The recent U.S. News & World Report article about American journalist turned government propagandist Edward R. Murrow and the perennial problem of not enough money in the U.S. budget for “soft power” propaganda is accurate only to a point. (Warren, James. “The Struggle to Propagate the Truth: Edward R. Murrow wouldn’t be surprised at all at the U.S. inability to win hearts and minds.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report. 30 Dec. 2015. Web 1 Jan. 2016.)
We don’t spend enough money on U.S. government propaganda abroad now, and we did not spend enough money on it during the Cold War, but we were spending money and getting the message across much more effectively during the Cold War than we do now. We won the Cold War thanks in large part to Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), and to a lesser extent thanks to the Voice of America (VOA), where I had worked for many years. Propaganda alone, however, is not enough to win wars. It must go hand in hand with good policies backed by military and economic power. A growing economy provides tax revenues to pay for both hard and soft power America needs to project, but it needs to project it wisely.
More soft American power is definitely needed against ISIS and Putin, but there are problems other than not enough money in the federal budget. I purposely used the propaganda word several times even though it might annoy a few current and former Voice of America foreign correspondents who like to invoke Edward R. Murrow’s name as their patron saint. They argue that VOA always has been and should never be anything else but straight, pure news, as defined by them. Many were and some still are excellent news reporters, but a few others have a habit of confusing balance with objectivity, as in being deceived by propaganda and giving equal time to liars and dictators. Still others delight in out of proportion projection of bad news about the U.S., probably to show their ideological preference and how independent they are as journalists.
Not that bad news about America should not be reported in full, but some of VOA stories now lack both depth and objectivity. A few recent VOA English-language news reports (not many, but still a disturbing number) have been so remarkably one-sided, that Putin and Castro and millions of others might easily confuse them for RT or Radio Havana. They fail to show the world what America is really like even when Americans do and say stupid things, as Donald Trump and Barack Obama do at times — but not always. Few political leaders are ever all black or all white, but semi-dictators and dictators like Putin and Castro, not to mention Stalin, are much more black than white, which some younger VOA reporters don’t seem to grasp because of poor education, lack of experience and lack of editorial standards.
“It looks like the fixes aren’t working.
This is a full-fledged meltdown of essential systems.
Is it a bug, an attack, poor system maintenance?
Does the Board know what is going on? Congress? The White House?”
— A Voice of America Broadcaster, December 30, 2015
It must be said, however, that much of VOA web content, and definitely most of RFE/RL reporting, are still very good, often excellent. Even now the U.S. is better off having these outlets despite their current problems. But this is not good enough to win information wars waged against the U.S. Thanks to the Internet, there is an abundance of news and news entertainment. Cheaply-produced, unattractive news entertainment has already infected VOA and is creeping into RFE/RL. But even pure and high-quality news is not enough to win the war of ideas. It’s opinions, ideas and criticism, skillfully and tastefully combined with high-quality entertainment and political satire designed for the digital age, that decide who wins and who loses information wars.
Contrary to the prevailing myth, VOA news never was pure under Edward R. Murrow, and at most other times. It tended to move from one extreme to the other, but sometimes found the right spot and was highly effective. During World War II, VOA repeated Soviet propaganda because it matched the country’s and the White House’s war effort message. A large number of Soviet sympathizers worked then at VOA. After leaving VOA after the war, at least two became leading anti-American propagandists for communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Little wonder that Americans were always uncomfortable with government propaganda. In general, Americans don’t want the federal government to have any influence over the domestic media. This separation of state and press is enshrined in the First Amendment, but being generous and freedom-minded people, Americans are willing to pay for delivering uncensored news to other countries where news is censored. That’s about the extent of American domestic support for U.S. government-funded news and information outreach abroad.
Many BBG officials and some VOA reporters seem convinced, however, that only they should determine what the world needs and what is news and what is propaganda, without worrying who pays for it and why. In fact, the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law, clearly states that the Voice of America was given an agenda. It is not designed to work like a private media outlet or even public media outlets like NPR or PBS. Edward R. Murrow himself was not shy about calling VOA a U.S. government propaganda tool (there are memos to prove it), although he was rightly not in favor of VOA distorting news, lying or deceiving.
While there are many different definitions of propaganda, there is no dispute that Edward R. Murrow was strongly in favor of the U.S. countering hostile foreign propaganda. Some of VOA English newsroom reporters working there now are definitely not in favor of it. They don’t want to write news in such a way that it could be perceived as “countering violent extremism.” They find it distasteful and consider even a discussion of such efforts a violation of their journalistic integrity. In their righteous indignation, they conveniently ignore the VOA Charter and don’t have enough political sense to realize why U.S. taxpayers want to pay their $100,000-$150,000-plus salaries. They said publicly there is nothing wrong with “countering violent extremism,” but it should be done by other U.S. government agencies, not by them.
Fortunately, not all VOA journalists feel that way. Many of VOA’s foreign language broadcasters consider countering false propaganda their life’s mission. Countering false propaganda does not always mean engaging in similar propaganda. It means being able to spot propaganda and respond to it with fact-based, objective reporting. I did that, I’m still proud of it and always will be. Individually and collectively some of my former colleagues are still doing an outstanding job, but it is not enough to win hearts and minds in the war of ideas with ISIS online recruiters and with Putin’s vast disinformation machine.
Where U.S. News & World Report article comes short is on the reasons for the U.S. falling behind now on the countering propaganda front. The real cause of the U.S. losing the information war is confusion over media outreach and public diplomacy strategy and the lack of it, overblown government bureaucracy, and shortage of competent leaders, experts and journalists. Money is an important but a secondary issue. U.S. News & World Report article is right that more money is needed. But more money without major government reform will accomplish very little.
It is above all government waste and mismanagement at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and to some extent at the U.S. State Department, which are primarily responsible for the failures of U.S. soft power information outreach. But the ultimate reason for any U.S. propaganda, public diplomacy and information failures abroad is, and has always been, bad policies and the lack of strong leadership by the President of the United States, usually a combination of the two. That’s an important point to remember. Propaganda can sometimes help, but it is not a panacea for bad or failing policies. Propaganda alone cannot win most wars, but without good propaganda, wars can be lost even by a powerful nation like the U.S.
The BBG’s budget is not all that small at about $740 million, although it should be much larger if it were well managed and put to a good use in these troubling times for the U.S. and the world. Most of the current U.S. government’s soft power budget, much larger than the BBG’s $740 million, which includes the State Department and other U.S. government agencies, is consumed by salaries. The BBG’s federal bureaucracy is especially voracious for money and resources. It has grown tremendously in size while becoming ever more incompetent. Then Secretary of State Hillary said in 2013 that the Broadcasting Board of Governors was “practically defunct.” She herself was an ex officio BBG board member.
“Practically defunct” is not what U.S. information policies should be. The current BBG board objects to this three-year old description, saying that they have turned things around. But I and many others don’t agree. There have been some improvements under new BBG Chairman Jeff Shell, but former BBG member and former RFE/RL executive S. Enders Wimbush told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Bob Corker last November that the BBG’s response to the crisis in Ukraine has been “feeble.” Kevin Klose, who in his long and distinguished career was a Washington Post foreign correspondent in Moscow, RFE/RL president (twice) and National Public Radio (NPR) president, said basically the same thing. They both urged Congress to reform the BBG and indicated that not enough money for U.S. overseas media outreach is one of the problems, but not the only problem.
I can’t speak about China, but Russia does not spend more money than the U.S. on what is broadly called public diplomacy. Russia does not have anything like Hollywood, which can be both good and bad for America. (U.S. public diplomacy needs to counter Hollywood’s distorted image of violent and decadent Americans.) Unlike the U.S., Russia does not have non-government-funded English-language news and entertainment for the entire world. It does not have CNN, FOX or The New York Times, all of which are available internationally. When these news organizations are considered together with the Voice of America, it does not look so bad for the United States money-wise (private and public) at all, at least not in English language content, although the quality of some (not all) of the VOA output in English and in some foreign languages has become truly substandard.
This is a result of the already mentioned growth of incompetent bureaucracy, waste, as well as the departure of area experts and their replacement by cronies of former BBG members and other top officials. There are no Foreign Service-like demanding exams for top BBG officials and screening of VOA journalists for basic knowledge of history and foreign affairs. It’s obvious that some don’t have it. The BBG technical government bureaucracy can’t even assure uninterrupted power supply for VOA studios and bug-free functioning of digital media storage and processing platforms for VOA broadcasters. Major power and digital equipment outages at VOA and BBG headquarters in Washington, DC during this holiday season, which inexplicably lasted for hours and days and disrupted numerous broadcasts and the work of hundreds of broadcasters, produced an apology from a senior BBG official: “please accept my personal apologies for this serious event. It is very distressing and equally humbling.” That’s clearly not good enough.
Dedicated and competent VOA journalists who have not yet left are beyond themselves in frustration. One VOA journalist posted this comment a few days ago:
“This isn’t hyperbole: this is the complete and total failure of the agency. The fact that it is, apparently, self-inflicted makes it all the worse. We are doing what Putin would love to be able to do: the Voice of America is silenced.”
— A Voice of America Journalist, December 30, 2015
At the operational level, there is a critical lack of sufficient expertise among some of the current generation of VOA journalists and even among some Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists. This explains why VOA and to a much smaller degree RFE/RL themselves fall from time to time for Russian propaganda, sometimes repeat it, and generally can’t produce enough of sophisticated analysis. A recent Washington Post article proves that a shortage of Russia experts is a government-wide problem. In that sense, the Washington Post article offers a more insightful analysis, but does not focus specifically on the Broadcasting Board of Governors. (Demirjian, Karoun. “Lack of Russia experts has some in U.S. worried.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post. 30 Dec. 2015. Web. 1 Jan. 2016.)
It is clear to many that these problems cannot be solved by money alone or by appointing a single government official as the Information Tsar for the U.S. Government abroad, although more money is needed and would help once reforms have been initiated. The idea of a single U.S. Government CEO/Information Tsar is in itself worrying, if not outright dangerous if we consider the history of VOA’s parent agency during WWII, the Office of War Information (OWI), which the U.S. News & World Report article mentions in passing. The OWI engaged in both foreign and domestic propaganda, as well as in censorship of U.S. domestic media.
BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG’s new CEO John Lansing insist, however, that the ailing agency’s future under their modest reform plan looks good and that problems are being solved. They says that only a few minor reforms are needed and only those should get congressional approval rather than have Congress pass a major overhaul of the agency.
I have a lot of respect for both of them, their private sector accomplishments and their good intentions, but they are dead wrong that problems are being solved or will be solved in a meaningful way and scope under their plan. Unlike them, I had worked within the government bureaucracy, was in charge of VOA programs to Eurasia, and before that I had listened to both VOA and RFE behind the Iron Curtain. I know that the BBG in its current form or a slightly reformed form cannot provide what the United States and foreign audiences need. The BBG itself and its part-time board, are a mistake, which is not the fault of Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing.
Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing are, however, dead wrong in their public opposition to key structural reforms in the BBG which were proposed in the bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill, the United States International Communications Reform Act, “to improve the missions, objectives, and effectiveness of U.S. international broadcasters.” It was Introduced on May 14, 2015 by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member. There were very good reasons for the Voice of America when it was placed within the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and for the creation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty as independent non-federal entities in the 1950s. H.R. 2323 tries to duplicate that arrangement which helped to win the Cold War. VOA was still under USIA when Edward R. Murrow was USIA director in the 1960s. He had dozens of highly-trained U.S. Foreign Service Officers advising him full time and hundreds working abroad. BBG CEO John Lansing has none. He himself is not a foreign policy expert. Being unfamiliar with the federal government, and guided by their private sector successes, neither he nor Mr. Shell has a good idea what kind of a bureaucratic government monster their plan would produce.
I had worked with many Foreign Service officers at VOA and USIA. Most of them were outstanding professionals who did not interfere with VOA news. Many became later distinguished U.S. ambassadors. Most understood that VOA news and USIA public diplomacy outreach are designed to support long-term goals of U.S. foreign policy, not short term goals. The idea that one CEO can run a new, consolidated propaganda agency with the help of third-rate bureaucrats is simply ludicrous. For many of them, the main qualification is that they were former acquaintances of former BBG members or current senior officials. Cronyism and bad employee morale are big problems at the agency. Consolidation under one CEO is not institutional reform. It’s an open invitation to long-term bureaucratic abuse no matter how good and how good meaning the current BBG Chairman and CEO are. The next ones may not be. That’s why a complete institutional reform is desperately needed.
“Can this really be happening? Are we actually failing at the most basic of all broadcast tasks: staying on the air???”
— A Voice of America Broadcaster, December 30, 2015
I can’t understand why it is so difficult for Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing to realize that USIA’s consolidation into the State Department was an incredibly misguided move in 1999, and the consolidation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty into the BBG together with VOA was also a terrifically bad idea. Almost everybody else with some historical knowledge seems to know this and agrees these were big mistakes. Bigger is not better in government bureaucracy. In the delicate game of public diplomacy, persuasion uses many different diplomatic and media methods, often incompatible with each other. That’s why America’s soft power institutions have always worked much better separately in smaller units.
Supporters of consolidation should disabuse themselves of the idea that a big centralized government propaganda office will solve all the problems and provide coordination. It will make problems worse and create new ones. Bureaucratic interests always prevail. An even stronger federal bureaucracy will destroy what’s left of the effectiveness of surrogate media outlets like RFE/RL. News alone is also not a panacea. VOA is not BBC, and it will never become like BBC. Superpower America is not Great Britain. What the U.S. needs is a workable system in which VOA follows the VOA Charter, the State Department or preferably a new agency is in charge of coordinating U.S. public diplomacy, and non-federal outlets such as RFE/RL specialize in countering propaganda.
The proposed bipartisan legislation, supported by all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, would shrink the ranks of government bureaucrats in charge of BBG, protect private sector BBG media outlets that still work well, and give these entities and VOA separately much more oversight than they currently get from the current part-time board. Before any more money is spent on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, H.R. 2323 must be passed and signed into law. There is no other way, or a year from now this prediction from a former BBG employee might unfortunately be true to the great detriment to this country and many people around the world.
“Anyone want to bet? A year from today, we will have the same people milling around, acting important and doing little but praise themselves. Of course with a frequent jaunt about the globe to visit friends and relatives … er, I mean to attend Official Functions.
The U.S. Congress could restore U.S. International Broadcasting to its former glory, but that isn’t likely. The American voters just aren’t that informed or interested — and if it’s not likely to gather votes, politicians don’t care a lot.
Dear Hon. Congress people: Please give the WORLD a Christmas gift by actually fixing BBG and its spawn. (Until that happens, Dear Incumbents: Bah humbug. Begone!)”
– Submitted by C.A. on 2015/12/22 at 11:28 pm
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.