BBG Watch Commentary

In one of our recent posts, “Foreign Policy article with IBB propaganda on the Smith-Mundt Act challenged by former Voice of America journalist” we reported that Foreign Policy magazine published in its online National Security section an article written by Prof. Rosa Brooks.

The article reads almost like one of government press releases put out by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), a federal bureaucracy in charge of  managing Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts for overseas audiences and since recently also for audiences in the United States thanks to a change in the so-called domestic propaganda ban law, the Smith-Mundt Act which was replaced with the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

Prof. Brooks’ article is

The Case for American Propaganda

Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos.

Rosa Brooks, Foreign Policy, July 17, 2013.

Also see:

U.S. Repeals Propaganda Ban, Spreads Government-Made News to Americans

John Hudson, The Cable, Foreign Policy, July 14, 2013.

Prof. Brooks’ bio on the Foreign Policy website says that “she is a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. From April 2009 to July 2011, she served as Counselor to Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy at the U.S. Department of Defense.”

Here are some of the comments that appear below the article.


Remarks by “VOA Listener” and Mr. Lipien, among reactions to the article, are quite correct. It seems likely that this Brooks piece was planted by International Broadcasting Bureau managers.

Under the BBG, and accelerated by the IBB, the capabilities of VOA as well as its reach have been seriously degraded. Things have gotten to a point of being largely irreversible.

VOA worldwide radio has been destroyed for the most part. Newscasts still can be heard at the top of the hour. But these are like an after thought, with the obligatory “for more on this story see our web site at”

And observing, one finds that it is so frequently behind other major news organizations, such as BBC and now al-Jazeera, as to be a joke.

Indeed, the days when one could hear VOA’s correspondents doing live inserts into VOA newscasts are over. And major English programming consists of repeats.

Anyone needing proof of what has happened to VOA’s news operation, or indeed of the extent to which members of the BBG believe the place should be primarily a soft power tool in service of the government, should look at a series of articles published on the AFGE 1812 web site in 2012, which included this: ”

“Indeed, rarely a meeting of the BBG took place without one or another official referring to the various pieces of U.S. international broadcasting as “national security assets”.

This is how a VOA news source, speaking anonymously, puts it:

“The agenda [is] to annihilate what they have always hated, that is, civil servant journalists who were
doing the job that the VOA Charter called for. You have got to annihilate these people, if we can’t do it
by privatizing, we’re going to shut this place down one way or another and we are going to be regime change little radios. . . that is all we are going to do.”

Now, further proof of this comes from Enders Wimbush, one of those who testified before a House committee. He writes in the Wall Street Journal to endorse defederalizing all BBG operations — which basically means VOA — and placing them close to “America’s strategic center.”

So there you have it. The victory that many in VOA hoped for, namely the elimination of Smith Mundt provisions, isn’t really a victory at all. The outcome of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations on the Hill has run straight into a few realities.

Many Americans didn’t know that VOA and the various BBG outlets continued to exist all these years after the Berlin Wall fell. Now that they have been alerted to that fact, guess what? There are strong feelings across the country not only about the fact that Congress eliminated Smith Mundt provisions, but how this was all accomplished (i.e. largely in secret in back rooms on Capitol Hill and at the BBG headquarters building on Independence Avenue).

Another observation. Rampant mismanagement and anti-employee animus that IBB managers carried out against their own staff (for proof of this see various commentaries detailing the battles fought by the employee union) contributed to the current situation, where a largely discredited federal agency now tries to persuade Americans that they should continue to fund these activities.

About the destruction of VOA’s Central News operation, a former longtime VOA correspondent recently observed the following:

“Giving [current VOA Director David] Ensor the benefit of the doubt, though a supremely bright, self-confident fellow he was hoodwinked by anti-newsroom 3rd floor functionaries who surrounded him in 2011, and by that year’s news division program review which was of dubious scholarship, and a premeditated axe job on Central News. I thought from the beginning that the concept of “45 newsrooms” as Ensor himself depicted it would be calamitous, and it was. Whatever prestige VOA enjoyed in past years was due entirely to its internationally-competitive newsfile, which is now in shreds. Also, as pointed out elsewhere, making a TV network on a radio budget was mission-impossible, even more so at a time of US government austerity.”

VOA Listener

It was certainly true that VOA offered a wider breadth of world news coverage than domestic U.S. media 20 years ago. 10 years ago it may still have been true. Today it isn’t true at all, as VOA, and particularly its Worldwide English language service, has become a pale shadow of the serious and respected broadcaster it used to be. I suspect the author of the piece hasn’t actually spent much time listening to VOA recently, and particularly cannot have checked its website. If she had, she would know that VOA Worldwide English now only broadcasts three distinct daily news programmes: Daybreak Asia and Crossroads Asia (as the names suggest, targeting Asian listeners with regional news), and International Edition. All are just 25-30 minutes long, and most editions are repeats, not live shows. There are additionally two news shows on the Africa Service, Africa News Tonight and Daybreak Africa. And ….. that’s it on weekdays.

The Magazine Show and it’s successor programmes Stateside, then Main Street, which for decades offered a global audience a daily taste of Americana and reports on American life – all axed. VOA English now has no Americana programmes at all on weekdays, and just one 25 minute show on Saturday – the excellent American Café, which really should go out daily if VOA is to fulfil one of the aims set out in its Charter – to accurately represent America.

VOA’s live hour-long in-depth news analysis programmes Asia Report, Report to the Americas, and the flagship World Report – all gone. VOA now has no news shows longer then 30 minutes in length, and none which analyse the day’s news in-depth. 10 and 20 years ago all news shows went out live – today most do not.

Many of these shows disappeared when VOA went to a 24 hour live news format called “VOA News Now”, so at least there was some ambition there, even if the format hadn’t been thought out properly. But the 24 hours news format fell apart years ago due to cost cutting and now VOA is neither a reliable source for live coverage of news, nor is it a radio service that offers a variety of programming either.

Sadly, the author is also completely wrong to say that VOA hasn’t cut back on foreign news bureaux, in contrast to U.S. domestic broadcasters. In fact she couldn’t be more wrong. In recent years, VOA has closed down its news bureaux in the following cities (or stopped having English language staff correspondents in them): Boston, Mexico City, San Jose (Costa Rica), Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Brussels, Amman, Jakarta, Tokyo. None have been replaced by newly opened bureaux in nearby cities (eg: in contrast, when VOA’s Abidjan bureau closed for safety reasons it was replaced by a new bureau in Dakar, Senegal, but this is a rare exception to the slashing back of VOA’s once-great worldwide correspondents network).

If the author wants to understand how poor VOA has become at covering even domestic U.S. news for its global audience, she couldn’t do better than to check out its increasingly poor website and seek out its coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. This ‘coverage’ consisted mostly of short newswire posts by Reuters, and short reports by ‘VOA News’ – meaning cobbled together from Reuters, AP or other newswires. There was barely any original reportage by VOA correspondents at all.

I write this more in sorrow than in anger – VOA used to be an absolutely world-class broadcaster that Americans could be proud of. The sad thing is, the idea of cutting back on radio was supposed to be because the internet was the way of the future – but VOA’s website has declined even more than its radio service in recent years, so the cutbacks in radio have been all for nothing. What is also worrying is that many veteran VOA reporters, editors and anchors have retired or left recently – meaning that VOA is losing many of its links to when it was great, and this must make it much less likely it will ever be able to re-create its glory days.

I fear the author – in trying to de-emphasise the risk of government propaganda – has actually fallen victim to it herself, and as a result has written an article which gives praise that would have been richly deserved 20 years ago, but sadly, is not deserved today – as more Americans may be now enabled to find out for themselves.

Ted Lipien, a former Voice of America acting associate director, also posted a comment under the article. In his comment he points out some of the inaccurate and misleading information being put out by U.S. government officials within IBB.

In his earlier articles in Digital Journal, “Op-Ed: I’m not afraid of Voice of America news in the US, but . . .” and “Op-Ed: US propaganda ban overturned with help of government propaganda,” he argued that the negative press publicity in the United States to the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act is eroding Voice of America’s identity as being focused on countries without free media, as well as its good reputation and bipartisan support for its funding.

Ted Lipien

I am sorry to say that Ms. Brooks has become one of the latest victims of propaganda which is being put out by government officials in charge of U.S. international broadcasts to deceive American public about the Smith-Mundt Act and the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act.

The article reads like a government press release and is full of misleading information.

It is not true that before the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act was passed, Americans, other residents in the United States and American media outlets could not access, use and rebroadcast Voice of America (VOA) programs. They were able to do all of this before. It was perfectly legal. There were no restrictions on the domestic use of VOA broadcasts.

The story about an ethnic Somali station in Minnesota is also largely wrong and misleading. The station was not prevented by the previous law from finding on its own and rebroadcasting VOA Somali programs. The station could have found those programs, including audio, on the Internet or even on satellite TV audio channels.

Any citizen or resident in the United States could have accessed VOA programs on the Internet, used, republished and rebroadcast them without any restrictions.

The only thing that U.S. government officials could not do before was to assist in providing these programs to Americans who may have asked for them.

Ms. Brooks categorical statement in the form of a quote, “you still can’t rebroadcast it” (VOA Somali programs before the law was modified) is completely inaccurate and misleading. The station could have rebroadcast Somali programs, from the Internet, for example. Any American could. Some ethnic stations in the United States did (rebroadcast such programs) before the law was changed to give government officials new powers to market news to Americans. That was the only change that has occurred.

Ms. Brooks has also not done her homework on what kind of government officials are in charge of these programs, how they treat their own journalists and critics, and what kind of news programs they produce.

Long before the law was changed, Americans were already highly critical of the management of U.S. international broadcasts, and even former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the government agency in charge “dysfunctional” and “defunct.” Those Americans who care about U.S. international broadcasting knew exactly what was happening. They could already follow every program on the Internet.

The new law is not going to make much difference how Americans see these programs and how government officials behave unless they are replaced. When Russian and American experts pointed out last year that the Voice of America Russian website has developed a “pro-Putin bias,” the VOA Public Relations Office attacked in U.S. media their professional reputation.

When Gary Thomas, a former, retired senior Voice of America correspondent with 27 years of VOA reporting experience from hotspots such as Afghanistan submitted questions to to the VOA management for an article he was writing for Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Voice of America accused him of biased and refused to answer his questions. When the article was published recently, the VOA Public Relations Office attacked his professional skills and accused him of errors, still unspecified, which it earlier had refused to address by refusing to answer questions.

A member of the Voice of America’s bipartisan board, former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe, apologized to the reporter and CJR. BBG members had no idea that a journalist would be treated this way by VOA. Ashe said that repressive regimes also refuse to answer questions from journalists. VOA is supposed to be a champion of freedom of the press.

If Ms. Brooks or anybody else is curious how managers in charge of U.S. broadcasts treat journalists they still employ, they should go to the BBG employee union website, AFGE Local 1812. If they are curious how government officials treat other journalists who annoy them, they should Google search for Matthew Russell Lee, Inner City Press, and the UN. He (Matthew Russell Lee) is an independent American journalist whom a government official in charge of VOA broadcasts tried to ban from covering the UN as an accredited correspondent.

Ms. Brooks could have also learned that executives and managers in charge of U.S. broadcasts have been rated consistently in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVP) as being the worst managers in the entire federal government and responsible for the lowest employee morale. Google for “worst place to work for in the government” and see what you get.

If anybody is curious about why Hillary Clinton said that these programs were “defunct,” they should check out a watchdog website BBG Watch. In terms of audience engagement through social media, Russia Today, Al Jazeera and BBC can get tens of thousands of Facebook “Likes,” Tweets, Google+ and readers’ comments to barely a few dozen for top seven news stories on the VOA English website.

There is probably the reason government officials wanted to get the power to distribute programs to Americans. They could not claim that (domestic) audience before, but they can do it now. They were doing very poorly abroad before because of bad management. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act will allow them to even further neglect their overseas mission.

I’m afraid that Ms. Brooks was talking to government officials in charge of U.S. broadcasts and bought their misleading propaganda line. I am far less willing (than she is) to trust government bureaucrats who refuse to answer questions from journalists they don’t like, try to get their press credentials revoked, allow “pro-Putin” bias to seep into Voice of America Russian programs, mistreat their employees, and put out deceiving and misleading information about the so-called propaganda ban in the Smith-Mundt Act.

I’m also disappointed that Foreign Policy, a publication I greatly respect, would publish (something that) amounts to a government agency press release. As an independent journalist, blogger myself and a former Voice of America acting associate director, I find Ms. Brooks comment, “Complain all you want. But Uncle Sam produces better journalism than most of you yahoos.” quite amusing in light of what I saw in her own article.