Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Former VOA Director Ensor: the US has the tools to defeat ISIS and Russian propagandists, but is squandering them


Monday, December 14th 2015

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In an article in this month's Foreign Policy, former VOA Director David Ensor writes that U.S. public diplomacy "is important but the effort is far too modest."
"Recently the Pentagon, unhappy that the State Department’s anti-terrorism recruiting effort is so limited, obtained a green light from Congress to launch an effort of its own, written into the2016 Defense Authorization Act. That is not a bad thing: The Pentagon can add much greater resources both to disrupt the Islamic State’s online activities and to countermessage against their recruiters. But the work should be coordinated at a high level, and should be under civilian control.
"Teams in the Arab world should be funded to follow the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates on every possible chat room and website, countering their appeals in real time. And the communication should all be done by Arab partners in the region, not by Washington.
"Overall, since public diplomacy programs moved to the State Department in 1999, they have suffered from budget cuts and leadership turnover. It’s a sad reality that public diplomacy efforts tend not to be valued by the State Department as highly as conventional diplomacy. In the digital age, that thinking is out of date.
"There has also been a shortage of clarity and resources over at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which was established as USIA closed, to oversee U.S. broadcasting and media, including the Voice of America (VOA). In January 2013, Secretary Hillary Clinton didn’t mince words about what she thought of its efforts, telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the BBG was “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.”
"Now, some three years later, it’s clear that the nine part-time appointees that comprise the BBG should never have been asked to run a complex group of media companies — part Federal, part independent grantees — through a period of rapid change in global media. Though the bipartisan board was needed to create a firewall protecting the independence of the journalism from interference by policymakers, it was often unable to play an effective executive decision-making role. As a result, there was a damaging period of policy drift, bureaucratic rivalry, and budget cuts. It did not help that there were long periods when the board was not complete — positions were left empty by the White House and Senate, sometimes for over a year.
"Fortunately, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and the current board understand the structural problem and what to do about it. The BBG’s recent appointment of a full-time chief executive officer for U.S. international media is an excellent first step. But CEO John Lansing, a seasoned media manager, needs legislation giving him clear authority over all budgets and personnel. A proposal in the House of Representatives (HR 2323) could actually make things worse, accentuating the rivalry and competition for resources by placing VOA under a different board and CEO than its three smaller sister entities: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
"Despite the problems and even though its budget has declined in real dollars, VOA’s audience over the last four years has increased 40 percent from 134 million to almost 188 million in over 45 languages. In a world where broadcasters like RT, formerly Russia Today, peddle half-truths, spin, and disinformation, journalism done with the old-fashioned goals of objectivity and balance is more important than ever."
You can read the entire article at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/14/how-washington-can-win-the-information-war/
The article is adapted from Ensor's paper, "Exporting the First Amendment: Strengthening U.S. Sodt [sic] Power through Journalism," which is on line at http://shorensteincenter.org/exporting-the-first-amendment-david-ensor/
One person has commented on this article so far

Author: Adam Powell
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CUSIB disagrees with Mr. Ensor

The directors of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB), a non-partisan NGO, disagree with most of Mr. Ensor's analysis and his proposed solutions for U.S. international media outreach. We do appreciate efforts undertaken by BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and CEO John Lansing to improve the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Therefore we were more than surprised that in recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations they both argued that the current oversight arrangement for BBG media entities is sufficient and that all that is needed is one CEO with enhanced powers who can handle it all. Mr. Ensor now makes essentially the same argument. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of both parties, several distinguished former BBG members, former U.S. diplomats, and many other experts disagree with him and with both Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing.
What individual BBG media entities need is much more of truly focused oversight, which one board and one CEO simply cannot provide. These entities have distinct missions which require different sets of experience. Surrogate media outreach combined with providing a forum for opinions is not compatible in many ways with global news outreach, and global news outreach is not always compatible with public diplomacy. Countering propaganda is again something different. The old model of separate missions and separate entities was highly successful during the war of ideas of the Cold War. Hillary Clinton described the new one-board BBG model as "practically defunct." One CEO and the federal bureaucracy under him or her are not going to fix the problem. The Inspector General pointed out that a single oversight board for the BBG and all the entities creates a conflict of interest, because it does.
While Mr. Lansing may be an excellent manager, the next CEO may not be. Even for Mr. Lansing, a successful domestic media executive, it would be next to impossible to be or to become an instant expert in counter-propaganda, foreign policy, public diplomacy, U.S. news and international news. We saw some truly bad entity heads below being appointed by the single BBG board in the past. It took the part-time board members months and even years to replace them. A single CEO is not an institutional reform.
Therefore, we must agree with former BBG member, the Honorable S. Enders Wimbush, that there is a leadership crisis at the BBG, and it will remain unless there is a legislative solution and a major structural reform.
We hope Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing will reconsider their opposition to the key reform provision of the bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill introduced by Rep. Ed Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel and supported by all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
More specialized and entity-focused oversight is needed. Here are just a few examples why.
Voice of America's "State of Fear" opinion roundup article was truly appalling and completely one-sided. The rest of VOA's editorial segment is also confused and not consistent with the VOA Charter.
Chasing after easy audiences, such as Mexico, and self-censoring news to achieve more of such easy placement, self-congratulatory statements about "audience growth" -- all of these are highly problematic, as is claiming these audiences as the evidence of significant "impact." As soft public diplomacy, this may be great. Perhaps, such outreach should be left to one entity. But BBG should focus its energies more on other nations and groups more critical in terms of U.S. national security.
Should audience ratings be allowed to run the publicly-funded BBG? There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating to those whose freedoms are denied. That's where the agency and Mr. Ensor were going in the wrong direction.
VOA had a failed digital media strategy. Not all advertising is bad, but buying Facebook "Likes" with ads paid by taxpayers to fix this problem can be problematic.
While we wait for major institutional reforms, we urge the Broadcasting Board of Governors to focus on these issues and on the treatment of employees throughout the agency. This is an area where some small progress has been made thanks to Chairman Shell, this board, and some former board members such as the Honorable Ambassador Victor Ashe. But a lot more remains to be done than what Mr. Ensor suggests in his article.
Ted Lipien
Director, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting, former acting associate director of the Voice of America

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