BBG Watch Commentary
Voice of America (VOA) failed to send a correspondent with Vice President Biden to Central Europe, where he went to reassure NATO allies of U.S. commitment to their security after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Voice of Russia and Germany’s Deutsche Welle beat VOA in posting timely news reports on Biden’s visit, although notably Voice of Russia failed to use Biden’s “land grab” quote in reference to Russian annexation of Crimea. But then VOA also failed to use Biden’s quote initially and at first had only one sentence about his trip. After criticism from BBG Watch, VOA still gave Biden less coverage than it gives to Justin Bieber.
VOA executives claim that they simply have no money for better news reporting of the more serious type. That may be true in cosmic terms, but in this case it is also yet another example of bad management and bad use of already available resources.
In response to such a major geopolitical crisis, VOA executives certainly could have found some money to cover this U.S. trip, arrange for an interview with the Vice President before he left Washington, send a VOA correspondent with him, or at the very least hire a few local stringers for a few hundred dollars. This did not happen because of poor management at VOA because VOA journalists are fully capable of producing outstanding news reports when they are properly managed and given basic tools and resources.
But it is also true that while VOA is both mismanaged and starved for resources, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), where staff has increased by 37% in the last seven years and which controls 34% of the budget, has found a way to spend taxpayers’ money on public presentations of rather obvious information about media consumption habits abroad, for which IBB pays a lot of money, but most of which can be easily found for free on the Internet.
The money that IBB drains from programs in increasing amounts year after year could be far better used to expand Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty news coverage during the current international crisis — the biggest one since the end of the Cold War. This uninformative presentation by IBB and Gallup should have been canceled, whatever research there was put online, and the money saved should have been given to VOA’s and RFE/RL’s Ukrainian and Russian services, as well as to VOA’s central newsroom and its correspondents.
Our regular commentator, The Federalist, explains in greater detail what is behind these IBB research presentations.
International Broadcasting Bureau – Branding Dysfunctional and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost: Losing Egypt and the Rest of the Arab and Muslim World
By The Federalist
The International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Gallup organization conducted yet another one of its “briefings,” on Thursday, March 13, 2014. The subject was Egypt (“Television Viewership Ubiquitous in Egypt,” March 13, 2014).
The first thing that struck us was the picture accompanying the IBB press release showing Diana Turecek, Director of Research for the Middle East Broadcasting Network (Radio Sawa and Alhurra television) and Mohamed Younis, Gallup Senior Analyst and Senior Practice Consultant.
To us, both looked grim-faced, not exactly visages of people with good news. Perhaps as it should be since there is very little, if any, good news coming out of Egypt specifically or the Arab and Muslim world in general as far as the United States Government is concerned or for its broadcasting effort across the region.
The so-called “Arab Spring” has been anything but. If it is one thing at all, it is a disaster for US policy. And Egypt is one country in which the disaster landed to full force and effect, exceeded only by the abject savagery and brutality of the Syrian civil war.
That is the larger issue here and reason enough for long faces in this IBB media exercise.
For the moment, let us examine some of the pronouncements coming out of the briefing:
- 98.8% of Egyptians have working TVs in their homes.
- 94% use their televisions weekly for news.
- 59.6% of Egyptians are somewhat or very satisfied with the information on television regarding political developments in Egypt.
- Just over 23% of Egyptians use the Internet. In that group, 95% regularly use Facebook. Only about 5.9% use Twitter.
- 79.9% claim they do not use radio as a source for news.
As always, we like to take a look at the Bruce Sherman PowerPoint presentation as well:
- 71% of Egyptians believe that independent and objective media are important in Egypt’s future.
- 70.9% somewhat or strongly trust television news and information.
- 73% of Egyptians say they have never used the Internet.
- Within the 73% figure:
- 67.2% don’t know how.
- 48.9% don’t want to.
- 43.2% don’t have access.
- 12.1% don’t trust the Internet.
In other media:
- 91.5% own a mobile phone.
- 99.2% use it for phone calls.
Other data in the survey shows that those surveyed paint a picture of Egypt with serious social, political and economic problems.
(Note: the PowerPoint presentation also includes a graph for “Ukraine GDP and Well-Being.” We presume the slide is there for a comparison with Egypt. Neither one is rosy.)
The PowerPoint presentation is absent any data and/or information about international broadcasting in Egypt, US or otherwise, on television or other media.
Perhaps this is another reason for the grim-faced expressions in the photo of Ms. Turecek and Mr. Younis.
The agency never passes on an opportunity to tell people how well it is doing in its media projects. That is not the case here and is showing up elsewhere. The balance point has been tipped in favor of the implosion of US Government international broadcasting. That is not a good thing anywhere in the world.
Not detailing who Egyptians are watching on television or who they are relying upon for news and information leaves a gigantic hole in the presentation; the most important reason being that this is an agency of the US Government which has been spending millions of US taxpayer dollars on specific broadcast programming to the Arab and Muslim world. In the past, the agency has tried to lay claim to significant audiences in the region. And now, in this briefing,
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) claims that its mission is “in support of freedom and democracy.” That may be what some people in the Cohen Building think, but the outcome is entirely different. In reality, what the BBG does is advocate freedom and democracy.
But when the rubber meets the road, advocacy by itself has very little lasting effect if people don’t understand the fundamentals that represent the principles of democracy in practice.
The Voice of America (VOA) director, David Ensor, claims that with regard to freedom of expression, “We (the agency) are not neutral.” This is another form of advocacy and the results are apparent: it contributes to losing the information war: advocacy in; accurate, objective and reliable news and information out.
The practice of government in Egypt is not democracy. Generally, it has been autocratic relying heavily on the support of the Egyptian military. As we have seen, if the military doesn’t like the political direction of the country, it will intervene and has done so repeatedly. The top leadership of the country comes through the officer corps of the Egyptian military. The exception was Mr. Mohammed Morsi and we all know what happened to his short-lived presidency.
Freedom and democracy take a lot of trial and error, practice and patience. The military as an institution differs. It relies heavily upon discipline, obedience and order. Riots in the streets of Cairo are anathema to the military model. The top priority of the Egyptian military is the restoration of order and societal stability.
Often remarked is the view that so goes Egypt, so goes the rest of the Middle East. Where Egypt is now is not a good sign. The survey shows a high degree of dissatisfaction, economic and social disruptions.
Egypt’s problems are cumulative, influenced by internal and external forces. The honest answer for the Egyptian people is that it is going to take time – a lot of time – to straighten things out.
What we see being acted out is that Egyptians have a low threshold for time and patience to straighten things out. There may be justification for this, but at the same time, riots in the streets of Cairo do not constitute governance.
The United States is being whipsawed by the sweep of instability throughout the Middle East. At this juncture, the US Government finds itself without much in the way of coherency or credibility in the worst possible way: both with existing governments and with large segments of Middle East populations.
Secretary of State John Kerry, looking ever more haggard and weary, has been given to lecturing the Egyptian leadership about democratic reforms, intimating that the US will withhold military aid. In the meantime, the next apparent Egyptian president, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has traveled to Moscow to meet with the wily Russian president Vladimir Putin, never one to hesitate to step into any potential vacuum created by the Obama administration and adding to Secretary Kerry’s haggard visage. Secretary Kerry intimates that the US with withhold new US Apache attack helicopters. That’s fine with Mr. Putin. He’ll sell all the Russian Hind attack helicopters Field Marshal al-Sisi wants.
Turn On Your TV
It’s nice to know that Egyptians watch a lot of television. But what we need to know, in the US Congress, BBG Watch and elsewhere, is who and/or what are they watching? What are the prevalent views of Egyptians toward the United States? Is the programming of Radio Sawa or Alhurra television likely to stir up resentment toward the United States or make most Egyptians like us?
Where is the impact if animosity toward the United States and even President Obama has been growing and America is seen the the Arab / Muslim world by increasing numbers as the “greatest threat to world peace”?
You won’t find answers to these questions in the latest IBB/Gallup presentation.
And keep in mind that the agency has agreed to pay up to $50-million dollars to Gallup for its survey contract. (Up to $10-million dollars annually for five years total, if all the money were to be used, which may not be the case. But it is still an enormous amount of money for a public institution not focused on pure commercial broadcasting and media outreach, while Voice of America cannot send a correspondent with Vice President Biden to Europe.)
That a lot of money to spend on what the agency calls “research” which in fact is information readily available by doing Google searches or even picking up US national newspapers.
Again, Gallup is a polling organization of longstanding reputation. Our issue is not with Gallup. Our issue is with the IBB and what it is doing in the way of directing how the Gallup research is conducted.
Remember too that the IBB and the BBG made a very big deal out of revamping US Government international broadcasting to the Middle East. That effort has been underway for well over a decade. The result: things are worse now than before in the way of the loss of favorable views toward the United States across the Arab and Muslim world.
A recent presentation to the BBG by Brian Conniff, the head of the agency’s Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) was not a reason to feel inspired or reassured.
Running On Empty
We have been following these research briefings for some time. As we have remarked, the research doesn’t tell us what we need to know about the impact and effectiveness of agency programming or lack thereof. These surveys have drifted away from core issues of the US Government international broadcasting effort. In our view, the direction of the “research” is diversionary.
The core issue is unchanged: what is the American taxpayer getting for the more than $700-million dollars spent for US Government international broadcasting?
On its face, it doesn’t appear to be a whole lot. Audience numbers have been flat for much of the post-Cold War era. They may in fact be in significant decline in the most strategic and difficult markets, which may explain efforts to dumb down programs in order to place them in easy markets, where there is no press censorship or to eliminate political programming or even branding to increase audience size without any regard for the mission or impact.
That’s another problem: agency audience numbers are not reliable. Sources in other parts of the US Government emphatically dispute the audience numbers claimed by the IBB.
Out Of Options:
Here are reasons for concern:
- The agency is deliberately killing off its direct broadcasting and news reporting, particularly at Voice of America, but also putting pressure on grantee / surrogate broadcasters to do the same. Radio is the first to go, but television is not immune to the process. Thus, core mission: bust.
- The agency has dabbled in producing what it likes to call “documentaries.” All of them have one thing in common: unremarkable in production values and in terms of some kind of residual resonance with the public, foreign or domestic.
- The VOA Newsroom has been rendered dead-on-arrival with news coverage substantially lagging behind both domestic US and major international broadcasters (keeping in mind that US broadcasters are now widely accessible outside the United States).
- Agency officials try to claim that they are part of the national security apparatus of the United States. It’s an absurd claim. And it runs contrary to VOA’s Charter.
The leaves one straw left to grasp:
I Want To “Tank” You
Some sources suggest that one possible IBB goal is to attempt to sell itself as a “think tank.” The suggestion is ridiculous: the IBB cannot even produce “research” that is timely, relevant or realistic to the agency’s mission. Voice of America cannot produce timely and comprehensive news even for the White House, the State Department, and the rest of Washington. But IBB has to justify its 37% percent growth in positions in the last seven years and its control of 34% of the entire BBG budget without actually producing any programs.
Just as importantly, most of the information the agency is generating in these media circuses with Gallup is not hard to come by in public sources. You can buy subscriptions to many of the top line US newspapers and many similar publications overseas and have just as much information for a whole lot less than the Gallup polling contract.
In essence, the agency is spending $50-million dollars playing a game, trying desperately for some measure of credibility and legitimacy by attaching itself to the Gallup organization and looking very foolish in the process. You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see by the questions in the survey that the agency has gone off-course, perhaps deliberately so.
These IBB/Gallup briefings are sending us a very strong, simple message about the agency:
- Little audience in strategic parts of the world.
- Little resonance.
- No message.
MARCH 13, 2014
WASHINGTON (March 13, 2014) – Despite the political changes that have occurred in Egypt over the past several years, the media sources upon which people are relying for news and information have not changed significantly, according to media research data released today by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
“Television is king in Egypt. It remains by far the most important source of news and information for Egyptians,” said Diana Turecek, director of audience research for the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). Nearly all (98.8%) Egyptians have a working television in their home, and 94% use it weekly for news. However, only 59.6% of Egyptians are somewhat or very satisfied with the information available on television about political developments in Egypt.
Egypt wrestles with continued political turmoil and a government that has become increasingly hostile to foreign media. Foreign correspondents are finding it more difficult to obtain press credentials, and the Committee to Protect Journalists notes that at least seven journalists are currently imprisoned in Egypt.
Mohamed Younis, senior analyst and senior practice consultant at Gallup, shared findings from the June 2013 Gallup World Poll that showed Egyptians’ life evaluations at an all-time low. Younis noted dramatic shifts in the views of Egyptians since April 2012 with confidence in government, approval of leadership, and confidence in the honesty of elections sharply declining.
Despite the popular reference to Egypt’s 2011 uprisings as the “Twitter revolution,” new media sources remain a niche way of accessing news and information in Egypt. Internet use is gradually increasing. The data from the December 2013 media use survey show that just 23.2% of Egyptians have used the Internet in the past week, with many non-users saying they don’t know how to use the Internet. While only a relatively small amount of Egyptians are online, those who go online do so frequently, with 80.1% reporting that they have used the Internet in the past week to read the news, and 84.9% reporting being active on social networks. Of the latter, essentially all (95.0%) use Facebook, but Twitter remains more of a niche with just 28.2% of social networking users accessing it in the past week, or about one in 20 Egyptians (5.9%).
A research brief and presentation with further information about this data can be found here, and a recording of the briefing will be added in the coming days. More information about the BBG’s media research series is available here.