U.S. ADVISORY COMMISSION ON PUBLIC DIPLOMACY
MINUTES AND TRANSCRIPT FROM THE QUARTERLY PUBLIC MEETING ON THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF THE VOICE OF AMERICA
Thursday, March 16, 2017 | 10:30-12:05 p.m.
House Rayburn Office Building, Washington, D.C.
COMMISSION MEMBERS PRESENT:
Mr. Sim Farar, Chair
Ambassador Penne Korth Peacock
Ms. Anne Terman Wedner
COMMISSION STAFF MEMBERS PRESENT:
Dr. Shawn Powers, Executive Director
Mr. Chris Hensman, Senior Advisor
Ms. Michelle Bowen, Program Support Assistant
The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy met in an open session from 10:30 a.m. – 12:05 p.m. on Thursday, March 16, 2017 to discuss the future of the Voice of America with a panel of experts including the current Director of VOA Amanda Bennett, former VOA Director Geoff Cowan, and former Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Glassman. Executive Director Shawn Powers moderated the discussion. The panel took several questions from the audience and their details are in the below transcript. Commissioner Penne Peacock closed the meeting briefly discussing the Commission’s ongoing and next public meeting. The Commission will meet publicly again on May 9, 2017.
SIM FARAR: Hello and welcome to a public meeting for the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy I am Sim Farar and I’m chairman of the Commission. Since 1948, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy has been charged with appraising US government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics. It also works to increase the understanding of, and support for these same activities. The commission conducts research and symposiums that provide assessments and inform discourse on public diplomacy efforts across government, such as this meeting which is our first meeting for 2017.
The work of this nonpartisan commission remains crucial to supporting American public diplomacy efforts a task that is especially important today as many of you know, public diplomacy efforts are crucial to America’s national security and offer a substantial return on investment in so far as they help to prevent the use of military force, promote American business interests abroad, and support foreign interest in traveling to and study in the United States.
Today we’re going to focus on the past, the present, and the future of Voice of America. 2017 is the 75th anniversary of Voice of America which is a broadcast in 47 languages and reaches over 236 million foreigners on a weekly basis. Of course, the Voice of America has changed quite a bit since its first broadcast during World War II. Today it uses digital, web and mobile media to engage viewers, listeners, and users in radio and television broadcasts to approximately 3,000 affiliates and satellite transmissions. It reaches countries where free speech is banned or civil societies under threat. Voice of America’s four mobile apps have registered more than one million downloads so far and catering to users on all major mobile platforms. With the largest audience of all U.S. international media, Voice of America continues to be a beacon of hope for under-served audiences who yearn for information about freedom of expression civil society and change.
This panel will discuss voice miracles mission and the trajectory with three experts who know the organization and its mandate quite well. Our executive director, Shawn Powers, at the end here, will moderate the panel and then open up the discussion to questions from the commission and then of course you in the audience. When you are asked, if you want to ask a question, please state your name and if you have an affiliation please state your affiliation then ask a question. Before we turn the panel discussion like to introduce our colleagues my right here is Anne Wedner from Chicago, Illinois, Ambassador Penne Peacock who is from (Austin), Texas. We’re missing a couple of (Commissioners) today, Lyndon Olson who’s from Waco Texas, Bill Hybl from Colorado Springs, and of course Georgette Mosbacher from New York City. Detailed biographies, when you came in the door, on the members are also available at the welcome table in the back of the room. And also you have the panelists bios if you don’t have them ready, and number of commission reports we’ve done in the past. I’d like now to welcome commissioner Anne Wedner to introduce our panelists.
ANNE WEDNER: All right thank you Sim, Hello everyone. I’m Anne Weidner and I’m with the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. I wanted to take just a minute to introduce our great panel today and we’re really honored that you guys took the time out to come and listen. Amanda Bennett is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, investigative journalist, and editor and the director of The Voice of America. Geoffrey Cowan, to her left, is a university professor at the University of Southern California and the former director of VOA from 1994 to 1996, and then here next to Sim is Ambassador James Glassman who is a former (Under)secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs as well as a former Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. As Sim says ,full biographic details are available for each panelist in the back and now I’ll turn it over to Shawn Powers.
SHAWN POWERS: You almost got a promotion there Jim. Thank you, Anne, Sim, commission members, and in particular, thank you to our panelists. We’ve got a terrific group of folks and I’m grateful for you taking the time today to join us to talk about the past, present, and future of the Voice of America. I want to give a little bit of background, the idea for this panel actually came out of a lunch I had with Alan Hale who is in the back, who reminded me that it’s the 75th anniversary of Voice of America and what a great opportunity to reflect on its achievements in the past and and what those achievements mean for its trajectory in the future. So, thank you for that. We also chose the topic because as many of you know in 2016 National Defense Authorization Act implemented some reforms to the Broadcasting Board of Governors which could also facilitate some changes for Voice of America and the rest of the U.S. international broadcasting services. So the combination of the anniversary and the legislative change opened up a good opportunity to discuss what VOA should look like from 2017 moving forward. It’s worth noting that the Voice of America was created explicitly with the purpose to combat foreign Nazi propaganda, given growing concerns over disinflation campaigns, and the declining measure of freedom of press around the world, It seems as though this mission remains prescient. I’d like to start the Q and A first with Geoff Cowan who recently published a monograph on the VOA’s continued vitality for USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy. The digital publication is available on the website and the print will be out soon.
Geoff, the VOA was established in 1942 tasked to consistently provide reliable, comprehensive, and authoritative news coverage to audiences around the world, how is this mission relevant today given the current geopolitical tensions that we live in?
GEOFF COWAN: Sean, and commissioners, thank you for inviting me to be back here to talk about it and I have to say you have a room full of people, I see David Ensor has come in now, former VOA directors people who have been part of VOA and RFE/RL for so many years. In my case, actually my family goes back to the beginning. You mentioned we started in 1942, of course Franklin Roosevelt was the president, my dad became the second director in 1943 and so actually I go back in my VOA history, in a certain sense, back to Franklin Roosevelt and back to 1942. Starting about my sister Holly Cowan Chilman wrote and maybe the seminal book about the early years the Voice of America. So we have felt this is a kind of a passion about this. And I feel that the Voice of America, which is under wonderful leadership now by the way with Amanda Bennett, but I feel like the Voice of America has always had a hugely important role and as you mentioned at the beginning it was designed to combat Natzi the propaganda war and then it had a particular role during the Cold War and I became the director it was right after the Cold War and so there were people who said well OK, Cold War is over why is it needed? And they said particular because new technology has changed everything, and so one of the articles the New York Times at that time quoted people as saying, and by the way there was a substantial effort to close the Voice of America and all of international broadcasting at that point. Who needs it, now that we have fax machines and CNN? Now that tells you what a different era that was twenty years ago. And my response, which I think is part of how I still feel Shawn, was that fax machines and CNN–and I’d say all of the rest of the paraphernalia, new technology, is great for people who live in hotels and speak English, but most people don’t. And the thing about the Voice of America is–my view of the mission of it is–to reach the people of the world, with the information that they need, over the transmission systems that they can receive. And what’s happened, what happened during the time that I was it twenty years ago, what’s happening during the recent years, and it’s happening right now and Amanda, is it’s evolving. But its mission is always critical and to show how important it is, you can’t always know just what’s needed at that moment, but around the world to have an accurate voice of information that people trust about the United States remains vital everywhere and just–we were talking about this a little bit before–when I became the head of the Voice of America there was an effort to close it, Allen Hall will remember this, the Georgian Service. And they made a plea to me and I overrode the decisions that have been made and we kept the Georgian Service open and then weeks later all of a sudden Georgia was in the center of world conflict and it was vital to have the Georgian Service and Amanda was mentioning that when a few a couple years ago just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine there was the effort to call the Ukrainian Service. Who knew how important that would be and I can give countless examples but let me just end with this point Shawn, I think the Voice of America is an accurate, balanced, reliable source of news and information of the world, does a better job than anything else can do of telling about America’s values and the things we believe in.
Whether it’s a story about America or not, free markets, free and democratic institutions, and independent press independent judiciary these are vital things around the world and I think nothing does as good a job as the Voice of America of making that clear everywhere.
SHAWN POWERS: Staying with Geofff for a minute. You directed the Voice of America and it’s at a time when there is intense partisanship about what the Voice should look like and do and questions about whether or not it needed its full budget operate effectively. And yet despite those those threats both politically and economically you managed to implement changes to the Voice of America which increased its credibility and its reach, around the world–given the current political environment what lessons can be learned from your experience that maybe helpful in navigating the voice through these interesting political times?
GEOFF COWAN: Thank you Shawn, one of the problems we faced twenty years ago, thank goodness is no longer case, which is that there was a battle at that time between the Voice of America and the so-called radio’s, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty. For whatever reasons there were institutional fights, that’s been overcome now, and I think under the John Lansing’s leadership particularly, and Amanda maybe you talk about this some, the number of things that these institutions are doing together is just terrific and it’s changed that attitude, so I think and maybe I had something to do with that Kevin Close had been a friend of mine before he was heading RFE/RL and we said those are not fights that we should continue to have, we have a common purpose. So you don’t face that but you will face in this administration people who don’t understand the mission of the Voice of America and are trying to cut budgets. And one of the things that we found was that telling the VOA story often door to door on the Hill, often door to door in the White House, was a crucial thing to do, and that isn’t something to resent it’s something to embrace. And I don’t know whether everybody else would say this but, when I went around with the couple of colleagues in doing this I said I believe in a sunset clause for the Voice of America and I do. But the sunset clause means you have to prove every few years that you’re still providing a vital role and so I would say to these congressmen many of whom thought they should eliminate VOA I say let’s assume this is sunset clause. Now look what we’re doing. Isn’t what we’re doing still vitally important and in fact, Shawn during that period, even though all of government is being cut. Some of your member reinventing government we had to cut VOA and international broadcasting by twenty five percent in dollar terms and Al I think at this is right, ten percent in staff, twenty five percent in terms of dollars.
But at the same time because of what was happening in such exciting ways with new technology and new opportunities in the world. We were able to create all kinds of services and I’ll just give one example, it had suddenly become possible to have call in radio from around the world. And so we did that. And so we started showing called “Talk to American” and then we did that in twenty some languages. Also it was now possible at that point, younger people can’t imagine there was ever a time before there was audio streaming on the Internet, but that had just become possible so we started to carry on the Internet. And today what Amanda’s doing and she’ll talk about with the VOA is so exciting using new technology.
I just want to show one example and maybe end with this from today so last week I was in Seattle and the driver who took me, I took a cab from my hotel to the airport and I asked the driver where he was from, it was pretty clear that he had been born someplace, and he said from Ethiopia. And I did what I always did, I don’t know if you do the same thing, but I said, “Oh did you ever listen to the Voice of America,” because the Voice of America has been for many years the most important source of news and information in Ethiopia, about Ethiopia, as well as about the United States. He said “Yes I know, I listen to Voice of America” he said and I told him I had been director of war time he said “well you know what it’s still my most important source of news and information” and so he took out his cell phone, I’ve got this guy’s card by the way if you’re interested in following up with him, he took out his cell phone and he showed me the home page of his cell phone is the Amharic service of the Voice of America which through his bluetooth he listens to an hour a day as his main source of news. Now it’s now possible to do that because of changes in the law but the idea that somebody who might have any number of sources of news, but they might be inaccurate, they might be biased, they might be inflammatory, they may be inciting. His source of news, about his home country and his most important source of news is the Amharic service the Voice of America, a cab driver in Seattle, and I said what about your friends are they also the voice of America today. So, it remains incredibly vital, and the technological changes the innovations I think have been wonderful.
SHAWN POWERS: Yeah it’s an important reminder that the audience is not just abroad but also domestic. Before I forget I want to make sure we thank Chairman Royce and Tom Hill for helping us secure this wonderful facility. Tom is right over here, we’re really grateful for the space today.
Turning to Jim Glassman, Jim you’ve worked with the Voice of America in a number of capacities including as the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, which works closely and provides direction to the BBG and Voice of America as well as Chairman of the Broadcasting Board OF Governors. Given your experience, can you talk a little bit about what you see working at the Voice of America, its value within the broader public diplomacy family, and what’s not working at the Voice of America?
JAMES GLASSMAN: Well thank you Sean and thank you Mr. Chairman and commission and it’s great to see so many friends out there. Well as I warned you Sean, that’s a very hard question for me to answer since I’m not I’m really not up to date on everything the Voice of America is doing right now and I’ve really been out of this for nine years. I’m a great supporter of Voice of America there is no doubt about that. I want to bring up a slightly different issue which is that as you know Trump issued a skinny budget today says nothing about the BBG it does say there are going to be major cuts to foreign operations and it talks about the ECA being cut but not Fulbright. There’s a long way to go on this but I do think it’s a new world. One thing that I think is tremendously important not just because there’s a new president in town but within there’s a new context I think to think about. The Voice of America and broadcasting in general and that’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last five or six years which is a kind of, a more strategic approach to public diplomacy and I realize that word means whatever anybody wants it to mean but in this case it means public diplomacy that’s aimed at achieving specific goals that are in the national interest. So I think one way to think about public diplomacy, is sort of a temporal sense, there’s certain things that we do in the short term let’s say pushing back against lies about the United States or telling America’s stories sometimes a short term thing. The things we do in the long term like Fulbright exchange programs. But in the medium term which may be the most important term, I think that public diplomacy needs to be mobilized to achieve specific aims, for example what can what can we do to prevent North Korea from getting deliverable nuclear weapon? How can we improve, what can we do to improve stability and economic growth in Africa? How can we prevent the Russians from moving beyond Ukraine? And those are things which the Broadcasting Board of Governors in my opinion ought to be mobilized to do. Now to some extent VOA is already doing that and I think there’s a nervousness, and that’s certainly understandable, about about being involved in meeting foreign policy goals in such a way. But you know if you read the law, what it says is that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is a tool of American foreign policy, it’s part of American foreign policy, but it’s also has to has to abide by the the professional integrity that is the foundation of journalism. And that is something that I deeply believe in. So it’s a hard circle to square but I believe that that the strategic element, the part about being part of foreign policy, has been neglected in fact in 2003 when I first got involved in this whole business as a member of the Djerejian Group, the commission that looked at public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world. I knew nothing about the progress of Board of Governors, I had heard of VOA of course. And when I looked at it I realized, I thought “What’s going on here, here’s this kind of independent entity that sits out here that’s not part of the foreign policy apparatus or not directly part. There’s no reporting there’s no there are no direct authorities.” I always felt that while that was wonderful in many ways, in the end it may not be sustained sustainable and it may not be the most effective way for a VOA to operate so that’s I think the main message I want to convey. Also, the other message I want to convey is VOA has such a great reputation and does such great things that it’s able to attract people like Amanda Bennett and I think I wouldn’t ever want to change that but I do think it needs to be more strategic.
SHAWN POWERS: Jim, following up on this, I should also mention that Jim has a new report out with the American Enterprise Institute on exactly this question. It’s a terrific report. How much of the challenge is bringing strategy to public diplomacy and how much of it is getting the rest of the State Department in the White House to appreciate the public what public diplomacy can do to pursue our policy goals.
JAMES GLASSMAN: Right so it’s both but, I think the latter is actually more important than the former you know and I think we see it to some extent in this budget, where there are these massive cuts to the State Department and big increases to defense. Although I should point out that you know in some ways it’s a pretty smart budget there I mean they’re maintaining what I think is probably the most important thing we do in soft power which is PEPFAR and so but the main point is that the president and I think to a great extent Congress, certainly not Chairman Royce, but much of Congress doesn’t really understand the value of soft power and we now know you certainly know that the secretary of defense understands it, he says if you cut the state of our budget I’m going to buy more bullets and he’s not happy about that, but I don’t think there’s a there is an understanding at the top and by the way I don’t think I don’t think there has been. I don’t think there was under President Obama, I think there may have been for like one brief shining moment under President Bush. I think since as Geoff says I think since the Cold War things have changed and it’s unfortunate if we don’t get the message from what the Russians are doing as far as soft power is concerned which is sort of like hard soft power. We’re going to be in big trouble.
SHAWN POWERS: Turning to Amanda who is almost wrapping up her first year as director of the Voice of America. You’ve ever seen some record increases in reach and, as of the end of 2016, you had 236 (million) weekly audience members, listeners, viewers, readers etc., broadcasting your or disseminating content over 47 different languages tell us how you achieve this record increase in audience growth in a relatively short period of time?
AMANDA BENNETT: So first I want say there’s to people in this room were instrumental in my accepting this job and coming out of a semi retirement after a almost forty years journalism career, David Ensor and Geoff Cohen. Who convinced me of what a terrific mission this was and also how much fun I was going to have and I would like to also say that I think Jim and I hope can model behavior that we’d all like to see here, which is we disagree pretty fundamentally on this view, but I think we can still be nice to each other?
JAMES GLASSMAN: Absolutely.
AMANDA BENNETT: Ok. Ok. And I’d like to, I’d like to thank Geoff for publicizing what I call the taxi test and I’d invite all of you to try this at home. I have done this in every cab that I’ve gotten into. In New York, in Washington, anyplace else I’ve been I’ve asked that exact question. I’ve had zero failure rates. Everybody who comes here from another country has heard of VOA and speak of it very very passionately. So try the taxi test in time and see what you think. You know when I was reading about the Voice of America, I read voluminously all the positive, negative a criticism or thought that I had assumed that one of the things that VOA was going to need, was a refocusing of mission. There was an idea of what’s the mission? What’s the mission? So I came in sort of dreading the fact that I was probably going to have to do this six month or year-long missions, of the evaluation, and get focus groups and all that kind of stuff. By the end of the first day there, I understood extremely clearly that VOA had a fantastic mission. It had, and it was embodied in the charter which I find one of the most elegant and useful documents about how you pursued journalism in this in this environment. And there were just basically a couple of things about the mission, one was you provide objective news and information to people who have no other way of getting it, and you tell America’s story, and you tell all of America’s story everybody, you represent all aspects of American society not just, not just one, and you do it independently in a journalistic fashion. I have a close on to 40 year journalistic career. I come to it as a journalist and I think that that way of operating is actually incredibly powerful around the world in achieving our aims without necessarily having to set out to message our aims.
And I’d like to tell you about some of the things that we did to try and once my mission became clear it was really easy to figure out what to do. So you walk around to all the different services we’ve got 47 different language services broadcasting in probably over 60 countries I’m thinking. And you ask them “are your audiences interested in stories about America?” And they all say ehhh not really that’s a bottom of the hour, and then you say “well are you are your audience is interested in getting into an American university? Oh yeah. Are your audience is interested in becoming entrepreneurs? Oh absolutely. Do they know about Silicon Valley? Oh you mean Mark Zuckerberg, they really want to hear about that. Are they interested in American hospitals and medical systems? Yup. How about agricultural policy? Yup.
And so once you start thinking about all the things that our audiences is naturally want to hear about you’re no longer pushing a rock uphill, you’re simply saying “we’re going to give you a lot more of things that you really already want to hear” and in this environment I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that there is in fact, amidst all the tensions all the conflicts everything that is bothering us right now, there is actually still a very deep reservoir of interest and affection for the United States out there that we are tapping into.
So what have we done. We refocused on telling America’s story in a way that was interesting and and vibrant. And America’s story and American policies and reasonable discussion of American policies. I thought we were focusing too narrowly on simply policies within inside the ring of roads that circle us, and instead what we need to do is look at education, health, technology. So we opened our first Silicon Valley bureau and the entire staff was incredibly excited about this and so all the services are put together people that are going out there doing stories on that. We have reopened a student to student blog that is talking to foreign students here in the United States and foreign students in other countries. We’re about to do a big town hall meeting on that. We also focused on doing simultaneous translations. So when you talk about reaching out to the world, one of the things that we are finding is very powerful, is not even just stories, it’s actually unfiltered access to our political system. So we started this out, and the technology is really you know, it’s exploded even since David was here and it’s given us the opportunity to do some things we weren’t even able to do before. So we experimented with doing live simultaneous translations. And so at the Democratic and Republican convention we put that into practice, we streamed both speeches the Democratic and Republican acceptance speeches, in five different languages reaching the most closed societies on Earth. Well once we learn that we could do it in five, we thought why stop there and so we increased, increased, increased to the point where we broadcast the president’s inaugural address in 23 different languages, simultaneously translated so people could see it. And we were just, because you’re doing it on Facebook and on social media as well you, can actually watch people around the world reacting to the speech, it’s really exciting.
And I think I’d like to really emphasize what Geoff said about the end of the in-fighting I think it really had plagued the entire operation for a long time and so the things that we are working on together one of which I find exceptionally exciting, we’ve started a 24/7 Russian network. So it’s not just a single show, it’s. There you go, here’s my advertising, is called it’s called current time it’s a joint venture between Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. And we work very closely together they produce news out of out of Russia and the Baltics we produce shows that focus on of American life, Russians in America, the Russian diaspora, business, politics, discussion, culture. And we do this together and we do it seamlessly. And we are, I don’t have the figures in front of me about how many places now are receiving, but what we’re finding is, like I said about American news not pushing a rock uphill, this isn’t pushing a rock uphill either. It almost sells itself. The people from RFE are out there selling in the areas into our affiliates which are TV stations that accept our our our our broadcasts and they’re just widely accepting it so I think that cooperation has really borne an amazing fruit. And the last thing I’ll just say is we we did also start a fact check. Which we notice with a great deal of Glee has been mimicked by RT this week they are three months late and they’re nowhere near as good guys, trust me. Ours is called “Polygraph.info” and we fact check with deep profound really interesting reporting statements that are false government to government statements that are demonstrably false. Our most, one of our most recent interesting ones, was the Russian claim that the Syrian white hats, the people were doing rescue work in Syria, were actually paid actors. And we did some really clever reporting to to demonstrate that that was absolutely impossible to be the case.
And I was, I think I probably overstaying my time but I don’t want to leave this to the end, when you talk about the impact that we have in the world, the impact that journalism, truthful, objective, news and information have on the world, I just like to read you a statement that we got day before yesterday, in the course of doing one of our broadcasts. I’m sure you all remember the the deputy ambassador in London from North Korea who defected within the last couple of months. He was the highest ranking defector ever from North Korea. And he was interviewed by our Korean service in Seoul two days ago. And at the end of his interview I’d like to read to you what he said. He said “My name is Thae Yong Ho. I am the former deputy ambassador of North Korea to the United Kingdom and today I would like to say that the Voice of America has been playing a very important role to bring back human rights to every citizen of the world. And so far VOA has played a very important role to push the world to a better world. And when I was in North Korea, as a diplomat in the foreign ministry, I read every morning and afternoon the materials, that we called Radio Reference Materials, from VOA. And the North Korean regime also pays great attention of the content of VOA, so I think it’s very important that VOA should further strengthen its activity and also its content, so that one day I hope VOA remembered by the North Korean people, as a kind of, you know, the main player who contribute a lot for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Highest ranking Korean diplomat ever, the hardest country for us to penetrate and this is the impact we’ve had. I’m afraid I get a little teary when I read it because I mean, (off-mic comment) thank you. I’ll leave it there.
SHAWN POWERS: Amanda, I briefly want to follow up. There have been a couple of stories since the election, driven in part by political story, raising concern about the Trump Administration trying to influence or politicize the contents of the Voice of America and Broadcasting Board of Governors, can you talk about what if any changes you’ve seen since January 20th?
AMANDA BENNETT: Yeah, and you’re right, there’s been a series of stories that, while I appreciate probably the underlying sense of concern for the independence of Voice of America that may have prompted these stories, I have to say that I don’t particularly admired the quality of the journalism that went into them. Because they took two plus two and made it into like twenty three or something like that. The fact is there have been two people who have been assigned to BBG, as a transition team, as is normal. We prepared for a transition team, we prepared a giant briefing book for a transition team, long before the election, long before we we knew which side was going to be receiving it so these two people went in and we handed them the briefing book. Said hi, here it is take a look at it. They’ve been modest, respectful, intelligent, positive about our mission, and they have had zero influence on the content. I can’t I cannot I don’t see the future, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, I don’t know what kind of things will be looking at the future, but as as of the date that article was written, and as of today, there has been no pressure what so ever from any outside source. We have continued to operate completely independently as we used to say in Catholic school in thought, word, and deed.
SHAWN POWERS: Shifting back to Geoff part of the Voice of America’s mission is to present the policies of the American people clearly and effectively, and I want to ask for the policy component here, and offer responsible and representative discussion of these policies. Given the ubiquitous access to information around the world, growing access to new media technologies, how important is it that the American government invests in a journalistic operation, given how busy the marketplace for news already is in so many parts of the world?
GEOFF COWAN: Well policy, that part of the of the responsibility, partly speaking about editorials which have been kind of controversial, and I’ll talk about that, I personally think they’re fine, but there are some people who don’t like that there are editorials. I think there are people around the world want to know what the mission of the American government is. And how are normal people going to find that out? Our editorials, which are clearly labeled as editorials, they have nothing to do with the news content. I assume they are still the same way, Amanda, that it was then, they’re separate as editorials. Those editorials, explain the United States on certain key issues, so people know it. But another way in which the attitude the United States is presented is by something like inaugural address. Which, like him or not, people have a right to hear around the world, the position of the president of the United States. They are not going to themselves hear it undiluted, the way they hear it, as Amanda said, in 23 languages simultaneously. But they also hear at the same time, people protesting, people demonstrating, the president taking positions which the courts then strike down. And so to me, and I don’t think that this is going to be heard without an institution like the Voice of America, people hear about the perspective of the president, whatever may be at that moment, but they also hear about the democratic institutions that make America so great and hopefully they want them for themselves as you heard with the North Korea example. So I think that VOA continues to provide an incredibly important function in explaining America, American values, and American policies in the world, in a way that nobody else can.
SHAWN POWERS: Yeah, I wanted to ask a similar question to Amanda which is how, you know, from the director’s seat today how do you approach the question of representing, and offering a responsible discussion of American policies to foreign audiences?
AMANDA BENNETT: You know it’s funny I looked at the new center coverage highlights, which is a daily rundown of what we’re doing for Tuesday, and by my count at least forty percent of the stories directly answer that, just direct directly answer that, we have things on a project to track the war in Syria, we have something on Tillerson’s trip to Asia, we have a story on the CBO scoring of the Ryan health plan, we have a web piece explaining what the Congressional Budget Office is and what role its role is in the American legislative process, we have something on the overall health care plan. I mean intrinsic to our daily work is responsible presentation and discussion of American policies. You don’t have to go into an editorial to explain what the American foreign policies are, and I would say that we have actually, maybe traditionally, defined American policies too narrowly a strictly foreign policy as enunciated within the with the Beltway. American policies have incredible effect overseas and not just foreign policy, agricultural policy, economic policy, when the US raises its interest rates by a quarter point, has incredible effect, the people want to know about.
You have various foreign aid policies, they affect they affect our readership in very direct ways, there are a ton of American policies that affect the world that they’re very interested in. There’s also social policies that people look at because they’re either emulating or they’re rejecting them. So they want to know how they work, what’s more, we actually have something, I wish that more American media did because frankly I’ve learned about, we do these very cool explainers. The technology is enabled us to do very quick, very lively explainers of things. So we had one on what is an executive order. And I watched it and I actually didn’t know that. What exactly it was and what it’s history had been. It turns out that every president, except one, and it was a guy who died in office after one month, has issued at least one executive order. It’s a very long tradition, I didn’t know that. There’s also one, when the court in Washington state blocked the first executive order, on how does the court system work because we found our our viewers and listeners were saying like,. how does this little thing way over here stop this big thing way over here, and so we gave an explanation of how that worked. We also, when the first executive order was replaced by a second executive order, we did a graphic explanation of what’s the difference between the two of them. Why was one of them considered, you know, difficult and why was the other one considered, more easily implemented. So we do these things on an absolute regular basis which I think helps our audiences understanding in a really vital way and frankly I wish were available more to American audiences.
SHAWN POWERS: Jim, you’ve argued, and you alluded to this earlier, that public diplomacy is and I quote “an essential tool for national security strategy and as important to winning twenty first century conflicts as military might.” In light of this morning’s announcement of potential substantial cuts to the State Department’s budget, including resources for public diplomacy, how can we better make the case that public diplomacy programs, including the Voice of America, are integral to the furtherance and protection of American national security? What do you see that others do not?
JAMES GLASSMAN: So number one public diplomacy needs victories. Needs wins. Needs to be able to say, as we did after the Cold War ended, look what we did. Look what we did with Radio Free Europe and very few people would argue with that. We haven’t had too many of those. So I would say that’s number one.
I mentioned PEPFAR which is this, the massive HIV/AIDS program. That program has demonstrably increased stability and economic growth in Africa. And you can just point to it, you can say here’s what we did. So you know I think public diplomacy is going to have a hard time unless it actually start showing results. Now, there’s a kind of chicken and egg problem, you know public diplomacy doesn’t have the resources and the kind of connections to the policymaking apparatus in order to show those results, but I think that’s absolutely necessary. You know, we I mean certainly talk about it in more general terms and in the best, I think the best spokespeople for it are people in the military, who understand the importance of soft power but, we need victories.
GEOFF COWAN: If I could jump in for a second in 1983, you couldn’t have said that the last thirty years of investments in VOA and RFE/RL we’re going to win the Cold War. You don’t always know in the middle of a battle, what it’s real successes are going to be. But I agree that, there are a lot of, that it’s important that as the battle goes on and there are many battles, that it’s important be able to show some successes and I think that, Amanda maybe you’d share your story about Boko Haram, but there are, what we found while I was at VOA was, the one of the reason we were successful with with people who were originally skeptics was, we would collect every week or month stories that were quite amazing which were true successes in different language services. And to give you one example of that, when American troops were going to Afghanistan, that’s post my time, but when American troops went Afghanistan, there were people who were at that time were wondering why in the world we be broadcasting in Dari and Pashto, who’s ever even heard of those languages. A parochial view but that was a view that many people had. It turns out that the BBC went in and did study a study of males, you couldn’t study females, the percentage that were listening to Voice of America, was something like seventy percent of people in Afghanistan listened to Voice of America. And the difference that that made when our troops went into Afghanistan, were people who would say that these are people who come as our friends, not people who come because they are hostile power, at that time, was an important thing. And I think that you could probably show, and Amanda I think it’s an important thing for you to do, victories along the way that have to do with ISIS and other important victories. But you’re not going be able to have anything like the Cold War where you prove it, until finally there is sort of there’s a victory, which is not only going to be due to the work of Voice of America, but Voice America will make an important contribution.
AMANDA BENNETT: Well first off I’d like to say that our CEO John Lansing, one of things he’s very very aware of this thing, so he’s created what we call the impact model. Where we’re trying to, he comes from private industry, where you must show impact, of sorts. It’s measured in a slightly different way but he’s trying to create a impact model that shows exactly what kind of impact we have. Which is kind of a measure of our audience, a measure of the audience’s engagement, and then a measurement of softer things like these quotes, and these anecdotes that we get that show that there, that they’re, that they’re having an on people’s minds.
And thank you for mentioning the Boko Haram thing, I’ll have to talk to you a little bit about why I think great journalism is great public service and public diplomacy. Because I don’t think they’re in conflict at all. We have a reporter in our Hausa service who acquired a laptop containing eighteen hours of uncut video that was taken Boko Haram itself. Things that have never been seen outside of Boko Haram showing faces and methods of operating and frankly some pretty horrific things. And this man who speaks Hausa went back into that area to validate and it shows why you need a good good investigative team to help because they spelled out the reasons, the ways we needed to validate this information. And he went back into that territory carrying stills from those videos and showed them to people, identified where the video had come from, found people who’d been victimized by Boko Haram. We created a three part series which, which honestly is kind of difficult to watch but we sent it out and our affiliates in Nigeria have not only been running this, this video, they’ve also been accompany it with discussions, call-in shows, public forums, and the response has been tremendous. We’ve had over four million seeing this inside Nigeria and the level of, the level of reaction that we’ve gotten, basically says “We had no idea that Boko Haram was like this, we didn’t see what they were like, we didn’t know, and we weren’t sure if we could trust the government to tell us, we actually thought they may have been spirits because the government kept telling us they were making him go away and they kept coming back.” So I think that’s one and this is a person who put his life on-the-line by going back into Boko Haram territory by himself and, in order to tell the credible story. And I think, again that, that shows as Geoff said a type of impact, I don’t think you can fully measure, over a short period of time. I think you can clearly measure over a long period of time, but I think that’s, you know one of the one of the amazing things, and the other thing I’d have to say why I believe in the in the value of independent journalism as opposed to messaging, is because I think independent journalism actually carries messages far better than messaging. We’re kind of clumsy at messaging, we are not very good at it, but we’re very good at messaging through non-messages, so when we had a Cambodian reporter covering the Republican National Convention. Remember all the protests and the guys with the guns and things like that, and they were all outside? Well he was covering the protests, and I thought what the audiences would see is kind of disorder, and protests, and have a messy political system, but then you start to look at the comments coming in, and what the comments were was “look at America’s political system, the police are keeping the demonstrators apart, they are trying to keep the demonstrators safe and this would never happen in our country the police would beat everybody up.” And one of my favorite comments is, “if this had been Cambodia, they would already have men and dogs there to beat them and bite them.” And so people people received a message that we weren’t sending. And if we had tried to send that message it would have felt inauthentic. So I think our credibility and our authenticity are far better messages than things that we try and craft.
SHAWN POWERS: Thank you before I open this up to questions from the commission members and the audience I have one last question that I’d like each of the panelists to address. If you could design US international broadcasting from scratch, including the Voice of America, what would it look like? What would the mandate be and how would it be similar or different from what exists today? Let’s start with Jim and work this way.
JAMES GLASSMAN: OK so so number one I would say that there needs to be of a clear mission which there is not now. I think of this conflict that I talked about before where it’s part of American foreign policy supposedly and also kind of a conventional journalistic institution. That is a circle that’s very difficult to square. I’m not saying it can’t be, you know there are ways to do it, I can get into those, but that’s a big problem. So I think the mission needs to be clear. Second, I think that then U.S. international broadcasting needs to have a very large part of its budget devoted to using the massive resources that are available in the United States that are not necessarily residing only in one building on Independence Avenue. There are, that’s very difficult to do within the BBG structure. I know it’s being done and I’m very happy that it’s being done, but we’ve had a media revolution in this country, the resources are unbelievable, and the fact that we don’t tap them more, and I’m not criticizing the management because I think part of it is, just comes from the way the budget is is allocated, needs to, I think that needs to be done. I think it needs to, one big change that Chairman Royce and others have wrought, I think is really important, and obviously we now have a there is a CEO, there’s a better, there’s a much better management structure. And then finally, what I was saying the beginning ,which is, US international broadcasting has got to be part of the foreign policy apparatus of the United States. It’s ridiculous, it really is. You know this is, this is an institution it’s funded by the American people, I don’t disagree, you’re talking about tactics Amanda, I don’t disagree, I don’t believe that the way that you effectively prevent North Korea from getting a deliverable nuclear weapon, for example, is through messaging. No, you know that’s, that’s a tactical question, but I do believe that, for example, when you use the Boko Haram example, that the question of whether you’re effective, can be shown through, for example, the attitudes of people in Nigeria about Boko Haram. And I think there’s some resistance, I may be wrong because I’ve been out of it for nine years, but I think there’s a resistance within the building to saying well let’s test whether we’ve actually been effective by doing research. People say whoa we don’t do that in journalism. We can’t do that. I think we need to do that and so those are just some things that I think ought to change.
AMANDA BENNETT: I think this is going to prove the thing I said the beginning, which is we can disagree but still be nice, because I pretty much very seriously disagree with that position.
JAMES GLASSMAN: Right but I just want to say one thing, and I want, I don’t want to interrupt because I am nice, but when you talk about, when you talk about going to taxicab and talking to somebody. OK. That’s, I mean, with all due respect both you, that is not research and that is telling people, yes we really like listening to your programming. Is that the objective of something that’s supposed to be part of the foreign policy apparatus of the United States?
AMANDA BENNETT: So I’d still be encouraged to do the taxi test it’s really fun. So try it anyway and you know honestly one of the things we talked about this morning is, as you can ascertain, is that we really would like to get more money for research because we think that research is incredibly important. And to say that media is not interested in impact, I mean, I came from a long line of private organizations where we had to know what our impact was all the time. That’s not, that’s not inimicable to good journalism, finding out what what our impact is in how people receiving our messages.
But if I were going to design a Voice of America from the beginning, there is one thing that I would change quite dramatically, and I’d make it available to the people of the United States. Because I see, hear, feel, so much criticism from people who actually aren’t accessing our material. And this is not their fault, they can’t. We have gone a long way to creating a brand new structure, actually it’s a unique structure in the journalistic world we created just for Voice of America, that is going to be accessing material in all 47 languages and making the most important of it available English, to be shared with English speakers and also as a transit language to be shared around the world. I think the best thing for Voice of America, and frankly for the American people, is if they could see the great work the Voice of America is doing and I think that’s a huge disadvantage that we have right now.
GEOFF COWAN: So first of all I still believe in the concept of a sunset clause, by which I don’t mean that the entity ends but I think that it should have to continue to justify itself and I think that’s true of many entities. I wish in the president’s budget and instead of deciding to end things, he said prove yourself. Show why you’re important. Don’t just say it didn’t do anything good. I think many of the agencies that appear to be limited should have had to meet that test and I think they could have met that test. But I think it’s a test that our international broadcasting should make, so you know I think, and I think it would be, it would prove itself very effectively. On the subject of research, Jim, as Amanda said, I think that we put only five million dollars now or something into research. I think research is a hugely important thing, we did it when I was there too. I think the research can be more and more effective and I think the research should be tied to questions of impact and I think that impact can be defined different ways, but a very important that–some impact is anecdotal, some impact is is measurable, but you need to do both. I think is a really important to do.
I guess I would kind of prefer that international broadcasting were created as one entity. I think it’s a little confusing having all the different entities that there are. I think that you know you can sort of explain it, there’s a historical reason for it, they’re territorial reasons for it. I think that the direction that the new law takes us in and that John Lansing has taken the entity in and is more in that direction. But I think that the resource would be better deployed if it were one, if one entity, and I was trying to think of an example of one entity that works together now. ESPN and ABC work together on certain sports events but they’re different parts of the Walt Disney Company. But I’m not sure there need to be those things anyway, I think they should think of themselves as one entity.
Mission, I think the mission, and I agree, the mission should be clear. Maybe this isn’t the complete mission, but I think part of the mission is, as I’ve seen it, providing the people the world, with the information they need, in the languages they speak, over transmission systems they can receive. Now that, but there has to be a purpose behind it, so the why are you doing that? And I think you’re doing it for a number of different reasons, and I think that the VOA should have to be able to demonstrate what those reasons are. But I think there’s reasons, to some extent, differ from country by country, and you can show where they’ve had these heart rending impacts. But to some extent they are universal, which is if you believe that American democratic institutions, that courts are important, that for independent judiciary, that people should care unlike America, that they should like to be more favorable to our foreign policies, also into our trade, in our goods I think the Voice of America by doing that, provides that function. That depends how you feel about the United States. I personally believe in the United States and I think for all the internal conflicts we have, in the end when people know our true story, it will be a story that they will, that they will largely believe in. Jim, you were head of, you were the undersecretary for public diplomacy in the years post USIA, so here I’m going to just assert a view from that’s from a different era. But, Broadcasting Board of Governors was a little bit different, but you also run that as member of the, as Undersecretary of State, ans there is this philosophical debate, are we a part of the foreign policy establishment? I’ve always thought that the VOA was most effective by being half a step away from the foreign policy establishment. With something almost like plausible deniability. Where you can be a great reporter, where somebody like this reporter that Amanda just described from the Hausa of service, whose life is now in being threatened because of what he did, but he’s there is a reporter, he’s not there is an employee of the federal government. Of course you’re technically are an employee of the federal government, but he’s seen as being separate. And I think our reporters were able to do a better job, I think hurt us more credibly. If they didn’t think, “Oh this is an instrument of the U.S. State Department.” No this is a this is a serious debate, it’s an important debate, it’s one that Amanda, Jim said people of good will disagree about. But my own view is that it shouldn’t be a part of it, it advances the foreign policy goals by, being having its own role.
And just I want to say one more word about Amanda’s example of the Boko Haram thing because I think it’s so interesting. Boko Haram of course, has proclaimed its fealty to ISIS or Da’esh. That’s a big thing in the world. The way in which ISIS or Da’esh claims a power, makes themselves different from other terrorist groups, is that they own territory. That’s a big part of what they claim. They are losing territory all over the world and they’re losing territory in Nigeria. If we can communicate through our credible news sources that they are losing territory, and maybe lose most of it. It changes entirely the messages they can communicate to the world. That’s part of what that story did, it takes, and I think once people who might otherwise be attracted to ISIS and the people of ISIS themselves, know that they are no longer a quote “state”, that has a huge impact. But they will only believe that if it comes from a credible news source, unimpeachable, that is not seen as a propaganda outlet and reaches the people of the world, in the languages that they speak, over transmission methods that they can receive, and with a message like that that they need to hear.
SHAWN POWERS: Great, thank you, thank you to each the panelists and like to pass it back to Anne to moderate the Q and A session.
ANNE WEDNER: I have a question now, but I will moderate it. Penne how about you go first?
PENNE PEACOCK: Jim, I have a question for you. Since you’ve been in the public diplomacy business and for a long time, some of us have been around as you have, when public diplomacy became its own entity in the State Department. If you had a do-over situation and they said, “come on in and let’s make this as important as it could be,” which is what we all care about in the State Department, what would you do to help out these people who are trying to get the message out with not a whole lot of luck? Or people still want to be an admin or they want to be in something else, but what would make it happy for people to say “I want to be in public diplomacy as my cone” and how would you structure it?
JAMES GLASSMAN: OK so, I’ll answer that in two ways. One, it really is much more of a whole of government or White House problem, than it is a State Department problem. In other words I think the White House has to bestow on public diplomacy the respect and authority that it deserves. Second, you know I mentioned I was on the Djerejian group and one of the things, I love Ambassador Djerejian, but the first thing he said was, “OK we’re going to do this work, but the one thing that we’re not going to do, is we’re not going to recommend reviving USIA,” which had been disbanded about four years earlier.
And so I have to say that it’s kind of never been in my mind until the last few years. And I and I’ve said this publicly before, I think we need to revive something like USIA. It had an esprit de corps that I think is missing, that you just referred to. It is doesn’t have to be as big, it doesn’t have to have, necessarily have, exactly the same functions or purpose, but I think we need that kind of, something similar to that. I think it would be a good idea.
ANNE WEDNER: Alright Sim, what’s up?
SIM FARAR: I’ve been doing this for many years and I must tell you that this is a great panel. It’s been very informative and very lively discussion and I hope you all have some questions out there in the audience for them too because it’s been incredible. My question for Geoff. In your work as the president of the Annenberg Foundation, and the Trust of Sunnylands, and if anyone has not ever visited Sunnylands in California, I suggest you visit it. Many presidents of the been there, it’s a phenomenal place in California, just something I urge you to visit if you have, if you have the opportunity. You organize several high level meetings there and focus on how to better use to strategic communication and public diplomacy to combat the online influence of ISIS. How can the Voice of America in your opinion do more to challenge ISIS and other extremist narratives online?
GEOFF COWAN: Well I think it’s a hugely important topic and I’d actually love to hear what, if Jim and I were to retreat to talk about this a little bit, I love to know what he thinks, what Amanda thinks, and also people in the audience. I think this is a profound question. It obviously, because ISIS messaging is extremely effective and we do not know, really completely, how to rebut it. But I think that Voice of America has a role, but it’s not the only role. So let mention Voice of America’s role, then say what we talked about, what we talk about at those meetings that you referenced, and then maybe mention one other thing. I think the Voice of America, by providing the kind of accurate information I mentioned before, has an important role. As it does in any warfare situation or where you are trying, so I think I just gave the example of, when we can show the truth of what ISIS is doing so that people realize how vicious they are. That has an effect. When we can reunite parents with kids who may have been radicalized, that can make a difference. When you show them losing territory, that can make you difference. But I don’t think VOA should be a propaganda service and I’ve been in Congress in conversation about this. I’d love to know Jim what you think, but I don’t think the public diplomacy cone should be part of that. I think there are other parts of the U.S. government who should do that, that just isn’t what we do.
The conversations we had that were most useful was with the Hollywood community, the Middle Eastern leading Middle Eastern broadcasters, and government officials with the State Department. And I hope they continue under the new administration. And what people felt was really important is, if you could hear messages of, in effect modernity, that made be a strong word, or messages where things were positive that were being treated as negative, where you could see hope in new ways, that that would make a difference. Many of the things, but one of our partners in this, and I don’t have to go down this track, I’ll be a little general here because not everyone wants their names known, but let’s say some major Middle Eastern broadcasters were part of these conversations and they ran programs partly because of what we had, what have been brought up in conversation there. That we think are having a substantial effect. And they also, I mentioned the reunification thing, they they would run programs where a child would hear from his mother, who otherwise would never hear from them because they were listening to, not to us, not for American broadcasters, but to a broadcaster that they try to trust from the region, and by the way when you look at the danger of ISIS and Da’esh, we think it’s serious, to them it’s deadly. So I’m talking about allies that, or people who are working with, who are not just situational allies. They’re people to whom this is a really deadly serious thing. And I think there are ways that Hollywood can, and will continue to, work with them and I hope international broadcasting will too, but I hope it doesn’t go over the line to become propaganda, which I think is somebody else’s business.
JAMES GLASSMAN: So I agree with everything Geoff just said. But maybe I’d put a stronger emphasis on one part of it. I think that U.S. international broadcasting should have absolutely nothing to do with pushing back directly against ISIS and in fact the U.S. government should have nothing to do with it, other than funding it. That the most effective voices are not American. Forget it. The most important thing we can do, which we’re doing a little bit, but we should be doing in a massive way are defector stories. You know, all you do is put a defector on camera and say “oh you know I came from London and I thought that this is going to be wonderful and it turned out that all my friends were killed and I was raped and you know it’s horrible” and there are lots of stories like that. It’s not easy to get people on camera to do it, but it can be done, and it actually is being done right now. So we are just not, we are, Americans are not effective communicators on that, on that score. And I completely agree that the idea of telling stories about how the caliphate is losing ground is really important and I think that’s something that U.S. international broadcasting can do, but I’m just saying like pushing back directly against ISIS? No.
ANNE WEDNER: I just, I’m going to take a prerogative and ask a question too, I feel like you know, as you guys are discussing that, there’s a mission, there’s no mission. Aren’t we losing track of the most important, fundamental thing that we’re doing here, and that is VOA is part of our arsenal in a war of ideas. Right? I mean this, how do we get our ideas out there without portraying our society, even if we’re not doing a propagandistically? Because after all, people don’t do, or act, without ideas. Ideas are what motivate. And what I found over time is that Republicans tend to understand the strength of ideas and Democrats can’t find a narrative if it hit them in the face. So it’s an interesting thing that a Republican administration hopefully now would actually embrace this and see the value in what you’re doing and that you would be able to to talk about this. I’m not saying in a propaganda way, ideas don’t have to be propaganda to be ideas. So that was just a question.
AMANDA BENNETT: And why don’t they answer that because I find myself perplexed being between these two people who are talking talking across because the one thing that perplexes me is, why does everything have to the same, we’re a different thing. And I’ve gone around to Congress and heard people saying “how come you know entertainment on VOA, because Entertainment’s the place you ought to be” and why don’t, they’re saying all kinds of different things. But one thing I think we are really bad, not very good at messaging, and I’m going to take it back. We’re not very good at it and the entertainment, by the way, is way too expensive. And, but one thing Americans are really really really good at, because it is baked into one of the fundamentals of our society, is a free press. Is free speech. When we report freely and objectively without being a formal part of a public diplomacy mission, we are exporting the First Amendment. We are showing people what can be accomplished in a society such as ours. We’re not messaging it, because if we messaged it, it would be you know inauthentic. We are sending authentic message of what can be done in a society like ours and I think that idea is extremely powerful and I think our audiences are hearing it very clearly. This is what the American society is founded on and we’ve become very good at doing that over the years.
JAMES GLASSMAN: But on the other hand you gave the example of a piece that described how executive orders work. Well that was a that was explaining something, and I think the VOA does that, and I think we do it, one of the services–the special English still exists right? The VOA in Special English, which you may or may not be familiar with, is another hugely successful thing. And I remember my wife who is in the audience and I were at a dinner in China not too long ago, maybe eight or ten years ago. And I didn’t know we were with somebody who was a very high official in China. And I didn’t know whether to mention that I had run the Voice of America, because, you know it’s got a mixed, not everything there is celebrated in China but but we did and tears came to this man’s eyes. And he said that in 1976 during the bicentennial, he had been listening to the Voice of American in Special English and heard all of the events of that celebration of freedom. And he said he learned to speak English through Special English which made him, of course today English is not as necessary China, but at that time it’s a reason he became such a success, and he learned about those values by listening to the Voice of America. So I think that kind of thing happens, in, it does happen, I think is important role for VOA and it’s part of why I think, during when I was running VOA, the Heritage, going to your point, the Heritage Foundation, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, The Washington Times which had originally I think been skeptical about my appointment, but they all became our champions, because they think America needs a strong voice in the world.
JAMES GLASSMAN: So Anne, let me just respond to that. I love the term “war of ideas.” We’re losing the war of ideas, by any metric, we’re losing. It’s really important I understand that. You know this report that the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal do every year, Freedom in the World I think it’s called, shows that. You know we kind of, the world is becoming more free, now it’s less free. To me that’s a sign that we’re losing the war of ideas. I kind of disagree with you that it’s like only Republicans who are interested in this, however I have to say, maybe they’re good at it, there’s something to that. I am a republican, although I have to say I’m in exile right now, and you know I always think if you’re, if you if you take a government job, I think it’s really important to kind of, establish a brand right away. Because there are lots of other people, lots of other assistant secretaries and undersecretaries running around. And my brand was “war of ideas.” Like you see me walking in the hall, they would say, “oh that Glassman he’s the war of ideas guy” and I think we’ve neglected that. During the transition I was told by the Obama transition people, and I’m not going to name them, “don’t don’t use that term, we don’t like that term” and so it kind of disappeared. Not that the spirit of a war of ideas disappeared, but I think it’s absolutely necessary. We need to stick up for our values directly. I think the role of broadcasting in that is difficult. I’m not sure whether broadcasters, whether, I think it’s a complicated issue. But when I mention USIA, or something like it, I think that’s something that that organization ought to be charged with. And I think that you that even without that I think that public diplomacy ought to be charged with it as well.
AMANDA BENNETT: So thank you for that work work tip, I think what I’m going to do is I’m going to be I’m going to be known as the “exploiting the First Amendment person” a term I ripped off from my predecessor by the way. Just to just give full credit.
ANNE WEDNER: All right maybe we should go to the audience and see if there’s something less controversial out there.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: My name is Jonathan Hennick, I’m a foreign service officer, I’ve got a quarter century of experience, mostly overseas, I’m currently the acting coordinator for the Bureau of International Information Programs. I want to thank the ACPD and all the panelists for really a fascinating discussion and it was very timely. I want to dig into that philosophical debate just a little bit deeper and maybe challenge something that maybe you said Geoff, which is I spent most of my career overseas talking to people and I heard the same arguments about kind maintaining a little bit of distance from the policy or from the government apparatus. I heard it from USIA. I heard it from Peace Corps, and I still hear it from Peace Corps. And frankly I don’t know that foreigners perceive those different nuances, that one foot in one foot out the same way that we do. I don’t think they understand, like, the independence of the BBG and VOA have. I think frankly foreigners think Voice of America, they go is it funded by the U.S. government? Yes. Then you are simply paid people who are mouthpieces for the U.S. government. Now, which is to denigrate the incredible professional journalism that I admire and consume myself from people at Voice of America. But that is, I think, how a lot of people overseas perceive us. And so are we, does it matter then?
GEOFF COWAN: Can I give you two example, I think Amanda could give a couple examples and you know we may not persuade each other about this. When I first came to VOA right before I came there, Allen you’ll probably remember the details of this, a reporter of ours had gone with a group of journalists to some African country where there was a man, an African leader in hiding, who was a dictator of kinds. And we were asked, do you remember where that was Allen? And we were and VOA had been asked to turn, our reporter was asked, to tell where he was, where this guy was staying. And our reporter refused to do it. And how he refused to do it? You’re an employee of the U.S. government. The U.S. government wants to find that person. Well the reason was because they went there as a journalist and we would never get a story like otherwise. At least once, i would they say probably a few times, Ambassadors would call me and say stop reporting this story. And I had fortunately, John Chancellor was one of our predecessors, and I’d had a wonderful talk with him before he took on the job, and he said have your hat by the door because this moment will come. An ambassador is going to call and say stop reporting that story and, ambassador you’ve got your job to do, but it’s a true story and we have to be reporting it. And the ambassador would say no don’t report it and you would say you have your job, I have mine. And his point was, if I got a call from the White House, and this almost happened once, you have to say OK, it’s you know it’s your job, you’re entitled, I will leave it that’s what the White House wishes, but we have different functions. I think it’s important that there’s that different function.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: But you misunderstand the question, I’m not saying if the functions aren’t different and that VOA journalists aren’t behaving like independent journalists, I’m saying that foreigners perceive this.
GEOFF COWAN: Well I think some sources do. I don’t, Amanda could speak to that today.
AMANDA BENNETT: I think there’s another issue which is, why did people come to VOA and the firewall and the Independence is actually probably one of our fundamental recruiting tools. We have some of the leading journalists from around the world, people who have been imprisoned, people have been tortured, people like this man in Hausa that were willing to risk their lives. And they work for the Voice of America because they value the principles of journalism.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: You’re talking about people in the organization and I’m talking about how you are perceived from the outside.
AMANDA BENNETT: I’m saying, I guess what I’m saying to you is, I can’t, I can’t tell what the whole world thinks but i’m telling you there’s a different value, there’s a different value in having the independence that enables us to be what we are.
JAMES GLASSMAN: So I would be astounded if the vast majority of people in the world, who listen to Voice of America, did not think that this was US government broadcasting, but by the way this is like a really easy thing to get an answer to. Jeff (Trimble) do you know the answer to this? Have you done the research? I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I’m just, all you have to do is ask a question, and just ask the question in a poll.
GEOFF COWAN: But in the same poll Jeff, ask what percentage think CNN is government controlled.
JAMES GLASSMAN: Well that’s a good idea that’s a good control, but I would just be surprised. I think that, I think you’re you’re fighting a battle that’s not worth fighting.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have an anecdotal response…
JAMES GLASSMAN: See that’s, what that’s my problem. I mean that’s all I hear is anecdotes and I can tell you lots of anecdots.
ANNE WEDNER: Let’s hear it, let’s hear it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In 2014, when Ukraine was getting ready to have parliamentary elections. They wanted to have national debates on television. And they needed a journalist whose credibility and integrity was beyond question. And the person they got, this is the Government of Ukraine and Ukraine One Television, was Myroslava Gongadze from the Voice of America to come to Ukraine and moderate those debates because her credibility and integrity was beyond question. So there are places where the sheer volume of work and they way these people work, I think if you consume their content over time, that’s what I tend to say to people, if you think we’re government propaganda, just consume the content for a couple of months and compare it to what RT, then come back and let’s have the conversation. Yeah and generally they come back and say yea, ok you were right. That’s good stuff.
JAMES GLASSMAN: OK So actually this makes the bigger point, which I think is really important, because you’re a government employee, because you’re this is the US Government, that doesn’t mean that you’re a dispenser of propaganda. In fact, the very fact that you’re a journalist of great integrity, enhances the reputation of the United States government. So let me give you a little anecdote, when I was undersecretary one of the, My goal in anecdote, when I was undersecretary one of my goals was to get a common slogan, put on every piece of aid that the United States gives out. You will be amazed that this is not, that this doesn’t happen. They are like fifty different things. OK. So I thought well this should be easy, and we’re going to slap a whole thing on everything that says “gift of the American people.” Well you cannot believe the resistance that I got to that. Now obviously there are some security questions in some places. But I think this is actually a good analog to what you’re, to what you’re saying, you know we actually do really good stuff, the Voice of America does a really good stuff. We have we have these journalists who have real integrity, and yes they work for the United States government, isn’t that amazing. Unlike the people who work for the Russian government who do that crap on RT, we actually do good stuff and that helps us.
ANNE WEDNER: Alright, let’s keep going.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: (Inaudible)
GEOFF COWAN: Jill, would you introduce yourself?
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Jill (inaudible), I served at both the National Security Council and the UN and the State Department under both Carter and Clinton. In the unusual circumstance that we presumably all think we find ourselves in at this point, with a president who has come to the White House from a different perspective perhaps from those who have come before, and the issue of “alt news” and “fake news” and the importance, I’m looking at you Amanda, because i’m curious as to how you deal with a White House that by Twitter or other means has come out with what is Sweden or whatever else, false news. When the importance of credibility endemic and important to the credibility of VOA. How do you deal with that?
AMANDA BENNETT: That’s, that’s a really really good question, and I would have to say it’s one that is occupying us constantly, but there’s actually not one problem that we need to deal with there’s two. One is that I’ve been telling our staff that a polarized political environment is where we were born, that’s that’s what we live in. And this is a tremendous opportunity for us to be the best journalists we can. To be fair. To be neutral, we have been ceded, talk about ISIS losing territory, we’ve been ceded a huge space in the middle of the spectrum. If you name me a medium out there that has not moved to the edges, we’ve got the whole middle where we can take care, we can work on that. I think that’s an enormous gift to the world if we can if we can make that stick. And that’s what I’m telling our journalists is, this is an amazing gift to you and your journalism, and your integrity. So that’s one. The second is, I don’t, I find that we torture ourselves a little bit about false equivalencies, and false things. Basically, once again, that is the job of a good journalist, is to look at the statement and decide is it true or not. Look and do the reporting, find out what’s the factual thing, report what happened, report the factual check on it. This is, to me I’m finding it sort of odd that people are perplexed by this. Because…
AUDIENCE QUESTION: Has VOA done this?
AMANDA BENNETT: Yes, yeah absolutely, that’s what we’re trying to do every day. I wake up in the morning every morning with memos in my head written out to the staff. You know, here this is what we need to do, we need to be, we need to be fair, we need to represent all of the American people, which I do not think is being effectively done in American media any place right now. We have a territory to live in and then the other thing is, you report factually on things. And where I find we fall down is, where we report opinions on things and don’t back it up with our reporting. Because that’s where you get into trouble or you say so and so said such and such and such and such a tweet. And that’s really stupid or that’s a lie or I don’t believe that.
AUDIENCE QUESTION: It is the president of the United States.
AMANDA BENNETT: It is the president, but so, instead you go back and you find out, like, you know you find out what does the picture show, what does another picture show, what’s the source of that picture, is that a valid picture? You know, you do reporting, that’s what reporting is all about and I don’t think we need to invent any new mechanism to deal with a politically polarized environment. And I have to say the other thing is our, our journalists, the vast majority of them, by the very definition of the markets we serve, are coming from environments that are so much more polarized than ours, and so much more prone to fake and distorted news than ours we have an enormous amount of experience in that building and dealing with that kind of thing. And in many cases our ability to stay on the air, and in other cases, our reporters very lives depend on how good a job we do with that. So again, I think this is journalism 101, it’s what I’ve tried to practice my whole life, all we need to do is do it much better.
PENNE PEACOCK: Thank you Amanda and thank you all for coming today it’s been, we’ve covered a lot of, a lot of territory this morning. To Geoff, I want you to know that in full disclosure we were over at the VOA this morning, earlier, and it was like Elvis had walked in when walked into the building. There were people running out of offices saying “oh Jeff, oh Jeff!” It was terrific. And Amanda and Jim, I mean what a fabulous panel I hope you all have enjoyed it is much as we have.
One quick announcement our next meeting is May 9th, and the subject is “Public Diplomacy in a Post Truth Society.” I don’t know who made that up, but it ought to be interesting. So please come back, thank you for coming.