importance of social media in addition to radio and TV.

Voice of America’s audience engagement through social media is inconsequential with only a few exceptions. VOA is leagues behind Russia’s RT in social media outreach, sometimes by hundreds and thousands of Facebook “Likes,” Tweets and comments. Even the State Department’s Facebook page has more “Likes” [STATE: 1,017,634 Total Page Likes] than the main VOA English News Facebook page [VOA: 944,877 Total Page Likes]

Russia’s RT has 2,462,227 Total Page Likes.

BBC News has 15,465,899 Total Page Likes.

BBC World News has 10,151,027 Total Page Likes.

BBC Persian has 2,353,855 Total Page Likes compared to only 332,014 Total Page Likes for VOA Persian.

Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) Persian Service has 679,567 Total Page Likes.

VOA English News webpage has 3,655 Alexa rating worldwide. (The rank is calculated using a combination of average daily visitors to this site and pageviews on this site over the past 3 months. The site with the highest combination of visitors and pageviews is ranked #1.).

RT has 453 Alexa rating. BBC (bbc.co.uk) has 70 Alexa rating.

BBC (bbc.com) has 159 Alexa rating.

Some VOA correspondents, including some of the senior ones, has fewer than a 100 Twitter followers compared to tens of thousands of Twitter followers for senior BBC, CNN, or Bloomberg correspondents.

Some Voice of America journalists worry that the BBG reform bill [H.R. 4490], if reintroduced, passed by Congress and signed by the President with its original language, would turn them into “propagandists.” Al Pessin, a senior VOA foreign correspondent currently based in London, wrote in a June 2, 2014 Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Op-Ed Back off, Congress, and keep Voice of America real” that “The Royce bill [it was a bipartisan, Royce-Engel bill — BBG Watch] maintains some of the original VOA charter language, requiring “accurate, objective and comprehensive” news, but only in the service of U.S. foreign policy.” “The two are not compatible,” Al Pessin wrote.

Rep. Eliot Engel strongly denied that the bill’s intention was to turn the Voice of America into a propaganda tool for any U.S. administration.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the BBG “practically defunct” in terms of communicating with audiences abroad. “Our Broadcasting Board of Governors is practically defunct in terms of its capacity to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and we need to get back into it,” Hillary Clinton said in September 2014.

Chairman Royce also called the agency “defunct” on several occasions. BBG Chairman Jeff Shell said recently that he disagreed with the use of this term and blamed it on Washington politics. Shell also said that he strongly supports some of the management reforms proposed in the legislation. According to Chairman Shell, Rep. Ed Royce cares about U.S. international media outreach and is a good man, but in order to get the reform legislation passed he must stress what is wrong with the agency rather than what VOA and other journalists are doing right. Shell said that the agency needs new legislation to strengthen the role of its CEO. Shell is believed to favor having only one board and one CEO. The White House and the State Department also appear to have some reservations about Chairman Royce’s proposal to have two boards and two top executives in charge of the federal and the non-federal components of the agency.

Secretary of State Kerry said at a recent congressional hearing that he is 100 percent supportive of Rep. Royce’s efforts to pass legislation to reform the BBG despite slight differences of opinion regarding some of the bill’s language.

The AFGE Local 1812 BBG employee union expressed strong support for the bill, particularly for its proposed structural and management reforms, while expressing some reservations with regard to the VOA mission language.

The board under Jeff Shell’s chairmanship has initiated some internal reforms.

At a meeting with employees at the Voice of America in Washington, VOA Director David Ensor announced that he had submitted his resignation to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and wants to leave by the end of May. Well-informed sources told BBG Watch that a permanent replacement for David Ensor is not likely to be named until the federal agency in charge of VOA and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media organizations serving audiences abroad also has a new permanent CEO. First BBG CEO Andy Lack had left earlier this year after only a few weeks on the job.

One senior BBG official who wants to remain anonymous told BBG Watch that reading the Wimbush-Portale study was a “very disappointing and even frustrating” experience.

“The bottom line is everyone agrees that the BBG structure is flawed and … need[s] a CEO. And most everyone now agrees that influence is more important than reach. The hard questions are now how … [to] accomplish this influence from (1) an operational and structural standpoint, (2) a content standpoint, and (3) an access/distribution standpoint. And for those questions the ‘study’ is silent.”

“‘blow it up and start over’, … always sounds great until you have to start deciding what you are actually going to build once you destroy what you’ve got, and there is no consensus on that!,” a senior BBG official also told BBG Watch.

The study’s authors admit that it does not offer one overreaching solution as it reflects various points of view of the interviewees. Most, if not all of them, reportedly have agreed, however, that the current Broadcasting Board of Governors structure is poorly designed and badly implemented.

More information about the Wilson Center panel can be seen HERE and full video is embedded below.

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

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