BBG Watch Commentary

Reuters news agency and the Kremlin’s media outlet RT reported on a new study which claims that the United States is losing an information war to Russia, Islamic State and other rivals.

As reported by Reuters, the study, co-authored by S. Enders Wimbush, a former Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) member and former director of Radio Liberty, and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) vice president Elizabeth Portale, “calls for a strengthening in U.S. counter-propaganda efforts and an overhaul of the government’s international broadcasting arm.”

While Russia’s RT reported on the study, “Report calls for overhaul of US govt media to fight ‘info war’ with Russia, ISIS,” and The Moscow Times newspaper used the Reuters report, BBG managed media outlets, the Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty, have no reports on the study on their English language websites.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul posted a tweet expressing his agreement with the study’s authors conclusion that the U.S. is losing the information war. Ambassador McFaul retweeted the Reuters article as posted by The Moscow Times.

The Reuters article written by Warren Strobel, “U.S. losing ‘information war’ to Russia, other rivals: study,” quotes Jeff Trimble, deputy director of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) who for over a decade has occupied key executive and decision-making positions, first at RFE/RL and later at the BBG.

According to Reuters, “Trimble cited what he called ‘a very uneven playing field’ in the battle to inform and influence populations in Russia and its periphery. “Russia has blocked U.S. government broadcasts, and spends a reported $400 million to $500 million a year on foreign information efforts. The United States spends about $20 million annually on Russian language services,” Trimble said, as reported by Reuters.

For those who could be mislead by this comparison, BBG executive Jeff Trimble was in fact comparing only one small segment of the BBG budget to what may be Russia’s entire foreign information budget. The Reuters article points out in the beginning that the BBG’s entire annual budget is $730 million, which is considerably more than $400 to $500 million reportedly being spent by Russia on foreign information programs.

BBG Watch and other critics have been pointing out that much of the BBG budget is spent on the overblown federal bureaucracy overseen by numerous executives and managers. They have over the years eliminated multiple programs and fired talented journalists while creating and protecting well-paid bureaucratic positions. These executives are also responsible for disastrous employee morale at the federal part of the agency.

According to Reuters, the report co-authored by Wimbush and Portale, for which they reportedly interviewed many other experts, says that “U.S. international communications strategy should be rebuilt from the ground up.” The study argues that that “the political firewall separating” U.S. international broadcasters such as VOA and RFE/RL “from U.S. national security agencies is ‘overblown,’ and the broadcasters are not always in tune with U.S. foreign policy objectives,” Reuters reports. According to Reuters, the report, however, “does not advocate turning government-funded broadcasters into instruments of U.S. propaganda.”

The Reuters article refers to the bipartisan Royce-Engel legislation, H.R. 4490, to reform the BBG which was passed the House of Representatives last year but not taken up by the Senate. Some VOA journalists, especially those reporting in English, strongly objected to some of the language in the legislation, claiming that it would turn them into a U.S. government propaganda tool. Reuters reported that according to many experts interviewed by Wimbush and Portale, the legislation to reform U.S. international media outreach “does not go far enough.” The Reuters report does not explain what this means exactly, but it quotes Wimbush and Portale as saying that “the general consensus was that no reform would likely go far enough to fix U.S. international broadcasting’s myriad challenges.”

Without seeing the actual study, it is impossible to comment on what solutions Wimbush and Portale are proposing. Some of the solutions being discussed by others focus on administrative centralization of U.S. international media outreach. This could result in further strengthening of the central bureaucracy that has made the agency “practically defunct,” as noted by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who herself was a member of the BBG. The bipartisan legislation suggested consolidating private grantee broadcasters in a new “Freedom News Network” and creating a new U.S. International Communications Agency, with a full-time CEO. Under this legislation, grantee broadcasters would be placed under a separate oversight board and could conceivably preserve some of their autonomy. The legislation also proposed elimination of the International Broadcasting Bureau and its bureaucratic apparatus.