Leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, major media such as MSNBC, CNN and FOX interviewed numerous experts and pundits about Russian state propaganda, and how the U.S. government was responding.
One regular on MSNBC is Richard Stengel, a former TIME magazine editor who served as under secretary of state for public diplomacy in the Obama administration.
Stengel was on the Biden administration transition team for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), the federal agency that runs Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
One would think that he and other former and current officials with detailed knowledge of the USAGM (until 2018 called the Broadcasting Board of Governors) would have mentioned the agency.
Yet, for the most part that has not been the case. Even major media news stars discussing Ukraine and Russia with Stengel failed to ask him and others (such as former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes) some obvious questions about this area of expertise.
In one instance, Andrea Mitchell – who from her years in Washington is certainly fully aware of the existence of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – not once mentioned VOA or asked about what U.S. government media were doing.
Mitchell wondered why the U.S. was not acting more forcefully to “[make] sure the allies know publicly how important this is. . .” Stengel pointed to State Department dysfunction during the Trump administration. He even dinged the Obama administration.
“We’re out there in a way that we certainly weren’t certainly during the Trump administration. . .” Stengel asserted, to which Mitchell suggested that the Russians have been winning the information war on television.
Stengel said “there are other ways of communication other than television these days, we’re on social media, we’re on Facebook, in ways that we hadn’t been before and the whole point is trying to reach audiences that we didn’t reach before.”
I awaited any specific mention by Stengel or Mitchell of Voice of America and RFE/RL (three reporters for both have been on the ground in Ukraine). But, NOTHING.
In The Washington Post Robert Orttung, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, discussed Russia’s RT noting that Vladimir Putin created it “explicitly to counter the dominance of English-language multinational news organizations, particularly CNN and the BBC.”
Yet again, not a single mention of USAGM. And amid frequent discussion of Russia’s blocking of Facebook, and the report that China banned online criticisms of Putin, major media reporters appeared clueless that USAGM has funded anti-Internet censorship tools.
Amnesia about the continued existence of USAGM – at a yearly cost to taxpayers of $810 million (FY22 requested) – is not without explanation because USAGM has an established record as one of the most dysfunctional and mismanaged agencies in the federal government.
At one point, Biden transition team members were reported by a reliable source to be “red-faced” when briefed about mismanagement that existed well before the Trump administration [my emphasis].
USAGM has attempted to sell its continued existence to Congress as constituting major “bang for the buck”, with VOA directors referring to huge value compared to the price of a F-16 or F-35.
At one point, this value for dollar argument was sold by asserting that USAGM could play a role in influencing diaspora communities in the United States, though by law the agency is not supposed to target Americans.
Yet, VOA’s Persian service was found to have targeted Americans with Facebook ads as reported by the then Republican chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.
The failure of mainstream media to mention VOA and other USAGM outlets can be attributed to what I have long called a dirty little secret in Washington.
Non-government media rush to support USAGM, when it is deemed important in protecting the 1st Amendment and journalism. But when it comes to covering examples of managerial incompetence, stories are usually few and far between.
In 2021, the Washington Post reported on plagiarism at VOA. In fact, the problem was well-known inside the agency for years, along with concerns about political bias in reports and social media posts by VOA journalists.
In 2020, I revealed details of an internal report commissioned by then VOA director Amanda Bennett, who has been nominated by President Biden to be USAGM CEO.
“The perception of biased coverage is real among multiple VOA reporters and editors,” the report stated. “It’s vital that VOA leadership take visible steps to communicate that bias is unacceptable and that the integrity of VOA reporting is sacrosanct.”
That was from an executive summary. Congress should demand the full report from Bennett and USAGM. Lawmakers should also demand more than they’re getting from USAGM’s shiny public relations reports about how the agency calculates audience figures, which for years have been routinely inflated, with claims of ever-increasing traction and “reach” or “weekly reach”.
As this is written, USAGM’s website claims an “unduplicated audience” of 394 million “from more than 100 countries [tuning] in weekly in 62 languages.” In late 2021, VOA alone claimed 311.8 million people per week across broadcast and digital platforms.
Citing what it called “latest research” VOA claimed “an increase of more than 33 million” in one year, from 2020 to 2021. But there is subterfuge involved in these announcements. A few years ago, a former VOA director let the cat out of the bag when he revealed that, to cite one example, the agency simply tacks on millions to its audience claims when new affiliate agreements are signed with radio or TV stations in target areas.
Doubts have been raised about USAGM claims, including this article in The Hill in which Ilan Berman noted that congressional efforts to probe actual impact in Iran had been “consistently frustrated by the opaque nature in which the Voice of America and its parent agency…functions.”
And as I wrote in 2020, a former VOA research analyst publicly challenged the agency’s methodologies after USAGM claimed a 67 million increase in audience between 2017 and 2019.
There was some colorful language there regarding agency figures on China, with the ex-analyst saying that a 6.2 percent increase claimed at the time “beggars belief and indeed is not to be believed.” There were also questions about agency numbers regarding impact in Russia and Iran.
Back to Ukraine. As long as taxpayers continue to support USAGM to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, as a soft power projection tool, one would think it would receive more attention.
The fact that it has not is an interesting commentary on how far off the radar USAGM — which has permanently damaged its own reputation over the years through managerial incompetence – has fallen.
Even as parts of USAGM continue to have some impact in situations such as Ukraine, I have long argued that the agency should be slimmed down, even eliminated, and combined with other tools such as the Global Engagement Center at the State Department.
But as everyone knows, killing or substantially downsizing any federal program ranks high on the impossibility chart. Indeed, USAGM managers are no doubt calculating how to use the Ukraine war as leverage to increase the agency’s budget, and make new claims about increased audience size.
Dan Robinson was VOA chief White House correspondent from 2010 to 2014, and before that congressional and foreign correspondent and head of VOA’s broadcasts to Myanmar.