Op-Ed: Walter Isaacson on U.S. media and public diplomacy

American writer Walter Isaacson, in a Broadcasting Board of Governors conversation about U.S. public diplomacy and news outreach abroad, did not get web and social media coverage from Voice of America.

U.S. international media outreach is in a deep crisis in the period of intensifying anti-American propaganda, particularly on foreign pseudo-news websites and social media. It’s a matter of concern for a lot of Americans, including, among others, former U.S. Secretaries of State George Shultz and Hillary Clinton. The federal agency in charge of U.S. news programs abroad is the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) with an annual budget of $742 million (FY2015). But when the agency’s Chairman invited Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson to analyze the agency’s mission, out of more than 3,500 executives, managers, journalists, new media experts, and other employees, fewer than 25 persons counting all of BBG staff and everybody else anywhere in the world bothered to watch a BBG YouTube video of Mr. Isaacson’s insightful observations in several days since it has been posted online.Lack of a wider social media impact of the BBG sponsored event was hardly Mr. Isaacson’s fault. It was a fascinating discussion with a well-known American journalist and writer who is also the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute and, most significantly, a former BBG Chairman (July 2010-January 2012). Other participants included the Obama Administration top official in charge of public diplomacy, the BBG Chairman and another BBG member. But as of May 3, no one has “Liked” the video which has been online since April 29 because it is almost impossible to find and has not been brought to the attention of any potential U.S. or international audience. The video was uploaded to the little used BBG YouTube account instead of being made into a proper news report by the Voice of America (VOA), the BBG’s largest media entity. The video never made it onto the VOA’s YouTube channel and was not featured on VOA’s website, Facebook and Twitter pages. Even then, there would be no guarantee that the video would have attracted a much wider audience despite its compelling content because VOA has never developed an effective outreach on social media. Still, if properly handled, a VOA report on the conversation with Walter Isaacson would have given the event a better shot at some extra YouTube and Facebook views, perhaps including a few more at least among VOA and other BBG employees.Those very few people who had watched the video were able to learn Mr. Isaacson’s views on the history of American public diplomacy, distinctions between countering and discouraging violent extremism and about management of U.S. taxpayer-funded international media which includes the Voice of America. It was a stimulating conversation delving into America’s past and centuries of global geopolitical and technological transformations. It drew on Mr. Isaacson’s knowledge and eloquence as a bestselling biographer of such American figures as Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs. The discussion was conducted at an intellectual level reminiscent of some Voice of America programs even as late as ten years ago, but sadly not common anymore.VOA did not cover the event even though it took place at its headquarters and raised some very controversial and very current U.S. information policy issues. Its participants tried to explore among other things why ISIL terrorists use iPhones and other American technological and intellectual inventions to blast America without being able to make any connections between freedom and innovation. They observed how the international media scene has changed from relatively few nation state broadcasters to millions of government, institutional, and individual channels for distributing information, ideas — and in many cases disinformation and propaganda. If Voice of America employees cannot be motivated to follow such debates at least as keen observers, if not also to report on them, how can VOA hope to engage audiences abroad on these issues? Employee morale at VOA has been one of the worst in the federal government. VOA’s social media stats measuring audience engagement have been dismally low for years, with only a few exceptions — so far behind Russia’s RT, not to mention the BBC, that it has become a major embarrassment. Some of VOA news reporting is late, superficial or even missing on important stories. This time, VOA had an excellent, almost ready-made program in its grasp and failed to use it.The panel did generate some news if VOA would care to look for it. VOA did not. If any outside reporters were invited, they did not file reports, or more likely did not come. That in itself shows how unimportant VOA has become in Washington. The discussion revealed a few new details of the North Korean hacking of SONY emails and personal links between former and current BBG officials who have served in the Obama administration. Mr. Isaacson alluded to the official North Korean denial of responsibility for the SONY hack. Although he did not say this, it was a disinformation story originally generated and reported first by VOA without any questions asked or balance. VOA was later contradicted on it by the White House, although it was not a rebuke in which VOA was named.During his conversation with Mr. Isaacson, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell disclosed a few details how his industry friend and former BBG interim chair, CEO of Sony Entertainment Inc. Michael Lynton, responded to the North Korean hack crisis in ways that may not have been fully reported before. It is not something much in the news any longer, but it was still interesting information. Mr. Isaacson observed that there is still no agreement in Washington how the U.S. government should respond to cyber attacks on U.S. companies. This part of the conversation also showed how American corporate interests may sometimes be in conflict with freedom of expression. BBG members, many of whom are selected from corporate America, face potential and real conflicts of interest in their public service position if they do private business in countries like Russia and China. As part of any new BBG reform legislation, the Congress should look at this issue to eliminate such conflicts of interest in the future.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel (Right) and Ambassa...

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel (Right) and Ambassador Andrew Schapiro (Left) at Q&A session with journalists of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Prague, Czech Republic, on November 4, 2014.
U.S. State Department

In connection with the SONY hack story, Wikileaks posting of SONY emails and the earlier Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Bill Clinton Administration, U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel made several insightful comments about how journalists struggle with personal privacy issues in the Internet era. As Time magazine’s former managing editor, Mr. Stengel knows something how American journalism works. Both he and Mr. Isaacson discussed the need for countering and preventing extremist propaganda and measuring which anti-propaganda strategies work and which do not. It could have been one of the best VOA English language discussion programs in many years if VOA had bothered to produce it.Granted, the conversation may have been somewhat uncomfortable to handle for VOA editors responsible for program content selection. Some may claim that this topic is of limited interest abroad, but this is definitely not the case. RT devoted recently several reports to U.S. media outreach abroad, trying to smear it as propaganda and bragging about its own effectiveness as an “alternative news source.” While VOA ignored Walter Isaacson, it posted on its main news website three AP reports on the Duchess of Cambridge giving birth to a Princess and its own report on American Pharaoh winning the the Kentucky Derby. Three days later the VOA Kentucky Derby report is showing only six Facebook “Shares” and zero readers’ comments.The outgoing VOA Director David Ensor, who was in the audience during the conversation with Walter Isaacson, jumped in and argued at one point for “truth” in news reporting. For those who do not follow such things closely, it could have been a veiled reference to bipartisan efforts on the Hill to pass legislation defining more precisely VOA’s mission and reforming the BBG. Mr. Ensor’s comment seemed like an attempt to reduce a highly nuanced issue to a simple choice which in reality is not all that simple. Russian, ISIL, Iranian Chinese and other anti-America messages are the real “propaganda” and “disinformation” problem; U.S. response to it is not, does not have to be, and should not be “propaganda.” In the case of VOA, the choice is not and is not likely to be between “truth” and “propaganda.” It is more of a choice between effectiveness and mismanagement.It would be hard to find anyone in the Obama Administration or the U.S. Congress  who is against truthful news reporting, although there has been a discussion of how VOA could better report on and explain U.S. foreign policy and respond more effectively to hostile propaganda and disinformation with more sophisticated news reporting. It is true that some have argued for VOA to “promote” U.S. foreign policy without specifying what it means. This could open a Pandora’s box since there has not been enough bipartisan consensus on some of the key foreign policy issues for some time. But references to alleged “U.S. propaganda” motives are to a large degree a red herring when discussing efforts to reform U.S. taxpayer-funded media outreach and public diplomacy.Attempts to present a stark choice between truth and propaganda were subtly rejected by the BBG discussion participants as they pointed out that even in the private U.S. media sector there is no such thing as absolute journalistic purity. A point was made that journalists must always balance the needs of their audience with those of a company owners and shareholders. In the case of the Voice of America, the shareholders are U.S. taxpayers. The conversation with Mr. Isaacson was about how U.S. media outreach can be more effective, not whether it should become more propagandistic. The same is true about what many members of Congress and former and current Obama Administration officials have been saying, including Hillary Clinton who described the BBG as “practically defunct.”Presumably to counter such perceptions of ineffectiveness with regard to Voice of America, VOA and BBG executives have been touting VOA audience gains (largely due to questionable counting of short placement reports on local stations in Latin America and some other self-censored placement) and speak about successes of the Voice of America Kurdish Service and a few others. Left unmentioned is that when the Yazidis were being killed, raped and driven out of their homes last year by ISIL, VOA Kurdish website, Facebook and Twitter pages were not being updated for many hours because the management failed to provide the VOA Kurdish Service with emergency resources in a truly horrific humanitarian and news emergency.There is no question that individual VOA reporters and services are capable of excellent journalistic work and produce it all the time, even now. The problem has been with the leadership, management, allocation of resources and VOA’s and BBG’s overall impact as compared to RT, Al Jazeera, ISIL’s social media outreach, China’s CCTV or Iran’s Press TV. Mr. Isaacson made a good point during the discussion that World War II and Cold War international broadcasting and other Cold War institutions need to transform to respond to news and program delivery in the Internet age which allows millions to be connected practically for free. This is no longer a media space dominated by a few nation states. VOA has not yet become a digital age media outlet by a long shot while its traditional direct radio and TV broadcasting has been allowed to deteriorate by its enormous and constantly growing bureaucracy. VOA’s mission may also have to be more sharply defined since in the era of the Internet and satellite television, CNN, The New York Times and countless other U.S. media and other institutional sources are in a way already representing America to at least some foreign audiences that not too long ago only VOA was able to reach with its radio broadcasts. U.S. taxpayers should not be paying for VOA to duplicate already existing news coverage.As a moderator, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell tried hard to engage the largely apathetic audience in the room to ask questions about these issues. He was refreshingly honest and for an non-journalist did get an lively conversation going with Mr. Isaacson and Mr. Stengel. BBG Governor Matt Armstrong also made comments. But audience participation was minimal and limited to a few top BBG and VOA executives. Mr. Shell must have put a lot of effort to bring about this event only to be stymied by organizational indifference brought about by years of poor management.

Jeff Shell  Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors  congratulates Andy Lack (L)  after swea...

Jeff Shell, Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, congratulates Andy Lack (L), after swearing him in as the first ever CEO of U.S. international media.
Broadcasting Board of Governors

The lack of employee engagement is definitely a sign of a deep management crisis at VOA. Both Mr. Shell and Mr. Isaacson expressed their view that a new CEO can solve these management problems, but this is not at all certain. Mr. Shell succeeded in pushing through some limited management reforms from his part time board chairmanship position. But the first highly promoted and definitely highly capable CEO, Andy Lack, who could have made a big difference, had left only after a few weeks to take a job running NBC News in the wake of the Brian Williams debacle. He reportedly surprised and disappointed Mr. Shell and the BBG board with his decision. A CEO not nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate and an organization without any, even advisory links with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, have a little chance of being taken seriously in Washington and given an adequate budget.There is no guarantee that any one person can save the agency, and neither can the part-time board. Fundamental structural reforms and more engagement from the Administration and the Congress are needed. During the discussion, one participant observed that according to the King of Jordan, the battle with extremism can only be won locally by the Muslims themselves. The panel seemed to agree, but at the same time they still almost instinctively favor Washington bureaucracy-focused solutions and centralization of U.S. international media outreach. It should be obvious that while VOA and the federal Washington BBG bureaucracy are failing, some of the BBG’s local surrogate media outlets, such as Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Radio Free Asia (RFA), have been more effective in achieving local impact. They are also better managed even as they are being stifled by the Washington bureaucracy and have to function with insufficient budgets. At the same time, they can’t do the job of the Voice of America, which has a different mandate under its Charter. Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, said at a recent Wilson Center panel discussion that keeping surrogate broadcasters separate from VOA would be more effective and suggested said that any new legislation to reform the BBG should take this approach. Mr. Gershman also said there is complacency in claims of high audience numbers since U.S. international media outreach is falling behind the competition. “We are getting beat right now. We should remember that,” Mr. Gershman said.VOA as an entire entity lacks the required local intellectual talent, resources, concentration of effort and sufficient specialization in any area of foreign news reporting except for Africa, but the VOA leadership refuses to accept U.S. news and U.S. policy news coverage required by its Charter as their primary mandate that should guide and supplement any of its foreign news reporting. The idea that a large centralized Washington federal bureaucracy can better manage international media outreach content for individual countries and regions than smaller, semiprivate media entities staffed by area experts , such as RFE/RL and RFA, can do on their own, is deeply misguided. Such a view is based largely on the already existing BBG model, which was widely criticized by such prominent Americans as former Secretary of State George Shultz in a recent study conducted by a former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former RFE/RL executive Elizabeth M. Portale. Unfortunately, the study, which was discussed last month at the Wilson Center in Washington, did not offer a specific blueprint for reforming the BBG. Its general recommendation was that U.S. international media outreach must be linked in some way with promoting broad U.S. interests without losing its credibility and journalistic independence. But without knowing more details, it’s impossible to tell how these influential Americans would propose to make U.S. international media outreach and public diplomacy more effective, either separately or as part of a combined effort.The Shell-Isaacson-Stengel-Armstrong discussion was an excellent contribution to this multi-faceted debate. It is unfortunate that VOA did not cover it and did not produce a more digestible video report for YouTube. BBG did not issue a separate press release on the conversation with Walter Isaacson, offering only one quote: “Everyone in U.S. international media really deserves a heck of a lot of credit for being so dedicated to this mission, believing that if we report the truth it will benefit people around the world,” Isaacson told the assembled journalists, staff and leadership. While the discussion itself was certainly enlightening, the title given to the 1 hour 8 minute video, “April 29, 2015 BBG Board Meeting, Part 3 – Conversation with Walter Isaacson” and its presentation on the BBG YouTube channel instead of turning it into a VOA combined video and text report can only be described as good enough for government work. That’s not how such events would have been covered by the Voice of America and the BBG up to the the mid-2000s.Bringing Mr. Isaacson to VOA and organizing the panel must have cost a lot of taxpayers’ money in employee time and other expenses. At the very least, the agency’s management should have insisted on producing a better-focused video, a VOA report, a transcript, or at the very least a separate press release. Less than 25 You Tube views in the entire world does not justify the expense for a discussion that was highly interesting and should have received a much wider distribution.Despite efforts by Chairman Shell and the current board, and a lot of “propaganda of success” generated by the bureaucracy, the agency is still in a deep crisis and needs more than just one savior. The BBG, and for that matter the entire U.S. public diplomacy as a separate activity, will not be revived without major reforms imposed on them in a bipartisan legislation backed by the White House and the State Department. As Mr. Shell correctly observed, the BBG board, while bipartisan in composition, operates largely in a non-partisan fashion. That’s how it should be. The board is not the agency’s main problem. It can only serve in an advisory and oversight capacity. The problem is the overblown government bureaucracy and bureaucratic inertia. The BBG federal structure needs to be cut down in size and reformed. The agency must get a new CEO and a new team of more accomplished managers. But it is the Voice of America above all that needs new leadership and a much higher level of engagement with its international audience.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com