image (Voice of America headquarters) from article
BBG Watch Commentary
Investigative journalist Adam H. Johnson has published an article in The Nation on U.S. Government-funded media attempting to propagandize to Americans while hiding or obscuring U.S. Government connections and funding.
The article exposes the dangers of targeting of Americans by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and the Voice of America (VOA), which is happening despite the usual denials. (BBG’s annual budget from the U.S. Treasury is $777 million) Key BBG bureaucrats had lobbied hard in the U.S. Congress and media, probably in violation of U.S. law, for the lifting of the Smith-Mundt Act restrictions to allow the agency to provide its programs more easily to domestic U.S. media outlets if they request it. As the author of the article in The Nation observes, some of the key restrictions in the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act were lifted through legislation in 2013. But it is the Internet that allows BBG and VOA to propagandize to Americans and possibly even to influence how some individuals within certain ethnic groups will vote. Some of the most anti-Trump, pro-Hillary Clinton Internet content was produced during the 2016 presidential election campaign by VOA’s Ukrainian and Russian services, while at least one highly biased anti-Bernie Sanders commentary was posted on VOA’s English website.
While the author rightly worries about the U.S. Government trying to propagandize to Americans, from our experience most of questionable propaganda, occasionally in support of strategic enemies and adversaries of the United States (Russia, Iran), as well as highly partisan reporting and commentary, have been generated by individual VOA activist reporters, sometimes with and sometimes without encouragement from higher-up officials.
It is worth noting that about half of VOA English online traffic comes from the United States. U.S. Government-employed reporters who are Federal employees and U.S. Government contractors have a relatively free hand in imposing their views on the American public at U.S. taxpayers’ expense, often in violation of the VOA Charter since many recent VOA reports and VOA posted commentaries have expressed highly partisan viewpoints without balance and/or without even stating what official U.S. policies are on various issues.
While some U.S. media outlets on the left of the U.S. political spectrum, including The Washington Post where some of Voice of America’s top managers have good contacts due to previous employment or other connections, have raised alarm that the Trump White House may try to politicize VOA in the future, so far highly partisan, one-sided and strongly anti-Trump content, including highly offensive and even obscene social media posts about him, is being posted by some of Voice of America reporters themselves in a clear violation of the VOA Charter. Propaganda generated by some VOA reporters can be pro-administration or anti-administration, depending on their personal ideological or activist inclinations if they choose to ignore the VOA Charter, which is U.S. law. They can do this now with impunity in a poorly managed and rudderless federal agency that the BBG has become in recent years. What if anything the Trump Administration will do to reform the BBG remains to be seen. Hardly anything could make it worse and more partisan than it is now.
The article in The Nation stands out as an outstanding piece of investigative journalism. Unlike many other journalists who have written recently about the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Voice of America, the author conducted a thorough research. The reporter asks good questions and makes excellent observations in his article, but even he may not fully realize that poorly-led and poorly-supervised VOA managers, editors and reporters can and do generate propaganda at their own initiative that can reach and influence Americans thanks to the Internet. Taxpayer-funded personal propaganda can be just as dangerous whether it is identified with the U.S. Government or not. Even if it is identified with the U.S. Government, it can be highly deceptive, especially if it does not reflect official policies, which many VOA reports since the outset of the Trump Administration do not. But Adam H. Johnson’s concerns are right since under the Obama Administration, some VOA reporters and VOA-paid commentators actively promoted his policies toward Iran and Cuba in one-sided content which violated some of the provisions of the VOA Charter.
“Without the State Department’s clarifying its position on targeting Americans or paying American journalists, the risk of government ‘counter’-propaganda’s quickly becoming good old-fashioned regular propaganda is as obvious as it is pernicious.”
“The Daily Beast alone has regularly published three writers––Michael Weiss, Jamie Dettmer, and James Kirchick—who have worked for an organization funded by Voice of America or one of its subsidiary outlets. These writers’ association with US-government funded media was only revealed if one clicked on their bio page and happened to know that Voice of America was US-funded or The Interpreter was VOA-funded and that it, in turn, was sponsored by the US government. In the case of Kirchick, his Voice of America funding (which he claims was only $1,000) was not disclosed in his bio.”
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."