memri
December 2, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 243

The Quiet Crisis In U.S. International Broadcasting

December 2, 2020 | By Alberto M. Fernandez
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 243

According to a copy of the Biden-Harris Transition Team workplan for USAGM (the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees all U.S. government broadcasting to international audiences) that I have seen, this is the week that the incoming team is supposed to substantively engage with the incumbents. Among the items scheduled is supposed to be a "virtual meeting" between Transition Team Lead Richard Stengel and current USAGM CEO Michael Pack.

To say that Pack's six-month tenure to date has been stormy would be an understatement. He began by firing all heads of subordinate broadcasting organizations (including me).[1] A senior Trump White House official called me the next day to say that the firings were a surprise to the White House. The truth is that Pack had every legal right to fire who he wanted and to take aggressive measures at USAGM, the actual wisdom and timing of such steps is something else altogether (what Congress and the media got ridiculously wrong on Pack was focusing on his politics rather than on managerial competence).

Pack later proceeded to fire his own senior civil service staff.[2] Other management decisions are too obscure or bizarre to go into great detail, but the upshot was a turbulent and troubled tenure where employees decided to essentially "make no waves" and "not be controversial." According to my information, remaining professional staff are being as bland and inoffensive as possible in their decisions on what to cover and how to cover it in their news operations.[3] And this was not about covering the current U.S. president, but basically about covering anything involving foreign countries that could conceivably turn out to be controversial.

This is, of course, the opposite of what a successful and independent news organization would seek to do. Morale plummeted in a chaotic climate of uncertainty. To be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes is not a good look for a media outlet, unless you are reporting from Havana or Tehran.

But as lost and confused as Pack has been, there is a danger in seeing the challenge of U.S. international broadcasting as merely to undo whatever the current CEO has wrought. There is a bigger problem with American broadcasting that goes beyond whichever party is in power in Washington, or which particular individual is in charge. Pack seemed to have no vision of what international broadcasting should do – but others may think that the solution is to become more like National Public Radio or Time magazine. This too would be a mistake.

The nature of soft power in international affairs is evolving.[4] There is a crying need to reinvent government-funded international broadcast media, given the changes not only in soft power but in the nature of information warfare and influence operations in the world today.

Here let me state the obvious: I believe that Western government international media now and, in the future, has to be honest and to adhere to clearly defined journalistic standards and a code of ethics. But I offer these musings in the belief that – unlike articles that appear every four years after a U.S. presidential election that suggest a course of action – these ideas I suggest will almost certainly not be adopted by the incoming team.

In my view, USAGM broadcast entities (Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Asia, Radio and Television Marti) need to be more decentralized (ideally, they should all be U.S.-funded non-profits; VOA and the Radio Marti are federal entities, not grantees like the other three), and more political, not less. They also need to be more aggressive – attacking our adversaries rather than apologizing for ourselves – and less safe – more Vice than NPR, if you will.[5] And, while guided by clearly and narrowly defined foreign policy goals, there should be more rather than less independence.

In such an unlikely scenario, the USAGM CEO would obviously exercise full authority to hire and fire entity heads (and should take great care in selecting them, focusing on quality individuals with a journalistic vision, a passion for excellence, and a respect for American principles). Healthy coordination, polling, and other metrics would be a must, but they should not constitute onerous interference in the ordinary external workings of each organization. Obviously, prioritizing 24/7 networks in Mandarin Chinese, Farsi, and Russian, as already foreseen by USAGM in 2019, is an urgent priority.[6]

What we are seeing in the world today is that America's authoritarian adversaries – China, Russia, authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world like Iran and Turkey,[7] jihadi terrorists, and Islamist ideologues – have learned to effectively weaponize the tools and stances of new media and of the cynical worldview that epitomizes much of the Western chattering elite, turning these tools and narratives against us.[8] The Russians and Chinese will tell you that America is racist and beyond redemption, and American media will tell you the same!

Chinese Communist media recently pushed back on U.S. coverage of Chinese Communist Party crimes against Uyghurs by citing a 2019 Pew Research Poll that most American Muslims feel discrimination.[9] Thus, legitimate research is subverted to make the preposterous point that China and the U.S. are not so different after all. The Chinese Communist regime is becoming even more disciplined in its messaging, disguising its intent so that when the unvarnished reality of their worldview emerges it comes as a shock.[10]

I don't want to prejudge the workings of whatever new team emerges at USAGM – the transition team has some capable figures – but one temptation will be to respond to the chaotic attempt at centralization by Pack by creating a more efficient version of centralization "by the good guys." In my view, the most problematic performer of the different USAGM entities was VOA, because it took on the worst aspects of both legacy media and government operations (this is one reason why VOA Farsi was less effective than Radio Farda, run by RFE/RL).[11]

But the key to confront our centralizing authoritarian adversaries is not in greater uniformity and control but in creating a media swarm of our own, which is idiosyncratic, cheeky, aggressive, and very American, with plenty of room for maneuvering. This is likely a pipe dream given how government actually works, but would be a better way. In the words of the Disney song, it is time to "let it go."

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI. He served as President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) from July 2017 to June 2020.

 

[1] Nytimes.com/2020/06/17/us/politics/michael-pack-media-agency.html, June 17, 2020.

[2] Usagm.gov/who-we-are/management-team/
andre-mendes.

[3] Washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/voice-of-america-firewall-michael-pack-trump/2020/10/27/02a4fbae-1854-11eb-befb-886
4259bd2d8_story.html, October 27, 2020.

[4] E-ir.info/2020/10/19/the-irrelevance-of-soft-
power, October 19, 2020.

[5] Vice.com/en/section/news

[6] Usagm.gov/2020/02/10/usagm-budget-request-focuses-on-regions-of-strategic-importance-and-innovative-programming,
February 10, 2020.

[7] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 222, The Arabic Propaganda War From Istanbul,
July 17, 2020.

[9] Pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/17/many-americans-see-religious-discrimination-in-u-s-
especially-against-muslims, May 17, 2020.

[11] Ilanberman.com/22587/reforming-us-persian-language-media-a-preliminary, April 2019.

Share this Report: