by The Federalist
As a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Michael Meehan – along with members Susan McCue and Ambassador Victor Ashe – has done a fair share of heavy lifting in trying to keep US Government international broadcasting afloat. This is in spite of – not because of – the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) which has been openly defiant if not grossly insubordinate toward BBG authority. And when that wasn’t enough of a threshold to cross, the IBB and/or its sycophants have engaged in vicious character assassination directed specifically at Ambassador Ashe, making the IBB nothing more than a rogue bureaucracy inside an agency of the Federal Government. They also went after Meehan for changing his views on their Soviet-style strategic plan, no doubt after he had chance to study it carefully and after he became aware of who they are. And they went after Susan McCue as well.
Recently, Governor Meehan wrote an op-ed piece appearing in the publication Radio World on Monday June 24, 2013. The piece is titled “BBG: Consider The Changing Landscape.” Within, Governor Meehan lays out a case for actions he believes will produce positive outcomes for US Government international broadcasting.
In turn, this affords us a moment to consider Governor Meehan’s remarks, offer comment and add some observations of our own.
In brief, what Governor Meehan does is try to make the case for the direction of US Government international broadcasting in two environments: domestically, in which the agency’s budget is tightening and internationally, in which foreign governments have proven successful in limiting media freedom and successfully expanding their own international media outreach. Not all of these governments would be considered adversaries although some certainly are. Whichever the case, it is clear that foreign governments intend to wall off content seen as undesirable and transmitted over a variety of media platforms while they themselves will engage in propaganda, or to put it more delicately public diplomacy, and find media outlets in the United States and in other democratic countries to carry their message.
On the budget front, Governor Meehan notes,
“…tight budgets force us to prioritize the use of our resources. We have had to take a very hard look at spending – seeking efficiencies wherever possible and limiting the impact on our mission-critical work.
We must face trade-offs that are informed by our strategy, which includes changing the way we do things in order to respond to world events and to our audiences’ preferences.”
The IBB FY2014 budget request formulated with the White House comes in at $731 million dollars. This comes in $25-million dollars less than the enacted FY2013 budget.
By comparison, the Chinese government has a global media budget of something approaching $8-billion dollars. This would be the Chinese version of the old adage, “In order to make money, you have to spend money.” In short, in order to build a global audience you have to spend big bucks.
Good money may be with the Chinese strategy rather than the IBB strategy as we will explain below.
Governor Meehan goes on to observe,
“Most importantly, we are seeing that our strategies are driving success; for example, using a “Washington bureau” concept to cultivate new audiences in Latin America (more than 23 million) that has driven our global audiences up to a record 203 million people weekly.
Other varied delivery platforms are helping us reach more people in important markets, including digital tools like SoundCloud, the recently debuted Global News Dashboard, and expanded mobile-friendly sites.”
A few things come into play here:
The “Washington bureau” concept that Governor Meehan refers to boils down to the Voice of America (VOA) acting as a surrogate news bureau for local Latin American radio or TV stations. This is not a new concept. The agency has done this before, in Indonesia, and for decades in Latin America. IBB officials, however, try to take credit and present it as if they invented it. They did not. In the past, VOA’s Latin America Division provided radio and TV stations with real news stories with VOA name and logo. It was not entertaining fluff. It was not placement without attribution. It was not paid placement, like paid advertising. It was real VOA news. This was years before the current IBB team of discredited managers came on the scene.
We don’t know how the current Latin America gambit is formatted. However, we do have experience with the VOA Indonesian Service. Here, VOA program features or broadcast segments are embedded in local programs – to the point that the appearance is that of being a part of the local broadcast operation. The VOA identity is often obscured.
In turn, using this programming sleight of hand, IBB audience surveys can – and most likely do – purloin viewers of the local station’s programs and claim it as their own – not really an accurate or true reflection of audience preferences for clearly identified VOA programs. In short, listeners or viewers think they are watching indigenous reporters for the local radio or TV station not a placement program using VOA (aka, US Government employees) reporters or broadcasters.
Having failed to increase the BBG’s audience since 2008 using standard audience survey methods, IBB officials came up with a new way of counting the audience — secondary placement. Also keep in mind that this is Latin America, where such secondary placement is relatively easy, not Iran, Russia or China, but even there they can probably place VOA-produced, completely innocuous feature stories without attribution to VOA or a VOA logo, count that audience and claim it as a big success. It’s a fraud.
Governor Meehan believes that the latest agency research shows an audience increase to 203-million. We’ve been down this road many times before. To keep it short – 203-million, divided among 40 (VOA) language services and divided even further into a global population of 7-BILLION. In short, it’s not all that impressive – particularly when audiences in strategic countries like China, Iran and Russia are now severely diminished.
The latest spy scandal involving a former NSA employee Edward Snowden is the latest example where VOA English news coverage does not even come anywhere close in social media outreach to the coverage provided by Russia Today and Al Jazeera. VOA English did not have a video report on YouTube today on Snowden’s travels. Russia Today did. It already had 3,697 views, 374 “Votes Up,” 3 “Votes Down” and 554 Comments.
Al Jazeera also posted a YouTube video on the U.S. spy scandal. It had 301+ views.
Obama: US Using All Legal Channels to Capture Snowden – VOA News – Facebook Recommend 1, Tweets 4, Comments 0
US Accuses China of Letting Snowden Flee – VOA News – Facebook Likes 1, Tweets 8, Comments 0.
SCMP: Snowden Says He Took Job for Access to NSA Programs – Reuters – Facebook Likes 3, Tweets 8, Comments 0.
Alleged NSA Snooping Target is One of China’s Internet Hubs – Reuters – Facebook Likes 2, Tweets 4, Comments 0.
Compare VOA’s digital social media outreach on this story with Russia Today’s news coverage today.
Snowden’s plane leaves Moscow, NSA leaker not seen aboard – Russia Today with Video – Facebook Likes 2,600, Tweets 783, Comments 403.
‘Who betrayed whom?’ Ecuador considers Snowden’s asylum, dubs persecution ‘paradoxical’ – Russia Today with Video – Facebook Likes 3,000, Tweets 412, Comments 118.
White House: Snowden still in Russia – Russia Today – Facebook Likes 744, Tweets 258, Comments 242.
Assange reveals details of ‘Snowden Op’, slams US ‘war on whistleblowers’ – Russia Today – Facebook Likes 2,700, Tweets 298, Comments 84.
Snowden healthy and safe, says Assange – Al Jazeera – Facebook Likes 190, Tweets 171, Comments 40.
Edward Snowden ‘likely to have left Russia’ – Al Jazeera with Video – Facebook Likes 498, Tweets 228, Comments 78.
When numbers of Facebook Likes, Tweets and Comments are added, Social Media Scores are:
Voice of America English – 32
Al Jazeera English – 1,205
Russia Today English – 11,642
The ultimate irony is that Russia Today and Al Jazeera beat VOA English many times over in reporting on statements from President Obama and other U.S. Administration officials on the Snowden spy case.
In addition, Governor Meehan only makes a passing reference to some of the cuts under the proposed FY2014 budget. The net effect of the full range of cuts is predictable: audience loss. This is particularly the case when the agency deliberately abandons core radio audiences. They are not making up the difference in its Internet audience – most of the Internet hits are believed to be originating in North America and they are being beaten hands down in social media use by Al Jazeera, Russia Today and others, especially for English news programs, which for VOA have been reduced to almost zero. Hence, there is no significant and interesting content to put on the web. Not on Turkey, not even on the Snowden case. Russia Today and Al Jazeera get hundreds of thousands of views for their news stories, VOA English does well if it gets a few hundred.
Governor Meehan touts developing additional media platforms, citing “SoundCloud” and the agency’s “Global News Dashboard” and expanded mobile-friendly sites. There is nothing wrong with new digital technology. It should be continually introduced and used to the full extent possible to the advantage of BBG broadcasters, just as it is being used by Russia Today and Al Jazeera without destroying their news reporting and broadcasting capabilities. It’s the bureaucratic process, implementation and waste of taxpayers money by IBB executives that raises questions. How are IBB-implemented technological solutions being used? Are they being accessed through social media. To answer these questions, all anyone has to do is to take a look at openly posted Facebook, YouTube and Twitter statistics, rather than “adjusted” numbers from Gallup and IBB.
How does Governor Meehan open his Radio World op-ed piece? He does so with the following:
“Around the globe today, only one out of six people lives in a country with free media. According to Freedom House, this is the worst media freedom rate in more than a decade.”
One of the big problems we have with the agency’s direction is its obvious obsession with and seduction by technology – technology which may work well in free and open societies but is most certainly tightly controlled in the environments Freedom House research cites and is cited by Governor Meehan in turn.
Also technology is not a replacement for news content, which has been largely eliminated to pay for technology. The irony is that the technology that IBB paid for with news content was largely free. Think of Russia Today on YouTube, where it has over 1 billion views to VOA’s 26 million over a period of several years. Russia Today did not spend money on YouTube, which is free, but on generating interesting though often biased news content. They made a clever management choice. IBB raided programming positions and programs to pay high bonuses to themselves and to pay their contractors. They in turn delivered technology that was largely free to begin with and came up with all sorts of projects that delivered hardly any audience. It was a fraud. IBB bureaucrats and their contractors took most BBG members and American taxpayers for a ride.
We would hazard a guess that the Chinese, like the Russians, are also not quite as blithely seduced. In the case of the Chinese, they would be more inclined to tailor their media choices dependent upon socio-economic and political conditions in the target areas they intend to reach. One of the first things the agency’s budget direction makes clear is the intent to cut traditional production of news content and traditional core radio and some television audiences and rely instead on technology-driven media choices. These choices are well beyond the reach of large and significant global populations, both in terms of spendable income and connectivity issues. When it comes to new digital media, IBB invests in gimmick solutions that at best can deliver a new thousand users at one time, while Russia Today and Al Jazeera invest in producing content for placement on Facebook and YouTube.
Add to that, new technologies are wildly surveillance vulnerable. We know from the revelations by former contractor Edward Snowden what the US Government (including the entities that make up US Government international broadcasting) is capable of collecting. Less talked about are the capabilities other governments possess to keep an eye on their populations, including those less-media-free environments Freedom House refers to. Add to that the simple ability to control that access or block it altogether. One should also not assume that the countermeasures the agency likes to tout are universally fail-safe.
And the agency just can’t escape the fact that the anonymity of radio and television broadcasting (satellite TV dishes may be a problem in some countries) makes it the most useful alternative to vulnerable new technologies.
The CEO Misfire
Governor Meehan goes on at length about language in the FY2014 budget legislation proposing a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for the agency.
Miracles are few and far between in US Government international broadcasting and the hope that a CEO will provide the miracle solution to the agency’s woes is grossly misplaced.
The first consideration – and it is a critical one – is WHO the CEO is. If that person comes from the ranks of the IBB, you can label this another exercise in perpetuating the status quo, covering up the failings that the IBB has perpetrated to reduce the effectiveness of US Government international broadcasting, the continuation of a hostile work environment, etc.
If the person is someone who works directly FOR the BBG, and is not one of the “usual suspects” among the IBB, that person will have to be the proverbial “man (or woman) of steel.” Right from the start, this person will have to contend with an insubordinate, hostile and renegade IBB executives who have made it clear that they respects no authority or power outside their select club of their own rogue bureaucracy.
Once you cross a threshold as the IBB did in attacking members of the BBG publicly – and who believe that they are getting away with it – you have a very serious problem. In one instance they did it through one of their bloggers. They also resorted to smearing the reputation of BBG members to various powerbrokers in Washington.
If the conditions are wrong right from the start – this idea is dead-on-arrival. It is deader than dead. It can make conditions even worse if the CEO is cowed by or duplicitous with the rogue bureacracy of the IBB.
Also, Governor Meehan further notes on the CEO subject,
“Proposed shifts include scaling back selected language services to reduce overlap, increasing cooperation and ensuring that broadcasters will provide complementary content, streamlining and restructuring central news operations, realizing savings in information technology, and making significant administrative and support reductions.”
Herein are some of the key problems with what the IBB is doing, or has already done, to US Government international broadcasting.
It is not clear from the article whether Governor Meehan agrees that each of the entities that make up US Government international broadcasting is separate and distinct. They have distinct missions that DO NOT overlap. The Voice of America is the flagship operation with the global perspective. The other entities perform as surrogates for those less-than-free media environments that Freedom House cites. Jumbling them up into a mosh-pit as the IBB “geniuses” want to do creates confusion and in effect no distinguishable identity. But worst of all, it would destroy the effectiveness of surrogate broadcasting as we have already seen at Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) before BBG members, including Governor Meehan, stepped in and put a stop to it. IBB executives, including IBB Deputy Director Jeff Trimble, were reportedly in frequent contact with the previous RFE/RL management team that fired dozens of experienced journalists in Putin’s Russia and caused an outrage among such Russian leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev and human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva. Yet, these IBB executives failed to warn BBG members that anything was wrong with Radio Liberty in Russia. BBG members found out about it from BBG Watch.
Comprehensive, balanced, serious and responsible news coverage by RFE/RL was nearly destroyed and replaced with sexually suggestive videos to Kazakhstan, a largely conservative and Muslim country, and other entertaining fluff to Russia, while IBB executives watched and did nothing as audience numbers and social media use drastically declined. Although great improvements have been made since the RFE/RL management was replaced on orders of BBG members and Kevin Klose bought in, Radio Liberty Russian Service still has not recovered its Facebook popularity of last summer before the mass firings of last September. It takes time and money to fix IBB’s mistakes and lack of good management.
And somehow, BBG Governors are still ignoring the disaster also known as the VOA Central Newsroom. The same scenario as previously at RFE/RL is being played out at VOA with encouragement and support from IBB senior staff. The VOA rank and file staff itself refers to the situation in the Newsroom as “schizophrenic,” and that in our assessment is being charitable.
Add to that the VOA Worldwide English websites being virtually derelict in timely reporting on breaking and developing news of serious international impact. Turkey, Brazil and now the Snowden spy case. Al Jazeera and Russia Today get thousands of hits for their stories on what the White House is saying on Snowden. VOA English posts a few short news items, no video and with some delay, and gets barely a few hits, one or two Fecebook “Likes” and no readers comments. A Russia Today story on Snowden has hundreds of comments.
And we should add that the FY2014 budget proposal intends to make under-resourcing the Newsroom permanent – to the point that Newsroom management is trying to make up shortages with personnel from VOA language services – which themselves are under-resourced!
We mentioned “thresholds” above. We believe the agency has crossed a critical threshold in terms of being recoverable from its current operational model of choice: dysfunctional and defunct. It doesn’t get done in one budget cycle and one with a reduced fiscal footprint at that.
In short, even if recovery of the agency’s mission were a viable objective, reduced resources push that recovery further away and virtually out of reach.
Governor Meehan looks forward to what he believes are positive outcomes. The effectiveness of the agency’s mission long undermined (some might say betrayed) by the IBB makes achieving these outcomes seriously in jeopardy.
IBB and its favorite contractors got BBG and American taxpayers to pay millions of dollars for social media placement that was essentially free and is used successfully by BBG’s top competitors, Al Jazeera and Russia Today.
While IBB was eliminating programs, programming positions and news gathering and news producing functions to pay its own bureaucracy and contractors who promised great social media gadgets that were available for free, Russia Today was using money to produce news videos.
Russia Today English now has 920,373 subscribers to VOA English’s 23,748.
Russia Today has had 1,013,506,418 views (that’s over one billion) to VOA’s 26,948,148 views.
VOA’s most popular YouTube video has 2,526,175 views, second most popular 1,462,249 views, third most popular 1,122,387 views from three and five years ago.
Russia Today’s most popular YouTube video has 38,096,501 views, second most popular 27,130,855 views, third most popular 27,130,855 views from four months ago and two years ago.
In the process of funding their projects and expanding their own bureacracy, IBB officials undermined VOA English news coverage to the point of making it irrelevant.
These statistics show how Russia Today and Al Jazeera were able to take advantage of free technology while VOA English stayed behind because it has very little interesting news content for social media platforms.
Around the globe today, only one out of six people lives in a country with free media. According to Freedom House, this is the worst media freedom rate in more than a decade.
That’s precisely why the work of U.S. international broadcasting journalists is more critical than ever.
At the Broadcasting Board of Governors, our clear and simple mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. As the demand is greater, our financial resources are fewer. All across the federal government, agencies such as the BBG are asked to do more with less. As technology platforms advance and become more decentralized, our challenges grow exponentially.
But, when planning for the future, the BBG is unlike other agencies in that it also needs to consider seismic changes in broadcasting, journalism and technology, along with the larger strategic global context for our broadcasters: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and Radio and TV Martí.