BBG Watch offers a wide range of commentaries on current issues in U.S. international media outreach, public diplomacy, disinformation, and propaganda.
The following commentary is by The Federalist, one of our longtime observers of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) and other U.S. taxpayer-funded media outlets providing news programs to audiences abroad.
All views expressed are those of the author.
Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War: Defeated – The War of Opposing Priorities
By The Federalist
Media executive John Lansing has been announced as the new chief executive officer (CEO) for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Mr. Lansing is to be sworn in on September 3, 2015.
With this in mind, we begin with a quote from the recent New York Times piece written by Ron Nixon (“John Lansing Names as New Chief of Broadcasting Board of Governors,” August 17, 2015) regarding the agency and Mr. Lansing’s appointment:
“The new board has been praised for making critical reforms at the agency, including overseeing efforts to modernize its equipment and expand its reach. The agency has also broadened its use of social media and mobile apps and has become less dependent on shortwave radio, a relic of the Cold War. And the agency has stepped up its efforts to counter terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, creating shows such as Raise Your Voice in Iraq, a TV and radio program.”
To put it bluntly, the claims made in this statement are blatantly inaccurate. More than likely they are repeated utterances from senior agency officials intending to create the impression that something substantive is being done to revive the agency and disarm Mr. Lansing of the true nature of the task before him.
People both inside and outside the Federal Government know that the agency has been doggedly pursuing its favored operational model:
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former RFE/RL executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
- What appear to be self-congratulatory quotes from senior agency officials reported by the New York Times clearly do not represent the prevailing sentiment among congressional staffers and outside U.S. experts and statesmen deeply aware of the agency’s gross mission failure.
- There have been no critical structural reforms of note, except for the reversal of illegal treatment of employees in some cases due to insistence from Chairman Jeff Shell and the Board that it be done.
- The agency officials have been doing everything they can to limit mission impact and even reach where it really counts. Their aim has always been to maintain and expand their own bureaucracy. They take the easy way to show questionable audience gains through placement programs that fail to comply with the VOA Charter and fail to advance BBG’s mission.
- Voice of America’s social media effort and online audience engagement is abysmal and is readily apparent in the lack of traction to its websites, Facebook pages and other digital applications.
- The agency has successfully abandoned much of its core audience base which was on radio and to some degree through satellite television broadcasting without replacing it with an online audience of anything approaching a similar size. Agency officials fully intend to cut more resources from radio and television broadcasting and from English and foreign language services by diverting them to their own bureaucracy. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars already spent by IBB, they have been incapable of expanding digital outreach to any significant degree. They have damaged radio and television broadcasting as well as VOA news reporting. By the agency’s own claims, radio was half of the agency’s alleged audience.
- The agency’s messaging regarding Islamic terrorism is a failure. And worse, a small group of Voice of America English newsroom reporters who are U.S. federal government employees has made demands that agency officials renounce being involved in any form of counter-messaging to Islamic extremist media efforts, labeling such efforts as “propaganda.”(Accusations were made by some VOA newsroom employees that attending a seminar on countering violent extremism is a crime against journalism. Most VOA foreign language service employees and employees of BBG’s surrogate media outlets, however, do not appear to share such concerns.)
Thus, the first priority for Mr. Lansing is to know when he is being lied to about the agency’s true condition – and he will be lied to often, with the intent of maintaining the status quo and undermining any necessary reforms of this agency’s failed status.
Indeed, reform may not be a priority any longer. What would be more the case is reconstruction. Mr. Lansing may have a large role in determining which it should be, remembering that he has an obligation to the national and public interest to do so.
What is being acted out is a process, one by which the Congress exhausts all possible options to reform the agency before taking steps to reconstruct the agency, its mission and its various entities.
The first order of business for Mr. Lansing is deciding where to begin. More than likely, the starting point will be with the Voice of America, next to the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) home to some of the agency’s worst problems and the people responsible for them.
Mr. Lansing would be best served to heed the words of former BBG member Ambassador Victor Ashe. Ambassador Ashe knows the executives inside the Cohen Building very, very well. He knows what they are capable of. Some are not good people.
A conversation between Mr. Lansing and Ambassador Ashe, both of whom appear to have connections to Knoxville, TN, where Victor Ashe was a popular mayor before his ambassadorial appointment, would be illuminating, to put it mildly.
The top priority among agency officials is to maintain the status quo. They will do anything they believe is necessary: and that includes character assassination, undermining any effort to institute substantive reforms and holding Lansing hostage to business as usual.
More than likely, Mr. Lansing will find an agency that is an exercise of fabrication:
- Fabricated reach to obscure lack of impact and audience engagement
- Fabricated effectiveness
The intended outcome is deception in order to preserve funding for an agency that, in reality, is a waste of American taxpayer money to a large degree, especially its federal entities in Washington. Agency officials have made the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Voice of America relics to the past but without the effectiveness VOA and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty had during the Cold War.
Mr. Lansing will also have to contend with a small group of deeply confused employees in the so-called VOA newsroom who can barely get more than 10 Facebook “Likes” for some of their reports. They are status quo preservationists as well – a status quo in which they believe that they determine the agency’s mission. They were told that VOA was always funded to be completely independent and accountable only to itself despite getting all of its funding from U.S. taxpayers. Indeed, these people have demanded that agency officials renounce policy direction from the highest levels of the legislative and executive branches of US Government who determine the scope of the agency’s mission.
If the usual pattern is followed, these individuals will confront Lansing on the agency’s mission, trying to cast it as limited to the first clause of the VOA Charter. They believe the remaining two items of the Charter should be ignored and abandoned.
What To Do?
In simple terms, Mr. Lansing needs to clean house.
Mr. Lansing needs to make firm statement of who is in charge and back it up with action.
With the anti-reform faction in the VOA English newsroom, Mr. Lansing needs to make it clear that their recent statements of defiance are flirting with gross insubordination. He should be prepared to remove any individual for cause if there are clear instances in which newsroom employees refuse to carry out their duties as assigned as long as any instructions they receive do not violate any of the three provisions of the VOA Charter, which is U.S. public law. If they do not want to carry out lawful orders, they should resign or be fired.
Mr. Lansing needs to recast newsroom management. Episodes of newsroom defiance demonstrate that current newsroom management is not up to the task of asserting authority over individuals and behavior.
It would also be an appropriate moment for other senior agency officials to retire or pursue career interests elsewhere. For any dysfunctional organization to be returned to health, most of the management needs to be replaced. It will be an extremely difficult task in a federal government setting.
If – and it is a big IF – Mr. Lansing makes headway with this segment of a much larger problem, there may be some hope that the agency might be reformed as opposed to reconstructed and reshaped to be more responsive to 21st century needs of US Government international broadcasting and other media outreach.
But it must be recognized that the agency’s problems are pervasive. Where Mr. Lansing starts and whether or not he succeeds will have great bearing on the agency’s future.
Keep in mind another huge problem looms with regard to the agency’s other abysmal failure: Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television broadcasting to the Middle East. When created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US mainland, the claim was that they were intended to change the paradigm of Arab thinking toward the US and its policies. Indeed, they have “succeeded.” Arabs and Muslims hate us more than ever. It is doubtful that this was the intended result. But it is clearly the reality.
Messaging by the US State Department has also demonstrated itself to be a disaster in countering the propaganda of Islamic extremists. Clearly, fixing both should be top priorities.
Another equally important priority is securing the timely release of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Azeri Service reporter Khadija Ismayilova who has been imprisoned by authorities in Azerbaijan.
We have said it before and will say it again, if the BBG wants her out of lock-up, send professionals — seasoned diplomats — and negotiate her release. Sending International Broadcasting Bureau functionaries probably only insults the intelligence of Azeri authorities.
As remarked by others, this agency needs adult supervision. We wouldn’t trust IBB people to find their way out of a maze in a cornfield. Find professionals who know how to talk with the authorities in Baku and make a deal.
By the way, giving Ms. Ismayilova awards and trumpeting them publicly, probably encourages the Baku authorities to extend her sentence. Save the showboating for after she is out of jail and out of the country.
These are some of the issues that will occupy Mr. Lansing’s full time and attention. There are many more. His appointment should not be seen as open-ended. We are confident that Congress expects to see some tangible results or recommendations. We do not believe congressional patience is unlimited.
Last and certainly not least, Mr. Lansing needs to surround himself with the right people.
They don’t exist in the Cohen Building.
Mr. Lansing’s senior staff must be of his own making and not the cast of usual suspects occupying office space on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.
That’s what’s on the table.
We already know what the priorities are of the bureaucracy inside the Cohen Building. Mr. Lansing’s priorities for the agency must be his own, with his own objective perspective.
Whose priorities will prevail remains to be seen.
Social Media Voice of America Site Stats English News Foreign Correspondent’s Reports In A 30 Day June/July 2015 Period
VOA Report 1: 6 Facebook “Shares” | 1 Comment
VOA Report 2: 3 Facebook “Shares” | 0 Comments
VOA Report 3: 100 Facebook “Shares” | 0 Comments
VOA Report 4: 7 Facebook “Shares” | 2 Comments
VOA Report 5: 2 Facebook “Shares” | 1 Comment
VOA Report 6: 3 Facebook “Shares” | 2 Comments
The table above was created by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and shows official BBG data. It was placed in the BBG FY 2016 Budget Request. The document does not list social media outreach and audience engagement numbers because they are dismal compared to BBC’s or RT’s.
The New York Times website alone has more than 57 million unique visitors each month.
New figures show that BBC.com, the BBC’s international website, had more than 101 million unique browsers using the website and news app globally during the month of January 2015, generating a record 1.35 billion page views.