This is a guest commentary. Other opinions are welcome.
Day view of the Red Square, Moscow Kremlin and Lenin mausoleum, Moscow, Russia

Broadcasting Board of Governors Needs More Statesmanship, Not Salesmanship

Will there be another BBG “Mission to Moscow” or VOA video with terrorist message?

By Ted Lipien

Seeing this headline, “Broadcasting Board of Governors Seeking An Ad Agency,” in EVERYTHING PR – Public Relations News, remained me of what U.S. Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane wrote in 1947:

Indeed, after I left Poland [1947], persons returning to the United States told me that very few Poles would listen to the ‘Voice of America’ broadcast even if they had access to radio sets which could receive it.

But this opinion of mine is not to be construed as an objection in general against radio broadcasts to the Soviet Union or to other nations behind the Iron Curtain. If appropriate material is used which will bring hope and cheer, instead of intensifying despair, there is much of a constructive nature that we can do. But the wisdom of statesmanship, not of salesmanship, is a requisite.[ref]Arthur Bliss Lane, “I Saw Poland Betrayed: An American Ambassador Reports to the American People,” The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis and New York, 1948, p. 219.[/ref]

Ambassador Bliss Lane was one of the most distinguished and principled members of the U.S. Foreign Service. He resigned in 1947 to be able to criticize openly the earlier policy of appeasement toward Soviet Russia. He was part of a group of distinguished Americans, including General Dwight Eisenhower, who helped to create Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation (later renamed Radio Liberty) in the early 1950s. Both U.S.-funded stations were highly successful in helping to bring about the end of Soviet domination and communism in East Central Europe. Criticism from Ambassador Bliss Lane and others also eventually resulted in reforms at the Voice of America. VOA also contributed significantly to the fall of communism.

Indeed, what the U.S. international media outreach to Russia, China, the Middle East and elsewhere needs now is much more of the wisdom of statesmanship, not salesmanship. Thanks to input from Ambassador Bliss Lane and others, U.S. international broadcasting was in the hands of highly experienced professionals throughout most of the Cold War.

After hearing then-Secretary of State and herself BBG member Hillary Clinton say in 2013 that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is “practically defunct,” I doubt that anyone truly familiar with the history of U.S. international broadcasting could possibly conclude that the BBG is doing better now under the leadership of let’s-travel-to-Russia-for-private-business Hollywood movie producers, former house decorating TV channel executives, their BBG bureaucratic advisors, advertising gurus and political campaign donors serving on BBG boards, past and present, than it did when the Voice of America (VOA) was overseen in part by Foreign Service members on rotational assignments and run day-to-day by professional journalists of much higher caliber. Even though they were part of the United States Information Agency (USIA), VOA journalists and some of its managers enjoyed much greater independence from bureaucratic interference, and showed much better judgement than their successors do now.

There is ample proof that U.S. international media outreach under the Broadcasting Board of Governors has indeed become less than an afterthought in Washington and among audiences abroad. More advertising and salesmanship by BBG members and executives is not going to fix this problem, but structural reforms and high quality programming might save the mission if they are implemented quickly and decisively.

There is no time to waste. There has been yet another major article on Putin propaganda published by a major U.S. newspaper showing what a serious threat it represents to the United States and the West, but without any mention of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America, or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). The New York Times had two such excellent but worrisome articles in a series titled, “Dark Arts: Russia’s Stealth Conflict on how Russia covertly projects power.”

A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories, By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, The New York Times, AUG. 28, 2016

More of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead, By ANDREW E. KRAMER, The New York Times, AUG. 20, 2016.

There were two earlier Washington Post articles, one of them an op-ed written by two well-known journalists and experts on countering propaganda, also without any significant mention of the BBG or its media entities.

OP-ED: The danger of Russian disinformation, By ANNE APPLEBAUM and EDWARD LUCAS, The Washington Post, MAY 6, 2016.

The Internet was supposed to foster democracy. China has different ideas., By SIMON DENYER, The Washington Post, JULY 10, 2016.

As one former BBG member observed to me in response to one of the earlier Washington Post articles:

“These, apparently, are the days when such a story can be written without a single mention of [the Broadcasting Board of Governors], or at least a quote from someone in USIB. [United States International Broadcasting, also referred to as USIM–United States International Media managed by the BBG.] “We are now less than an afterthought.”

There are still a few good journalists left among BBG media entities, but I have never seen such chaotic and uneven performance as I did looking at VOA English, Russian, French to Africa and other output in recent months. When Boko Haram Islamists in Nigeria recently forced enslaved teenage girls to video-record a terrorist message, VOA quickly produced a segment of this video for Facebook and posted it online with English subtitles. No senior BBG leader seemed to have objected that broadcasting direct messages from terrorists recorded by their victims under a threat of death, and showing the faces of minors in captivity, is not something responsible news organizations do in a manner VOA chose to do it. There was an earlier warning from the Nigerian Minister of Information that VOA reporting on Boko Haram plays in the hands of the terrorists.

When I contacted senior BBG and VOA officials seeking an explanation for the latest Boko Haram message VOA video, they did not respond. VOA had broadcast a video excerpt of the blackmail threat and all but urged the Nigerian government to accept it. But when Vice President Joe Biden made a speech in Riga on August 24, in which he mentioned the Hitler-Stalin Pact and spoke about U.S. foreign policy vis a vis Russian expansionism and aggression, BBG, VOA’s English and Russian services, and RFE/RL’s Radio Liberty Russian Service did not cover his powerful remarks.

Wonder why BBG, VOA, and RFE/RL did not make arrangements to send a reporter with the Vice President to Riga or at least cover his Molotov-Ribbentrop speech remotely?

It’s not any shortage of taxpayers’ money at the disposal of BBG officials.

With its $777 million budget (FY 2017 Budget Request), the Broadcasting Board of Governors spends more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the U.S. domestic and foreign propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI), spent in any one year during World War II against Nazi Germany and Japan, and more money than the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty got throughout much of the Cold War.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors could be much more effective, but it is fatally mismanaged in the hands of leaders who may be well-meaning but are inexperienced in international news, foreign affairs, foreign policy, public diplomacy, U.S. government operations, and in countering propaganda.

What experienced U.S. government official would go to Vladimir Putin’s Russia at this time to do private business?

What experienced U.S. official would seek assistance from government executives and managers who think it is OK to make arrangements for a reception in Moscow and invite Putin’s apparatchiks to attend?

These Russian officials, instead of coming to the party in Moscow, expelled the BBG Chairman Jeff Shell from the country and treated him in harsh manner.

What experienced U.S. government executive would put the BBG chairman at risk by advising him to travel to Russia on a personal passport to do some kind of unspecified private business at this time in U.S.-Russia relations?

What experienced U.S. government official would say that until three or four years ago, Russia was almost a democracy?

Did BBG CEO John Lansing, senior BBG executive Jeff Trimble and RFE/RL president Thomas Kent who also went on the mission to Moscow really think that the Russian secret service, the FSB, would roll out the red carpet for Chairman Shell at the airport, put a red VIP stamp on his private passport and provide protection as he and other BBG VIPs were to mingle with Putin’s officials at a U.S. taxpayers-paid reception in Moscow? The word bizarre does not even come close to describe their thinking.

No wonder that President Obama does not even mention the BBG when he talks about countering ISIL’s ideology of violent extremism or when he talks about the threat of Russian propaganda and disinformation.

The BBG is not “practically defunct,” as Hillary Clinton had said in 2013; it is defunct. It needs adult supervision from the U.S. Congress and the next U.S. president who hopefully will not be doing business deals in Putin’s Russia. I don’t entirely blame the BBG chairman and the BBG CEO because they lack critical experience, but they should have known or at least guessed that one CEO without such experience, which takes many years of specialized study and work to acquire, cannot possibly manage the agency with its many federal and non-federal entities committed to international news, intercultural communications, public diplomacy and surrogate broadcasting missions. This is not Hollywood, the Madison Avenue, or the Food Network.

One BBG employee wrote to me that the appointment of new leaders “has not-so-slowly gave way to disappointment and even despair among the rank-and-file who had been expecting the much needed reforming of the ossified bureaucratized structures. Instead, it looks like the entrenched bureaucracy has been maneuvering without problem, rearranging and re-positioning itself to gain even more control of the once-famous and well respected organization.”

Rank and file employees have plenty of reasons to be bitter. The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ announcement, “VOA Advertising Campaigns – South and Central Asia Federal Project,” that it is “seeking an advertising agency specializing in multiple media placements in the South and Central Asia regions to promote various Voice of America (VOA) programming” is truly “testing the boundaries of sanity and reality,” as one of my former VOA and BBG colleagues put it.

Some advertising in the right places can be helpful even for a public broadcaster, but what the BBG and VOA executives are doing, in my opinion based on looking at some of the videos and posts on BBG’s social media platforms, is going after the lowest common denominator in their race to the bottom. With some exceptions, they are not providing high-quality, essential news and opinions that audiences find compelling to seek out and which could have a lasting impact.

BBG board members, past and present, and the entrenched BBG bureaucracy have largely destroyed the VOA and RFE/RL brands. Again, more PR and advertising is not the answer. It’s a critical and serious mission that cannot be left in the hands of private sector entertainment and advertising executives, no matter how successful they are in their private sector careers. Their advice should be sought in some technical areas where they have something to contribute, but they can’t be put in charge of running a government agency, and neither can the Voice of America be de-federalized or privatized. VOA is not the same as RFE/RL or Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Expanding the BBG bureaucracy by hiring more federal employees to do public relations, “BBG Public Affairs (Press Specialist), Salary Range $64,650.00 to $100,736.00 / Per Year,” is yet another sign of business as usual at this dysfunctional agency. The number of full-time federal positions in the BBG PR office had already grown from seven to 12, or 71%, from FY2007 to FY2014.

It is time to take U.S. international broadcasting out of the hands of film, TV entertainment and advertising executives and put it under a new management experienced in the business of international news and sophisticated in responding to propaganda and disinformation. It’s time for the U.S. Congress to completely overhaul the Broadcasting Board of Governors and for the President to sign the reform legislation. Let’s not have another “Mission to Moscow” organized by BBG executives. Let’s make sure that when the U.S. Vice President or President speak about an important historical event with significance for current U.S. foreign policy, their remarks are covered by VOA and RFE/RL. Let’s not have VOA enhance messages from terrorists and put them on social media.
Disclaimer: Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America acting associate director and co-director of the independent Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB.org), is one of the founders and supporters of BBG Watch.