U-SAG-M! The Rebranded Tower of Babel
Old Is New, New Is Old
By The Federalist
With dysfunction being a cornerstone of all things U-SAG-M, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) or whatever you want to call it, the “closed event” of September 12, 2018 at the National Press Club orchestrated by John Lansing, CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and now the U.S. Agency for Global Media or USAGM, has mercifully receded out of the news cycle – IF it ever was in the news cycle (which it appears it wasn’t).
Thanks to some dogged persistence by BBG Watch co-founder Ted Lipien, former Voice of America (VOA) acting associate director, and Dan Robinson, former VOA senior White House correspondent, Capitol Hill correspondent, foreign correspondent and former VOA service chief, BBG Watch managed to gain entry to this event and report on the dubious spectacle.
Here are some of our takeaways, following the reporting by Mr. Robinson:
If you ever wanted a blueprint that captures everything that is wrong with US Government international broadcasting this event is it. Everything you need to know is here: all the obvious weaknesses, the ineffectiveness, the lack of transparency and questionable audience data and the reliance upon misinformation.
- You can start with the fact that the agency announced this as a “closed event.” It would be very easy to conclude that the intent was to deliver a very select message to an equally select group of individuals. Some might call it a form of internal propaganda or as some might say, a “snow job.”
- The fact that the agency also intended to keep the event closed to either the press or the public is another key ingredient – something one would not expect from a US government entity but rather in an authoritarian or totalitarian regime.
RE-BRANDED USAGM LIMITS MEDIA COVERAGE OF WASHINGTON PR EVENT: NO QUESTIONS WANTED
FACT AND FANTASY AT USAGM (FORMERLY BBG): A FAMILIAR WASHINGTON GAME
QUESTIONS NOT WANTED BY USAGM
In the first installment of his series, Mr. Robinson notes,
“As BBG Watch founder Ted Lipien wrote, ‘arranging a closed event about a (US) Federal agency devoted to media freedom and transparency can only be described as a spectacularly stupid idea from a public diplomacy and public relations perspective and one that could easily be exploited by Russian propaganda.’”
To be certain, one can almost be assured that is precisely what the Russians will do and are likely to be joined by the Iranians, the Chinese and any other regime seeking to diminish US Government credibility.
Mr. Robinson also notes that there was no mention of how “corporate restructuring” is to take place in this enormously bloated Federal entity. The notion of “corporate restructuring” was suggested as an action the agency intended to embark upon in announcing the “closed event” in one of its press releases.
What you should know is “corporate restructuring” is Cohen Building, Third Floor code, to mean among other possibilities, an attempt to privatize the flagship broadcast entity, the Voice of America (VOA).
Agency officials have an unbridled dislike for its Federal workforce and the unions which represent its employees. They would love to turn the workforce into contractors. Past experience with the agency shows that it has abused government guidelines regarding the use of contractors and treatment of employees. But be sure that the agency doesn’t care how it runs afoul of regulations, union contracts or any body of law. This is a dysfunctional agency run by a rogue bureaucracy. It would be an error in judgment to believe they are guided by high standards.
This agency is one of the worst agencies in all of the US Federal Government regardless of which political party is in the White House. It has been so for years and well established as such in the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) from the time the survey was initiated to the present.
In his second installment, Mr. Robinson notes,
“The NPC (National Press Club) event was not a news event, but an exercise in inside-the-beltway propaganda. Officials of the agency’s permanent bureaucracy have become masters at this game.”
We agree with the first sentence but not the second.
In short, what the agency has become can be likened to a bad commercial: you hear the sales pitch but it just isn’t believable. That’s the propaganda part.
But the agency’s bureaucrats are masters of nothing. They are getting away with the fact that most informed people inside the Beltway know that what these people are peddling is a deceptive fantasy. So they “get away with it” because no one cares enough to wade into the problem and do the necessary things to turn things around. It’s too far gone.
This observation follows more with what Mr. Robinson reports,
“…members of Congress (and staffs) are usually too busy to really drill down into the problems afflicting the agency.”
Now we are getting to the heart of the matter.
No US congressman, senator or president ever won or lost an election because of the BBG, the VOA or this U-SAG-M monstrosity.”
That’s a fact.
These politicians win or lose elections based on their positions on issues that matter most to Americans. This decrepit agency and the rogue senior management bureaucracy that runs it are not even remotely important to Americans. And if it was, and if Americans wanted greater drill down oversight and accountability, chances are at this juncture the agency would be gone.
And it deserves to be gone in its present form – as in long gone and forgotten and replaced with something leaner and better in doing what American taxpayers and members of Congress believe it should be doing.
To be expected, the agency filled a good number of spots at the NPC with its own bureaucrats. It must have given the room a look of fullness, or maybe semi-fullness. In turn, this leads one to wonder if these people could absent themselves for an event that was supposed to last two hours, with additional time to get from the Cohen Building to the NPC, do we really need these people to begin with?
And among the crowd of agency bureaucrats was Haroon Ullah. As Mr. Robinson put it,
“According to the BBG (now USAGM) website, Ullah occupies or oversees no fewer than 3 positions (Chief Strategy Officer, Office of Policy Research [OPR] and Office of Internet Freedom [OIF]).
We’ve seen Mr. Ullah in action: at a panel discussion conducted at the Heritage Foundation. Our impression is one of a tireless user of (“I, me, mine”) promoting a book he’s written. The agency never seems to get tired of like-minded souls who talk a lot about themselves but say nothing of lasting value.
By the way
In thinking about Mr. Ullah encumbering all these positions – remember that riotous hysteria some months ago when people inside the agency accused a former agency official of orchestrating a one-man Right-wing “coup” to take over some top position in the agency? It may or may not rise to the level of a “coup,” but encumbering three positions simultaneously within the agency has the look of an insatiable power grab. How about maybe a coup-in-progress right under the noses of that haughty crowd on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building? With all these jobs, Mr. Ullah should have been advising Mr. Lansing that the media freedom government agency holding a “closed event” at the First Amendment Lounge of the National Press Club in the Nation’s capital is a remarkably bad idea. Mr. Ullah failed in his advisory role. It seems that both Mr. Lansing and Mr. Ullah need an advisor who knows something about public perceptions and public diplomacy, which makes us wonder why both of them are still at the agency. Status quo of ineffectiveness and poor management, whether Right-wing or Left-wing, is equally intolerable.
In talking about BBG – USAGM CEO John Lansing, Mr. Robinson notes,
“Lansing downplayed past problems, other than to note that he had always been open to hearing what the agency was ‘doing right and doing wrong’ and to hearing ‘from critics and supporters alike.’”
Well, that’s not true. Lansing is hearing and doing very little. Remember: this was by his signature under a “closed event.” The intention was clear: not having to respond to questions about the agency’s performance or more accurately, the lack thereof. He accused one individual trying to give him advice of being a bad journalist and told him to stop contacting him. So much for hearing “from critics and supporters alike.”
Worse, with this agency there is no such thing as “past problems.” The problems are ongoing, continuous and self-perpetuating. With a calcified bureaucracy there can be nothing but problems as these individuals have as a top priority protecting and insulating themselves from accountability and responsibility. The whole lot of them should be fired. But it doesn’t work that way in the Federal bureaucracy. And it particularly doesn’t work in this agency when the perpetrators of the dysfunction write their own performance evaluations handing themselves high marks and sometimes cash awards to go along with it.
This agency is a sickness. The best course of action is containment: in a manner of speaking keeping the problem within the Cohen Building, preventing it from infecting other parts of the government, leaving it in a permanent state of self-inflicted dysfunction.
And make no mistake: having the agency integrated with other US Government departments doesn’t make for a better world nor an effective projection of US policy, the basics of competent news reporting or the effective execution of the agency’s mission.
You’re Doing a Good Job, Johnny (Lansing)
Along the way in this comedy-like soiree we come to CEO Lansing and his photo-op with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Of course, the agency trumpets these photo-ops, the usual pro forma statements about how important the agency’s mission is and how the administration supports Lansing and company blah, blah, blah.
Of course the agency’s mission is important. But the failing agency “leadership” is not. They have no vision. They certainly have demonstrated no effective counter to the successes of anti-American vitriol. They should be replaced: a long overdue outcome.
Here is one thing to note about this part of the Washington game:
Neither the White House nor most members of Congress are going to publicly admit the severity of the problems of this agency. Foreign media, particularly in Russia, Iran, China and elsewhere would have a field day with such an admission.
Instead, you get the run-around happy talk about what a great mission the agency has – while every day, in every international news cycle, you can see the obvious that the mission is not being effectively carried out.
In attendance was Congressman Francis Rooney (R-FL). He made a couple of remarks worth noting:
“When we’re not united, the world can exploit us, when we are supposed to be doing the opposite to them…”
If the congressman is talking about American society, he’s right. Politically, the United States is anything but united. It is virulently polarized. The polarization is good for the media business in particular. It keeps the news cycle in perpetual motion without regard to short or long-term consequences to national cohesiveness.
And it is also true that this polarization and division can and will continue to be exploited by antagonists foreign and domestic.
The congressman also added that he hopes USAGM programming helps “the people of Iran get rid of that horrible autocracy.”
It may be a fine point, but the Iranian government is not an autocracy. It’s a theocracy based on religion and not a secular construct.
But here lies one of the great faults of what the agency is trying to brand itself as:
An instrument of regime change while supporting for years, including now under Mr. Lansing’s watch or lack of it, the so-called “moderate” regime in Iran.
Lansing apparently believes that the agency now exists to help “push the tide of authoritarianism back.” Well, in reality that isn’t going well at all.
As reported by BBG Watch:
Incredibly, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — now the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) but still under the same senior management as before of BBG CEO, now USAGM CEO John F. Lansing, Voice of America (VOA) Director Amanda Bennett and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President Thomas Kent [in charge of Radio Farda; Kent announced that he plans to leave RFE/RL in September] — said in a in a public statement that the the American Foreign Policy Council 2017 Study of BBG’s Persian-Language Broadcasting [commissioned by the BBG] “did not find any systematic bias in VOA and RFE/RL content.”
The BBG statement that the study “did not find any systematic bias in VOA and RFE/RL content” is simply untrue with regard to Voice of America [VOA Persian Service] and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty [RFE/RL Radio Farda] Iran coverage.
In fact, the AFCP study concluded:
“This dynamic, on the whole, perpetuated to audiences the appearance of pro-regime propaganda, rather than objective reporting, on the part of both the VOA and Farda.”
AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY COUNCIL U.S. PERSIAN MEDIA STUDY
Final Synthesis Report
October 6, 2017
Regime perpetuation and regime change as programming policies are in violation of the VOA Charter.
In general, what we are suggesting is that an agency rife with its own brand of self-perpetuating incompetence, dysfunction and lack of credibility is not the best visible force for tasks like countering violent extremism. It can’t even perform its core functions as stipulated to in the VOA Charter as one example. The output of the agency is now a routinely slipshod affair, with glaring errors appearing on its websites (like the newly-minted, BBG-created nation of “Sonalia”) and paltry numbers of “views” or “likes” on social media. The elements of an ineffective agency are on display via various media devices.
“Happy talk” of imagined new audience goals (339-million) and unilateral and undocumented claims of being “the Number One broadcaster in Iran,” or adding 5-million viewers to its “Current Time” program aimed at Russian, when juxtaposed with current events, don’t hold up. Agency elements claim domestic U.S. audiences, with some VOA reports bashing Donald Trump with unprecedented one-sided partisanship, again in violation of the VOA Charter.
According to Mr. Robinson, at one point in this surreal exercise, Heather Nauert, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs observed that the re-branding as “perhaps not necessary.”
Well there you go. Not necessary and ill-advised would be more to the point. All that the re-branding does materially is add to confusion which ultimately goes hand-in-hand with the agency’s well-established dysfunction.
All you have to the tune of $750-million dollars annually is the perpetuation of a myth, a hostile work environment for its employees, hollow “happy talk” and an on-going exercise in a basically ignored failure.