USAGM leadership’s approach to Ukraine is dangerous for U.S. Agency for Global Media journalists, including those from Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL). Are senior USAGM executives capable of assuring their safety? Their recent performance in Afghanistan suggests that they are not.
by The Federalist
USAGM in Ukraine: A Small Piece of the Big Picture
As the State Department has accelerated the evacuation of its embassy in Kyiv, incredulously, the senior bureaucrats of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) – the same ones who failed to promptly and safely evacuate some 500 USAGM employees and family members from Afghanistan – want to install a Voice of America (VOA) “bureau” in Ukraine.
If the USAGM management insists on pursuing sending reporters off to Ukraine, it is recklessly and irresponsibly putting them in an extremely precarious situation. We don’t know what is driving VOA reporters’ own personal thinking in this matter. One is described on Wikipedia as an “activist” and a “journalist.” You can’t be both unless you work for partisan commercial media or, these days, also for the Voice of America, a 100% U.S. government – U.S. taxpayer-funded operation. Some VOA journalists have posted photographs of themselves with American and foreign politicians and expressed their support for them. They are U.S. government federal employees who are barred by the VOA Charter from being partisan or biased in their journalistic work.
It is also clear to anyone outside the USAGM bureaucracy that it cannot be trusted to make the correct decisions concerning the safety of its employees. The risks far outweigh the benefits. The reach of Russian intelligence services is extremely broad. It is conceivable that USAGM journalists will be considered in Ukraine or in Russia high-value soft targets for President Putin’s special services. As the agency’s senior management has demonstrated in Afghanistan, it cannot guarantee the safety of its employees in a hostile environment. It left stranded 500+ employees, contractors, and dependents in Afghanistan because senior USAGM executives were incapable of anticipating what everybody else saw coming. The USAGM senior management could very well do the same with VOA reporters in Ukraine. And worst of all:
To no useful purpose or sacrifice.
A Cover-up Award
On December 8, 2021, the National Press Club announced the following:
“Voice of America won a National Press Club Journalism Award for coverage of the Trump administration’s attempts to redirect and censor VOA coverage.”
Let us explain why this is absolute nonsense.
According to the official, anonymously conducted Office of Personnel Management (OPM) government-wide employee morale surveys, the Voice of America (VOA) under its current and past management has been for MANY years THE worst agency to work for in the Federal Government. It has been so years before Donald Trump became president and continues to be so under President Joe Biden. Many of the current and recent USAGM executives were in charge of the agency during most of those years.
VOA has become biased, subjective, and partisan, supporting the ideologies of the Far Left, which now has a stranglehold on the Democratic Party.
A good deal of this turn toward ideological advocacy began during the 2016 presidential campaign, leading up to the unexpected election of Trump. Once Trump was elected, the bias ratcheted up significantly, beginning with an event called the “VOA Follies,” in which VOA newsroom personnel savaged Trump and his family (imagine if Obama had been similarly savaged). Since then, the floodgates opened, and literally, anything goes. The principles of the VOA Charter have gone largely ignored. Aberrant and unprofessional behavior became the norm.
Bias was found not only in VOA programs or online reports. It also appeared in social media accounts by VOA news personnel.
Indeed, the real censorship is in the hands of VOA newsroom personnel.
When social media posts by VOA reporters appeared depicting Trump as male genitalia or with the Nazi swastika superimposed on an image of his head, it was evident that the agency had run way off the rails away from the VOA Charter and its mission.
Keep in mind, that this was also a VOA run by Obama holdover appointees. One more indication that anything anti-Trump was acceptable.
When a consultant’s report found that there was bias in VOA reporting, the body of the report was suppressed by the Obama-appointed management.
Late in the Trump presidency, a conservative filmmaker Michael Pack was confirmed as the agency’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Pack’s was a lengthy confirmation process. He was pilloried in the left-leaning media as well as inside the agency, where he was viewed as a threat to their cozy, country club.
Pack said that he made an attempt to clean up years of corruption and mismanagement within the agency’s bureaucracy. Attacks against Pack intensified and portrayed his actions as pro-Trump and – as noted in this “award” – “attempts to redirect and censor VOA coverage.”
On close examination, it appears that the focus of Pack’s actions was not on news content – with the exception of one pro-Biden election campaign video, which violated the VOA Charter – but rather the alleged mismanagement on the part of longstanding USAGM officials in the matter of security investigations. Two reports independent of VOA cataloged the breakdown of the security clearance process: one by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and another by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). The mismanagement was so egregious that the security clearance process was removed from the agency and assigned elsewhere in the Federal Government before Pack joined the agency.
As a result of these reports, Pack suspended several senior agency officials.
However, after Pack was removed by the incoming Biden administration, these same individuals were restored to duty: the ultimate example of foxes guarding the henhouse.
The extent of scandals and misleading narratives from USAGM is not sufficiently appreciated outside the Cohen Building. And it is grossly underreported. The mismanagement is embedded and facilitated by inept political appointments as individuals wormed their way into senior agency positions.
The overriding priority of these officials is self-preservation at all costs.
What is at work here with this “award” is something insidious.
It is attributing a sinister intent that was made up out of whole cloth, perpetuating a false narrative intended to cloak misdeeds by the agency as an attempt at “censorship.”
So what is the motivation?
To protect embedded agency officials.
To perpetuate a lie that the agency upholds high standards of conduct and journalistic ethics.
That the agency has huge audience gains.
To perpetuate the biggest lie of all: that the agency has impact and effectiveness.
This is the reality of USAGM.
Amanda Bennett Redux
The Biden administration has nominated former VOA director Amanda Bennett to be the agency’s next chief executive officer.
Let us be clear: Amanda Bennett is supremely unqualified to lead this agency. This is a political appointment. It is pure political patronage. Bennett has no extensive – and more importantly – proven large institutional executive background, either in government or the private sector, except for her previous scandal-ridden tenure at VOA.
Whatever her element is, leading a Federal agency isn’t it.
Her first “tour” through the agency demonstrated that she has no managerial acumen.
The U.S. Agency for Global Media should be dismantled, and its functions transferred elsewhere in the Federal government and in the non-profit sector. There isn’t enough “adult supervision” within the agency to repair what has been broken beyond repair.
The Big Lie: By The Numbers
In a November 16, 2021 press release, the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM) announced:
Voice of America’s journalism now reaches 311.8 million people per week across broadcast and digital platforms, according to the latest research from the U.S. Agency for Global Media. The new number represents an increase of more than 33 million from the previous year.
Here we go again: the Big Lie about audience numbers.
In true propaganda fashion, you tell a lie repeatedly, embellish it to the point that people actually believe it.
There are aspects of the Big Lie that lay below the surface. We will get to that in a moment but first,
Let us take the numbers at face value: 311.8 million people. Sounds like a lot on its face, but in the era of the internet and social media for an agency charged with reaching the global public, it is not particularly impressive.
The elephant in the room for USAGM is a global population of 7 BILLION.
That dilutes the 311.8 million people in a hurry. Consider that in China alone, you have a population close to 2 BILLION. Not all of them are consumers of international media, but a whole lot of them potentially are and that number would likely eclipse the USAGM claim and make it paltry.
Keep in mind that the 311.8 million figure is less than the total known population of the United States (probably not accounting for an influx of individuals crossing the southern US border). It is not clear whether the agency includes U.S. users of the internet and social media in its global tabulations.
Let us also consider that the agency broadcasts in over 40 languages. While you cannot evenly divide the actual audience numbers, it further dilutes the significance of 311.8 million people.
USAGM claims this figure to be representative “across all media platforms.”
But one should also note that its visibility on social media is quite low. The numbers of views, likes, shares are so low as to be almost unnoticeable compared to other media outlets. Some pages on Facebook or channels on YouTube can single-handedly get hundreds of thousands of views.
Accessible technology is another issue: not only in terms of technology but actions by governments to block USAGM content.
But the underlying issue is this:
Where are the impact and effectiveness?
The simple answer is: There are not any, and certainly in any meaningful way that manifests itself visibly, in countries like Afghanistan (we should ask the USAGM senior executives to explain what happened there recently), China, Russia, or Iran.
And this is critical because the lack of impact and effectiveness represents a strategic failure on the part of the agency.
Let us consider the claim by the agency that it is “in support of freedom and democracy.”
Well, that mission is not going too well in many places where the agency targets its programs, like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and most recently Afghanistan, among others.
In Myanmar where the agency claims audience increases, the military is fully in control. Worse, it has imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi for what may be a long and indeterminate period, hobbling advocates for a return to civilian government.
There are other examples, not often topical in the daily news, where “freedom and democracy” are diminished as a potent political force.
We return to a “60 Minutes” interview with former CIA and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who noted that effective political change comes from within not via some external source.
The entire Gates segment is informative. But this portion of the interview is particularly instructive when it comes to USAGM.
“In support of freedom and democracy” is a lofty American ideal.
But the execution of the ideal in the hands of USAGM has been derailed by incompetence and mismanagement.
One could rhetorically ask the question, do agency officials really believe that they are supporting freedom and democracy, or is it a cover for something less lofty, such as preserving an agency that has clearly lost its impact and, if it has anything at all to be gained, is self-promotion by agency bureaucrats.
As the saying goes, “All politics is local.” And that certainly applies to how nations evolve or devolve politically, socially, economically, and culturally.
“Nation-building,” which goes hand-in-hand with USAGM, has also shown itself to be a failed enterprise.
So now that we have demolished the agency and its overblown and misdirected claims, where do we go from here?
The agency needs new leadership. We are not talking about politically appointed ideological hacks with a record of incompetence. The agency needs that rarest of individuals in a partisan-driven landscape who can return the agency to a significant measure of professionalism, not the rampant bias within USAGM, the VOA.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. One can be certain the political Left will rise up in hysteria claiming that the agency is being subverted when in reality the only thing being undermined is partisan advocacy and propaganda. The conservatives have lost their previous interest in supporting human rights abroad.
You can be certain as well that agency officials will ally themselves with the political Left to undermine any attempt to rid the agency of its current “business as usual” model. These bureaucrats revel in savaging anything that even remotely suggests that the agency is in desperate need of rehabilitation.
So, the effort is likely to be non-existent.
The rational model for international media continues to be the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). It has maintained high standards for true journalism, objectively presented. That does not mean that the BBC is perfect, or hasn’t hit potholes along the way in its storied history. But it is a far better presenter than anything being undertaken by USAGM at present.
Emulate the leader. Put an end to the Cohen Building show of misleading public relations bragging while dictators are laughing and expanding their reach.