Adam Clayton Powell III, publicdiplomacycouncil.org
Monday, January 4th 2016
Here is the prepared text of remarks by David Ensor, former Director, Voice of America, at the January 4, 2016, PDC / USC lunch forum:
"How Washington Can Win the Information War"
January 4, 2016
My print journalism colleagues used to complain about newspaper headline writers who would exaggerate the contents of their articles to create an attention-grabbing headline.
The title of this talk may frankly be in that category. It’s the headline given to an article I recently published, and it makes a promise of more wisdom from me here today than I suspect any one of us has—but maybe it helped convince you to come here, right?
Also, the headline writer chose the term “Information War”. My friend Admiral Jim Stavridis, Dean of the Tufts Fletcher School has said he thinks the “war of ideas” is as flawed a concept as “the war on drugs”. In practice, he says, we need a “marketplace of ideas” which presents positive alternatives—and not just “the negative side of radical Islam.”
I do not have all the answers to how ‘Washington can win the Information War’—or prevail, if you prefer, in the “marketplace of ideas”.
But I would like to offer you some thoughts today on the road forward…from the perspective of someone honored to have led the Voice of America for four years, after 16 months doing public diplomacy in Afghanistan, and 30 years as a broadcast journalist.
For starters: we need to face facts. We will not do well enough in this arena until as a country we take it more seriously.
It is clear from our recent history in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere that America cannot prevail globally with hard power alone. But the nation’s capacity to participate meaningfully in the global battle of ideas has been allowed to decline in recent years even as the information challenges we face grow and change.
In a world where Vladimir Putin “weaponizes” information and where terrorists recruit on the internet, the United States has no one in overall charge of its information efforts. It has repeatedly cut the budget for public diplomacy, and also for spending in real terms on exporting honest journalism.
As most here know, when the U.S. Information Agency was disbanded as a “peace” dividend at the end of the Cold War, public diplomacy efforts were moved to the State Department. International broadcasting was put under a bipartisan board.
Let’s start with the advocacy side of the equation—and public diplomacy. Since ’99, it has suffered from weak budgets and excessive leadership turnover. Understandably perhaps but unfortunately, public diplomacy tends not to be valued at the Department as highly as conventional diplomacy.
Frankly, in the digital age, that way of thinking is out of date.
In recent weeks, both President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the democratic candidate and former Secretary of State have called for American digital technology companies to help the government prevent terrorists from using social media and the internet to propagandize and recruit.
There is the whole post-Snowden debate about encryption tools, and what is the proper place for our country on the scale between security and privacy? That is a big, complex topic--not my subject today. I simply mention it--this front burner issue-- to underscore the nation’s need for fulltime, sustained leadership in information policy.
There is a counter messaging aspect of this too. The State Department has a $5.8 million effort to counter ISIS recruiting on line. The work is critically important but frankly the effort is much too small. So it may be just as well that in the upcoming Defense Authorization, the Pentagon is given permission to launch a bigger effort of its own.
Going forward however, maintaining civilian control and high level coordination will be key—as will strong partnerships with allies in the region. The actual efforts--in website chat rooms and on social media should in my view be done by Arab partners in the region, not here in Washington.
Of course, there is much more to public diplomacy than just countering ISIS on the internet. One of the most effective efforts in Afghanistan was to strengthen the Afghan media. It was highly successful. Afghanistan’s media sector is vibrant, though it faces new challenges as the Taliban takes back some territory. It will need some continued support.
But there may be no more powerful way to project American values and help our friends around the world than to export the first amendment by broadcasting truthful journalism.
Because the US is one of relatively few nations where there is no state broadcaster on the air, few Americans realize that the Voice of America is actually among the world’s most influential media organizations.
In November, VOA’s parent agency the Broadcasting Board of Governors issued its annual report on global audiences. In the past four years, VOA’s audience has grown 40 percent, to almost 188 million people per week. They listen, watch or read VOA on everything from shortwave radio to satellite TV, from smartphone apps to Facebook and Twitter.
This robust growth has come despite budget cuts in real terms.
It has also come despite basic problems with the governance structure over VOA and its sister entities. The idea behind the creation of the bipartisan BBG was laudable: to create a firewall protecting the independence of the journalism from interference by policymakers.
But how can nine busy people run a large complex collection of companies, as a part time activity?
The BBG has had difficulty sometimes playing an effective executive decision-making role.
It has not helped that the White House and Senate have often left seats unfilled for long periods.
Fortunately, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and the current board understand the structural problem and what to do about it. They rightly want to get out of the business of running US international broadcasting month-to-month.
The BBG’s recent appointment of a full-time executive officer for U.S. international media is an excellent first step. What’s needed is a fulltime, professional boss.
But John Lansing, a seasoned media manager, needs legislation giving him clear authority over all budgets and personnel. Unfortunately, there is a bill currently before the House of Representatives which unless amended could actually make things worse.
The current draft of HR 2323 would create yet another board and another CEO to oversee three of VOA’s sister entities-- Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network. So now there would be two separate and competing U.S. civilian broadcasting efforts. There would be a needless duplication of oversight and management layers. It would also exacerbate an already unhealthy rivalry over funding and market roles between the Radio Frees and the Voice of America.
Furthermore the bill has language ordering VOA, which has always been a full service news broadcaster, to cover only news relating to the U.S. or US policies. That would be a poison pill—a recipe for declining audiences and impact.
Instead, of confrontation—and divorce--we need a model of collaboration—between VOA and its sister organizations. We need more projects like the Russian language TV show “Current Time”, created after the seizure of Crimea, with anchors in Washington and Prague—co-produced by RFE and VOA, and seen on 25 stations in nine countries, not to mention live streamed by a couple of million Russians inside the Russian Federation.
Neither RFE nor VOA could have done it alone.
I would urge those of you who are interested to take a look at the bill, and let your representatives and Senators know what you think.
I understand there is an argument being made in recent days by some Radio Free alumnae that somehow it might not be acceptable, or even legal for a Federal CEO to oversee the independent grantees. The point is this: John Lansing is not an Administration Federal appointee. He was chosen by a bipartisan board. He is protected by a political firewall.
Let me turn now for a few minutes to what I think is a key question in our fast changing media world. What should VOA and its sister entities be? In a digital world with a cacophony of voices, where broadcasters like RT peddle half truths, spin and disinformation, is journalism done with the old fashioned goals of objectivity and balance still the answer, or is it time simply to advocate for government policies as many of the newer state broadcasters are doing?
This is not a new debate. It has been revisited many times since VOA’s founding as Alan Heil’s excellent history of VOA tells us. But once again recently a number of influential voices have called for VOA to be a full-throated advocate for American policy rather than a journalistic enterprise.
For a research paper at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government this past semester, I looked at the two models in the marketplace now, comparing VOA, and the BBC World Service with newer channels that advocate and spin for their governments. I looked at some data on Russia’s RT, China’s CCTV and at the coverage by Al Jazeera Arabic of the events in places like Egypt.
If the goal is to seek to influence publics in strategic places around the world, then I would say the evidence is pretty clear. Influence is a difficult thing to measure, but rest assured, without measurable audience, you will not have it.
RT for example claims a worldwide reach of 700 million people, but that claim is deliberately misleading. The Russians use “potential audience reach” as their metric—in other words every person who could possibly see their programming because it is on a satellite overhead, or is on a cable menu of hundreds of stations available to them. No one in the business uses that metric. It is meaningless. We all measure actual audience.
Thus the VOA audience estimate of 188 million is based on careful polling by the Gallop organization and others—as is the BBC World Service estimate that it has a worldwide audience 300 million people a week.
After the shooting down of a Malaysian Air jet over Ukraine, the world’s media reported on the mounting evidence that the weapon used was Russian made and could have been fired from a town held by Russian backed rebels.
RT, in those early days, cranked out a new theory on who could have been responsible for almost every news cycle. Maybe it was Ukrainians trying to shoot down Putin’s plane? Maybe it was a CIA conspiracy? If the goal was confusion, RT’s approach may have been partially successful, but if the goal was credibility with lots of people—not so much.
While RT does not put out detailed, backed up audience estimates, there are some numbers available. In the UK for example, in May 2013 when the Ukraine story broke, RT was 175th out of 278 channels, with 120,000 viewers. As RT’s coverage became increasingly shrill and one sided that number dropped—to 90,000 one year later—less than two tenths of one percent of the UK viewing population.
In the United States, RT claims a solid audience but does not make public data from the Nielsen company or elsewhere to back that up. And a Nielsen press official told one reporter that RT’s American audience is too small to be measured.
China’s CCTV with a budget in the multiple billions of dollars, has poured money into broadcasting in Africa, yet the results also appear so far to have been relatively disappointing. For example, data gathered for the BBG from Kenya in 2013 showed 52% of Kenyans watching a local channel called Citizen TV, 17% watched CNN, seven percent watched the BBC and just two percent watched CCTV.
In Egypt, when al Jazeera Arabic moved to heavily biased content in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, it lost a substantial share of audience, much to new Egyptian channels, but also to BBC Arabic.
I’m not sure we Americans would be much good at propaganda anyway, but after looking at the numbers, I am convinced. Honesty on the air is not only the right thing to do, it is the more successful business strategy.
Now of course that means telling the truth—even about ourselves.
Coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Snowden revelations, and the protests in Ferguson Mo about police killing of young African Americans by VOA had to be thorough.
Each time VOA reporters explain how this country deals with its challenges, their journalism amounts to a civics lesson--more powerful, in my view, than any propaganda could ever be.
After four years at the helm of VOA, I have a lot of suggestions for how to build impact and audiences in specific markets around the world from what we call “denied areas” like Russia, China and Iran to mature markets like Indonesia and Latin America, to key growth areas like Africa, but I have spoken too long already. They are summarized in my paper which you can find on the website of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
But, in brief: we can do much more to influence our world for the better, but we will need to set up a clear leadership structure and to more adequately fund both international broadcasting and public diplomacy.
Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy recruited the famed journalist Edward R. Murrow to advise him on information policy, and to run USIA.
Perhaps President Obama—or his successor—should hire an information advisor who is similarly experienced.
In the age of RT and ISIS on line recruiting—in our digital age—it is time for our country to more effectively engage in the marketplace of ideas.
We should not delay. Thank you.
These remarks were based on Ensor's report, "Exporting the First Amendment," prepared while he was a Fellow at Harvard University. That paper is available athttp://shorensteincenter.org/exporting-the-first-amendment-david-ensor/C- SPAN: International Broadcasting and the Information War: David Ensor talked about the state of U.S. international broadcasting and how Washington can win the so-called “information war” against Russia, China, ISIS*, and other rivals.
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