BBG Watch Commentary
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, former President Reagan’s Soviet affairs advisor John Lenczowski argues for a presidentially-appointed full-time director of U.S. International Broadcasting with Senate confirmation who would be accountable to the National Security Council. Lenczowski argues that such a political appointee would be better able to coordinate a response to President Putin’s propaganda offensive than the current bipartisan nine-person Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), whose part-time members are also appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Lenczowski was highly critical of numerous cuts to Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) broadcasts initiated by the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
“Reaching modern audiences requires multiple media: Internet, cell phones, television and radio—using all frequencies: AM, FM and shortwave. As outdated as it may sound, radio remains an important weapon in the fight against oppression.” — John Lenczowski
“It was a mistake for the BBG to shut down services that for six decades the Russian people depended on for outside information. Whether it was a cost-saving measure or part of the Obama administration’s Russian ‘reset’, the administration seems confused about these services. Their mission is not to be a government-sponsored CNN, but rather a strategic instrument of national-security policy. Fortunately, Congress is exploring reforms to enable these services to re-emerge as a meaningful element of American power. — John Lenczowski
The Voice of America Shouldn’t Be A Whisper: Putin’s propaganda machine is in high gear, while the U.S. scales back the VOA. Why? By John Lenczowski, The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2014.
John Lenczowski may be referring in his article to draft legislation being prepared by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to reform the BBG.
Currently, there is no direct link between the BBG and the NSC. One of BBG’s roles under current legislation is to serve as a firewall between the administration and journalists who produce U.S.-funded news programs for overseas audiences. The agency is run by the permanent bureaucracy of the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) which in recent years has eliminated multiple news programs while greatly expanding its own budget and non-programming positions.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was an ex officio BBG member, once described BBG international media outreach as “defunct” and stated that the United States “is losing the information war.” Under a strategic plan developed by IBB executives, all direct Voice of America radio and satellite TV broadcasts to Russia were terminated in 2008, just two weeks before the Kremlin’s military incursion into Georgia. They have also tried, but unsuccessfully, to end VOA radio and TV broadcasts to China and VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet. They had terminated VOA Ukrainian radio broadcasts and rebroadcasts of Radio Liberty Russian programs on affiliate stations in eastern Ukraine.
While IBB does not directly influence news reporting, its strategic planning and marketing policies have resulted in the de-emphasis of news reporting by Voice of America executives and the expansion of non-political features, including dozens of reports on the British royal family and a video for Pakistan showing a blood-thirsty zombie character dressed as Uncle Sam attacking a Pakistani. These reports were designed to increase VOA’s online and television audience but instead exposed the organization to ridicule in the U.S. and abroad.
Both IBB and VOA executives failed to respond adequately to the latest crisis in Ukraine. VOA did not initiate instant surge broadcasting and increased online presence. Months into the crisis, the VOA Ukrainian Service still did not have enough staff to regularly update its website and social media pages. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which is more independent of IBB than VOA, was able to launch a more effective surge of news reporting but had to rely largely on its own resources for funding the surge.
John Lenczowski is president of the Institute of World Politics, an independent graduate school of national security and international affairs in Washington, D.C. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org).
As President Reagan’s Soviet affairs adviser, he was instrumental in increasing funding for Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts to Poland during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy. Thanks to him and officials of the former United States Information Agency (USIA), both Foreign Service Officers and political appointees, a surge in Voice of America broadcasting into Poland in 1981 happened almost overnight (an increase from 1.5 to 7 hours daily). Within a few days, USIA provided the Voice of America’s Polish Service with additional staff and funding for hiring stringers to report on martial law. At the end of the 1980s, VOA’s weekly audience in Poland was over 70%. While the VOA Ukrainian Service has a strong reach in Ukraine due to the local placement of its television program started in 2004 against objections from IBB, Voice of America’s weekly reach in Russia is less than 1%, and its online reach was recently 0.1% last year, according to an OIG report.
An NSC link suggested by John Lenczowski worries journalists concerned about maintaining the separation between the administration and VOA. But this kind of link already existed under USIA while VOA Charter, which guaranteed VOA’s journalistic independence was in place. A former VOA service director told BBG Watch that he had experienced no serious attempts by USIA and NSC to interfere with news reporting in the 1980s. Unlike USIA, IBB has absolutely no political clout in Washington and lacks foreign policy and public diplomacy experience, which had been very high within USIA. The BBG wants to appoint a CEO for U.S. international media outreach who would be selected by the BBG and would not be a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate. Critics say that if the CEO relies on IBB to run the agency, the BBG will have no clout, won’t receive additional funding, and is likely to remain as dysfunctional as it is now.
Lenczowski is the author of “Full Spectrum Diplomacy and Grand Strategy” (Lexington Books, 2011).
READ: The Voice of America Shouldn’t Be A Whisper: Putin’s propaganda machine is in high gear, while the U.S. scales back the VOA. Why? By John Lenczowski, The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2014.
On Monday, April 21, 2014, John Lenczowski will be one of the speakers at the Heritage Foundation panel, “Propaganda, Disinformation, and Dirty Tricks: The Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare,” moderated by Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy Helle C. Dale. The other panelists will be Paul Goble, Former Special Advisor to the International Broadcasting Bureau and Guest Lecturer, Institute of World Politics, and Ariel Cohen, Senior Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia Studies, The Heritage Foundation. For more information, see the Heritage Foundation announcement. The panel can also be watched online, Monday, April 21, from 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM EDT.
Heritage Foundation Announcement
April 21, 2014
Monday, Apr 21, 2014
TIME: 10:00 AM – 11:30 AM
VENUE: Lehrman Auditorium
Propaganda, Disinformation, and Dirty Tricks: The Resurgence of Russian Political Warfare
The Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, a part of Ukraine, has renewed the interest in Russia’s extensive political warfare activities. In Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and other states of the former Soviet Union, Russian influence operations have been aggressively increased and targeted at Russian-speaking populations, who often have little other access to news and information and, therefore, are easy targets for Russian propaganda. Russian efforts hark back to the ideological battles and active measures of the Cold War and are aimed at audiences and policymakers here in the United States as well. For home audiences, Russian propaganda persistently shows strong strains of anti-Americanism. Join us as our panel of experts analyzes this threat and how the United States can best counter it.
More About the Speakers
John Lenczowski, Ph.D.
President, Institute of World Politics
Former Special Advisor to the International Broadcasting Board, and Guest Lecturer, Institute of World Politics
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia Studies, The Heritage Foundation
Helle C. Dale
Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy