BBG Watch Commentary

In arguing for combining all U.S. international broadcasting entities into one and in his frequent attacks in his private blog on surrogate broadcasters, particularly Radio Free Asia (RFA), International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) media analyst Kim Andrew Elliott makes a frequent point that there is no longer any significant difference between Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters in how they cover news in countries like Russia or China.

His point is that news is news and VOA can cover the story just as well from Washington with assistance of a few stringers in Russia as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) does it from Moscow and from Prague. It is all duplication and waste of money; the two media outlets should be merged, according to Mr. Elliott who claims to be speaking on his own behalf but is also believed to reflect the views of his IBB bosses. They tolerate his private blogging while attacking and trying to silence IBB’s critics among employees and outside journalists. Mr. Elliott does not allow comments on his private blog. Neither does IBB Director Richard Lobo on his official blog.

Unfortunately for Mr. Elliott’s argument, the reality is far different from his simple and seemingly attractive idea. Surrogate broadcasters specialize in covering news in their own countries and in providing a platform for censored voices in their societies. No matter how hard one may try, this kind of specialization, expertise and commitment simply cannot be found thousands of miles away in Washington.

Washington bureaucrats are too removed from Russia or China to care enough about organizing the kind of effort at covering internal events in closed and semi-closed societies. In fact, they do not even have a sufficient link to Voice of America language services a few corridors away from them, hence their neglect of these services and attempts to close them down or to limit their broadcasts while building up their own bureaucracy.

One look at the coverage of the Alexei Navalny verdict shows how vastly different the coverage by VOA and Radio Liberty has been. Both provided the basic news and information and both reported on some of the reactions in the U.S. and the world to the verdict. But that is where similarities end and they are not at all substantial or significant.

Radio Liberty’s coverage has been vastly more extensive and constant, with numerous updates hour by hour and even minute by minute, multiple videos and photos from the scene of various protests, interviews with Russian political and human rights figures, commentaries by staff analysts and independent experts, audio and video from Radio Liberty reporters in Moscow and throughout Russia, live Tweets and live online USTREAM video transmissions from various locations.

Those of us who used to work for U.S. international broadcasting know very well that this kind of coverage simply could not have been organized by the Voice of America from Washington under any circumstances. Kim Andrew Elliott’s idea of one central U.S.-funded media outlet doing what Radio Liberty is doing right now in Russia is frankly speaking quite naive and betrays his ignorance of how surrogate broadcasters like Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia work and why they were created by various U.S. administrations and the U.S. Congress in the first place.

We are happy to report that this time the Voice of America Russian Service did a very good job covering the basic facts of the trial verdict, some reactions in Russia and more reactions from the U.S. They were especially good in reporting on U.S. reactions to the verdict, as they should have been. In that respect, VOA provided outstanding U.S.-centered coverage.

But internal coverage in Russia clearly belonged to Radio Liberty. The performance of the two media organizations could not even be compared in terms of on the ground reporting from within Russia. Radio Liberty was in a totally different league. It offered complete, in-depth local coverage. VOA does not have the staff, the expertise, numerous people on the ground, contacts with thousands of Russian civil society leaders and enormous level of specialization and knowledge that surrogate media requires to be successful.

The Voice of America Russian Service has made some improvements in recent months. Not too long ago, the Service published an interview with Alexei Navalny that turned out to be fake and was probably planted by the Kremlin’s security services as part of their effort to embarrass the Russian opposition leader and blogger before hauling him to the trial and to prison. Voice of America fell for it. Radio Liberty did not. Any good expert could have concluded that the interview was fake.

The reasons for such a major failure were obvious. On orders from IBB, the VOA Russian Service dismissed most of its experienced journalists and replaced them with less experienced contractors. An independent Russian media scholar who was commissioned by the IBB to do a study of the VOA Russian website concluded after the dismissals that it developed a “pro-Putin bias.” Mr. Elliott’s bosses tried to hide this study and attacked those who published it.

The point is that no matter what Mr. Elliott may claim, any kind of one big centrally-run media organization based in Washington will not be able to provide management guidance and surrogate reporting services to countries like Russia and China. Those of us who have worked at VOA, RFE/RL and even IBB know that this is simply not possible. Surrogate broadcasters like Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia are completely different from Voice of America and Voice of America is completely different from them except for the fact that they may report the same basic news. Even there, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia are able to provide far more detail than VOA.

If American taxpayers want to help closed societies and offer local and exiled journalists, politicians, intellectuals, artists and human rights activists an open and safe platform where they can freely express their views and engage in a dialogue, then they have to support surrogate broadcasters like RFE/RL and RFA.

The Voice of America represents the United States to the world. It can provide basic news, even a decent news coverage about Russia and China, but it cannot go deeply into discussion about internal politics and promote internal political dialogue. VOA plays an important role in projecting American news, opinions and ideas and delivers news, but it cannot be a radio or a website for Russian and Chinese journalists whose primary concern and specialization are their own societies and their own political and social problems. Voice of America helps to explain America to the world. Its journalism indirectly serves U.S. public diplomacy interests. It contributes to U.S. national security.

But surrogate broadcasters go even further than that. They strengthen America by creating an internal alternative media that weakens hostile regimes’ monopoly not only on information but most importantly on ideas. The latter is not something that Voice of America can do well or should do if it is to remain an American institution, which it should continue to be.

Plus, Mr. Elliott should know better. Even if one were to combine VOA with RFE/RL and RFA, the resulting institution would be a Frankenstein monster. He should know from his own experience how dysfunctional and defunct International Broadcasting Bureau already is being nearly totally separated from any specific program and any specific audience. Lack of specialization breeds bureaucratic laziness and arrogance in government and in the private sector.

Even if this one central media outlet were to be de-federalized and privatized it would likely become worse and more dysfunctional, even less accountable and certainly unable to organize surrogate-type news coverage in countries like Russia and China. IBB can’t even do a decent job in supporting Voice of America English news reporting and its engagement with audiences through social media.

The VOA newsroom is just a short walk away from IBB offices where IBB Director Richard Lobo and his top executives work. Al Jazeera, Russia Today and BBC beat VOA English news in social media use indicators by multiple factors. It is a total disaster happening right under the eyes of Mr. Lobo, his deputy Jeff Trimble, IBB’s chief strategist Bruce Sherman and other among Mr. Elliott’s many IBB bosses.

There are indeed many of them, far more than any organization needs or can support, which may explain why Mr. Elliott is advocating so hard for merging VOA with the surrogates. He knows that the IBB bureaucracy cannot survive much longer. It has already eliminated all programs and programming positions it could possibly find to finance its existence.

Mr. Elliott’s response to this is that there are too many language services and too many surrogate broadcasters. If resources were only pulled together, everything would work out just fine and much more could be done with less money. What he forgets is that his organization, the International Broadcasting Bureau, has already amassed and spent enormous amounts of money and resources and has been experimenting with centralization for quite some time. IBB controls more than 35% of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ budget for all U.S. international broadcasters without producing a single program. Its overall management of U.S. international broadcasting has been a total disaster.

Mergers, centralization, one bureaucracy, government or private, are incompatible with specialized independent journalism and would be deadly for surrogate media like RFE/RL and RFA. Mr. Elliott should know better, but then he and other IBB executives would be the only beneficiaries if such an ill-advised merger, centralization of control and destruction of surrogate broadcasters would occur.

For the sake of brave people like Alexei Navalny and Chen Guangcheng, let’s hope this will never happen. Members of Congress and American taxpayers will hopefully already know that a central bureaucracy in Washington cannot run the post office and will not be able to run U.S. international broadcasting even if it is completely privatized. In fact, privatization would make things even worse by removing most of congressional and public scrutiny.

This is what IBB bureaucrats are counting on: less transparency, less accountability and less scrutiny. Americans should not allow it to happen. They should continue to support broadcasts and news programs to Russia and China by Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia in the interest of U.S. national security. Mr. Elliott’s advice should be rejected.

Mr. Elliott is lucky that he can publish his private blog while the majority of employees who disagree with IBB cannot do that. Their views should also be heard, just as Mr. Elliott is entitled to his opinions and the ability to express them without fear. His IBB and VOA colleagues do not have that right. They have seen the brutal way in which the management reacted to independent journalist Matthew Russell Lee and to former VOA correspondent Gary Thomas.

It is also important to keep in mind that this kind of outstanding coverage of the post-Navalny trial verdict reactions in Russia almost did not happen. While IBB officials stood idly by, the former American management of RFE/RL fired dozens of experienced Radio Liberty journalists in Russia. It took an intervention by BBG members to change RFE/RL management and get these journalists rehired. These reporters who had lost their jobs in a brutal dismissal last September and had been only recently asked to come back to Radio Liberty, were mostly the ones responsible for today’s multimedia live coverage.

Top IBB officials, including Director Lobo and Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, who is a Russia expert, failed to alert the BBG board to the growing crisis and controversy in Russia caused by the firing of Radio Liberty journalists specializing in investigative reporting — something that Voice of America has never done. If anyone needs a proof that a merger of U.S. international broadcasters under a central bureaucracy in Washington can lead to improvements, they need to look no further than the performance of Mr. Elliott’s bosses during the recent Radio Liberty crisis in Russia.

This commentary is based partly on what IBB, VOA and OCB employees have told us.

Check out these links excellent multimedia Radio Liberty Russian Service coverage of reactions to the Navalny verdict. Many of the photos and videos are from RFE/RL’s own reporters.

Акция на Манежной. Хроника, Radio Liberty Russian Service live coverage, last checked July 18, 2013.

Русский facebook о Навальном, Radio Liberty Russian Service, summary of comments from Russian political and social figures on Facebook, last checked July 18, 2013.

“Весь бывший СССР встретился в автозаке!”, Radio Liberty Russian Service, last checked July 18, 2013.