Just The Facts?!?
US Government International Media Information War Lost
By The Federalist
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) got a lot of press on what amounts to fake news: an alleged two-person “coup” attempt at the agency.
One of our colleagues sent us the latest article on the subject by former Voice of America official Alan Heil posted to the Public Diplomacy Council website:
VISIONS FOR U.S. GLOBAL MEDIA: JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM. By Alan Heil. The Public Diplomacy Council (PDC), March 24, 2018
The alleged “coup” is the latest example of fake news by persons connected to the agency.
It is troubling. It has to be taken seriously as an indicator of the mindset of individuals running the agency.
It is a telltale sign of an organization and embedded bureaucracy desperate to hang on and obstruct necessary reform and reorganization of the agency.
An agency that goes to this extreme is willing to sacrifice all credibility necessary to justify its existence with foreign publics. It is going out of its way to waste taxpayer funding and co-opt political office holders with its false narrative.
This goes beyond an agency seemingly losing its way. It is now a case of an agency that is intending to preserve dysfunction and its own kind of corruption in order for those behind the rumor-mongering to collect six-figure salaries and equally generous retirement pensions at public expense.
In short, these individuals, posing as former and current management “whistleblowers,” have forfeited the agency’s future to the point that the best thing to do may be to eliminate the agency altogether and/or absorb its functions elsewhere in the Federal Government.
Nostalgia for Heady Days of Anti-Reagan Resistance in VOA Newsroom
As to the Heil article:
The first thing that Mr. Heil and others need to understand is that the United States Government is not going to collapse if the agency goes away and some of its functions are reformed and taken over by others. Any administration has the right to carry out management reforms and to propose changes within existing laws. Mr. Heil, who worked for the Voice of America from 1962 until he retired in 1998 during the directorship of no-nonsense Evelyn S. Lieberman, a President Bill Clinton’s appointee also known from removing Monica Lewinsky out of harm’s way, held before his departure various positions at VOA, including foreign correspondent, chief of News and Current Affairs, and deputy director of programs.
In his hagiographic book “Voice of America: A History,” which is remarkable not for what it includes but what it leaves out, Alan Heil describes how some VOA newsroom employees met to discuss how to resist changes which the Reagan administration proposed for VOA. These changes were enthusiastically welcomed by most of strongly anti-communist journalists in VOA’s foreign language services, and just as strongly opposed by Mr. Heil who was reassigned to what he described as “a new position with the mikado-like title of deputy director of programs for program development.” (Alan L. Heil, Jr., Voice of America: A History, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, pp. 206-207.)
An Audit of BBG?
Did the Reagan administration reforms and infusion of funding, which greatly expanded VOA’s audience and influence in the communist block and helped to bring about the end of the Soviet empire, amount to a “coup”? Hardly.
Did the fierce resistance to these reforms among Mr. Heil’s colleagues amount to a coup? Hardly.
These are normal processes during any transition. Changes are long overdue from the Trump administration with regard to the BBG. Any administration has the right to reform the government bureaucracy, as long as it follows the law. Government employees have the right to voice their objections to a limited degree but not to obstruct reforms carried out according to the existing laws and regulations. Mr. Heil’s activities may yet have an unintended outcome of focusing the administration’s attention on the dysfunctional agency and perhaps ordering a White House/OMB audit of the Broadcasting Board of Governors operations even before a new CEO is confirmed by the Senate. It would be a good thing.
The 21st century has demonstrated that the agency under the Broadcasting Board of Governors and its current management has much less significant relevance in the digital age than VOA had even when Mr. Heil was NCA chief. During those times, some VOA newsroom reporters met to discuss resistance to the new administration’s plans, but they did not publicly describe President Reagan as “punk,” “dog,” “pig,” “con,” “buls**t artist,” “mutt,” “idiot,” “fool,” “bozo,” and “blatantly stupid” without any context, balance or response, or call him “F*ckface Von Clownstick,” as some of the current VOA reporters did refer to Donald Trump in 2016.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America have been overtaken by a proliferation of effective media and propaganda outlets worldwide. This is not the same environment during the agency’s heyday in the last century before the arrival of internet and social media when there was nearly full censorship in the communist block and very little competition. Instead of a global broadcasting/media environment with many limitations, the world is now awash with hundreds if not thousands of media choices. Some are commercial enterprises. Some are government-run. Some are part of far-reaching social media. Some are pure propaganda. And well in the mix is disinformation and fake news by troll farms intent upon creating disruption and instability.
Thinking that it could trade on its Cold War reputation, the BBG now finds that the climate of the last century doesn’t hold much sustenance for the agency now. US Presidents, Secretaries of State and members of Congress have stopped even mentioning the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty when discussing strategies to counter propaganda from Russia, China, Iran, or ISIS. During the Cold War, VOA, RFE and RL would be the first ones to be mentioned.
More Memories of Resistance
Mr. Heil notes a March 19 press release from Eliot Engel (D-NY) the ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee alleging that two agency officials,
“sought to persuade the White House to nominate a successor to the current CEO of the (BBG) networks, John Lansing, and have one of them installed as his successor.”
According to Heil, Engel requested “immediate BBG documentation of all recent internal discussion of issues raised in his news release.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Representative Engel’s questions and request. But the alleged revelations of “management” whistleblowers (we usually think of employees as whistleblowers, and many BBG employees are making accusations against the same managers) raise some problematic issues.
In essence, it appears that these mysterious “managers” made a number of claims to Congressman Engel without any supporting documentation. The press release appears to be the result of allegations originated by these so-called management “whistleblowers” made up of current and/or former agency officials, as reported in media accounts.
No media outlet reporting on this matter has produced documentation supporting the allegation.
Pure logic suggests that if the White House knew anything about this, it would not have been a “coup” because President Trump has full legal authority to nominate a new BBG CEO. This authority was given to him by legislation signed by none other than President Obama who himself apparently had enough of incompetence on the part of the BBG, as did his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who in 2013 had called the agency “practically defunct.”
The Trump administration did not need to stage a “coup” because it already has authority to change the failed management team at the BBG. The idea that White House lawyers, if they knew anything about it, would allow any actions not sanctioned by law, is unlikely. Personal ambitions and wishes of a couple of individuals should not be confused with decision-making at the highest levels.
But the liberal and left-leaning US press immediately pounced on the allegations, giving full voice to the “coup” scenario. Neither of the alleged “coup conspirators” are named in the Engel press release or in the Heil commentary. In other news reports, Andre Mendes and Jeff Shapiro are named as the supposed culprits. Mendes once held the CEO post on an interim basis, appointed to it and highly praised on numerous occasions by none other than Jeff Shell. He is the former Democratic BBG Chairman, Hollywood executive and contributor to Democratic Party causes who still occupies a seat on the BBG board. Mr. Mendes strongly denies existence of any conspiracy or a “coup.” Mr. Shell, to our knowledge, has not commented on it publicly, but we doubt that he would not agree with Mr. Mendes, his most favorite BBG manager next to the current BBG CEO John F. Lansing. They were both Mr. Shell’s choices to lead the agency, either temporarily or more permanently. Mr. Shapiro has ties to the conservative Breitbart news which appears to be anathema to the liberal-leaning people inside the agency. He does not appear to be well thought of among partisan Democrats inside and outside the agency which makes it all the more likely that this is yet another episode in the agency’s tactic of a political hit job without offering concrete evidence.
“Coup” is an incendiary term especially if it is applied to any element or individuals within the US Government. Those using the term must certainly have had in mind a predictably negative reaction to it.
As a practical matter, two individuals, rather low in rank in the larger structure of government are not known for orchestrating “coups” within the Federal bureaucracy on behalf of the administration that is already in power. It would amount to career suicide. A real “coup” would be directed against the administration.
In practical terms, IF the situation occurred at all, it would be two officials of the agency asserting that the White House exercise its legitimate right to nominate and have confirmed its own political official to head the agency. There is nothing unusual about it. President Trump already has this right given to him by the Congress and President Obama. If anybody were to be appointed to lead the agency on a temporary basis, it would have to be done in accordance with the law. Mr. Heil may have gotten carried away by his nostalgia.
The scenario is made all the more bizarre since the administration apparently has Michael Pack, president and CEO of the Claremont Institute, in mind for the post. Indications are the vetting process on Mr. Pack has long been underway.
In addition, language in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 would also involve taking the BBG board out of the daily running of the agency and have it reduced to an advisory role once the new presidentially nominated and Senate confirmed CEO is in place.
Another fact-in-absence concerns the matter of the so-called “firewall” between the BBG and the entirety of the rest of US Government.
This “firewall” is purported to insulate the agency from political influence in its functions under the VOA Charter.
The first thing one should note is that the word “firewall” does not appear in the VOA Charter or how a supposed “firewall” is supposed to function within the Charter.
The word “firewall” does appear in congressional conference report.
Third and perhaps most alarming is the BBG considers the “firewall” issue a one-way street. BBG Watch is replete with examples of how the agency violates the principle of a “firewall” by injecting often visceral partisan political views in its reports. With the Trump candidacy and post election, agency “journalists” posted a number of denigrating reports concerning Trump on the agency’s websites, most often the English language website maintained by the Voice of America. In addition, Federal agency employees in the VOA newsroom savaged Trump and his family members in a lampoon during its 2016 annual “VOA Follies” December holiday party. As noted by observers, such conduct by agency employees was not indulged in before or during the Obama presidency. Clearly, the agency is way off the rails when it comes to “firewall” in its partisan reporting and internal conduct, singling out the Trump administration for “special treatment.”
In short, allowing the BBG its one-sided interpretation of a “firewall” leaving it beyond the reach of accountability and oversight is proving to be a very bad thing.
An Era of (Insignificant) Reforms
Mr. Heil comments on what he claims is “an era of significant reforms” at the BBG.
The reality is far different.
Mr. Heil offers no explanation as to what has triggered the necessity of reforms at the agency. Indeed he doesn’t offer anything substantive in terms of specific examples of agency reforms. Instead, he indulges in describing programming that he believes demonstrates that the agency is on the right track.
First, Mr. Heil talks about agency programming to Iran during recent anti-government demonstrations inside the country largely coming as the result of serious economic shortcomings by the Iranian government.
Mr. Heil scrupulously avoids any balanced discussion that Iranians were not altogether enthusiastic consumers of VOA program content. In fact, Mr. Heil does not take note that according to a March 16 BBG press release, “23% of Iranian adults tune in,” to BBG Persian (Farsi) language programming. If that number is recent or even true, it says nothing about the impact of the program widely criticized by many Iranians as siding too much with the Iranian regime. The vast majority of Iranian adults don’t tune in. Mr. Heil also doesn’t note, as BBG Watch has reported, that there was noticeable pushback to BBG programming during the Iranian unrest with some online observers calling the agency “the Voice of Tehran” or the “Voice of the Ayatollahs.”
Second, Mr. Heil tries to make a big deal out of the joint VOA/Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) production “Current Time.”
Here, Heil and the agency claim, without context and supporting documentation, over 400-million views — OVER A ONE YEAR PERIOD — across Russia and surrounding countries for this program apparently intended to counter Russian disinformation. Instead, references are to “data” but with no explanation of data methodology. No one in the industry provides such data to cover one year without specifying the definition of how these “views” are counted. In fact, a simple check on Amazon’s Alexa shows that “Current Time” web traffic ranking in Russia is dismally low.
After seeing the dismal Facebook LIVE numbers for BBG’s Current Time, investigative journalist Andrew Beaujon concluded in a recent Washingtonian magazine article:
“…if you worked at a conventional network, numbers that small might make you leap off the nearest onion dome.“
Voice of America English-language programs have suffered the same fate under the BBG management. About half of their web traffic comes from the United States even though the BBG is required by law to focus only on foreign audiences.
The Washingtonian reporter dismissed explanations from BBG deputy director Jeff Trimble that “these videos are on track to attract more than 300 million views this year.”
“Still, it’s a number unlikely to make Putin especially nervous,” Andrew Beaujon wrote.
We might add that Russia’s RT has had more than 5 billion views since 2007 for its YouTube videos.
Mr. Heil and the BBG seem not to have noticed that Vladimir Putin has been reelected as Russian president. When his current term ends in 2024 he will have been in power for a quarter of a century, according to historian Timothy Snyder writing in the Outlook section of the Washington Post on Sunday, March 25, 2016.
Sure, people can cite negatives of possible Russian voter fraud, voter intimidation and certainly apparent political assassination attempts.
But there he sits, getting over 75% of the Russian vote. To all appearances the Russian people voted for “stability.” And as long as Putin can deliver on expanding Russian geopolitical influence, he will continue to assert Russian internal and external power and his sense of Russian strategic objectives. No wonder that is the case since even RFE/RL President Tom Kent told the Broadcasting Board of Governors on March 14, 2018: “If Putin wins—and that seems likely—our coverage will also have reflected why people support him and the strength he has brought to the campaign and to the country.” he also said that: “We have been very careful to cover all sides of the election.” In other words, whether in Russia or in Iran, both VOA and RFE/RL have been balancing news with propaganda and disinformation claims from authoritarian leaders. That is hardly a winning strategy.
In short, Mr. Heil’s claim of “an era of significant reforms” is complete nonsense.
Quite the opposite is true. What the BBG intends through its use of political hit pieces and vague unilateral declarations of successes is to continue with business as usual as long as it can be used to block meaningful reform and reorganization of the agency.
While action on the part of the Trump administration remains to be seen, this era of unmitigated or un-remediated rogue behavior may be winding down.
What is clear to us is that the Trump administration does not attach any importance to the bellowing from inside the Cohen Building or the opinions offered by Mr. Heil. It is a failed agency dying on the executive branch’s organizational chart.
To all appearances, the agency has become marginalized in terms of its impact around the world. The agency offers no substantive proof that the program content it produces is having significant impact with a worldwide population of 7-BILLION. Claims that it has a weekly audience of about 270-million is a claim the agency has been making for years – which means that it has been flat-lining with no appreciable audience growth. This is IF the figures are accurate, which in the case of the BBG is always suspect because they throw together programs self-censored for countries that insist on censorship, use taxpayers money to pay for otherwise unpopular rebroadcasts, buy Facebook boosting ads to drive up the number of meaningless “likes” to post nobody reads, and may even claim their audience in the United States, most of it among Trump’s critics, which is against the intent of Congress.
Global publics have options and they are choosing to exercise their options with global, regional and local media alternatives to the BBG and VOA.
Nothing is forever. Not the BBG. Not the VOA. Not the corrupted and fossilized bureaucracy of the BBG.
Just the facts, Mr. Heil.
Just the facts.
PS Here is again a link to Mr. Alan Heil’s article.
For a more balanced presentation, we add BBG’s, VOA’s and RFE/RL’s screenshot images to illustrate “facts” in Mr. Heil’s commentary: