U.S. Agency for Global Media Patterns of Manipulation by Longtime Government Officials
by The Federalist
Perhaps the June “town hall” meeting conducted by the U.S Agency for Global Media (USAGM) acting CEO Kelu Chao, a longtime agency manager and executive, and other senior officials who also have spent many years running U.S. government’s media operations, revealed more than what was intended. This is certainly the case if you know the agency’s history and the people intimately involved in that history, particularly the history of failures.
It is no surprise that these officials tried to blame the Trump administration and its appointees for the agency’s woes.
However, there are at least two things wrong with this:
First, in the most immediate sense, these officials tried to divert attention away from the fact that the agency was led by holdover appointees from the Obama administration for almost the entire Trump administration. This was the case except for a few months at the very end when Michael Pack was finally appointed as CEO along with several other appointees to head the Voice of America (VOA), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). Within just several weeks, Pack resigned after being told by the Biden White House that he would otherwise be fired. His key appointees were all immediately removed by Ms. Chao.
Second, longtime officials who were in charge of the agency and VOA before Pack and are again in charge now studiously avoided focusing on the depths to which USAGM has been recognized as virtually broken. This means avoiding a very long history of mismanagement under their own watch.
They have turned audiences in Iran and China and their ethnic communities in the United States against them.
READ: Iranians aren’t listening to America. By Ilan Berman. The Hill, May 20, 2021.
READ: One-Sided Voice of America Tweets Help Spread China’s Message, USAGM Watch, March 4, 2020.
The latest scandal produced bitter criticism of the Voice of America Russian Service by independent Russian journalists struggling with growing restrictions being imposed against them by the Russian government. The head of Meduza, the most popular independent Russian online media news outlet, was outraged by VOA’s misinterpretation of her comments about how the network is responding to Putin’s censorship. Using very strong words, Galina Timchenko said in an interview with Forbes Russia that the Voice of America listens with its ears hidden inside a certain part of human anatomy. Other independent journalists said that the misleading VOA report essentially helped the Kremlin score propaganda points against free media.
READ: ‘Voice of America listens to bullsh**,’ outraged independent Meduza journalist dismisses a VOA Russian Service report, USAGM Watch, June 11, 2021.
The result: virtually everything the agency officials said was at the very least disingenuous and more to the point, an attempt to manipulate their audience.
Thus, we have an agency resting on a foundation of misrepresentations.
Once embarked upon and put forward year after year for perhaps the better part of the past two decades, there is no turning back. You’ve lost your credibility.
That is precisely where the agency is.
You see names familiar to people who know the agency’s history:
- Brian Conniff
- Kelu Chao
And there are others.
As we suggested in a previous commentary, if one were to pull the agency’s staffing patterns over the past twenty years you will find these names. You can track their navigation through the bureaucracy, positions they held. And in turn, you juxtapose with the agency’s history during the same period.
In Conniff’s case, at one point before retirement, he was in charge of the Middle East Broadcasting Network comprising Alhurra television and Radio Sawa. MBN was created to draw Middle East populations toward a more favorable view of the United States. It never happened.
All one has to do is review Middle East history since the destruction of the World Trade Center and subsequent events in the region to know that the whole basis for MBN was a bust from the very beginning. And for a time, Conniff presided over it all.
Conniff has re-emerged as a figure in the Biden transition team for USAGM. An odd choice and certainly one more than likely to promote business as usual rather than either a fresh or realistic perspective on broadcasting operations of the U.S. government.
But what Conniff did do in this town hall meeting was hand critical observers a gift. And that gift was an admission. Certainly it was not intended to be so. If anything, it was yet another attempt to lay the agency’s problems on the Trump administration.
In short, Conniff remarked that he was working to restore the agency’s background clearance investigations and to restore the agency’s reputation with the federal government, the Congress, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the State Department.
Let’s be very clear:
None of us are going to live long enough to see any of this happen in the hands of Conniff or any other agency official past or present who has had a hand in constructing the agency’s track record and history.
Not only will it not happen in our lifetimes. The other burning question is: how much taxpayer money is the federal government willing to throw away on this exercise in futility? It should be painfully obviously that further expenditures have not the slightest iota of changing the corrupt and dysfunctional nature of the agency.
Be mindful that the agency’s background clearance investigations got yanked out of its hands following investigations by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). When something rises to this level, the indication is of a severe operational failing. The background clearance investigations were taken over by the Department of Defense. This shows an abject lack of confidence in the agency to conduct this function.
As acting CEO, Kelu Chao, who was formerly the Voice of America program Director for many years, pontificated that there would be greater transparency in the agency.
Transparency has many starting points but one of them is revealing the background behind the contents of these two reports in their entirety. Before being forced out, Pack made one of these reports public. It would be good for transparency to know much more what security breeches may have occurred under the watch of the former and now again current USAGM management team.
The ODNI report on security violations at USAGM was not made public. A full disclosure of what happened without further undermining security procedures would provide a clearer understanding of what may have been the reasoning behind Michael Pack’s decision to relieve several key agency bureaucrats of their positions. And at the same time, one would likely have questions as to why these same officials were restored to duty by Ms. Chao.
In so many words, it smells. It smells of an attempt to shield these same officials from scrutiny and accountability.
And that’s another thing:
You will never hear anyone who has encumbered senior level positions in the agency over the past twenty years accepting responsibility for the agency’s failures in any number of issues.
You will hear vague claims of incidents being investigated and then nothing. That’s the pattern, waiting for attention to wane and go back to doing business as usual.
Restoring the agency’s reputation.
Here’s the truth:
There is no reputation to restore. The history of the agency is one of manipulative claims about its impact and effectiveness. This manipulation has had a cumulative effect and has reached critical mass. It is past the eleventh hour for this agency.
Conniff’s statement clearly reflects that the rest of the Federal Government has zero confidence in this agency. It’s a recognition that senior agency officials traffic in a deceptive narrative and have done so for years, if not decades. As we said, the effect of the manipulation is cumulative. It cannot be ignored. It cannot be dismissed as an aberration brought about in one administration.
Let’s put something else to rest:
There is no such thing as “wise and stable direction” provided by any senior official of this agency. The track record is one of an agency in precipitous decline with rising momentum by the day.
The agency’s place in the world has been substantially diminished. Audiences are less than claimed by agency officials particularly former officials who like to pontificate on the imagined successes to preserve a false legacy.
And what of the impact on agency employees?
For years, agency officials have set about creating and reinforcing a hostile work environment. See the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) for 2020, and years past, but also the predecessor OPM Human Capital Survey.
The names may change, but the results remain the same.
And it is significant that in the most recent survey (2020) the agency saw steep declines in key categories:
- Respect for senior leaders.
- Can disclose violations of laws or rules without fear of reprisal.
- Results of the survey will be used to make (the) agency a better place to work.
- Senior leaders maintain high levels of honesty and integrity.
As much as senior officials try to place blame on the Trump administration for the results, the fact of the matter is that the agency has always been at or near the bottom of scores among agencies of comparable size.
What that means is the problem is systemic, institutionalized and maintained.
Acting CEO Kelu Chao states in an agency announcement on the FEVS:
“I take these FEVS results seriously…My leadership team is carefully studying the results and creating a road map to address concerns, spotlight areas for improvement, and strengthen transparency and accountability across the board…”
You know what this is?
Agency officials have been making similar statements for years and nothing changes. It is nothing more than a superficial gesture to put in some file cabinet. We all know this to be the case because the history of the survey results reflects it.
As for taking the results seriously, these officials don’t. In some cases, they make light of the results, or ridicule them and the employees. As a result, it’s business as usual on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.
On the transparency issue, BBGWatch and USAGM Watch have raised the issue of bias in VOA news reports. Under a former VOA director, a group of consultants was hired to conduct what was supposed to be a thorough deep dive into every aspect of VOA’s operations.
What happened? Only an “executive summary” of findings surfaced, not the full report paid for with taxpayer money. But the executive summary focused specifically on the problem of bias in VOA content.
So the question for Ms. Chao or the current acting VOA director, Ms. Lopez is: where is the report and report in its entirety? So much for transparency. The agency can’t or won’t deliver it.
Let’s go back to Mr. Conniff’s remark about “restoring the agency’s reputation” with the rest of the Federal Government.
The reputation of record is one of dysfunction, chaos and not “wise and stable direction.” Looking over the history of the agency in recent years, virtually all of the senior agency officials are culpable in this. They should go. Be replaced. Wholesale.
There is no point in relying upon Conniff’s pie in the sky assertion that he can make things better. The damage has been done and it is severe. A sea change in the agency’s abysmal performance simply is not going to happen.
Given the record, the statement itself is ridiculous. It is an act of desperation, trying to buy time with hollow promises, and an undescribed “strategic plan.”
We all know better than to buy into this concocted nonsense.
The Biden administration would be better served to either jettison the agency in its entirety as something that has lost its place in contemporary times and circumstances or downsize it and transfer its functions elsewhere in the federal government. . .
. . . perhaps the Department of Defense as has already been done in the case of the USAGM’s former background clearance investigation process. Do not believe in false claims of USAGM government bureaucrats that centralization under their control avoids duplication and produces savings. It creates duplication and above all bureaucratic expansion and waste.
Enhance the broadcasting functions of the Armed Forces Network radio and television service to include an international component of English-language programming.
Journalism and public diplomacy are too different and too complex for central planning. Break up the failed bureaucracy.
Do public diplomacy programming in various languages overseen by an independent and bipartisan board. Do foreign-language programming to countries without free media through independent surrogate broadcasters under their own independent and bipartisan boards. Have their performance reviewed periodically by independent experts. Enforce bans on self-promotion, lobbying and domestic propaganda.
That might be the salvation for USAGM’s
failed mission and function.
For the perspective of the current USAGM management team see:
The OPM report on security lapses at USAGM released by former USAGM CEO Michael Pack.