The USAGM Numbers Game
Numbers of Convenience Without Consequence
By The Federalist
The audience numbers game played by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM or, U-SAG-M) is one of our favorite topics. And the agency never fails to disappoint with its justifications and unilateral declarations of wild successes. The latest in a long line of such attempted validations of the agency’s existence is here:
USAGM’S GLOBAL REACH: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE. By Shawn Powers, CPD Blog, April 3, 2019.
The piece is written by Shawn Powers in response to to an article by Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott, a retired official who had worked as an audience analyst at USAGM for decades.
THE USAGM AUDIENCE INCREASE: LESS STARTLING THAN MEETS THE EYE. By Kim Andrew Elliott, CPD Blog, March 27, 2019.
According to the U-SAG-M website, Shawn Powers is the “Senior Advisor for Global Strategy and Innovation.” The position is described as, “The Senior Advisor For Global Strategy and Innovation focuses on strategic planning, innovation, research and evaluation and policy coordination for USAGM as well as positioning the agency within the broader U.S. government with key stakeholders.”
In short, it’s Powers’ job to make the agency look good in the numbers game. The numbers don’t have to be real. They can be abstract. The point to the numbers game is the survival if not the very existence of the agency.
Indeed, the numbers are kind of like an abstract painting: they are in the mind of the beholder.
The numbers don’t have to conform to a mathematical equation like, 1+1=2. They can be 1+1= whatever you want the result to be.
We all know what the objective is: to convince Members of Congress and officials of the Executive Branch that the agency is actually doing something constructive and that is has impact.
This is a tactic the agency has used for years, back before it became possible to use other means to determine if the agency is everything it claims to be.
The Internet has been one of the technological progressions that gives an alternative picture of the agency’s effectiveness and reach or actually the lack thereof. To all appearances, the digital age has proven to be the Achilles heel to the agency’s claims of audience increases that somehow equate with effectiveness.
Indeed, some of the agency’s other internal tracking of its reports paint a far less rosy picture than the one presented by Powers.
For example, the Voice of America (VOA) newsroom provides regular reports of its online content as well as usage of newsroom content by the VOA language services.
The numbers are anemic. Rarely do the numbers exceed the mid-ten thousands. More often than not, they are in the mid-hundreds.
We’re not talking about “likes.” We’re talking “views.” Even the number of “likes” is small. “Comments” are almost non-existent.
To be certain, not all of VOA is such a horrendous failure. But the language services that have a more robust social media or digital presence are definitely the exception and not the rule.
Another part of the numbers game practiced by this agency is keeping a lid on its methodologies in how it arrives at its alleged audience figures. As a result, you don’t see the survey practices, the questions asked, the grouping of responses. What you have instead is what we view as a lot of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that has little bearing on the real world.
In so many words, the agency has gone off the rails in terms of a key component of its mission: the VOA Charter. The charter doesn’t mean much in today’s VOA. There one too many examples of blatant, partisan bias directed against the current administration, which began even before Mr. Trump took office. “Balance” is no longer a necessary part of agency content. Worse is what one often stumbles across in social media postings by agency employees ranting about the Trump administration. Add to that graphic images of Trump with the Nazi swastika superimposed on his image or portraying Trump as the male genitals.
You get the picture.
Under Obama holdover appointee Amanda Bennett as VOA director the agency has embraced the world of content bias a parallel to what is now an integral part of US commercial media.
More and more the transgressions pile on. In turn, that makes Powers’ claim regarding audience numbers and impact suspect.
They may be good for Powers’ job security but they don’t mean much otherwise.
One only has to read the daily news juxtaposed to the agency’s mission under the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — now the Agency for Global Media (USAGM) — banner claim of “supporting freedom and democracy.”
It may be fair to say that the BBG or not the USAGM has never delivered the goods on this mission statement. Why, you ask?
Because it can’t.
Much of what goes on in the rest of the world is well beyond the reach of the agency. Gone are the days of facing off against Soviet-style communism. Now the world is much more nuanced and regimes have become much more sophisticated in managing their populations and perhaps dissident elements within those populations.
The Russians are a good example. To be certain, the Russians have their own dissident community. But the narrative coming from the Putin government seems to have pushed the dissidents to the margins. Putin has made it a national priority to elevate the country’s stature around the world.
You don’t have to take our word for it. Consider this:
Russia Against the West and With the Rest
By Angela Stent
433 pp. $30
Reviewed by Stephen Kotkin, a professor at Princeton University
The Washington Post, Sunday, March 31, 2019.
Without mentioning USAGM, the author reveals why the agency objective of “supporting freedom and democracy” is largely dead-on-arrival:
“…behind the new tsar (Putin) stands a thousand-year-old state with traditions and self-understanding that precede Putin and will surely outlast him.”
Professor Kotkin in his review notes,
“Stent shows how Russia seizes upon the wealth of opportunities gifted again and again by U.S. blundering or inattention. She recounts the leverage Moscow derives from its exceptional tool kit: a U.N. Security Council veto, a massive doomsday arsenal, heavy investment in its military, global weapons sales, vast hydrocarbon reserves and tactical daring (hacking, disinformation, assassinations). She further underscores the country’s web of long-standing relationships inherited from the ideological Soviet Union. But unlike the latter, Russia’s global engagement is coldly pragmatic. She notes of the Middle East – in an observation that applies broadly – that Russia’s ‘appeal as an opponent of regime change and supporter of existing governments endears it to all governments in the area, authoritarian and democratic.’ (emphasis added).
Additional advantage accrues from a certain amorality. And spoliation is a far easier game to play than nation building.”
In short, the self-declared U-SAG-M numbers game doesn’t hold up in the real world. Believing that certain agency program content has the audience the agency claims is clearly delusional.
The old adage, “know your audience” clearly does not apply to USAGM.
And this is just Russia. The same applies to varying degrees in Iran and China, among others.
The agency still lingers in its 20th century mindset refusing it seems to acknowledge its own weaknesses while undervaluing the strengths of its adversaries in the so-called campaign of “supporting freedom and democracy” which in numerous instances is synonymous with regime change.
In addition, the agency’s strategic approach leaves out of the equation:
Those of us old enough to remember the original “Star Trek” television series can recall references to the Star Fleet “non-interference directive.”
Out of the realm of science fiction and back into the present, the agency’s “supporting freedom and democracy” mantra is a direct challenge both to existing regimes and the principle of self-determination.
To be certain, many of these regimes are not paragons of enlightened stewardship of their peoples. But, those peoples are the ones the ultimately must make the determination on how to proceed given existent national conditions, not some mumbo-jumbo from U.S. bureaucrats pushing fake numbers to preserve an agency that is out of step with reality and defunct in effectiveness.
Weighing in on the numbers game, one former VOA service chief remarked, “from my own experience during my tenure as chief of (a VOA language service) i know first hand that the service’s numbers as reported by Gallup were simply not based on any real data.”
Let’s remember too that the agency spent many millions of dollars with the Gallup organization chasing an illusion.
A former senior official also remarked, “The numbers have always been wrong, or without statistical confidence.”
It’s the same old story, comparable to the time when an agency official named Bruce Sherman made similar claims and added “strategic planning” to the agency’s list of buzz phrases.
As one former member of the BBG quipped, the agency was neither strategic nor with a plan.
Are we to believe there has been a wholesale sea change under Mr. Powers leading to realistic numbers and mission effectiveness?
Not at all.
What has not changed is the core priority: preserve the agency at all costs, using smoke and mirrors in audience claims to bolster the effort.
That’s all it is.
Pick up a newspaper and read what’s really going on in the rest of the world. That will tell you how ineffective the agency is and how wasteful it is in spending public funds. It is also a fundamental reason why the agency should pass from existence and its functions and employees transferred elsewhere in government.
The agency fails to practice good fundamentals. For the agency, those good fundamentals are found in the VOA Charter.