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.

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

No, the US Agency for Global Media does not compete with US commercial media

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.

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Shortwave Radio: Reaching Dissidents in China? Good theory, but…

International Broadcasting Stations of the United States (May 15, 1939)

Shortwave radio was a mainstay of international news and information programs. It was the “new media” embraced to bypass and overcome the censorship of cables, the “old media.” This was particularly true in the United States. Radio broadcasting was seen as such an important and critical element to our national security a century ago that the Secretary of the Navy, a newspaper owner interested in the psychological defense of the nation, tried several times to nationalize wireless transmitters. He may have failed, but he contributed to forcing a British firm to sell their U.S. broadcasting assets which became the Radio Corporation of America. Indicative of the importance of the medium, RCA voting stock could only be owned by U.S. citizens, a restriction that was not removed until the 1980s. 

Continue reading “Shortwave Radio: Reaching Dissidents in China? Good theory, but…

Don’t do it: why the Foreign Agent designation is welcomed by RT and Sputnik

The discussion on whether to classify the broadcasters RT, formerly Russia Today, and Sputnik as foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act is full of nuance, most of which is absent in the public debates over the topic. The fundamental question at issue is whether these two broadcasters are under both the direction and receiving funding from the Kremlin. There is no debate over the latter, while management of both unconvincingly disputes the former. But as we ask the question, we should know not just why we are asking, but what is the outcome we seek to achieve. Continue reading “Don’t do it: why the Foreign Agent designation is welcomed by RT and Sputnik

Sputnik and the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA)

Earlier this week, Yahoo News reported the FBI is looking into whether Kremlin-funded and directed media agency is operating in the U.S. as an unregistered agent of a foreign government. Ironically, the FBI obtained a cache of internal Sputnik email and documents that will assist the bureau in its investigation. The timing of the probe coincides with interest by some in Congress to update the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA, to deal with modern operations such as Russia’s Sputnik and RT, the media outlet formerly known as Russia Today.

Over two years ago, May 2015, I wrote about FARA as it related to RT. The article has not aged and applies equally to Sputnik today. I suggest you read it if you haven’t already as it includes the relevant history of the creation, implementation, and evolution of FARA. Today, as it has been for over two decades, the application of FARA to foreign media activities in the U.S. has been neutered as a direct result of watering down the impact of FARA on information created and distributed by the Canadian government in the United States designed to influence public opinion and U.S. policies.

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The Smith-Mundt Act: A legislative history from 1953 by Burton Paulu

This 1953 Journalism Quarterly article by Burton Paulu entitled “Smith-Mundt Act- A legislative history” (3.7mb PDF) is an interesting and short read for anyone wanting to know more about the early discussions around the start of U.S. public diplomacy. The timing of this particular paper is interesting. Continue reading “The Smith-Mundt Act: A legislative history from 1953 by Burton Paulu

When do we start the honest debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act?

Sardonic? Ironic? Satire? Which word best fits the the lack of serious debate over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act and the realities for which public diplomacy and international broadcasting are required and operate? See my post at the Public Diplomacy Council about this. 

What is it about U.S. public diplomacy that we must hide it from Americans? Is it so abhorrent that it would embarrass the taxpayer, upset the Congress (which has surprisingly little additional insight on the details of public diplomacy), or upend our democracy? Of our international broadcasting, such as the Voice of America, do we fear the content to be so persuasive and compelling that we dare not permit the American media, academia, nor the Congress, let alone the mere layperson, to have the right over oversight to hold accountable their government? [Read the rest here]

Also, see Josh Rogin’s Much ado about State Department ‘propaganda’.

Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting (Part Three): A New Structure

Guest Post By Alex Belida

Having drafted a new mission statement for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) stressing the primacy of journalistic values and having proposed that a new non-partisan Board be composed mainly of media veterans, let us now focus on a more efficient structure for U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB) that will attract greater audiences. Continue reading “Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting (Part Three): A New Structure

Beijing makes its voice heard: CCTV expands in the U.S.

The FT today reports on the continuing expansion of China’s CCTV in the United States. “China has started to serve US citizens its own side of the story with CCTV America,” writes the FT’s reporter.

CCTV America, from its studio in Washington, D.C., is part of Beijing’s outreach of telling its own story through its own voice.  The expansion has been dramatic and expensive.  They are covering stories of Chinese interest that are not covered by Western media or not covered in a way the Chinese want.  Such is the purpose and advantage of Government International Broadcasting.

Continue reading “Beijing makes its voice heard: CCTV expands in the U.S.

Whisper of America?

Alan Heil

Guest Post By Alan Heil

Under the Obama administration’s proposed FY 13 budget, the potential damage to the nation’s flagship publicly-funded overseas network, the Voice of America, would be unprecedented if Congress approves it.  Contrast the reductions:  VOA faces net cuts totaling $17 million, compared with a reduction of $731,000 for its sister network, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Continue reading “Whisper of America?

All Quiet on the Western Front: a look at the Five-Year Strategic Plan for U.S. International Broadcasting

By Alan L. Heil Jr.
This article originally appeared at American Diplomacy. It is republished here, slightly modified, with permission of the author and American Diplomacy.

As the Voice of America marks its 70th anniversary, what lies ahead for all of the world’s publicly-funded overseas networks in the year ahead? For Western broadcasters collectively, 2011 was the most potentially devastating year in more than eight decades on the air. Now, because of fiscal uncertainties in their host countries and rapidly evolving competition from both traditional and new media, they face huge cuts in airtime and operations. Can America step up to help fill the gap? A new strategic plan for U.S.-funded overseas broadcasting charts a possible path.

Over the years, the government networks in Europe and North America have offered a window on the world and a beacon of hope for hundreds of millions of information-denied or impoverished people on the planet. They have done so by offering accurate, in-depth, credible news, ideas, educational and cultural fare, consistent with Western journalistic norms and the free flow of information enshrined in the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. The broadcasts have enhanced America’s security, and even saved lives. They helped foster a largely peaceful end to the Cold War.

Continue reading “All Quiet on the Western Front: a look at the Five-Year Strategic Plan for U.S. International Broadcasting

The Future of U.S. International Broadcasting: A Call for Debate on its Mission and Funding

By Alex Belida
With the 70th anniversary of the Voice of America approaching (Feb. 1st), it is an ideal time to assess the future prospects for U.S. International Broadcasting (USIB).

USIB has, over the past 70 years, grown into a multi-headed conglomerate.  Besides VOA, it now includes Radio Free Europe (founded 1950), Radio Liberty (founded 1953 and merged with RFE in 1976), Radio Marti (founded 1983) and TV Marti (founded 1990), Radio Free Asia (founded 1996) and the Middle East Broadcasting Network comprised of Radio Sawa (founded 2002) and Al-Hurra TV (founded 2004).

The current Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), headed by Walter Isaacson, this month approved resolutions (see record of decisions Jan. 13) aimed at consolidating these operations.  As a first step, the Board will study the feasibility of merging into a single corporate structure the three so-called Grantee or surrogate entities – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network.  Secondly the Board will seek legislative approval to create a Chief Executive Officer to oversee day-to-day operations of these non-federal elements of USIB as well as the federal elements, the Voice of America and Radio-TV Marti.

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Bye NPR. Hello BBC, Al Jazeera, Chinese Radio.

The decision by Congress the House of Representatives to defund NPR and block local public radio stations from using federal money to acquire NPR content is, like any action, likely to have interesting unintended consequences. This action comes at a time when demand for information and knowledge of affairs around the globe continues to grow, to focus on just of the many values of NPR. 

Congress The House is creating an opportunity that the US commercial media is unlikely to take advantage of, for whatever reason. The old giants of radio news, from CBS to NBC to the AP are unlikely to jump into the new gap and coverage of similar breadth and depth. The AP has the content, but will their agreements with their members – they are an association with members – allow them to provide content to radio that may also be carried by the local paper? Will Federal Communication Commission rules prevent local newspapers and television from expanding into the space presumably to be vacated by NPR?

The most likely winner, at least the short term, will be foreign government broadcasters. Already, local public radio stations often fill gaps in programming with news from the BBC. It is easy to imagine demand for the BBC will increase if programming from NPR becomes unavailable or drops in quality. But BBC is not the only game in town. The recent performance of Al Jazeera English in covering the Middle East may embolden AJE to explore avenues. I would be surprised if Russia Today wasn’t actively seeking to expand its reach. The same for Chinese Government broadcasters, including Xinhua and Radio China International. I do not anticipate a large expansion into public radio, however.

Forget of course other tax-payer supported news organizations from being legally available to news consumers within America’s borders.

What are you thoughts on this potential example of the law of unintended consequences?

Update/clarification: As NPR points out, including NPR’s Andy Carvin, only 2% of NPR’s funding is federal.

Russia Today (RT) expands into San Francisco, claims ratings success in Washington and New York

As the debate over whether Al Jazeera English should be available in the United States continues, Russia Today, the Russian government’s international news channel, quietly makes inroads across the United States. Kim Andrew Elliott, audience analyst at the International Broadcasting Bureau, a unit of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, draws our attention to a press release from RT from 11 February 2011:

RT, an international TV news channel, has launched its English-language feed, 24×7, on San Francisco’s major cable provider, Comcast, which brings it to approximately 4 million viewers in the San Francisco metro area.

In the U.S., RT is carried by cable networks in New York, NY; Chicago, IL; Washington, DC; and in Los Angeles, CA. …

Nielsen Media research showed RT’s average daily audience in Washington, DC, as exceeding that of Deutsche Welle, France 24, Euronews, and CCTV News, the English-language Chinese news channel. In New York metro, the Nielsen survey indicated that RT’s daily audience exceeds the average daily audience of Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera English and CCTV News.

Almost one-half (42.6%) of RT viewers* in Washington, DC, and in New York, NY,** appreciate RT’s critical take on news of the day, as well as its different stance from the mainstream media, and see it as a reliable alternative. The majority (87%) of respondents consider mainstream TV channels, such as CNN and BBC America, to be partisan. …

RT, an international TV news channel in English, Spanish, and Arabic is carried in the US by cable TV providers in Washington, DC; New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; and now in San Francisco, CA.  GlobeCast WorldTV, a satellite provider, makes RT available elsewhere in the U.S.  RT broadcasts 24×7 from its studios in Moscow, Russia, as well as from Washington, DC, in the U.S.  All of its content is available live at www.RT.com.

It is ironic that foreign governments, be they China or Russia or Iran or the United Kingdom, or terrorists, can freely broadcast to Americans – increasingly from studios within the U.S. At one time, such foreign government material was officially considered propaganda. Today, it is only the U.S. Government media that is considered propaganda and off-limits to audiences who request them. Isn’t it time to revisit this?

See also:

A New Kind of “Static” for All Media

By Alan Heil

"New media and old media converge to become now media."  That maxim, so persuasively articulated by 21st century public diplomacy guru Matt Armstrong, has now become real in a Voice of America Persian language television program called Parazit.  That virtual Comedy Central to Iran airs a half hour every Friday evening, and features a pair of comedian-satirists named Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi.

Parazit means "static" in Persian, and VOA audiences can’t seem to get enough of it because its targeted treatment of Iranian political figures and political practice are a welcome relief from the tiresome monotony of state television in Iran.  Last month, about 19 million people visited Parazit’s Facebook page to get a taste of its irreverent humor.  Over the past six months, the program’s popularity has surged to unprecedented heights.  Not only does it attract many of VOA’s 15 million regular viewers to its Persian News Network (PNN), it has caused an enormous surge in the number of VOA’s Parazit Facebook friends (now close to 300,000 people).  In the last month, Facebook recorded more than 20 million impressions on Parazit’s page.

Continue reading “A New Kind of “Static” for All Media

Another US Deficit – China and America – Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN)The Senate Foreign Relations Committee released its report on the imbalance of public diplomacy activities between China and the United States. Entitled “Another U.S. Deficit – China and America – Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet,” this is the final version of the report I reviewed on 11 February. Commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Ranking Member of the Committee, the report is a unique and necessary review of Chinese Government engagement in America. The report also highlights Chinese obstruction of reciprocity and U.S. Government failure to act, notably in the area of information freedom initiatives.

The timing of this report is critical. It comes on the heels of the recent U.S. visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao. More importantly, it comes at a time when the U.S. diplomacy budget, public and otherwise (is there really any diplomacy that is not in some part negotiated in public?), is under threat in today’s austere budget environment. At risk is the development and implementation of smart policies that, coupled with unfettered access to information to create knowledge, ultimately have a greater and more enduring bang for the buck than the kinetic effect of any smart munition.

Senator Lugar closes his letter that opens the report, a 2-page letter that you should read if you do not have the time or inclination to read even the report’s executive summary, with the hope the report will “stimulate dialogue within Congress.” It certainly should.

Read the report here (1.55mb PDF).

See also:

Freedom to Connect

By Jerry Edling

“You will not be able to stay home, brother.

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.” — Gil Scott-Heron, From the album “Small Talk at 125th and Lennox” (1970)

“The revolution will not be televised…but it may be tweeted.” Posted on weeseeyou.com

January 28, 2011

Freedom to ConnectIn some ways, Gil Scott-Heron’s song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was ahead of its time. The lyrics were recited rather than sung, accompanied by congas and a bongo drum, making it either a vestige of beat poetry or one of the first examples of rap. His point, which must be understood in the context of domestic unrest in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the U.S., was that the revolution was not a pre-packaged bit of pop culture, sanitized for your protection and brought to you with minimal commercial interruption by Xerox. The revolution, in his opinion, was real; or, as the final line of the song reads,

“The revolution will be no re-run, brothers; The revolution will be live.”

Little did he know that in the 21st century a revolution of a different sort would be live and it would be televised. And yes, as the quip on weeseeyou.com vividly notes, it would be tweeted. As of this writing, the Biblical land of Egypt is illuminated with cell phone lights and fireworks as mobs with no definable leaders spill into the streets to celebrate the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president after weeks of protest and unrest. The revolution was televised, and the power to bring those images to the world was in the hands of the revolutionaries themselves.

Continue reading “Freedom to Connect

China and American Public Diplomacy: Another US Deficit

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) will publish another major report on public diplomacy shortly. Written by Paul Foldi, senior professional staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this report focuses on Chinese public diplomacy with the inevitable comparison to U.S. efforts. I was given a sneak peak at the report. It comes at a time when tough talk in Congress on the State Department’s budget could benefit from such an analysis of a country that is both a major competitor and partner across all aspects of national power and daily life.

This report is another in-depth investigation and commentary on a critical aspect of U.S. global engagement. It focuses on the China-United States exchange. This is the third report sponsored by Senator Lugar to reinvigorate public diplomacy. While the other two were on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (6/2010) and the American Centers (2/2009), this report focused primarily on China. The effect serves to expose not only the broad, extended, and expensive effort of the Chinese to engage foreign audiences, it also highlights opportunities and failed opportunities for the U.S.  

Continue reading “China and American Public Diplomacy: Another US Deficit

RFE/RL President Jeff Gedmin to Depart for Legatum Institute

imageThe Broadcasting Board of Governors announced this morning that Jeff Gedmin has resigned from RFE/RL. Jeff will depart Prague-based RFE/RL at the end of February 2011, four years after taking the helm. He will leave to become the CEO/President of Legatum Institute in London, “investors in industries, individuals and ideas.”

Jeff told Josh Rogin that it was “the right time to move on because if I’m telling my people to step out of their comfort zone and be open to growth, I have to be able to take my own advice.”

Walter Isaacson, chairman of the BBG, said in a statement, “Jeff’s passion for the power of the truth has been a great inspiration for all of us involved in international broadcasting.” Walter added that the “Board looks forward to Jeff serving as a valuable adviser in the future.”

Dennis Mulhaupt, member of the BBG and chairman of the corporate board of RFE/RL, described Jeff as “an exceptional leader of RFE/RL over the past four years.”

RFE/RL is part of the domain overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors but operates more independently than the Voice of America. RFE/RL was established in in 1950 as Radio Free Europe (RFE). In 1976, Radio Liberty (RL) and RFE merged. Today, RFE/RL broadcasts in 28 languages to 21 countries, as well as maintaining a robust online presence that is underappreciated. According to RFE/RL, it has over 400 full-time journalists, 750 freelancers and 20 local bureaus.

I wish Jeff the best and congratulate him on leaving RFE/RL better and stronger than when he started.