Rob Bole: USAGM is a unique, underutilized foreign policy tool

By Guest Contributor Robert Bole

The U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has attracted significant headlines based on a series of purges, dubious internal investigations, and controversial decisions by current CEO, Michael Pack, a Trump appointee and Steve Bannon disciple.

In his limited time, Pack has tried to rapidly and radically change the United States’ primary voice to foreign audiences away from its traditional mission of delivering fact-based news and information to turn it more into a partisan weapon to support the Trump Administration’s domestic and international political goals.

USAGM is an independent federal agency, not tied to the State Department, and is the parent organization to the Voice of America (VOA) and the five smaller five media regional broadcasters. The agency spends nearly a billion dollars a year and reaches over 270 million audience members around the world. On a daily basis VOA and other journalists publish stories, steam newscasts and broadcast radio programs to inform foreign audiences about events in their own countries, as well as introduce U.S. perspectives and culture. And in the process they open closed media environments to democratic ideas.

While the chaotic management of USAGM by the Trump Administration has damaged its credibility with foreign audiences, it remains a vital tool for the incoming Biden Administration to reassert American influence around the globe. Joe Biden understands global influence is based on making connections between the U.S. and foreign audiences.

In a 2016 interview, the President-elect said “it all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal… All foreign policy is, is a logical extension of personal relationships, with a lot less information to act on.” For many countries, the Voice of America and other networks of USAGM represents the authentic voice of Americans and counters the propaganda of their own governments.

The availability of factual and balanced information from legitimate, or straight news, sources is ever more important as authoritarian leaders around the world have used the freedom of the digital age to create a powerful class of disinformation: the near dominance of opinion over facts, #fakenews, filter bubbles, corrosive memes, phishing, hacking and hate speech.

These autocratic governments have seen the Trump Administration validate their own tactics in U.S. domestic politics. This has further emboldened authoritarian leaders – from Bolsanaro in Brazil to Orban in Hungary – to close independent media and reduce free speech. The result is that USAGM has lost trust and influence as a voice for truth and an example of promoting democratic ideas, as was intended and the most significant test yet to USAGM’s purpose.

I served between 2011 and 2015 at the precursor to USAGM, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, and saw first-hand the beginning of the challenges the organization is now facing. VOA and her four sister networks have been badly in need of reform and modernization to be successful in a rapidly changing media environment. Their audiences are aging, the five networks largely act without coordination and even compete with one another. Also, there are periodic embarrassing cases of journalism that does not meet minimum standards of quality.

In the past many of the newsrooms recruited language speakers, such as opposition activists from a country, rather than trained journalists. And regular lapses in editorial oversight that allows questionable content to be published. The most recent firestorm was the VOA Urdu service publishing a report that seemed to favor the then Biden campaign, but there are numerous examples where USAGM journalism did not adhere to basic journalism standards. These failings opened an opportunity for the current CEO to erode the editorial firewall in the name of reform and censor reporters who were not following the Trump Administration line of messaging.

Pack’s investigations and firings were enabled when the Obama Administration and Congress instituted a series of reforms by establishing a Chief Executive Officer. The oversight board of directors, made up of media industry and policy leaders, was disbanded in favor of an advisory board with no ability to influence the agency, which was also disbanded. This laid the groundwork for CEO Pack to fire or force out the experienced media and investigate long-time VOA reporters.

The President-elect should recognize USAGM as a powerful asset for our diplomatic and national security strategy. In a world where events are now created, managed and manipulated through the media, USAGM is a unique but underutilized foreign policy tool: an editorially independent media service that shines a cold light on dictators, corruption, and undemocratic behavior. President Biden should ensure that USAGM is an integral part of his push to re-engage our allies and respond to foreign propaganda. To make this strategy most effective he needs to mandate that USAGM’s management – not its editorial leadership – has a regular role at the National Security Council and formalize policy collaboration with the State Department and USAID.

Second, the President must ensure USAGM’s journalism – from news services in Farsi to Urdu to Mandarin – meets or exceeds the highest editorial standards. The VOA and other networks need to institute what almost every newsroom has, an editorially independent standards editor with the authority to monitor 52 languages and train reporters and editors on standards and ethics. At the same time, the editorial firewall needs to be rebuilt and codified in legislation. Senator Chris Murphy has introduced Senate Bill 4808 to define the editorial independence of USAGM journalists. The Biden Administration should work with the Senator to write and pass this important legislation.

The structure of USAGM also needs to be reformed based on the experience with the Trump Administration. The current domination of politics over journalism shows that the USAGM executive needs an oversight board that will balance a Presidentially-appointed CEO with a Senate-approved Board. Such an oversight body would have authority to approve USAGM and network budgets and the hiring/firing of the top editorial executives. Additionally, Congress needs to further define the powers of the CEO. The management and coordination of five media networks is a messy business, and the intention of the CEO role is to bind and guide the whole enterprise. Congress should continue to define the role of the CEO to provide strategic and directional leadership, as well as implement necessary operational reforms, such as consolidating duplicitous business units and providing unifying policies.

The new administration has a unique chance to rebuild USAGM as a world-class media platform to speak with publics around the world about the best of U.S. culture and democratic institutions. The Biden Administration has a difficult foreign policy challenge ahead in rebuilding damaged alliances and repositioning itself as an adversary to authoritarian regimes. President-elect Biden is an old-school politician who values personal relationships. In the time of COVID, USAGM represents a platform for directly engaging audiences in a global conversation on the importance of alliances, the value of collective action and the benefits of progressive democratic ideals over the narrow, dystopian vision of autocrats.

Robert Bole is the former Director Global Strategy at USAGM’s precursor, the Broadcasting Board of Governors. He currently runs the digital practice group at The Signal Group, a public affairs consultancy in Washington D.C.