BBG Watch Guest Commentary
This is part two of a multipart commentary on the newly named United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). The author is a former Voice of America (VOA) senior White House correspondent and international reporter Dan Robinson.
FACT AND FANTASY
By Dan Robinson
Sitting in the First Amendment Lounge that day (a Press Club security guard was stationed just outside the entrance perhaps, one surmises, to deal with any rowdy formerly uninvited media) I reminded myself of definitions of surreal, as in: “A surreal mix of fact and fantasy”.
Here is an agency that, over the past two decades, has (and this list is not exhaustive):
- Mismanaged its own resources and personnel
- Stumbled in breaking news coverage, with websites often ridden with errors demonstrating lack of quality control
- Lost most of its audiences (though it plays statistical and semantic games to inflate its audience figures)
- Lurched from scandal to scandal (including the still unresolved issue of the Mandarin 5)
- Been forced to require employees in one of its entities (VOA) to undergo training in bias avoidance, and journalism
- Suffered numerous meltdowns of its primary digital production platform, impacting programming
- Had employees in one entity (again, VOA) using official social media channels to post embarrassing and politically-biased comments
- Allowed employees (with endorsement by a former VOA director) to put on a satirical event featuring insults of an incoming president and his family members
Officials who have presided over this embarrassing history mentioned none of these. They mixed with an exclusive group at this catered soiree, and in remarks said essentially, hey we know we screwed up in the past, but please — JUST GIVE US A(NOTHER) PASS!
. . . AND they asserted that finally, after years of bumbling and mismanagement — the agency “has changed! Transformation!….to be a more “nimble and impactful tool of U.S. foreign policy. . .” and has “fully joined the information battlefield.”
Remember: this is the agency that a prominent senator only a few years ago called: “the most worthless organization of the federal government.”
A FAMILIAR WASHINGTON GAME
The NPC event was not a news event, but an exercise in inside-the-beltway propaganda. Officials of the agency’s permanent bureaucracy have become masters at this game.
It’s one designed to accentuate primarily the positive, and dangle out on the fishing line for gullible lawmakers and the taxpaying public, claims that should be subjected to greater scrutiny, such as repeated boasts of ever-increasing audience size and reach.
Targeted members of Congress (and staffs) are usually too busy to really drill down into the problems afflicting the agency. The usual collection of current and retired State Department and other agency officials usually end up parroting agency happy talk points, and urging those same lawmakers to continue funding agency operations in perpetuity.
A roster of USAGM officials attended: Lansing as overall MC, VOA director Amanda Bennett and her hand-chosen deputy Sandy Sugawara (formerly of The Washington Post), former VOA director David Ensor and other VOA managers. Ryan Crocker, the former diplomat who served on the BBG, along with Kenneth Weinstein (who simultaneously sits on the BBG and runs The Hudson Institute).
Most people from outside the agency probably would not have recognized Matt Schuck, one of two Trump administration landing team members and is thought to be occupying a position created for him as a special adviser, though it is unclear exactly what advising he is doing.
Also among the faces was Haroon Ullah, seen on numerous TV shows and at other venues discussing (and promoting) ‘Digital Information Wars’, the title of one of his books.
According to the BBG (now USAGM) website, Ullah occupies or oversees no fewer than 3 positions (Chief Strategy Officer, Office of Policy and Research (OPR), and Office of Internet Freedom (OIF). Curiously, Ullah’s Linked In profile still highlights him as serving on the “Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff at U.S. Department of State.”
NAUERT CITES POMPEO SUPPORT
The keynote address was by Heather Nauert, the former FOX and ABC reporter who has had a rapid rise to become Acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and chief State Department spokesperson for the Trump administration.
She mentioned a meeting she arranged for Lansing, that day, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. For someone representing a president (Trump) who is hostile to media he calls the “enemy of the people”, she talked a lot about the importance of “a free media [supporting] transparency and [holding] governments accountable”, quoting Pompeo as calling “the free press an essential pillar of democracy.”
One has to wonder what she thinks (if she is aware at all) about instances in which Voice of America journalists and reports demonstrated anti-Trump bias before and after the November 2016 election.
Nauert got a bit, but not huge, traction on her own Twitter feed when her photo at the USAGM was posted on her channel — much more than the number of responses Lansing got.
TWO MAIN MESSAGES
Two themes ran through Nauert’s remarks as well as Lansing’s and those by Crocker, and the one member of Congress brought in to sing the agency’s praises, Representative Francis Rooney (D-FL):
- Americans generally and those in Congress controlling the purse strings should be confident that the agency has cleaned up its act.
- The agency has finally gotten the message that it can no longer sit on past journalistic laurels, and now fully accepts that it is a national security weapon to counter disinformation and authoritarianism.
As for specific remarks at this propaganda exercise, only Crocker directly referenced to any degree the dysfunction in the BBG, once noted by former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Before the advent of a CEO, said Crocker, it was “kind of messy” with “a part-time board scattered around country who were the executive authority. Can you Imagine a $750 million a year company that was run by its board of directors and didn’t have a CEO? Not a path to success.”
Lansing downplayed past problems, other than to note that he had always been open to hearing what the agency was “doing right and doing wrong” and to hearing “from critics and supporters alike.”
It was on the subject of recognizing the agency’s role as a national security weapon that the strongest rhetoric was heard, especially from agency officials anxious to curry favor with the Trump administration.
SEE PART ONE: RE-BRANDED USAGM LIMITS MEDIA COVERAGE OF WASHINGTON PR EVENT: NO QUESTIONS WANTED
More Soon in PART THEE: QUESTIONS NOT WANTED
Dan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent.