Broadcasting Board of Governors Information War: Lost – When Dead and Broken is All That’s Left
By The Federalist
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is on a campaign to oppose necessary reform of US Government international broadcasting and the media entities within its organization.
The BBG has been engaged in what one can correctly call public acts of denial:
- It has dismissed the need for key portions of legislation to enact reform.
- It claims that it needs only one Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to run a multi-tiered organization, having components with separate and distinct missions and a long, long list of systemic problems.
In short, the BBG revels in conducting business as usual when a large share of official Washington shares in a view that the agency is:
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
The latest condemnation comes again from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs:
“This Broken Agency is Losing the Info War to ISIS & Putin,” House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Chairman Ed Royce, February 23, 2016.
From the Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture:
“Minister tasks VOA Hausa Service on balanced coverage of Boko Haram,” Segun Adeyemi, Senior Advisor to Minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigerian Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, March 10, 2016.
From Nigerian author of an Open Letter to President Obama:
“VOA HAUSA: OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA,” Daily Trust, March 5, 2016.
Outside the agency, there are its surrogates who embrace the BBG “Wall of Denial.” One such individual is Alan Heil, a former Voice of America official.
To outward appearances, Mr. Heil grandly expounds on a myth, a fiction and a false narrative that this agency is “a whirlwind of positive change,” writing in the Public Diplomacy Council blog. A rebuttal to his piece was posted to BBG Watch.
There is no such thing as a “whirlwind of positive change” inside this agency. What does exist is a desperate attempt to find some programming that has resonance with global publics while continuing to do little of its own original news programming on its English website, relying heavily instead on other news providers. As such, the agency has taken on the appearance of a surrogate website for these other news outlets.
Not only is the agency searching for program resonance, to appearances it still does not know how to sustain its programming before running out of ideas and/or subject matter that would appeal to global publics over a protracted period of time. The way this agency operates is to crank out something new and then declare success. It doesn’t work that way.
Of course, this is if the programs manage to get out of the Cohen Building in the first place amid crashes of Andre Mendes’ IT infrastructure and building power failures.
And add to that many deep seated personnel issues that contribute to a hostile work environment and a ranking as one of the worst agencies in the Federal Government and the $400 million class action lawsuit on behalf of BBG’s underpaid and exploited contract employees. It is every bit as described.
In part, people like Heil and others are still locked in the mindset of the Cold War, when the agency was one of the few games around and had some credibility.
This is the 21st century. Things have changed. The global explosion of media across all platforms has been exponential. The most important thing: people are no longer wedded to the VOA point of view or the US Government point of view. They have their own point of view and with access to available technologies to search out media with the same view. We’ve talked about this before: the concept of “confirmation bias.” If you want to believe that the United States is evil, there are plenty of people and organizations with media apparatus willing to accommodate your belief. And there are sufficient numbers of individuals, organizations and nation-state actors who are capable of drowning out whatever VOA tries, somewhat lamely in many instances, to counter anti-American sentiment.
Heil and others ignore and choose not to understand that the Voice of America’s wholesale failure to deliver on the provisions of the VOA Charter has in turn resulted in an even broader problem: a crisis in US Government positive image and messaging. If VOA did what it is supposed to do, the messaging issue may have been rendered moot. But the mission failure of VOA has contributed mightily to the broader image/messaging issue which now has a whole lot more of a priority than the lukewarm if not inept performance of VOA.
Another thing about Mr. Heil’s writing is the tendency on the part of current and former agency officials to make unilateral declarations and expect these statements to be embraced at face value.
Those days are over, if they ever existed in a substantial way in the past.
This agency no longer commands the moral authority necessary to give it credibility. And this makes the narrative coming from Mr. Heil and others more troubling and even more damaging.
People know, on its face, that the agency and its sycophants are trafficking in baloney.
The objective of the false narrative offered by the BBG and its surrogates is to preserve business as usual. It is not to make the agency better, more resonant or more responsive on its cobbled assortment of platforms. The intended objective is to enable the agency to do what it wants to do without regard to being responsive to policy directives and guidance from elsewhere in the government, either from within the executive branch or the legislative branch.
That makes the BBG a rogue agency.
And worse the profile the agency takes seemingly has the appearance that it is entitled to be this rogue agency, particularly that part of the false narrative that the agency is “an independent news company.”
It never has been, is not now, and never will be such an entity.
But this is yet another cornerstone of the BBG strategy: “independence” equates with lack of responsibility or accountability.
One should keep in mind that the salaries of BBG staffers are paid by the United States Government. This is American taxpayer money ill spent. The democratically-elected Nigerian government, an ally of the United States in the war on terror, is seriously concerned that the Voice of America Hausa Service reporting may actually be helping Boko Haram terrorists because it lacks objectivity and balance. A BBG official dismissed these concerns as “pretty absurd.”
From one point of view, in current circumstances the net effect of the money spent on the BBG is a subsidy for arrogant and defiant bureaucrats and others within the organization.
Another item on BBG Watch caught our attention. In this instance it involves a program on Radio Sawa/Alhurra Television as part of the Arab language grantee “Middle East Broadcasting Networks” or MBN.
The subject matter is a program called “Raise Your Voice.” Consider this exchange as posted on BBG Watch from a recent BBG meeting:
BBG CEO & DIRECTOR JOHN LANSING: Next significant investment [in BBG FY2017 Budget Request to Congress] is $2.5 million to expand the highly successful “Raise Your Voice” Campaign that was developed through MBN [Middle East Broadcasting Networks] under Brian Conniff. So Brian, talk about how that expansion will take place.
MBN PRESIDENT BRIAN CONNIFF: Thank you, John. The portion of this investment will allow MBN to establish a new digital platform designed to engage the people of Egypt. As you mentioned, it’s based on our experience with the digital “Raise Your Voice” platform in Iraq and is consistent with the audience’s preference for local media outlets. And as suggested by this request, we believe it’s the format of the future.
In contrast, here are excerpts from a recent column in the Washington Post on Sunday, March 13, 2016 (“Tracing the long free-fall of Arab Spring in Syria,” by Liz Sly):
“Syria marks the fifth anniversary of its first peaceful protest Tuesday in the shadow of a brutal war that has sucked in global powers and fueled the rise of radicals such as the Islamic State. Libya and Yemen are likewise locked in savage conflicts.
“In other countries, such as Egypt, autocratic regimes have reasserted their control with a vengeance, clamping down on liberties even more fiercely than had been the case before the demonstrations were held. (emphasis added)
“In all of them, except Tunisia, the moderates who dominated the early days of the revolts have been silenced, imprisoned, hunted down or driven into exile, either by the governments that sought to repress them or extremists who moved into the vacuum created when state authority collapsed.”
In light of these observations by an outside reporter, The kind of bragging coming out of the BBG these days highlights on how dangerous the agency has become. It is disconnected from reality. Mr. Conniff and Mr. Lansing might as well call their programming to the region, “The Middle East is a Wonderland.”
Apparently, Mr. Conniff and the BBG have forgotten the Pandora’s Box of a nightmare visited upon the Arab and Muslim world as a direct consequence of the falsely named “Arab Spring.”
For two-THOUSAND years, the Middle East has been the convergence point for a volatile mix of religions, tribal loyalties, deep and growing resentments and a rejection by many of the rest of the civilized world. That’s two-thousand years of killing and bloodletting, ingrained across generations.
Mr. Lansing claims that “Raise Your Voice” is “highly successful.”
Where? In Iraq or Syria?
How? Does it encourage or discourage violent reactions from those who strongly disagree with some of the more dubious claims of superior American morality presented to them by Hollywood? Does it encourage or discourage violent extremism? Do BBG officials even know what kind of intellectual discussion would diminish public support for violence? “Raise Your Voice” is culturally patronizing and potentially very dangerous.
Some would say using the term “highly successful” to describe MBN programming alone would be outrageous. And given what plays out on a daily basis in the Middle East, it is atrocious.
It is as if the BBG has had its collective memory erased on the entire record of Middle East history since the uprisings five years ago.
The behavior of BBG executives makes the United States Government look historically ignorant, culturally insensitive and obtuse to the obvious political realities in the Middle East.
In the atmosphere of the Middle East today, “Raise Your Voice” is synonymous with agitating for revolution. And equally, it is an invitation to get oneself into a whole lot of bad circumstances, as noted by Washington Post reporter Liz Sly. There is a big difference between a serious intellectual discussion about values and ideas, which might have a long-term positive effect, and encouraging audiences to act based on your own preconceived cultural norms without anticipating and taking responsibility for any chaos it might produce.
Whether from within the BBG or in the writings of its advocates, the enormous disconnect exhibited in either instance serves as clear examples that the need for substantive reform of this agency is warranted, justified and long overdue.
It is important for individuals like Mr. Heil to understand that either this agency is reformed or the world is quite capable of moving on without it. Period.
We all understand the tactics here: this agency is on borrowed time and those in charge of it are attempting to delay the inevitable. Indeed it may even be beyond borrowed time and now marginalized to the point of irrelevance and of a kind that is dangerous to the US national and public interest. Just ask the Nigerian Minister of Information. He probably knows his country and Boko Haram terrorists far better than any BBG official who calls his warnings about Voice of America programs absurd.
The secondary title to the Washington Post piece is, “After Spring’s hope, a spectacular failure of freedom.” It was a false hope promoted by politicians who had no idea what would come next and no plan for dealing with the fallout. The BBG and “Raise Your Voice” bombast is a remnant of this kind of simplistic thinking.