BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch offers various opinions on the latest Russia’s RT campaign to discredit new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Director and CEO Andy Lack for his comment to The New York Times about RT being a challenge for U.S. international media outreach. The independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – dismissed RT complaints as a typical propaganda ploy and issued a strong statement in support of Mr. Lack. Others also seem to believe that Vladimir Putin and his media advisors are not in the least interested in reporting the truth, any kind of fair play, compromise, or equal access to media markets. CUSIB pointed out that Secretary of State John Kerry called RT a propaganda bullhorn…deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy.” and Richard Stengel, the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and a former managing editor of TIME magazine, wrote last April that RT is a distortion machine, not a news organization.”

…when propaganda poses as news it creates real dangers and gives a green light to violence,” Under Secretary Stengel pointed out.

The following commentary is from The Federalist, one of BBG Watch’s regular and popular independent contributors.

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Voice of America Information War Lost: A Malfunction Of Comment and Punctuation

By The Federalist


Andrew Lack got his appointment as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) off to a bizarre start in less than a week on the job.

In published remarks, Mr. Lack appeared to equate RT (formerly known as Russia Today), the main external state media outlet of the Russian Federation, with the Islamic extremist organizations Boko Haram and ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

For Mr. Lack, it was a context and verbal punctuation malfunction that drew immediate attention. The quote from Mr. Lack did not contain a direct comparison. It is also not clear whether The New York Times got the right punctuation for his quote. But whatever one thinks of RT and its editorial content, it is most certainly not a terrorist organization.

In turn, the US State Department tried to parse Mr. Lack’s statement hoping to clarify the remarks. In our view, the only thing that accomplished was to stir things up even more by seemingly agreeing with the sentiment but not the wording of Mr. Lack’s remark.

Last and certainly not least, RT jumped right into the fray. Unwillingly or incapable of taking the high ground, a commentary on the RT website, “Outdoing Dr. Goebbels: The propaganda war against RT,” crudely likened Mr. Lack to Josef Goebbels, the propaganda chief for the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.

The best advice to both parties: go to your respective corners, take a “time out” and knock it off.

RT has positioned itself with access to American audiences. What the RT management does not really understand is that its programming only takes it so far and then the US marketplace takes over where RT must compete for American viewers against the US domestic media.

The media world of the 21st century is one that is being influenced by “confirmation bias” in which media consumers gravitate to media outlets that they see as representative of their views; for example, people who choose FOX and others who choose CNN. No doubt, RT has a following among people who see the US as an agitator on the world stage and remarks like those of Mr. Lack would push certain individuals to that perception.

Would these remarks be seen in part as sour grapes? As regularly reported on BBG Watch, RT has achieved an overwhelming advantage on its website, social media pages and YouTube postings over those of Voice of America (VOA) when the subject matter is the same and for practically every other news report.
We would expect RT executives will continue to pound away on this point, while Lack and his dysfunctional and defunct underlings at the Voice of America haplessly flail away.

Indeed, we have to wonder if Mr. Lack vetted his remarks with anyone inside the Cohen Building prior to going public with them. If he didn’t, shame on Andrew Lack. His education is proceeding the hard way. If he did, woe be to the person who thought slamming RT and even indirectly suggesting linking it to terrorist organizations was great idea.

Whatever Lack’s mission or agenda is, it would have been better served to approach the RT issue separately. He could have acknowledged that the agency faces serious competition from RT and that the agency would have to respond with better programming to counter the RT message.

Back In The USSR, Sort Of

Mr. Lack could have also reminded readers of his remarks that RT has unfettered access to American audiences. The same is not true of BBG and its broadcast entities in Russia. Lack could have argued that it is time to level the playing field and asked the question: what are the Russian officials afraid of? He could have argued that it is time for a new era of constructive engagement on the part of US and Russian international broadcasting that would make for a fair exchange of views.

And it would be an argument that Mr. Putin’s government would struggle with, with multiple examples of the manner in which his government has systematically stamped out freedom of media inside the Russian Federation. While it appears that the Putin government believes this to be in its interests, the counter-argument would be that it is seen as exploitative and manipulative.

One would have to think that the likelihood of any kind of breakthrough taking place is now relegated to the category of slim to none. However, it does not mean that a VOA counter-message is any less valid.

One obstacle that Mr. Lack has to overcome is the decision by the BBG in 2008 to unilaterally end VOA Russian Service direct radio and satellite television broadcasts to Russia. That decision, not unanimous, has played very well for the Russians from the moment the agency went silent with its direct transmissions.

From the Russian perspective, they would certainly have to believe that they have nothing to gain from conceding their almost total monopoly on internal Russian broadcast media.

There are still people who remember that the best way to deal with the Russians is direct engagement. The memory may be fading but there are people who remember the success of the exhibits programs run by the State Department and the US Information Agency (USIA) back in the day.

Something like that needs to be revisited.

And also what needs revisiting is getting programming into Russia that is not vulnerable to being blocked, including the most easily interdicted: the Internet. That may very well mean the resumption of direct radio and television broadcasting, in order to give leverage to the US position.

If these ideas/alternatives are rejected, the US has nothing to gain by bellyaching over being slammed by RT content whether here in the US or back in Russia.

Meanwhile, Back In The Cohen Building

And here is some additional fallout from Mr. Lack’s remarks.

There are people inside the Cohen Building who most certainly would like to see Andrew Lack fail in his role as CEO. His failure would extend the longevity of the dysfunctional and defunct status quo as others, including the US Congress, struggle with how to get the agency back on track.

Indeed, we can think of a couple of people who believe that they would have been more suitable choices for the CEO position – although they would most certainly have manipulated the position to continue the status quo. One of these individuals has been alleged to have remarked that he would leave the agency if he was not offered the position. It didn’t happen. He’s still there. Perhaps his thinking at this time might be, “Maybe I should hang around for a little while longer.”

Thus, Mr. Lack gave these individuals and their agenda a boost by stumbling badly right out of the gate.

Never underestimate the presence of the Byzantine intrigues (an apt analogy in this case) inside the Cohen Building.

As we have noted before, you succeed by surrounding yourself with people you can trust.

The opposite is true in Mr. Lack’s case. He is surrounded by senior executives who are responsible for putting the agency in a bad place – and who take no responsibility for how they went about getting there.

What Mr. Lack does with these individuals is anyone’s guess at this point. And one should not expect them to go quietly into the night. One thing is for sure: they are not assets.

In announcing the appointment of Mr. Lack, Jeffrey Shell, BBG chairman, remarked that the agency faced immense challenges. No question about that. But we would argue the biggest challenge is inside the Cohen Building.

For now, the best piece of unsolicited advice we can give Mr. Lack, it might serve his interests and the agency’s mission better to focus on putting the agency’s house in order rather than mounting a direct frontal assault on the Russians.

That didn’t work out very well.

The Federalist
January 2015