BBG Watch Commentary
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.
Voice of America Information War Lost: A Day Of Disinformation, Denial, Persuasion And Spin
By The Federalist
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) convened on Wednesday, February 18, 2015 at the Cohen Building in Washington, DC near Capitol Hill for an early morning session followed later in the day by a gathering in the VOA newsroom and a session with Andrew Lack, the new BBG Director who is also called Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Our view of the morning session is yet another example of the inside-the-Cohen Building disinformation campaign. There was plenty of it across the board touting the mostly imagined successes of the agency.
The one notable exception to the indulgence in pure fiction would have to be the presentation regarding the Voice of America (VOA) Khmer (Cambodian) Service which, based on independent observers, seems to fully grasp a concept that appears foreign to the senior levels of the agency: know your audience.
The star of the morning presentation was David Ensor, the VOA director. In the course of his presentation, Mr. Ensor made the claim that during his time as VOA director, the Spanish language audience in Latin America had grown from 4-million to around 30-million!
In reality, Mr. Ensor’s numbers win an award for fantasy and fiction and preposterously so. There is no reliable data to support the claim.
What we are dealing with is deception. More than likely, what Ensor is doing is basing this claim on the cumulative audience numbers radio stations in Latin America estimate as their audiences. For every station the agency has placed its programs in Latin America, Mr. Ensor and the audience research “experts” of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) use these radio and TV stations and what they project to be their audience to promote what amounts to a falsehood. There is no indication that full-length Voice of America programs (let’s say lasting from 15 minutes to one hour) are being received by an aggregate number remotely close to Ensor’s claim. Mr. Ensor, the Voice of America, and other agency officials should be honest: these numbers do not reflect audiences to Voice of America programs; at best they may reflect audience that may have heard a VOA report, but it may not have been a news report and the audience may not have even noticed that the report was from VOA.
Sources very familiar with Latin America and apprised of Ensor’s statement agree and are adamant in rejecting the Ensor claim.
We remind ourselves that when the agency conducts its so-called “audience surveys,” you almost never see the core question/response to the following:
Do you see, hear or read news material reported by the Voice of America 5 min., 10 min., 15 min., 30 min. or one hour per week?
If the question and the responses are not there, that is a clear indication of avoidance. What agency officials are desperately avoiding is anything that demonstrates that they have destroyed core audiences for agency programs around the world and that the agency’s program content is virtually invisible.
Another item which raised some eyebrows among skeptics is Jeffrey Shell’s (the BBG chairman) use of the term “strategic audiences.”
In decades past, the agency used to group language services as to their strategic importance. In general, you would see at/or near the top:
French (to Africa)
Farsi (to Iran)
Somewhere along the way, you might also see Hindi (India) and Urdu (Pakistan). But more than likely, the “group of seven” above would probably be seen as consistently the most important language broadcasts by the agency (VOA).
Depending on geo-political circumstances, other language services would be shifted up and down in importance.
In present circumstances, to talk about any language broadcasts as “strategic” is absurd because the net result of agency decisions has limited the reach of Voice of America full-length broadcasts.
Let’s take a short walk through some of the minefield created by officials of this agency:
English – Thanks to the “dream team” of David Ensor and Steve Redisch and a supporting cast of senior advisors, English broadcasts have been savaged. The largest and most costly disaster has been an unrelenting effort to dissolve the VOA central newsroom into an afterthought in timely and effective reporting by decentralizing and dispersing core news functions among the VOA language services, most of which do not operate on a 24/7 basis. In turn, the English language website which was supposed to be a centerpiece of the Ensor-Redisch creation of a “digital first” strategy has been nothing less than an absolute disaster with reports on breaking news delayed by many hours or not reported at all.
Russian – Going back to 2008, the agency has had no effective broadcast presence in Russia. Things being what they are between the Russian and US governments, this is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. In essence, the Voice of America and even Radio Liberty have surrendered the narrative on international news to the Russian government inside Russia. VOA is struggling to compete with its international broadcasting effort outside Russia, most visible in the US in the form of its RT (formerly “Russia Today”) TV broadcasts, as well as on RT websites and social media pages, including billions of views on YouTube. On its face, the Russians appear to have tapped into a desire by global publics for a different point of view other than what comes from US government and/or commercial US broadcasters.
Chinese (Mandarin) – There is no reliable data on how much of an audience the agency still has in China. Since most of the data is agency-generated, it is suspect because the agency is unable to count audiences in countries were respondents fear giving honest answers. What we do know is that the Chinese government actively blocks and jams agency media platforms (variations of “The Great Firewall”). In addition, the Chinese have effectively created their own national Internet service as an alternative to the unfettered Western-style Internet. Last but not least, the VOA provides only one news program in a 24-hour period to China on radio. That means there are no regular broadcast updates on international news for most of the day. And we should note that, like the Russians, the Chinese have established themselves here in the United States with their CCTV broadcasts.
French (to Africa) – Here, the agency is its own worst enemy. The agency is considering – if not already acting on – a change to the name/branding of its French broadcasts to Africa: in essence, abandoning its VOA identity and attempting to rename it as something very close to the label used by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in its broadcasts to the African continent.
Spanish – We’ve already addressed that subject, but should also note that the Cuban government, as part of its negotiations over normalization of relations with the United States, wants an end to Radio/TV Marti.
Arabic – VOA Arabic Service broadcasts were terminated in the wake of 9/11. In its place, the US Government created Radio Sawa and Alhurra television. The intent was to change the paradigm of Arab/Muslim thinking toward the United States. Indeed, it has changed: for the worse. (There was a good question from new BBG member Michael W. Kempner about the need to measure impact, for which David Ensor had no answer.) Forget all that nonsense about the alleged “Arab Spring.” The Arab and Muslim world is in large scale conflagration, social and political unrest. And into the vacuum and unrest this has created has stepped the absolute expression of heinous movements: ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) which glorifies in both mass killings of non-combatant and ritualistic killings (beheadings and burning victims alive) and is solidly anchored in an oppressive, suppressive, intolerant medieval world view: in our opinion, the penultimate expression of Islamic jihad, since these extremists have chosen to embrace theological interpretation to promote a holy war against non-believers and Western, Judeo-Christian civilization in general.
Farsi – Accurate and objective audience numbers for agency programs to Iran are also difficult to determine. In addition, the VOA’s Farsi Service is a hotbed of factionalism. Further supposedly “popular” programs are suddenly and without notice terminated which is not exactly a proven formula for attracting and keeping audiences. The reasons for the cancellation are left unremarked which leads to all kinds of speculation. And in one instance, the agency claimed a program (“Parazit”) to be on the air when it had been terminated months earlier.
We don’t know what Mr. Shell considers “strategic” languages. However, if any or all of these languages meet his definition of “strategic,” the agency’s effort is a full-scale disaster.
The Public Face of Denial
In our view, the public sessions of the BBG have become an active demonstration of the agency’s lost direction: an exercise in disinformation and denial all intended to give the impression of normalcy to an agency that beneath this very, very thin veneer is corrupt, dysfunctional and defunct to its core.
Failure to publicly acknowledge the precise nature of the agency’s state of being is ludicrous. Lack of a public acknowledgement of the extent of the agency’s problems denies the existence and extent of how badly this agency has failed.
We find the board to be contemptible for its inexcusable avoidances. It shows itself to have no useful function and is merely a ceremonial assembly propping up failure and wasting over $700-million dollars in American taxpayer money.
Meeting Andrew Lack
Later in the day, members of the VOA newsroom and others gathered for an impromptu “get acquainted” meeting with CEO Andrew Lack, introduced by BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell.
Early into his remarks, Mr. Lack took note of an early VOA publication which stated that it is not enough for the agency to be credible and truthful but it also must be persuasive. One would think that card-carrying members of the “Back Off Congress” movement inside the dysfunctional newsroom would be shifting nervously in their chairs since they figuratively foam at the mouth over the mere suggestion that the agency might be considering the notion of persuasion.
Mr. Lack’s presentation appears to have been an effort to accent the positive. Unfortunately, this is one of the problems with the agency: an unwillingness to confront the stark reality of where the agency really is, in terms of its loss of audience and effectiveness. The Voice of America barely cranks out news in any reliable fashion; and as far as being “persuasive,” the only thing the agency captures in this regard is being persuasively dysfunctional and defunct, throwing out fake audience numbers that are hardly believed inside the Cohen Building and even less so elsewhere throughout official Washington.
Late in the presentation, Mr. Lack took questions including one from Jim Malone, a VOA national correspondent. From our perspective, we see Mr. Malone as a self-styled champion for the “Back Off Congress” faction. And he didn’t disappoint. Malone threw out a question which appeared intended to put Lack on the spot regarding H.R. 4490, the congressional reform legislation intended to rehabilitate the agency. Lack pushed aside Malone’s harrumphing deferring the discussion to another time and place.
Mr. Malone should know that he was putting an incendiary question in front of Lack. Mr. Lack is becoming acquainted with the reality of official Washington: making unguarded remarks has the high probability for political suicide. As a national political correspondent, Mr. Malone should know this.
But maybe not. Who knows?
But the fact of the matter is Mr. Malone did a superlative job of getting the “Back Off Congress” group way up on Lack’s radar – where we like it to be because it is a sterling example of what is wrong with the agency.
At the end of the presentation, Mr. Lack noted that he did not take the CEO position to cut the agency. He wants to grow the agency.
It’s a lofty ideal. Ideals can afford to be lofty. Reality is something entirely different. And in order to reach that lofty goal, the first order of business is to identify what is broken, what isn’t working and who is resisting necessary changes and reforms.
Mr. Lack didn’t do any of that in this meeting. Perhaps it might not have been the time or the place to do so, even with the Malone question.
However, Mr. Lack is best advised that he should be thinking about all the above, what Congress identified as the problem areas, the many failings of this agency and the disintegration of its mission effectiveness and the people responsible for it.
Last But Not Least
We take note that imprisoned Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reporter Khadija Ismayilova smuggled out a statement vowing to continue her “probe” of corruption in the Azeri government, as reported by VOA (“Jailed RFE/RL Journalist Vows to Pursue Corruption Probe”).
The Azeri authorities hold Ms. Ismayilova in “pre-trial detention.” The authorities also ransacked the Azeri Service offices with some staffers now relocated out of the country. Not leaving any potential stone unturned, the authorities have drawn up a cornucopia of charges against Ismayilova who, if found guilty on all counts, could be incarcerated for 12 years. She is being held in solitary confinement.
In the meantime, BBG chairman Jeffrey Shell proclaims his outrage at the detention of Ms. Ismayilova.
Once again: seriously messed up BBG priorities. Posturing and harrumphing are not likely to secure Ms. Ismayilova’s release any time soon.
What should be Mr. Shell’s top priority? Simple: get Ms. Ismayilova released and hustled out of the country as soon as possible. Every gesture of defiance by either Shell or Ismayilova makes that increasingly difficult.
In view of all the above, we find the following statement by Mr. Shell in a recent “GovExec.com” article absolutely stunning:
“I’m not spinning. But we’re in a very good place as an agency. For the first time in my chairmanship, I can say I feel good about where we are.”
Indeed. It most certainly sounds like spinning and topsy-turvy at that.
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