Arguing that the United States has so far failed to invest seriously in understanding or pushing back against the problem of Russian propaganda and disinformation, Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post columnist, and Edward Lucas, a senior editor at the Economist, are launching this week a counter-disinformation initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, DC. The new initiative seems designed to fill a gap created by the steady decline of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty which had played a major role in analyzing and exposing Soviet and Soviet block propaganda during the Cold War. RFE/RL nows lacks structural support, leadership, experts and resources to continue the effort.
Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas wrote in their Washington Post op-ed that “although there has been some extra funding for U.S.-backed foreign broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, they cannot provide a complete response” to the Kremlin’s effort to undermine the institutions of the West. “There is no modern equivalent to the U.S. Information Agency, an organization dedicated to coping with Soviet propaganda and disinformation during the Cold War,” Applebaum and Lucas observed.
Other critics also point to structural problems with the U.S. government’s anti-propaganda entities. They mention the growth of bureaucracy, waste, and mismanagement.
Contrary to a common misperception that there is not enough money for public diplomacy run by the U.S. State Department and for international media outreach run by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the budgets for both have been growing in recent years, these critics point out. Russia’s external propaganda TV channel and its web operation and social media apps are not better funded than the BBG with its approximately $750 million annual budget. China may be spending more money than Russia on foreign propaganda and public diplomacy, but in competing with the United States, the Chinese don’t have private television news channels such as CNN and other U.S.-based commercial media outreach in English with worldwide distribution.
U.S. lawmakers and experts have been commenting for some time what could be done to improve America’s image aboard and its ability to counter propaganda and disinformation. In a recent article, the Heritage Foundation’s scholar Brett D. Schaefer urged addressing “deficiencies in influence, responsiveness, and effectiveness” of U.S. public diplomacy and media outreach “through improved leadership, organization, and clarity of mission.” Schaefer proposed that the mission of United States International Broadcasting (USIB) should be “to promote and explain U.S. foreign and national security policy and provide news in areas of the world where there are no alternative free media sources.” He argues that the Voice of America (VOA), which is managed by the BBG, should become “an explicit arm of U.S. public diplomacy” and be overseen the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the State Department. Schaefer also proposes that surrogate USIB media, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia, should remain under the authority of the CEO for USIB and the BBG.
Speaking of “constraining ISIS on the Internet,” former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (June 2008 to January 2009) and former BBG Chairman (June 2007 to June 2008), James Glassman, currently a Visiting Fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, also argues for major structural reforms. He goes a step further than Schaefer and calls for reviving the United States Information Agency. “I am not someone who believes that the proper bureaucratic set-up solves all problems, but it’s evident that you can’t get anything accomplished until there is someone in charge who has responsibility, authority, resources, the backing of the president and clear objectives,” Gassman wrote. “The current system,” he notes, “provides exactly none of these.”
Glassman’s proposal comes close to what Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), have tried to accomplish with their bipartisan H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act “to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters.” The bill, introduced in May 2015 and approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, seems to be stuck in Congress. Referring to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Chairman Royce warned recently that without legislative reform “this broken Agency is losing the info war to ISIS & Putin.”
In March, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) introduced another legislation to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations. The Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 Introducing the bill, Senator Portman observed that “there is currently no single U.S. governmental agency or department charged with the national level development, integration and synchronization of whole-of-government strategies to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation.”
The Obama Administration is almost totally silent on the topic of the media outreach agency. In a sad commentary on their declining importance in Washington, the President does not mention the Broadcasting Board of Governors or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty when discussing U.S. efforts to counter the ideological threat from ISIL. In a recent meeting with BBG Chairman Jeff Shell, BBG’s new CEO (since September 2015) John Lansing and some of the BBG board members, Secretary of State John Kerry said “Today’s Broadcasting Board of Governors is not the BBG of a few years ago.” “I applaud the reforms that BBG’s new leadership has already taken, and I congratulate CEO John Lansing for the energy and enthusiasm he has brought to the organization,” Kerry, an ex officio BBG member, was quoted as saying. Lansing has introduced some improvements, but these are not institutional reforms that are likely to outlast him. The best he can do is to find excellent leaders for VOA and RFE/RL. The CEO is not subject to Senate confirmation. Under the centralized BBG-in-charge of everything model, the bureaucracy, or anyone who replaces Lansing, may have an easier time in the future to do whatever they want without effective policy guidance or quick accountability for their actions. Without a strong institutional patron, which USIA was for VOA and the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB) was for RFE/RL, U.S. international media has been losing domestic political support and international relevance under its part-time BBG board. One CEO cannot achieve strong political support for the organization in Washington.
Critics, including this writer, are not convinced that purely internal BBG reforms will be anywhere near sufficient without addressing structural problems. While both VOA and RFE/RL still have some excellent journalists, others, including poorly paid and poorly trained contractors, often fall for Russian and sometimes even ISIL propaganda. Editorial controls are lax, to say the least, at both RFE/RL and VOA. RFE/RL, which has not had a permanent president for over two years, is nothing like it was during the Cold War when its experts on Soviet propaganda were considered the best in the world. RFE/RL and VOA were once key media players in international broadcasting. They no longer are after years of poor management by the BBG bureaucracy.
Under USIA, VOA used to have a limited but highly effective public diplomacy role. Critics, including this writer, say that it no longer does, even though the 1976 U.S. law, VOA Charter, clearly calls for such a role. One encouraging sign is that the new Director of the Voice of America, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amanda Bennett, may be signaling a change in favor of more public diplomacy programming by VOA. Addressing a Public Diplomacy Council event two weeks after she was sworn in, she introduced herself by saying she was not a diplomat, but she practices public diplomacy. “I’m all journalist and no diplomat,” said Bennett, but she added, “Great journalism is in fact great public diplomacy.” It certainly is, but it remains to be seen what VOA can do if its public diplomacy role is not better defined through legislation.
Right now, there is still a complete confusion of missions and brands between VOA and RFE/RL. The two now produce a joint Russian-language program “Current Time.” Critics, including former BBG member and former Radio Liberty director S. Enders Wimbush, see it as a “feeble” response by the BBG to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. In the opinion of this writer, VOA and RFE/RL have different missions and cannot be managed well together. This forced marriage under the BBG is good only for the bureaucracy.
It’s no surprise that in a leadership vacuum created by the U.S. media agency, new legislative proposals and new anti-propaganda efforts multiply with hardly anyone paying attention to the BBG. “Fifteen years ago, the free press seemed unchallengeable; 15 years from now, we may find ourselves, as Ukraine did two years ago, the targets of disinformation campaigns we are unprepared to fight,” Anne Applebaum and Edward Lucas wrote in their Washington Post op-ed. Their new Information Warfare Initiative at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis is designed “to monitor, collate, analyze, rebut and expose Russian disinformation in Poland and the Baltic States.” A presentation of CEPA’s Information Warfare Initiative is scheduled for Monday, May 9.
Ted Lipien is a former VOA acting associate director and author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church,” O-Books, London, 2008.