Republican member of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Russia expert Dr. Leon Aron, has confirmed the inadequacy of U.S. BBG media outreach in countering Russian government’s propaganda and suggested more Western support for indigenous free Russian-language media is needed. Dr. Aron said that “ultimately the most effective countermeasure to the Russian propaganda is not –is not — just the U.S. airwaves, but the empowering the local Russian-speaking population in the former Soviet countries.”
Responding to a question from the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Dr. Aron said on Capitol Hill during a hearing on “U.S. Policy Towards Putin’s Russia” that while the BBG is working with the congressional committee to improve Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) programs, in his view the most effective way of countering Putin propaganda and disinformation is by supporting independent journalists and media outlets in the region through grants distributed by governments and NGOs.
REP. ED ROYCE: “There has to be a more effective way to move forward to counter this disinformation, get the facts out there, and, item by item, knock this stuff down with, you know, knock this narrative down with the truth about what’s going on. Because, obviously, it is having an impact, in among the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Europe, certainly, but beyond that now. This is being translated in all these other languages, and it’s just a constant big lie propaganda effort, that has to be countered.
Dr. Aron, any response on that?”
DR. LEON ARON: “Well, Mr. Chairman, I have to put on my BGG governor hat. We have a good relationship with your committee. We’re working together to make U.S. international broadcasting more effective.
Let me tell you though that my own experience is that ultimately the most effective countermeasure to the Russian propaganda is not –is not — just the U.S. air waves, but the empowering the local Russian-speaking population in the former Soviet countries. I’m sorry, former Soviet Union.”
REP. ED ROYCE: “Reporters and stringers.”
DR. LEON ARON: “Reporters, stringers, through a non-government and government grants. One of the examples that I believe I gave are testifying on the issue of the Russian propaganda in the Senate was StopFake, which is a very effective site in Kiev run by the students of the Department of Journalism. This is ultimately the only way to counter the Russian propaganda, because it gives the people of those countries and, of course, this could be spread. Similar efforts are occurring in the Baltics and in the Central Asia.”
While 1. the question of grants to free Russian media and independent journalists was not discussed during the hearing; 2. Dr. Aron is only one member of the nine-person BBG board (there are currently eight), and 3. he has not said directly that the agency should give grants to independent journalists and media outlets in the region, theUnited States International Broadcasting Act of 1994, as amended in 1998, already gives the BBG an authority to issue such grants.
The Act says, “If the Board determines at any time that RFE/RL, Incorporated, is not carrying out the functions described in section 309 in an effective and economical manner, the Board may award the grant to carry out such functions to another entity after soliciting and considering applications from eligible entities in such manner and accompanied by such information as the Board may reasonably require.”
This language in the United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994, as amended in 1998, applies specifically to RFE/RL, but Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recently has introduced an amendment to the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act that, if passed in its current form and signed by the President, would de-federalize the Voice of America. What will happen to the Thornberry Amendment and what could result from it if it ever becomes law remains to be seen, but even now the BBG has sufficient authority to manage U.S. international media outlets and some flexibility in giving out grants according to what is in America’s best interests.
This particular Amendment as currently written is not, in fact, in America’s best interests. BBG CEO John Lansing assured VOA staff that “the House amendment as written would NOT require that VOA be de-federalized or abolished, or require the loss of any jobs or positions.” This probably means that he would not use the authority to de-federalize VOA if the Amendment becomes law in its current form. In my view, theAmendment would further damage U.S. international media outreach. By all indications, the agency is already doing a very poor job, as freely admitted even by one of its board members, and does not need to marginalize Voice of America journalists and further undermine their mission just to punish the inept management.
It’s the BBG, VOA, and RFE/RL management, rather than BBG’s journalists, that bears almost all the blame for the agency’s poor performance. When looking at and comparing BBG media to some of the few still free Russian media outlet, Leonid Ragozin, an independent journalist and Lonely Planet author, came to a conclusion similar to Dr. Aron’s in a January 2015 openDemocracy Russia article, “Speaking to the Russophones.” Despite receiving far less funding, these free Russian media outlets are performing much better than Radio Liberty, Voice of America, or even BBC.
“BBC Russian Service, Radio Liberty, and the Voice of America all have video operations that could be potentially expanded into fully-fledged channels, but they suffer from a deep existential crisis. Who are they talking to and why? What is their mission (apart from satisfying the ego of their Western managers or government officials who prefer to ignore how little impact these outlets have on their target audiences, despite generous funding)?
On the contrary, garage-style projects launched and run by Russians without any foreign assistance, instantly capture vast audiences in Russia and beyond. Despite (or actually thanks to) the immense pressure from the authorities, the now iconic Russian independent channel Dozhd [Rain TV] is now surviving entirely by selling subscription to its online broadcast, which perhaps provides the healthiest commercial model for the Russian media market post-Putin. Dozhd is hugely popular with Russophones in the EU, and already provides a viable alternative to Putin’s TV – without any help from the Eurocrats.”
Dr. Aron is absolutely right on the point of effectiveness of truly surrogate free Russian-language media, whatever is left of it inside the country and abroad. He alluded only briefly to BBG’s asserted cooperation with the House Foreign Affairs Committee on reforming RFE/RL and VOA outreach in Russian. In fact, both BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG CEO John Lansing are on the record officially opposing key bipartisan reforms proposed by Chairman Ed Royce and the committee’s Ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). These two BBG officials both insisted that current reforms undertaken by John Lansing are sufficient and all that is now required is providing the single BBG CEO with more authority. My sources on Capitol Hill tell me that Chairman Royce and many of the other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are profoundly disappointed with the agency’s leadership and their opposition to the bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill.
The BBG has badly mismanaged its media outreach over the years despite spending billions of dollars, mostly to benefit its own bureaucracy. Independent research shows that some of the still free Russian media outlets, such as MEDUZA or Rain TV, are doing far better online and through social media that either VOA or RFE/RL, and, judging by web traffic, have far more credibility with the audience than the U.S.-funded broadcasters, an observation similar to the one made earlier by Leonid Ragozin.
According to Alexa Internet, Inc. a California-based Amazon company that provides commercial web traffic data and analytics, BBG media sites are far behind MEDUZA and Rain TV in web traffic in Russia.
BBC Russian Service’s rank in Russia could not be measured in Alexa because it shows a result for all BBC programs. BBC’s overall Alexa ranking in Russia is 100 and BBC’s global ranking is 128. (1 is best.) VOA English site’s global Alexa ranking is 4,854. BBC Russian Service has nearly three times as many Facebook “Likes” as VOA Russian Service Facebook page.
BBG and RFE/RL executives know that the agency has a minuscule audience and very little impact in Russia. They like to obscure this fact by touting misleading and largely meaningless statistics, such as the annual number of web visitors. What really counts is a weekly reach and impact. Gallup, which is under contract to the BBG to provide audience research, reported that some of the BBG programs may actually have a negative impact in Russia.
Longtime BBG executive Jeff Trimble listening to a Gallup presentation that support for Crimea being forcefully annexed by Russia is higher among adults who use both Russian and Western media, suggesting that BBG programs may still have a negative impact for the United States. February 2016.
I have been saying this for years. The BBG bureaucracy’s push to merge all of its media outlets under one BBG administrative umbrella and one CEO has been a major strategic mistake because it deprived surrogate media outlets such as RFE/RL of the independence and flexibility needed to be perceived in the region as a free and dynamic local player, which it had been earlier.
Unfortunately, new BBG CEO John Lansing seems to have accepted the bureaucracy’s public relations advice and keeps touting recent programming cooperation on the Russian language television program “Current Time” between VOA and RFE/RL as an achievement, when in fact the mixing of brands is harmful to the different missions of both organizations, especially RFE/RL’s surrogate mission. Many Russia experts who have seen the RFE/RL-VOA program described it as mediocre. European Russia expert and journalist, Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, compared BBG’s “Current Time” to programs offered by Meduza and Rain TV and concluded that the U.S. “Congress must understand that reforming RFE/RL’s Russian Service simply cannot be delayed any longer.” His article was re-posted on the House Foreign Affairs Committee website. “In its present shape, the “Current Time” program has a long way to go to win the audience. The way it looks now, it has no chance to compete with either the poorly-financed independent TV RAIN or the super-rich pro-Kremlin national TV channels,Dzieciolowski observed.
“News from ‘Current Time’ [an RFE/RL and VOA Russian-language TV program] or TV RAIN [an independent Russian channel]? I would always choose TV RAIN, even though they would not attempt to give such wide panorama of events as ‘Current Time.’ But it is about the way TV RAIN is talking to the viewers: they are the channel’s partners, their language and values are the same. Watching TV RAIN you have the feeling they would show you wise men from whom you have a chance to learn something. ‘Current Time’ instead is a cocktail of news presented as fast food served with plastic fork and spoon, instead of a gourmet meal and real silverware. And they don’t even have a Big Mac on the menu, just tasteless no name burgers fried by inexperienced cooks.”
This merging of RFE/RL and VOA brands in “Current Time” and in other programs works only to the benefit of the agency’s bloated administration in Washington. It has made RFE/RL largely ineffective in Russia and among Russian speakers in the larger region.
In 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then ex officio BBG member, told Congress that the broadcasting Board of Governors is “practically defunct” and incapable of waging and winning the information war. She was and still is right.
Chairman Royce is also absolutely right on the point of the agency being broken and “losing the info war to ISIS & Putin” when he made that point earlier this year after BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and BBG CEO John Lansing came out in opposition to key reforms in the bipartisan Royce-Engel H.R. 2323 bill, which was unanimously approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. An earlier version of the bill was passed by the House of Representatives but was not picked up by the Senate.
Speaking on June 14, 2016, Rep. Royce said:
REP. ED ROYCE:
“And one way to address this, to get back to a theme that I’ve that I’ve pushed for a number of years here with my colleague Eliot Engel, is the legislation that Elliot and I have advanced to try to get back to a program as we once had with Radio Free Europe, which we should be doing with social media, with television.
We should be broadcasting into Russia, telling Russians what is actually going on in their society, explaining the Russians what’s happening around the world, explaining the issue of tolerance, of political pluralism, of these perceptions that the rest of the world have, and the truth. If Russia is going, if Putin is going to continue to put out disinformation and misinformation and lie about the West, at the very least we could be telling the truth about what’s happening inside Russia to Russians, so that the people had a better understanding of this situation.
Already in the early years of the Internet era, RFE/RL used to be just as effective in Russia as Meduza and Rain TV are now when it still functioned as a largely independent surrogate Russian broadcaster funded by U.S. taxpayers under the direction of such outstanding journalists as Yuri Handler, Mario Corti, and many of their predecessors. But later into the BBG’s governance, Washington-appointed administrators fired or pushed out some of the most talented and independent-minded RL Russian managers and journalists. They were hoping that RFE/RL would be more successful in Russia if it functioned more like the American National Public Radio (NPR). This experiment destroyed Radio Liberty’s independence and brand reputation in Russia and introduced the dysfunction of the Washington bureaucracy into a previously relatively well-managed non-federal, grantee organization.
Perhaps inadvertently and acting against its own interests, RFE/RL confirmed how ineffective Western media, and RFE/RL among them, are in reaching the Russians. The reported weekly reach is only 3%, and that includes in addition to VOA and RFE/RL, BBC, Deutsche Welle and other Western media outlets in Russian, English and perhaps in other languages. If only 3% of Russians use Western media weekly, 97% do not. (87% never use Western media in one year.) However, it is important to note that these reach numbers, as reported by RFE/RL on the basis of the Levada Center research, do not include independent Russian media outlets, which have a higher reach. Dr. Aron at the congressional hearing and Leonid Ragozin and Zygmunt Dzieciolowski in their earlier articles have noted Meduza’s and Rain TV’s much better performance in Russia.
RFE/RL and VOA can regain some of their previous effectiveness if they separate administratively and both re-embrace their former missions. Ultimately, however, in the era of the Internet and under the realities which are different than during the Cold War, Dr. Aron’s advice is correct. Supporting indigenous free media can be more effective as a significant additional effort by the U.S. government while the BBG is being reformed through legislation. The outcome of this reform, if there is any, is far from certain. This week Dr. Aron was visiting RFE/RL headquarters in Prague with new RFE/RL president-designate, distinguished AP journalist Tom Kent, who said that as a child he gave money to support the work of the American Cold War radios, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. He has a hard task ahead of him to make RFE/RL effective and to make it again independent and a true surrogate media outlet.
As to Dr. Aron’s key suggestion about media grants, the U.S. has to make sure that it knows whom it is supporting in Russia. It is safe to assume that ex-KGB spy Vladimir Putin will try to infiltrate and undermine any independent Russian media outlet that threatens his power, including Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. Much more expertise and caution on the part of the U.S. government than what the BBG is currently capable of are essential. This means far stricter hiring standards and more thorough security clearances. The BBG needs a new cadre of experts in journalism, public diplomacy, and foreign policy as well as a proper institutional setup within the U.S. government and under 501(c)3 grantee arrangements to attract knowledgable, competent and dedicated staff. Re-establishing of the old United States Information Agency (USIA) would be an ideal solution.
Also important to keep in mind is that independent Russian media outlets would not be able to do the work of the Voice of America in presenting and explaining the American society and U.S. policies to the Russian speakers, as required by the VOA Charter. De-federalizing and privatizing the Voice of America, as proposed in the Thornberry Amendment, would in effect destroy this unique VOA mission. This cannot be allowed to happen. But not reforming the agency, which already gets close to a billion dollars annually ($777 million in FY 2017 Budget Request) and wastes most of it without achieving any significant impact, would be a major failure of congressional oversight and a threat to U.S. security.
Disclosure: Ted Lipien is a co-founder and supporter of BBG Watch.
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America acting associate director. He was in charge of VOA programs to Poland during Solidarity’s struggle for democracy. He is the author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church,” O-Books, London, 2008.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."