U.S. overseas broadcasting in support of freedom has a long and distinguished history. People who know it well, including Kevin Klose, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent, former National Public Radio (NPR) president and, most importantly, someone who successfully ran Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and worked briefly for the agency’s bureaucracy in Washington, told members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at recent hearing that the best solution is without question keeping the Voice of America (VOA) and the so-called surrogate media, such as RFE/RL, under separate oversight boards and in separate organizations.
Because international broadcasting, public diplomacy, foreign policy, and counter-propaganda are simply too big, too complex, charged with too many different missions, and politically too sensitive to be managed centrally by a single government agency or a single CEO.
Great private sector business experience does not always translate into successful foreign policy, public diplomacy and international journalism outreach run by the U.S. government or funded by the U.S. taxpayers. A highly successful entrepreneur, advertising expert Charlotte Beers, got it quite wrong when as the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy in the George Bush Administration she told Congress that video commercials about happy Muslims in America can counter violent jihad. Her project was a spectacular failure. More recently, a successful private U.S. media executive hired by the BBG abruptly dismissed dozens of Radio Liberty journalists working in Putin’s Russia. It crippled the media outlet, but BBG bureaucrats in Washington did nothing to deal with the problem. After a storm of protests from Russian opposition politicians and human rights activists, the BBG Board had to step in and order that the journalists be rehired.
It is also useful to know what worked and what did not work so well in the area of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy from a broader historical perspective. When federally-run Voice of America proved ineffective in countering Soviet propaganda in the late 1940s and early 1950s, distinguished Americans, including George Kennan and General Eisenhower, worked together to create Radio Free Europe (RFE) as a separate, non-federal entity. RFE and later Radio Liberty (RL) proved to be great soft power successes of the Cold War. They were better managed on their own than the federally-managed VOA. They also had better talent and better programs. I can say that as a former listener to both VOA and RFE behind the Iron Curtain and a former VOA journalist, manager and executive. Voice of America could not match the surrogate stations in terms of knowledge of the Soviet block and audience impact. VOA focused instead more on telling America’s story and offered more general international news. It still had far more influence and impact during the Cold War than it does now.
While VOA was more of a combined news and public diplomacy outlet, not even the State Department was running U.S. public diplomacy abroad during most of the Cold War. It was run by the United States Information Agency (USIA) until, unfortunately, the agency which performed quite well was abolished. The Secretary of State and the USIA Director had different missions, just as the set-up and the missions of the VOA, RFE/RL and later Radio Free Asia (RFA) were different. RFE/RL, however, was never part of the State Department or USIA. It remained outside of the official U.S. government structures for very good reasons.
Until the BBG was established in 1999, RFE/RL had always been managed as a separate entity and was overseen by a highly specialized board. No one would argue that the previous major institutional consolidation in the area of public diplomacy, the folding of USIA into the State Department, produced more flexibility, savings and better results. Bigger is not always better, especially in government. More centralized government bureaucratic power does not offer more flexibility in a highly complex operation involving both journalism and public diplomacy, as well as counter-propaganda. Centralization will definitely limit options in dealing with ISIS and Putin while not producing any better results.
The BBG, which in part had replaced USIA in 1999, is still an unmitigated fiasco. Hillary Clinton called it in 2013 “practically defunct.” The agency suffers not from inadequate power, but from too much bureaucratic power combined with incompetence and lack of accountability. That’s why the bipartisan Royce-Engel reform bill to reform the BBG calls for not one, but two oversight boards, and two different organizations: one to focus exclusively on U.S. news and public diplomacy outreach overseas with America’s story (the Voice of America) and the other to hit purveyors of violence and anti-American hate where it would hurt them the most. That’s how U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasters had worked spectacularly well until the BBG was established and ruined it. All the surrogate media outlets would be consolidated into one organization. The Voice of America, which has its own Charter, would be placed in a new government agency.
If U.S. lawmakers want to learn about another propaganda outlet operating as a mega government agency, they should look up in the Congressional Record the WWII-era Office of War Information (OWI). Because of its size and enhanced powers without any institutional scrutiny, OWI became a managerial and journalistic disaster. OWI worked only for the White House. The State Department’s policy role in it was marginalized. OWI was also blamed for interfering with U.S. military strategy. Its set-up, however, was very similar to what BBG officials are proposing now. OWI’s top management consisted of Hollywood talent and a broadcaster known mostly for his good radio voice. Even during the war, the U.S. Congress tired to de-fund OWI after reports of numerous scandals and abuses. The mega propaganda agency was promptly disbanded after the war by the Truman administration. The Voice of America was placed in the State Department. The 1948 Smith-Mundt Act was passed to limit U.S. government’s domestic media activities largely because of OWI’s abuses in domestic propaganda and media censorship during the war.
I have a lot of respect for BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. He has tried to make the agency a better place to work for journalists, especially at RFE/RL, RFA, Radio and TV Marti, and in some VOA services. New BBG CEO John Lansing is also a well-meaning and thoughtful executive. Both are better than what the BBG has seen in years. But they will not be around forever, and they don’t have much prior experience with government-funded media outreach, public diplomacy and federal government bureaucracy. They are both successful Hollywood and TV cable industry experts. But when it comes to international media outreach and foreign policy issues, they have to rely on unreliable BBG managers.
BBG executives have been spectacularly unreliable. They had ordered a public opinion survey in Russia-occupied Crimea shortly after the annexation without asking the Ukrainian government for permission. Crimea belongs to Ukraine, and the annexation was declared illegal by the United States and by many other countries. BBG officials followed up by calling a press conference in Washington to announce that the Crimeans are overwhelmingly happy about Russian rule. Voice of America reported the same. They failed to mention the intimidation by Russia or the repressed Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians.
The same officials make dubious claims that the agency has increased its audience to “unprecedented” 245 million. 35 million come from Mexico, which has a democratically elected government, a relatively free media despite attacks on journalists and numerous ties to the U.S. Other millions are for VOA programs from which news has been eliminated by the BBG to satisfy local censors. Audiences in the Middle East for Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV have declined. Impact is not measured. Audience engagement through social media is embarrassingly low. VOA English News had less than 10 Facebook posts the weekend of the Paris terror attacks. Compared to Russia’s RT, BBC and Germany’s DW, which had dozens of Paris-related reports, VOA got only 1 percent of “Likes” and comments in this category during the crucial first few hours and days after the terror attacks.
Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing should listen to people like Kevin Klose, another former RFE/RL president Jeffrey Gedmin, or consult former BBG members: S. Enders Wimbush, James K. Glassman, Dennis Mulhaupt, Ambassador Victor Ashe or Blanquita Cullum. Distinguished Americans with vast international media and foreign policy experience, as well as many other experts, are warning that a mega propaganda agency run by government bureaucrats will be even worse and less effective than the current BBG set-up.
I can understand that in their new roles as government officials, Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing may be saying what the Obama White House wants them to say, or they also feel compelled on their own to protect what they identify with now as BBG’s institutional interests. If they truly believe in the one-board and the one-CEO solution, I would urge them to reconsider and to think of the tremendous long-term risks for U.S. international media outreach, including the risk of further undermining domestic bipartisan political support for the agency.
The U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate should pass the bipartisan H.R. 2323 Royce-Engel U.S. international broadcasting reform bill to eliminate waste and free the United States from the bureaucratic mess of the BBG. Only then we might have a chance to compete successfully in the information war against ISIS and other enemies of freedom. It will be a long and difficult fight and it needs the best institutional base. Rejecting the key reform in H.R. 2323 would be a vote for keeping U.S overseas broadcasting defunct and without any adult supervision.
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was in charge of Voice of America radio broadcasts to Poland during the Solidarity trade union’s struggle for democracy and later developed live VOA television news programs to Ukraine and Russia. He was also in charge of placing VOA and RFE/RL programs on stations in Russia, Central Asia, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now involved with a number of media freedom NGOs.