The US Agency for Global Media, formerly named the Broadcasting Board of Governors, is often in the news these days. The usually quiet, forgotten (even across the government) independent federal agency, where “independent” means it is not subordinate to a cabinet secretary while still under the authority of the White House, is not generally well known. Its mission and utility to U.S. national security, not just foreign policy, is particularly not well understood. The confusion around, and even ignorance of, the USAGM generally engenders a couple of questions. Both are fair and foundational but when asked by foreign policy observers they not only highlight the misinformation around an agency established to proactively combat misinformation (and disinformation), they can have troubling consequences if not answered.
The two questions are related with the second a natural follow-on to the first. In my experience, the initial question goes something like this: Why do we have a taxpayer-funded news agency when we have commercial broadcasters (insert Fox, MSNBC, CNN, etc., or modify slightly to include NPR, which many believe is government-funded)? The follow-on question goes something like this: Aren’t USAGM’s broadcasters (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, etc.) in direct competition with US commercial broadcasters? Explaining the answer to the second question answers the first as shown below. The bottom line up front: no, they are not in competition, and the government broadcaster’s purposes and desired end-state is fundamentally different than any commercial operation, which also means the content is substantively different from US commercial media’s.
Let’s start with the question of competition which presumes the target audiences of USAGM’s broadcasters (a legacy term used here for convenience that does not properly reflect the reality that USAGM’s operations span perhaps every possible communication platform from short-wave radio to FM to broadcast and satellite television to social media platforms to branded mobile apps to physical books to appearing in newspapers) overlaps with that of U.S. commercial media. With the arguable exception of the USAGM’s various English language services, and maybe the Spanish language service (these arguments are beyond the scope here but it is not as clear of a case as you might think), there is no practical overlap in terms of language. If you want to send — and we will return to what “send” means soon — Fox, MSNBC, CNN, etc. to USAGM’s target countries, the broadcasts will need to be translated into the local dialect because just sending it in English will not garner much of an audience.
USAGM and US commercial media are not competing over the same audiences because they have different purposes. Commercial media seeks to make a profit while USAGM seeks to support US national security and not just broader foreign policy aspirations. USAGM’s markets, which are largely defined by a combination of country and language, are selected based on US national security interests and then secondarily based on the lack of local press freedom or the absence of a professional press. That second criteria is important because of the non-compete requirement which is discussed more below. This also reinforces the fact USAGM is not a propaganda operation, but that point is a bit too intellectual for some. With rare exception, USAGM’s target markets are not profitable options for US commercial media. Further, even if the commercial press did enter these markets they would be highly susceptible to influence by the few advertisers they could garner. They would also be susceptible to influence from the local government and actors. The problem would be similar for USAGM which is one reason it does not take advertisements. (OMB did suggest USAGM rely on advertising and less on the federal budget was made without recognition of this point nor of the bureaucracy necessary to both manage advertiser relations and monitor advertiser actions and reputations as they would affect USAGM’s brands.)
USAGM broadcasters are surrogates for absent or underdeveloped local media. To put a finer point on USAGM’s relationship with the target audience, USAGM’s broadcasters do not just operate in the local language and dialect but they function as local media. In other words, they provide local, regional, global, and US news from the perspective of the target audience. They provide the news and information that is important to them and unpacking or explaining issues that are important to them and news that may be literally foreign to them but not to Americans. On the former, it is unlikely Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or other US media will cover a story for Rwandans, which would be very different than a story on Rwanda for an American audience, on local politics, regional affairs, or otherwise. For an example that fits with the “sharing America with the world” concept is itself a kind of influence operation: explaining how an American receives and pays a speeding ticket. Another, as happened years ago, explaining the issues and processes around the Detroit bankruptcy, which was unpacked differently to Russian-language audiences than it was to Spanish-language audiences. There are implicit, yet intentional, comparisons that can be made by the broadcaster.
Further, USAGM has a different desired end-state than commercial media. USAGM actively helps develop and support local media. This includes everything from providing or facilitating training to providing content for free. The content may include access to all of USAGM’s language materials (though in practice it is just the content in the relevant language of the relevant USAGM broadcaster) for use online or broadcast or print. It may also often include a USAGM broadcaster serving as a “foreign bureau” for the local press, in the local language of course. On this point, has manifested as a local radio or tv station “throwing” to a VOA reporter in Washington (or elsewhere in the US or the world). These are free services provided to local media to build up what US commercial media would view as competition. The USAGM does this is the fundamental purpose of its existence: that press freedom, which along with the freedoms to speak and to listen, promote and support democratic principles. As the local media steps up, USAGM may step down. Put another way, success for USAGM is when it is no longer necessary and, in the spirit of this discussion, the marketplace may be ready for US commercial media. The non-compete requirement in USAGM’s basic statutory authority is also its sunset clause, which is discussed below.
The above should make it clear that in practice USAGM and US commercial media are not in direct competition with each other in practice. Are there exceptions where policy may or may not match current operations? Yes. Language services have been shuttered, sometimes for the right reasons and sometimes with negative consequences (often because they were prematurely closed despite warning signals).
It is actually unlawful for USAGM to be in competition with US commercial media. The basic statutory authority behind USAGM’s operations, and existence, is clear on this point. According to 22 USC 1462, the government “shall reduce such Government information activities whenever corresponding private information dissemination is found to be adequate.” Though the context has been updated through the decades, this specific text is unchanged since the Smith-Mundt Act was signed into law by President Truman on January 27, 1948. The source for 22 USC 1462 is Section 502 of Public Law 80-402, aka the Smith-Mundt Act, as seen below.
It should be noted that Section 502, or 22 USC 1462, serves as a sunset clause for various services, as noted above, USAGM’s networks, and even USAGM itself. In general, however, few actually have read the Smith-Mundt Act or the relevant statutory provisions to see its relevance.
The astute student of the Smith-Mundt Act may ask, “if the bill that became the Smith-Mundt Act was originally introduced on January 24, 1945,* by Congressman Karl E. Mundt, Republican from South Dakota, and was modified in October 1945 to include the broadcast operations that came to be named the Voice of America, why did the Section 502 language appear in the version of the bill introduced in May 1947 and not in the earlier iteration?” That is a good question with a highly relevant answer. (* Actually, to delve briefly into the weeds, Mundt first introduced his bill, which focused on student-teacher exchanges, two years earlier in March 1943, but the timing was not right. The situation was different in early 1945 as the State Department was already looking at the post-war information requirements and thus asked the House Foreign Affairs Committee to act on Mundt’s bill.)
When President Truman abolished the Office of War Information on August 31, 1945, he followed the guidance from OWI that was developed with the input of the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Affairs, an office established in December 1944, to move OWI’s international information operations, including the radio broadcasting operation, to the State Department. The department was given until the end of the year to return with an organizational plan. With regard to the radio operation, not yet formally referred to Voice of America, the plan that began taking shape in November 1945 was to remove the radio operation from the government and place it into a government-funded, at least initially, non-profit organization. There would be “the creation of a public corporation, supported with public funds, to conduct and to stimulate international broadcasting, under the guidance and direction of a board of trustees dominated and controlled by distinguished private citizens.” Direct oversight would come from a 15-seat bipartisan board of trustees. Fourteen members would be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate while the fifteenth would be the Secretary of State or a designated Assistant Secretary. The board would “ensure the character of the broadcasts” and “help win the confidence and support of the Congress and the American people by helping to guarantee the objective and non-partisan character of the broadcasts.” Funding could be supplemented by selling broadcast time, receiving outside contributions, and receiving or contracting for programs produced outside of government. Underneath the trustees and running the day to day operations would be a chief executive officer, paid a market and not a government salary.
Broadly speaking, no one was interested in having the government in the news broadcast business. That it was inside the State Department and concerns over the loyalty of departmental personnel was addressed by a requirement for FBI-administered “loyalty tests,” conceptually the predecessor to today’s background checks, that became Section 1001 of PL 80-402, that Mundt described as equivalent to protections around the atomic bomb program during the war. In December 1945, the Assistant Secretary of State for Public and Cultural Affairs wrote in The New York Times,
In news distribution the Government will progressively retire from the field, which it moved into as a war necessity. My hope is the Associated Press, the United Press and International News Service, highly competitive organizations, will greatly expand their world coverage. Before very long governmental overseas news will be limited mainly to such background information as full texts of Presidential statements, acts of Congress, or reports like that of General Marshall, which have proved of great value to foreign editors, writers and organizations and which are essential to our embassies and missions abroad.
In short-wave radio the role of private enterprise is under study. This is a much more complex problem. There is no profit in short-wave radio. The Government must put up the money.
Though the Mundt bill, then called the Bloom bill after the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, passed the House by a two-thirds vote, there was virtually no stewardship in the Senate and one Senator blocked the bill on partisan grounds. Though he would be an ardent supporter in the next Congress, the 80th, the bill died at the end of the 79th Congress. When it was resurrected, at the State Department’s request, the idea of spinning out the radio operation died. Some in the Senate did want to privatize the whole radio operation, like Senator Joseph Ball, Republican from Minnesota, who held hearings exploring this route. CBS and NBC, the two primary contractors providing programming and scripts to the State Department’s VOA, testified that private businesses could not afford to shoulder the broadcasting themselves. There was simply no profit to be had and, until there was, they were happy continuing to sell content and lease their transmitters to the government. The real nail in the coffin, however, came from the Senate co-sponsor of the reintroduced Mundt bill, Senator J. Alexander Smith, Republican from New Jersey. He refused to take on the task unless all of the international information responsibilities remained “right in the lap of the Secretary of State, where it seems to belong.”
Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., Republican from Massachusetts, agreed with Smith and framed the need of keeping the operation in the “lap of the Secretary” through the lens of distrusting some of the media. Lodge wanted to make sure the program was “in harmony” with the government’s interests. Referring to David Sarnoff of RCA, which owned NBC, and William Paley, president of CBS, Lodge declared, “I am not willing to turn over to Mr. Sarnoff and Mr. Paley the determination of American foreign policy.”
While we are having no discussions today about turning over USAGM’s operations to Fox, MSNBC, CNN, or some other commercial media, it is not hard to see the arguments of Lodge and Smith would not need much updating for today.
Keeping the primary production of content inside the broadcasters, with the oversight and accountability that comes with that, was reinforced within months of the passage of Smith-Mundt when the scripts of Know North America, written and recorded by NBC for VOA broadcast in Spanish to Latin America, surfaced. The program was setup as a conversation between two men ”who continue to discover the many wonders of historical and present life in the United States.” The descriptions of the US included saying Texas was “one of nature’s disturbing experiments,” quoting a writer who said, “New England was founded by hypocrisy and Texas founded on sin,” described “Indian girls” running a race at a Wyoming frontier day celebration as “feathered and naked,” to list just a few examples that (rightly) upset Congress (and others).
For Senator Smith, this debacle reinforced his argument to keep the programming “in the lap” of the Secretary of State. The State Department relied heavily on NBC, and to a lesser extent CBS, for programming because the Smith-Mundt Act required the department “to utilize, to the maximum extent practicable, the services and facilities of private agencies, including existing American press, publishing, radio, motion picture, and other agencies, through contractual arrangements or otherwise” (Sec 1005 of PL 80-402, codified today in 22 USC 1437; see also this note on oversight built into the Act). While no one will remember the Know North America issue, it established a fundamental pattern of producing as much content in-house as possible that remains relevant today.
It is worth noting that USAGM’s operations, notably VOA but also the other networks, do frequently utilize private agencies, notably the Associated Press and others. Whether this is pursuant to 22 USC 1437, to provide more relevant content to audiences, or to provide filler is arguable. For a superficial dive into the weeds, there is an interesting relationship between the AP and VOA. The failed privatization effort described above anticipated the AP’s resistance to a government broadcaster. The AP did not object to TASS joining the Senate press gallery but did successfully block VOA joining until the 1970s. In 1946, while the AP was charging any association with the government was a taint, as it attacked the premise of VOA, it eagerly sold its service to TASS. The other major wires services and most of the major media in the US called out the AP’s incongruous argument while the State Department noted that TASS frequently selectively edited and ran AP’s feed. And, the stalled nomination of the current USAGM CEO, Michael Pack, was given new life following Trump administration supporters’ “outrage” over a VOA article on Wuhan which was, in fact, an AP wire service product with an AP byline. (That the article was in English and found on the VOA English service and was not updated by VOA after AP updated it should, in my opinion, open a discussion about “filler” and the purpose of VOA English with respect to competition with US commercial media and the non-compete clause. But that is beyond the scope of this article.)
Senator Lodge’s comments remain valid today as do other contemporary concerns of commercial broadcasting and the associated commercials (even before the Know North America issue). Should the US be represented by whatever commercial jingle of the moment? How would a commercial broadcaster be selected as the implicit “official” US broadcaster or will multiple entities be supported simultaneously (which may itself have deleterious effects in the target market)? Why would for-profit enterprises invest in unprofitable and often expensive (language services, logistics, platforms, analysis, etc) markets?
The idea of enabling and supporting US commercial information operations abroad was taken up by the government. The basic idea of the government’s role in international media was always to be “supportive and facilitative,” concepts that went hand-in-hand with the non-compete requirement. This was given further heft through an amendment to the Smith-Mundt Act passed as part of the European Recovery Program (aka the Marshall Plan) that established the Informational Media Guarantee.
The IMG intended to facilitate opportunities abroad for US commercial media. The two most critical challenges were currency conversion and logistics. As was asked at the time, how could they “keep private enterprise from folding up in all critical overseas areas because of dollar shortages?” TIME Magazine, for example, moved quickly into France at the end of the war only to close up because it could not repatriate profits. An implicit three-part taxonomy emerged: 1) areas where US media could operate in a free market, 2) areas of censorship where private opportunities were quickly degrading or already impossible, and, 3) mixed environments of “shaky” countries with currency convertibility issues and infrastructure challenges. The IMG helped mostly in category three but also in category one with the government almost exclusively in category two. This taxonomy is easily updated to the present day and also easily applied to the discussion above about how USAGM and US commercial media do not overlap.
Two quick points on the issue of oversight. The first is the matter of the idea of a “firewall” that attempts to ensure political influence will not shape USAGM’s content. Leaving aside the absence of such a concept in US commercial media, especially as it has increasingly raised the profile of and relied on the advertising revenue of pundits over journalists, while many watchers of USAGM and its networks have called the “VOA Charter” the firewall, the reality is the now-disbanded board was the firewall. While dysfunctional by design — no President fulfilled the requirement to constantly refresh the bipartisan board whose members were supposed to serve staggered terms with appropriately skilled and experience individuals — it was redeemable and fixable. The establishment of the chief executive officer position to run the day to day operations, an idea that came late in the life of the BBG, the previous name of USAGM, was premised on the idea that the bipartisan board had authority over the CEO, including hiring and firing, and not the White House or Congress. The idea, as it was put to me in November 2016, that removing the board and having the President nominate a Senate-confirmed CEO would be no different than the “not political” USIA Director was both ahistorical and naive.
Second, the current USAGM CEO, Michael Pack, is allegedly bypassing, ignoring, if not removing practices and firewalls to protect the independent journalism of USAGM’s operations because, in the words of one supporter, the journalists are “unfettered and unconstrained.” That is incorrect. Pack’s charges along these lines are lies and his supporting arguments are straw men. There are valid management mechanisms, oversight processes, and statutory authorities available to the CEO. One of Pack’s arguments, for example, is he needs unfettered access to VOA to prevent the broadcast of classified information or information that would endanger US military personnel or operations. However, 22 USC 6202(a)1, which is part of the “VOA Charter” as enshrined in law, states USAGM products must “be consistent with the broad foreign policy objectives of the United States.” It is hard to square the idea that a story endangering US soldiers is within the “broad foreign policy objectives” of the nation. We also have 22 USC 6202(a)5 that activities “be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism.” Further, there is — or perhaps was at this point — a competent and professional review office at the agency that would help monitor and address problems. And then there is the authority of the chief executives of each of the broadcasters. The VOA Director, for example, has broad authority in the content, structure, and direction of the operation. It is perhaps telling that Pack has not hired a VOA Director who would exercise this authority. Whether he is uninterested in doing so or cannot find the right subordinate is unknown. Bureaucratically, the position is easy to fill as the VOA Director is hired through the Office of Personnel and Management as a non-career SES. (Yes, this means the VOA Director serves at the pleasure of OPM. This leads to the interesting question of why the White House didn’t direct OPM to fire Amanda Bennett earlier. Was it because they wanted the rhetorical target or incompetence?)
In short, Fox News or MSNBC or CNN launched an Urdu service, a Burmese service (leaving aside Myanmar has a lot of languages), a service for Indonesia (an example of an open market without a mature press), then there would be a strong argument to shutter USAGM’s relevant operations per 22 USC 1462. Until then, and while US foreign policy has an interest in the countries USAGM currently operates in or will be directed to, USAGM has presumably is not competing with US commercial media.