U.S. ADVISORY COMMISSION ON PUBLIC DIPLOMACY
Minutes and transcript from the quarterly public meeting focused on “USAGM and the future of public funded-international broadcasting.”
U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Quarterly Meeting
Friday, September 17, 2021 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. EDT
Virtual Public Meeting via Videoconference
COMMISSION MEMBERS PRESENT:
TH Sim Farar, Chair
TH William Hybl, Vice-Chair
TH Anne Terman Wedner
COMMISSION STAFF MEMBERS PRESENT:
Dr. Vivian S. Walker, Executive Director
Ms. Deneyse Kirkpatrick, Senior Advisor
Ms. Kristy Zamary, Program Assistant
The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD) met in an open virtual session from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, September 17, 2021, to discuss USAGM and the future of public funded-international broadcasting. A distinguished group of independent experts addressed the strategic challenges and opportunities facing the U.S. Agency for Global Media and implications for the future of international broadcasting. Panelists included Michael McFaul, Director, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University; Sarah Arkin, Policy Director/Deputy Staff Director, Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Helle Dale, Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy, The Heritage Foundation; and Shawn Powers, Chief Strategy Officer, USAGM.
ACPD Executive Director Vivian Walker opened the session, and Chairman Sim Farar provided introductory remarks. Vivian Walker moderated the Q&A, Commissioner Anne Wedner provided a discussion wrap-up, and Vice-Chairman Bill Hybl closed the meeting. The speakers took questions from the Commissioners and the online audience, as detailed in the transcript below.
Approximately 350 participants registered and 144 attended the ACPD’s virtual public meeting, including:
- PD practitioners and PD leadership from the Department of State, USAGM, and other agencies;
- Members of the foreign affairs and PD think tank communities,
- Academics in communications, foreign affairs, and other fields,
- Congressional staff members,
- Retired USIA and State PD officers,
- Members of the international diplomatic corps, and
- Members of the general public.
Vivian Walker: Hello, everyone and welcome. My name is Vivian Walker, and I’m the Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Along with Commission Chairman Sim Farar; Vice Chair, Bill Hybl; and Commissioner Anne Wedner, it is my very great pleasure to welcome you to today’s discussion on public funded international broadcasting and its future, with a specific focus on the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
I’d like to note that this meeting is being held in partial fulfillment of our commission’s mandate to provide the American public with regular public updates on and assessments of U.S. government diplomacy and international broadcasting activities. I’d also like to take this opportunity to introduce the new ACPD Senior Advisor, Ms. Deneyse Kirkpatrick, who has just completed an assignment as the Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Luanda, Angola. We’re delighted to have such an experienced public diplomacy officer on board.
As you know, the international broadcasting component of U.S. government public diplomacy Program is essential to information outreach and influence activities. At the same time, the mandate of public-funded international broadcasting institutions is often subject to intense debate as we have seen, of course, over the past year. Negotiating that delicate, but all-important balance between advocacy and objective reporting, between influence versus outreach, remains a perennial challenge for government-sponsored media entities.
In today’s panel, we will take a look at some of these issues. In addition to reviewing current challenges and opportunities, we will also consider future strategic objectives. Our distinguished panelists, who represent the academic, policy, and legislative sectors bring a wealth of foreign affairs experience and scholarship to the discussion.
Shawn Powers, the USAGM’s Chief Strategy Officer will start us off with an exclusive preview of USAGM’s future strategic objectives. We will then turn to our panelists. In order of appearance, we are fortunate to have with us Professor Michael McFaul, who’s Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University; he will be followed by Helle Dale, Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation; and finally, we are very pleased to welcome Ms. Sarah Arkin, Policy Director and Deputy Staff Director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Just a quick note on the process: today’s speakers will present consecutively, followed by a Q&A session. As they speak, we invite you to submit your questions to the Q&A function at the bottom of your screens. We will try to get to as many of your questions as we can.
And with that, it is my pleasure to turn this meeting over to Chairman Farar for its official opening. Sim, over to you.
Sim Farar: Thank you, Vivian, and all of you who have joined us from across the United States and around the world. It’s a pleasure to be speaking to you today. I’m here at the United Nations in New York, where I’ve been nominated by the President to serve as United States Representative to the 76th Session of the General Assembly. I am honored to remain in my current role as Chairman of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
I’m now joined by my distinguished colleagues from the commission: Vice Chairman Bill Hybl from Colorado Springs, Colorado; Ann Wedner from Miami, Florida. I’m also pleased to offer a warm welcome to our new Senior Advisor, Deneyse Kirkpatrick. We are very fortunate to have her on the team. Welcome aboard Deneyse.
To everyone here today, let me say that we sincerely appreciate your continued interest in and commitment to the practice of public diplomacy. Thanks too to our panelists who’ve agreed to share their insight into the future of public-funded international broadcasting initiatives.
Our bipartisan commission was created by Congress in 1948 to appraise US government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and to increase the understanding of and support for these same activities. For nearly three-quarters of a century, this commission has represented the public interest through regular reviews of the United States government’s global information, media, cultural, and educational exchange programs. The commission also assesses the effectiveness of these public diplomacy activities; it recommends changes when needed and reports its finding and recommendations to the President of the United States, Congress, the Secretary of State, and of course, the American people.
Along those lines, we anticipate that today’s discussion will serve as a platform for assessment and change. Please join me in welcoming our guest speakers who will bring their diverse backgrounds and experience to bear on the essential work of maintaining America’s voice, values, and influence in the global media space. Thank you very much.
Vivian Walker: Thank you, Sim. And now, it is a distinct pleasure to introduce Shawn Powers, the Chief Strategy Officer of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, and, I might add, my very distinguished predecessor in the role of Executive Director of this commission. Shawn, welcome.
Shawn Powers: Thank you so much, Vivian, Chairman Farar, Mr. Hybl, Ms. Wedner. Thank you for the invitation and for hosting this really important conversation this afternoon. I’m a big fan of the tremendous work of the commission, as you all know, and it’s always great to be reconnected with you all and hear what you’re up to. So, thank you for the invitation.
I’m also very happy to be here on behalf of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and to discuss where we are strategically speaking and what we’re thinking in terms of strategic directions moving forward. This is an important conversation, and it’s an important time for us to have it for a couple of reasons. I think, as everyone is well aware, the agency has had a very challenging 12 or 18 months. It has been documented pretty well in the news, and there’s no need to go into great depth here. But to get past that phase, I think, does require a bit of soul-searching and asking, “Where does the agency want to go moving forward and how does it want to spend its resources most effectively to have an impact that really is in the interests of the U.S. government but also, and most importantly, that supports a free press and access to information all around the world in support of freedom and democracy?”
We aim to achieve that mission and those goals in the face of a tremendous challenge, which is an increasingly chaotic global information environment that is dominated by foreign government information manipulation campaigns; it’s also dominated by market-driven noise, content that looks and feels like news and information, but really isn’t actually anything remotely close to what we would consider to be investigative reporting or high-quality public interest journalism. So, how do we both deal with the fact that governments around the world are investing heavily in this information space to try to manipulate both information and opinion, and also compete with a growing sector that is really producing a tremendous amount of information, but not much of which actually stands out compared to what matters most and what the agency needs to achieve?
Before I get into the strategic component, I need to share a little bit about the agency that I work for. The U.S. Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, oversees six entities, five of which are news networks; the sixth of which is an internet freedom technology startup incubator. The largest of the news entities, of course, is the Voice of America; we also oversee the Office of Cuba Broadcasting which supports Radio and Televisión Martí; both VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting are federal entities.
And then we’ve got four other entities that are grantees of the agency, not-for-profit private sector grantees and those include Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, based in Prague; Radio Free Asia; the Middle East Broadcasting Network which targets most of the Middle East with its satellite TV Channel Ahura and, of course, Radio Sawa; and last, but not least, the Open Technology Fund, which was established in 2019 as a separate grantee of the agency (it previously existed within Radio Free Asia). We decided that the Open Technology Fund had to be a standalone operation so that its purview could be global and it could support all of the networks. We’re very proud of the work that the Open Technology Fund has been doing all along and, in particular, in the past two years as an independent grantee.
We, as an agency, are very, very proud of the fact that we broadcast content in 62 languages–far more than any other news organization in the world; and we create and promote content in languages that, quite frankly, no other government actually produces–Uyghur being a great example of this. Sixty-two languages represent a huge asset for the agency because it means we can engage–very intimately engage–with local audiences in parts of the world that are otherwise hard to connect with. It also creates tremendous challenges because there are no logistical or technological systems that support 62 languages. Period. And so, we’ve got to build all of those systems in the back-end ourselves to support the global operations.
Helping us do this is a network of 4,100 affiliates. These are well-established, mostly local radio and TV organizations in each of the markets we operate in that, as our partners, agree to carry our content on a daily or weekly basis. In exchange, we give them the content for free, but then they broadcast it, say, during prime time in Pakistan, for example, or in Mexico. And this extends our reach without the need to worry about owning a global infrastructure that allows for distribution in 100-plus markets.
The agency’s mission remains unchanged. That really excites everyone inside of this building and across our networks. We aim to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. This is an incredibly simple and straightforward statement, but it’s also incredibly complex given current challenges to press freedom and access to information. It is also something that unifies the agency across its networks and provides a very clear statement of what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re trying to achieve it.
Along those lines, the agency has substantially grown its audience in the past five years. In the previous fiscal year, according to over 50 different surveys in each of the markets we operate in, the USAGM’s networks reached 354 million adults on a weekly basis, which is up from 350 million adults the year before. That’s a substantial number of people, and it’s a number that we’re very proud of because it demonstrates that there’s a growing demand for our content. We will roll out our new global reach figure in about a month or so. Usually, it’s finalized around the end of the fiscal year. I’m not authorized to share that specific number now, but I can say it’s going to be a substantial increase above 354 million adults. This increase speaks to the growing demand for accurate, timely, and credible information, especially during a global pandemic.
And now to our strategic plan. Every agency, of course, has to establish a new strategic plan at the beginning of a new administration, but this is not just a bureaucratic exercise–it’s very important for the agency. The global dynamics are changing dramatically and the competition for ideas is fierce, much more than it was five or ten years ago. At the same time, it’s an opportunity to create a unified vision for all of our networks which operate in different markets around the world and several of which are headquartered abroad.
We need something to bring us together, to focus our efforts, and to empower the networks to direct their resources to have maximum, impact, make a difference, and achieve mission goals. So, when we’re thinking about our strategic plan, we’re thinking about how best to focus our efforts collectively, to encapsulate all the different efforts that each of our networks are pursuing, including a technology startup, and to ensure the most efficient investment of resources.
In pursuing this process, we’ve conducted extensive stakeholder consultations–and I’d consider this meeting an additional consultation. We interviewed 57 internal stakeholders and received 62 different individual submissions from the public as well as 40 different external submissions from academics and from experts. We also had extensive consultations with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well. Finally we have received continuous feedback from the National Security Council and the State Department. There’s been no shortage of input going into this.
Each of those conversations gets documented and mapped into a database, and then we analyze the data looking for key trends, consistencies, and big questions. This data, based on several hundred different inputs, produced four key takeaways that inform how we’re going to approach the strategic plan. (I should just mention that our strategic plan, due to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the end of this year, will be published as part of our FY ’23 budget in February. So, right now it is still a work in progress. I’m really happy to be able to chat with you all about this and get your feedback, but please note that it will change in some way between now and next February.)
Here are the four key takeaways from the collective data inputs. First, the agency, from top to bottom, feels stretched way too thin. Every newsroom articulated a concern that they are trying to do everything and be everything to everyone in their market, and they’re exhausted. As a result, they’re not able to focus their resources on the platforms that they think matter most or on the stories that are most likely to have the greatest impact.
The second key takeaway is that our greatest value, our greatest resource, is trust. The agency and its networks need to invest in processes and expertise as much as possible to retain and build that trust with audiences, especially considering that trust in media, broadly speaking, is in decline around the world. How we go about building that trust is a key part of the discussion moving forward, but it is at the center of the agency’s future. If the USAGM wants to be effective, it has to have established a relationship of trust with its target audiences.
Third, as I think everyone on this panel and in the audience knows, there are extremely divergent views on the precise relationship between USAGM, the federal agency that oversees the networks and, of course, each of the networks. And those divergent views span a range of big questions about independence and how much support can and should be provided. It is important to note that such structural issues usually require congressional legislation to resolve. But what’s interesting is that, despite those divergent views, there’s unanimous consensus about and enthusiasm behind the mission of the agency and the networks, which is to inform, engage, and connect individuals around the world to support freedom and democracy. And so, in the strategic plan, we focus on what unifies both the networks and the agency and think about how we can implement that mission more effectively moving forward. At the same time we don’t focus too much on the big structural challenges that we do hope can be addressed but really aren’t part of our strategic planning process.
The fourth takeaway is the need to leverage data much more effectively to inform decision-making from top to bottom. That means we need to leverage data at the CEO level to make better resource investment and at the editorial level to determine which kinds of stories are working in which markets and why, and everywhere in between. Although we already collect a substantial amount of data, we could structure it more systematically, and, most importantly, analyze it in ways that make sense for each of the different layers of the organization. Not everyone’s going to be a data scientist. Not everyone’s going to have a master’s degree or a PhD in data analytics. Therefore, we need to build systems that allow for a whole range of experts to be able to access this data and use it to inform their decision-making on issues ranging from human resources to which markets we should be investing in, to which platforms are most important.
There are going to be three concepts at the heart of the 2022 to 2026 strategic vision for the agency. And I use the word “vision” specifically. We have a mission, the mission is unanimously supported, and it lies at the core of the agency. What we don’t currently have is a strategic vision, a vision that says where we want to be in five years and how we’ll get there. The vision that we are putting forward will revolve around three key concepts.
The first of these concepts is trust–becoming one of the most trusted brands in each of the markets in which we operate. As I mentioned earlier, trust is absolutely essential. We need to achieve this goal of trust through improved editorial transparency, communication with audiences about how we decide on stories to cover, how we’re cover those stories, how we choose interviewees for those stories. Talking about the process, the meat and potatoes of journalism, we found, is incredibly effective in building trust with audiences because they then understand how we got to where we’re going. It also requires us to invest in a whole range of tools and training to support fact and information checkers. And by information checkers I mean individuals who will not just check facts, but fact hunters too, people who actually verify information sources and origins– historical information–to make sure that we’re getting every single piece of information available and that and we’re prepared to defend everything that goes live on any of our networks or any of our platforms.
It also means we need to invest in tools that help us to detect when information has been manipulated. We see, increasingly, a number of foreign governments that manipulate videos and audios, fabricate stories, and spread disinformation. We’re pretty good about finding the bad information and correcting the record but, unfortunately, if it’s a human process, it’s going to be too slow. We need to invest in systems that allow us to do that much faster and then leverage those systems to tell stories about what’s really going on, and if we can, expose those who are trying to hide the truth.
The second core concept that’s going to be part of the strategic vision is an exclusive focus on compelling and impactful content. And by “compelling and impactful content” I mean that we need to focus on content that we know is going to gain traction with our key target audiences, to include underrepresented individuals who might not be the target of traditional private sector media. Refugees and minorities are a great example of those who are underrepresented in the markets that we’re operating in but who need to have content that caters to them and to have their voices represented in that content.
But compelling content is not enough. If we only focus on compelling content, we risk becoming yet another clickbait news organization that’s just trying to get eyeballs on websites to increase its analytics. Our content needs to be impactful, to be compelling with a purpose. It has to have a very clear vision of serving our audiences, so that they can become more empowered democratic actors. So that they can take better care of their communities and make informed decisions that that will change their lives and the lives of people around them. That democratic mission, that purpose-driven journalism, forms the core of what makes USAGM, a publicly-funded news organization, different from so much of the competition we face in the markets where we operate.
The last component of the strategic vision is to ensure access. We’re seeing new digital and physical walls, new threats to journalists, and a rapid increase in governmental efforts to censor information, to hide information, to wall off entire populations from foreign information flows. We have also seen an increase in threats—and in some cases actual violence–against our journalists as well our affiliates who carry our journalism. Therefore, we need a full suite of tools that ensure that our journalists can communicate safely with their audiences and their sources, that our audiences can communicate safely with their friends and colleagues and share our content without fear of being surveilled or punished.
Finally, we need tools that can circumvent governmental roadblocks to accessing international information flows, tools that we’ve developed with great success in the past couple of years. We need to reinvest in these tools and invest in new ones so there are multiple routes to get around these firewalls. Most importantly, we need to build these tools into the applications that we use to serve our audiences such as the Radio Free Asia application or the Middle East Broadcasting application. Additionally we should mainstream these tools to non USAGM owned or operated platforms to enable publics to access information. For example, Twitter, for example, should be able to incorporate some of these tools to make sure that anyone who’s using Twitter doesn’t have to worry about government firewalls. So, those are the three concepts that are really at the core of the strategic vision that we’re thinking about: trust, compelling and impactful content, and ensuring access.
And to conclude, the last thing I’ll say–and I alluded to this before–is all of this is going to require a renewed investment and some very careful thinking about how the agency conducts research, gathers analytics, and shares that information across the agency. Because if we’re going to be compelling and impactful, we need to know what works and what doesn’t work. We also need to be able to act on that information more rapidly than our current systems permit. All that requires, at the foundation, a reinvestment in data and research.
Thank you so much, and I look forward to the conversation.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much, Shawn. It was great to have that preview of the USAGM’s strategic vision. So, I’d like now to turn to Professor McFaul for his comments. Professor, the floor is yours.
Michael McFaul: Thank you, Vivian. It’s a real honor to be on this panel. Shawn, that was a fantastic presentation; I wish you could go on for another hour, but I know you can’t, and we’ll get to that in the questions.
Because I am a professor, I am going to use slides. That’s how we communicate to young people, so I’m going to do screen share in a minute–on Zoom anyway. We’re back in business, by the way, our students are back and classes are in-person on Monday.
I want to start with a couple of caveats. One, I am not an expert. I am a student, Although I’m writing about the issues, I’m not a scholar who’s published books on these topics. Second, I have been a practitioner in this domain space as a former Ambassador to Russia. I used to work at the National Security Council, and I am heavily engaged personally in what I would call the information struggle with the country of Russia. I am also writing and thinking about it more broadly in this new era of great power competition. I was just on Echo of Moscow six hours ago last night talking about exactly what Shawn was mentioning about the decision for Apple and Google to pull the Navalny app off of their company’s websites. By the way, I haven’t heard anything yet in terms of the U.S. government reaction to that and I’m going to get to that in a minute.
And then third, my job here is to be the outside bomb-thrower; I’m out here in Palo Alto. I haven’t thought through all of the things I’m going to say systematically. Usually, among those who work in Washington–and I’ve been in and out of Washington over the decades–the first reaction to people like me is, “Oh, none of that could ever work; this is crazy noodlehead academic.” And I want to reserve the right to agree with those that might say that about what I’m about to present, but I also think it’s my job, as somebody outside of the system, to try to push the envelope.
And the title of my talk–and now I am going to share slides if I may. I’ll be brief, don’t worry. This is not a professor’s lecture, I’ll be done in seven minutes, and I can share the slide deck.
I think we are at a historic moment, not unlike the historic date that created your commission, 1948, in which we have entered a new era of ideologically-charged great power competition—between, as President Biden describes it, autocrats and democrats. The 9/11 era, 20-years long, has ended, and I think, analytically speaking, many of us have embraced that idea. But we have not, in my opinion, restructured the American government to meet the new challenges. And I would just remind you of the incredible generative time it was—in 1945, 46, 47, 48, 49, all kinds of new institutions emerged, and reorganizations took place in American national security and diplomatic structures took place, but I do not see commensurate changes going on today. That is the challenge of our moment right now, and I have some ideas for how to do that.
Just to remind you of some basic facts. We’re in a 15 year decline of democracy in the world, and autocracies are on the rise. That’s one of the largest democratic recessions in the last hundred years. We are also in a ten-year democratic decline here in the United States, so our brand name is not as great as it used to be. Demand for our leadership in the world has fallen. Although it’s gotten an uptick with President Biden’s election, it is still on a downward spiral. And when the Department of Defense coins an acronym, you know it’s here to stay, right? So, GPC–I’ve heard this many, many times in various talks with the government–Great Power Competition, I think, is here to stay, probably to the end of this century.
Russia is a part of it. It started earlier with Russia, by the way, framing things as a Cold War. I don’t like that metaphor and I’ll explain why later, if you’re interested, but now, we’re full steam in terms of thinking of our competition with China. And, as I pointed out already, it’s not just a competition between great powers. It is also, in my opinion, an ideological struggle between autocracies and democracies, and, most certainly, Beijing and Moscow are investing in this ideological struggle. Therefore, I think we need to think about this in a much more substantive and radically new way. In other words, while the diagnoses are pretty well established, the prescriptions have not caught up yet.
The good news however is that the demand is out there for US engagement and people around the world also want independent media. The data shows this. (Shawn, I’m so grateful that you mentioned data many times; as a person who lives in the world of data, I’m going to come back to that in a minute.) The challenge is–can the same organization, USAGM, do both [engagement and independent media missions] at the same time, and can they do it better? My answer to the second question is yes; my answer to the first question—is I’m not sure. I’m actually not sure that you can do what is in your mission statement at USAGM–to inform, engage, connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. I want to raise a question mark about that mission and suggest that there’s another organizational chart that would allow us to pursue both of those missions at the same time more effectively.
And here are my two really radical ideas. First, I think if you are in the business of news, you should have as much distance as possible from the executive branch, from the Biden Administration, from a future Republican administration. At a minimum, those firewalls should be bigger than they are today, in my view, but I also think they should all be privatized. Now, “private” is the wrong word because it would still be U.S. government-funded, but they should all be made independent with their own boards–non-partisan boards–not bipartisan boards. I would also do the same with the Open Technology Fund; and I would also spin out VOA Africa and VOA Latin America and make them independent entities like these others. Of course, I know Radio Liberty the best, so I’ll use that as a model, but I think it pertains to all the other entities as well.
And ideally, to break down the connectivity between the executive branch and these entities, the funding eventually should come directly from the U.S. Congress, rather than through the executive budget. The model I have here in mind is the model that funds the National Endowment for Democracy. That’s a big idea that requires congressional authority and action, and it will not take place until, at least, after the elections; I was speaking to members of Congress about this just a few weeks ago.
We need to diversify the platforms. We need to rethink, radically, the way that people consume information and then make big changes. We need to think about the infrastructure for local independent reporting as part of the synergistic world in which US government-funded media exists. We need to blur the lines between local and surrogate, private and public, for-profit and nonprofit. I think about myself: I work at a private institution at Stanford, but I write in Russian, and I propagate ideas about democracy abroad. Which category am I in? And you want hundreds and thousands of people like me working with you. I’m on Radio Liberty, and VOA, and various other platforms all the time. You want to blur those lines, not separate them.
I also think the U.S. government should finance Luminate’s International Fund for Public Interest Media. To echo what Shawn says, as a social scientist, I plead with you to use data to inform future programming. That has to be central to the effort, and you need to involve independent people to do that; that cannot be done in-house.
Second big idea. We need to radically restructure strategic communications from the United States government abroad. It’s just not working. In my view, we’re losing. We’re losing to the Russians, we’re losing to the Chinese, and we’re just not organized to meet these new challenges today. Let me just give you two examples literally from the last 24 hours. First, last night, as I said, Putin forced Google and Apple to push Navalny off of his platform. Where is the pushback? Where is the Twitter feed on that? Where is the Tik Tok on that? Where are the various Russian channels? Has the U.S. Ambassador appeared on Russian television yet to talk about that? I don’t see it. And I don’t mean to pick on Ambassador Sullivan, who I know well and has a really hard job. But there’s just not a communication strategy to push back on what, I think, is one of the most fundamental rollbacks of access to public information in Russia that’s happened in maybe 20 years.
The second example: the rollout of the new cooperative security agreement between the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. The Biden Administration has a pretty good rollout strategy to explain to people like me what this agreement means for the American people. When I used to work at the White House, we did try reach out to people like me in the media to try to explain policy domestically. I do not see a commensurate strategy to explain the cooperative security agreement abroad and most certainly, not in France. And so, I just think it’s broken; I think it needs to be radically restructured.
I think there should be a new agency devoted to such information outreach. I use USIA as a metaphor because that’s what people know. VOA’s second and third missions should be rolled into this new agency. I think you need to separate out the job of reporting independently–which VOA does–and the job of presenting the policies of the United States clearly and effectively to the outside world. I just think it’s impossible to do those two things together; and I say this as a former U.S. government official who worked very closely with VOA in Russia. I admired the ambition, but it’s just not credible in the year 2021, to do those two things. I also think a new information outreach agency is also incredibly difficult given our new partisan moment, but I’ll leave that later for questions.
And then, finally–I think I’ve gone on too long–but I just also want to say that this has to be embedded in a much bigger strategy beyond USAGM, about how to improve public diplomacy more generally. I have lots of ideas on this too. If there’s one idea I want to leave you with, it’s do not forget about exchanges; I think they’re vital to everything, and we have lost the focus on this. And just last, I would say, more money, please, for public diplomacy. If we believe we are in an ideological struggle with the Russians and the Chinese, we have to be investing in that struggle in a much more systematic way. Thank you.
Vivian Walker: Great. Thank you very much, Professor McFaul. Frankly, you have succinctly outlined some of the most important public diplomacy priorities that the commission has been looking at over the last five to ten years. I appreciate your helpfully provocative comments.
I’d like now to turn to our next panelist, Helle Dale from the Heritage Foundation. Helle, if you would like to share your thoughts with us, we’d be most grateful.
Helle Dale: I’m delighted to be here today. Thank you so much for the invitation. First of all, I don’t have a fancy, an impressive slide presentation like Michael McFaul, but I’d like to say that I really agree with a lot of his analysis. As you said, many of us have been thinking about for some time that the mission statements of Voice of America, in particular, and USAGM overall is self-contradictory, Even within the agency itself, the mission statement creates confusion among the journalists who often, even when questioned in internal surveys, have not been able to identify which part of the mission they should be engaging in.
I also support reforms of the kind that suggested by Michael McFaul. However, it will take a good deal of internal and congressional leadership to achieve. And, unfortunately, because the USAGM is a small agency, even though it is a giant in the public diplomacy universe of the United States, it’s just not big enough for members of Congress or even the administration to take the kind of intense interest that is required in order to achieve the reforms that we know it needs.
The Trump Administration, obviously, was a very challenging time for USAGM, even when they finally get a CEO in place. It was not a happy time; I know that within the agency or for anyone following it. Unfortunately, President Biden who fired everybody who was in the top layer management within his first few hours in the White House, has not shown any sign of trying to nominate people to fill the CEO and other positions in the top ranks that are needed in order to forward reform efforts and formulate new strategic planning. And Shawn, I know that you’re back there and that’s terrific, but a leadership layer is missing. Congress has had its finger in the pie here. It created a new CEO position and then took away some of the powers of the new CEO position, abolished the board, and then established a new one which still hasn’t been populated. I’m afraid that until we can get some of the legislative and structural issues resolved, there won’t be much hope of reforming USAGM in the way that is needed.
Both Shawn and Michael describe some of the threats that we’re facing from above abroad, so it’s clearly an important time for the United States to up its game in public diplomacy and in international broadcasting. And I hope that, with meetings like this and many good thinkers on board, we can help reinvigorate and take up those challenges. The mission needs to be clarified and the part that tells America’s story maybe done through a new agency in coordination with the Department of State or within the State Department. The surrogate radios, which are the best part of USAGM, do a wonderful job, and I think they deserve a lot more support than they’re getting–and more independence than they have.
And then overall effectiveness–improved management effectiveness–is really necessary. There are far too many examples of corruption within the agency and too many examples of a bias in the reporting about the United States. There are very straightforward guidelines on the use of social media by USAGM journalists which are routinely violated and without any consequences–these are management issues. I am hoping that, as we move forward, that we can get some blueprints in place that can be broadly advocated for by the people like myself or Michael McFaul who, from a closer or more distant point of view, have taken an interest in this update for many years and understand its importance.
I personally think that Voice of America needs to make up its mind or, at least, be parceled out into different entities. I don’t know if we can establish a new USIA. I tried to advocate for that for many years; but certainly, the connections within the State Department should be stronger to the part of VOA that tells America’s story because that is really what the State Department does for our audiences abroad.
And the Global Engagement Center should be the hub that coordinates information across the United States government and coordinates with the telling America story mission so that the other parts of VOA that often function like surrogates could be more closely connected to the circuits. The Africa service and the service to Latin America are good examples of where the line between circuit broadcasting and the “Voice of Americans” often disappears. It appears like we have duplication; and, in fact, we do. I’m not in favor of making the Open Technology Fund a separate entity. There’s already, within the State Department, a Bureau of Technology Innovation, which I think it should be tied to.
So, a more streamlined, more logical operation, I think, would benefit all of us. And I think, it would also benefit members of Congress who are attempting to wrap their brains around what we’re doing in the international broadcasting field. The alphabet soup of actors and agencies here is hard to follow, and it’s sometimes difficult to get behind wholeheartedly when it seems illogical and wasteful.
So, thank you for listening. I will stop here.
Vivian Walker: Great. Thank you so much, Helle, for those thoughtful responses. And to close out the panel, it’s a great pleasure to welcome Sarah Arkin, an extremely staunch advocate for public diplomacy in the legislative sector and someone whom we–the Commissioners and I–appreciate very much. Sarah, over to you.
Sarah Arkin: Well, thank you so much for that and thank you for having me speak on this panel. It’s a pleasure to be here with such esteemed colleagues, some of whom I know well and some of whom I’m just meeting for the first time. I will try to keep my remarks short and less formal and hope we can open this up to a broader discussion.
So, let me thank all of you for teeing up–or in Shawn’s case, punting–some of the bigger structural challenges that USAGM faces to Congress’s responsibility. We have spent the past few years thinking very seriously about the construction, not just of USAGM, but of the whole information space–how the U.S. government acts in the information space and in the countering disinformation space. I agree with Ambassador McFaul that our institutions, writ large, have not quite caught up to the challenges that we’re facing today. I think you’ve seen, over the past five to ten years, various efforts from Congress, whether it’s the creation of the GEC and then the refocusing of the attention of the GEC, the 2016 NDAA reform and then the revamping of the 2016 NDAA reform (which I’ll get to); the 2012 Smith–Mundt Modernization Act–there have been various steps that Congress has taken.
But before I get into the Congressional perspective, I do want to point out that, while we’re focusing on USAGM today, from where we’re sitting practically, there are information space, information operation, and information statecraft efforts happening at various levels. We’ve mentioned USAGM, and we’ve mentioned the State Department, but we haven’t mentioned the Department of Defense. Increasingly, as we talk about disinformation, which I believe should be a critical part of this conversation, we also dip into Homeland Security and FBI space. From a legislative authorizing perspective, this is actually a big challenge for us because this is cross committee, it’s cross-jurisdictional, and it’s often very difficult to get our authorizing committees and the agencies that we are authorizing on board in a collective approach.
So, as for international broadcasting, Helle mentioned that it’s a small agency and doesn’t get a lot of congressional attention. I would also argue that is by design. The USAGM doesn’t get a lot of congressional attention. It has no domestic constituency. We don’t have people lobbying us from our home states talking about the importance of international broadcasting or in the bigger field of public diplomacy, by design. And although that’s changed a little bit with the Smith–Mundt Modernization Act, we don’t broadcast into the United States. We don’t broadcast to our constituents; in fact, we explicitly prohibit it. So, it is squarely in the realm of the Foreign Relations members who are paying attention and a handful of dedicated members who have an interest, who have served overseas, who have been in the Peace Corps, who have seen these things work.
And a number of you have touched on this–one of Congress’s biggest powers here is the power of the purse. The fact of the matter is we have not historically invested as much into this. As Ambassador McFaul mentioned, our biggest competitors are growing in this space–China and Russia. But increasingly, in the information space, you don’t need a lot of money–you just need a state-level investment from actors like Iran who have figured out how to use–with smaller budgets–tools to their advantage to push information narratives and to push disinformation campaigns. That puts us on our back foot because, of course, one of the biggest challenges that the United States faces—and that we cling to as a fundamental value–is the power of truth. We don’t propagandize. We are not willing to lie and deceive, and we are particularly not willing to support, from a Congressional perspective, United States government-sponsored deception efforts as part of what we do. It puts us on an unequal footing in this gray zone asymmetric warfare, but that’s the construct that we’ve decided we want to pursue.
Obviously, USIA, BBG and various constructs have changed over decades and centuries depending on what we were fighting. There was a time when we were comfortable with propaganda efforts as part of our war efforts. But we have shifted I think, as we’ve seen in our own domestic media, thanks to the proliferation of social media, of individuals with different kinds of broadcast mechanisms, we’re still wrestling with exactly who is the arbiter of truth, who should be the arbiter of truth. And as we pursue our foreign policy goals, what role we want the United States government to play in all of that.
So, right now, I would say over the past four or five years, as it relates specifically to USAGM and to international broadcasting efforts, we’ve moved on the side of the spectrum of truth. As Shawn mentioned in the strategic plan going forward–and we have had a lot of consultations and thought about this–we want to focus on investigative reporting, the State Department, and the Global Engagement Center and other efforts in the more traditional diplomatic space. We invest in freedom of the press training workshops and in local media as part of our democracy and governance policy priorities. The Biden Administration has reinvigorated the idea of democratic investments and that’s a core part of that.
From a bipartisan, bicameral perspective, we are really focused on making sure that the U.S. Agency for Global Media, its networks and grantees, are firmly in the vein of independence, promoting investigative journalism, and combating disinformation. And I would say also that there’s bipartisan and bicameral support for making sure that we want to deconflict–that the USAGM and these agencies are not tied too closely to the State Department and are not tied too closely to the White House.
We feel that–and I think research shows–thank you, Shawn, for all your data–that there is a strong level of trust in many of the grantees such as RFE/RL. People trust Open Technology Fund tools in part because they’re seen as separate, they’re seen as not being influenced by a particular player in the White House or tied to U.S. government policy as executed by the State Department. I think this leaves Voice of America still with a little bit more of a–I don’t want to say murkier–mandate of telling America’s story but also not propagandizing while still being true to itself.
In terms of specific reforms and what Congress might be trying to do, Ambassador McFaul and Helle mentioned some of the ideas that have been kicking around for a while–whether we create a more NED-like structure, whether we restore the USIA. I have to be honest. I don’t see any of those things happening in the next year or two, but I will tell you that there are ongoing conversations. The 2016 reforms, as everybody knows, moved in the last minute through the NDAA. We don’t need to relive the chaos of the last-minute, end-of-year authorization and appropriation cycle; but at the time, there was concern that the new CEO structure would be subject to partisanization in a way that we weren’t comfortable with.
There was a USAGM reform bill that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed–no bias, that Senator Menéndez authored in 2017—but the Senate didn’t take it up until later when–after the new CEO was put in place in 2020–there was a realization that, actually, many of the reforms to the reform, including the restoration of a board and the codification of the firewall, were actually–are actually–very important for the continuity of the mission of USAGM which, ultimately, is what allows people to trust it, which is critical to its success.
What we are more focused on right now–lest anyone think we’re not–is making sure we are conducting sort of run-of-the-mill oversight when we do get allegations that there’s been an editorial bias or that various levels of control are not happening, whether it’s in a surrogate agency or a network. Although we don’t see it on the news all the time, we do take these charges very seriously. On a bipartisan and bicameral basis, we are pretty engaged with the agency, with VOA, with directors and supporting standards editors, and content, with fundamental, nuts-and-bolts issues. And I agree, I would love to see a nomination made and I do realize that much of the onus is on us to get that board constructed. I hope we can do it as quickly as possible. Like I said, there is no built-in domestic constituency for the USAGM, which sometimes slows us down.
I think that’s most that I wanted to cover. A few more ideas. On this idea of deconfliction, we’ve gone back and forth on this with Shawn and with others, making sure that VOA isn’t duplicating the work of RFE/RL From a good governance and taxpayer perspective, and from what all the rest of the government is doing, we do want to make sure that there aren’t multiple lines of effort covering the same thing. At the same time, when we have these different missions without apparent clarity of vision, it’s important that we do have things that may look like they’re overlapping. We are constantly working on figuring out where the deconfliction versus overlapping happens and making sure that each of the agencies and entities sticks to its own mission.
The last thing I’ll say–I do think this combating misinformation piece is an increasingly critical part of international broadcasting. And while the Global Engagement Center at the State Department has been tasked with the whole of government effort, it needs to be separate from the international broadcasting missions of the USAGM. Within USAGM, there are a lot of really good combating disinformation efforts that I think are increasingly important to helping foreign and US audiences. We follow Smith–Mundt and want to make sure those rivers don’t cross, but it’s an increasingly important part of international broadcasting that I think should continue. And I’ll end there.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much for those comments. Extremely helpful. Just before we go into the Q&A, I want to make a couple of announcements. First of all, we will not be sending out a recording of this event, but as per our practice, we will provide a full transcript plus the slides. Everyone who is registered for this event will be provided with a link to the transcript and the slides, so you’ll be able to capture all of the great ideas that have been raised here today.
And with that, we’re going to move into Q&A. We already have far more brilliant questions than we can possibly get to in the time remaining. I promise that I will share all of your questions with the panelists so that they have an opportunity to see what kinds of responses their comments generated. As is our practice, the first question is reserved for one of the commissioners. So, I believe that Anne, you have a question for our panelists.
Anne Wedner: I’m a little overwhelmed at trying to get a good question out here because there’s so many questions to ask. And I guess, as I was listening, there’s a little bit of conflict between Shawn laying out the vision and the agreement in our domestic governance about the mission statement versus the view of Professor McFaul and Helle, and probably others who are looking at the work. I remain mystified by the absence of discussion about social media in the context of USAGM, because in fact, all of these revelations about Facebook, which has almost three billion users daily and they’re not “broadcasting”, but that is where the misinformation lies. And so how do we reconcile this focus at USAGM on broadcasting with their mandate to combat misinformation? And the fact that broadcasting isn’t… it’s like up here, it’s not even dealing with where the misinformation lies. So, is there a sense that broadcasting is actually an effective tool in in fighting misinformation? I would ask our panelists to talk about that a little bit and maybe also where do we envision a social media response residing?
Shawn Powers: If it’s okay, I’ll start and then invite fellow panelists to respond. And thank you so much for the question and it’s an important one, it’s one we’ve given quite a bit of thought to. I think I should, maybe at the start, just say that every single one of our 62 language services is heavily invested on social media. Sometimes, that’s Facebook. Sometimes it’s Telegram. Sometimes, it’s YouTube. It depends on the market. Each market is different. For example, we are very, very active and effective on Instagram in Iran.
I think the idea of USAGM being primarily a broadcast entity is a bit outdated. Certainly, that’s the origin story of the agency. And we do retain a substantial broadcast infrastructure which, I think, to a certain extent, is still needed in certain markets. But our goal is to decide which platforms are going to be the most impactful for our target audience and then to construct content that works on those platforms for those audiences. Sometimes, it’s entirely digital. In the case of RFE’s Uzbek service, for example, they’ve done tremendous work working on Telegram almost exclusively–not even thinking about broadcast operations. I’m happy to, offline, share a number of examples on that front. It’s something that we certainly see—that the future of the agency is going to be digital, no question. And not just digital, by the way, but on-demand digital. So, the idea of linear broadcasting, of having a 24/7 kind of content schedule doesn’t make sense anymore. We’re moving towards a world where everyone expects content that they want when they want it on the platform where they are already located, and that’s very different from the kind of broadcast mentality that the agency grew out of.
All that said, there are certain markets where we still need to have broadcast infrastructure. The only way to get daily credible information into North Korea is via medium wave and shortwave radio signals. It’s a hermit state and that is the best, most effective way we’ve got to get information into North Korea compared to anyone else in the entire world. And then I would point to Afghanistan as well, which was becoming increasingly digital but now is going back to a broadcast infrastructure because of the recent changes there. So, market by market, we need to make very specific decisions about which platforms are the most important.
I do want to jump in on this question of the tension about the mission that Anne alluded to, and I think both Ambassador McFaul and Helle brought this up. And I’d like to kind of parse this out a little bit because I do think the mission, as stated, is achievable and is a productive mission for the agency, and that is to inform, engage, and connect audiences around the world in support of freedom and democracy. I think where the tension comes up is not in the nature of the mission—which is journalism with the purpose of promoting freedom and democracy. It comes up in the specific mandate for certain parts of the agency—the Voice of America, in particular–to explain and improve understanding of American foreign policy, for example, or to tell America’s story.
Those specific components, I think we all can agree, create tension in the newsroom. I think we’ve done an effective job of managing that tension, preserving our independence, telling America’s story and still doing the important work of independent journalism, but I’m not going to deny that those two things create tension. I do want to separate that from the mission question because I think having a mission that does focus on supporting freedom and democracy is important, and it makes our jobs different from those of CNN–even from those of BBC–which are not as forward leading in terms of journalism with a purpose.
So, I’ll leave that there and invite others to comment as well.
Vivian Walker: Professor McFaul or Sarah?
Michael McFaul: Sure. I think this is one of the fundamental questions. So, thanks, Anne. And let me just say two things from historical experience, having been in and out of the government. I want to separate out the VOA function of explaining American foreign policy not only to make the other pieces more independent. I know this community. There is overlap and maybe we shouldn’t get so hung up on that as Helle said. That’s not the part that I’m as worried about.
I’m worried that the U.S. government–today, the Biden Administration–does not have a functional way to explain its foreign policy. So, I want to enhance Mission Statement 3 of VOA, not de-politicize VOA. I know that’s controversial; I know some people disagree with that, but from historical experience, let me just tell you we don’t do this well. We’re not explaining our foreign policy well in Russia, a country I know well, or Belarus, or Georgia, or Ukraine, I could go on. We don’t have a kind of multi-layered plan for doing it. I mean, talk about different social media platforms, you got to be firing on all of them, not just one. You can’t just put out a press statement and tweet it out on Twitter. With all due respect, that’s not enough. And remember, these are new things, so I think we’re in an early period. I had never been on Twitter until I became the US ambassador in 2012. I was instructed by my boss, Secretary Hillary Clinton, to get on Twitter, “because we’re going to make this a part of our public diplomacy effort.” So, it’s new, I want to emphasize that. But I don’t see progress at the rate that it needs to be given what our adversaries are doing. So, I want to enhance both, not just depoliticize one.
And then second, on disinformation, it requires both. It requires me on Echo of Moscow last night, being asked, “Apple and Google, are they instruments of the US color revolution?” I, as a professor, can answer, by the way, in Russian, “No, that’s [Russian word],” for those of you who understand Russian, “That’s absurd.” That’s the blurring of the lines. Echo of Moscow is on social media, as well as radio, as well as television, so all those things are blurred. And then I retweet out the video, so that’s also blurred. But that’s on the independent side.
But the US government, in my view, has to have a strong statement about how egregious this is for the democratic values and the freedom that we claim to represent, and I just don’t see that piece. I mean it’s there; I’m exaggerating. But, in my view, it could be exponentially bigger, more effective, quicker. By the way, this is why I advocate the separation: you cannot get 12 people to clear on a tweet for a US ambassador. I can tell you from historical experience, that does not work and that piece is just not there. The voice of the US administration is not loud enough, is not modern enough externally–and they’re not doing a great job internally either, by the way; they’re struggling, let’s be clear about that. But compare. When I look at what they do to shape the debate on Afghanistan, for instance, of which I was a part, and then what they’re doing externally, it just feels very asymmetric now.
Helle Dale: Well, if I could just put in my two cents here, it seems to me that the State Department, at least, does have a certain number of tools. They may not be sufficient, but in order to explain US policy, there are any number of State Department sites and blogs. There’s a great one called Share America which is, in fact, telling America’s story and done extremely well. So, it does exist. We can amplify those efforts, I agree with that, by having many more ambassadors like yourself who can talk to many levels and many layers of audiences.
But also, I think within the United States, we ourselves experience a certain amount of whiplash when it comes to understanding the United States. Telling a story? What stories are we telling? We keep changing our minds. Right now, we have two administrations back-to-back which are so radically different from each other that, I think, it is difficult to make sense of if you’re an American. Just imagine what it’s like being abroad trying to understand what this country is about. So, we have some handicaps that we have to deal with. And as far as Afghanistan is concerned, that’s going to take a lot of explaining for a really long time to figure this one out.
Vivian Walker: Thank you. Sarah, did you want to add something?
Sarah Arkin: I sort of agree. Well, I think this is the inherent tension of a democratic society that believes in the free press; this is at the core of our question, how much do we talk about? I agree that we need to do a better job, and there’s a whole bureau that should be staffed with people doing public diplomacy; but I think it goes deeper than that. Within the PD cone, there’s a whole reinvigoration of training that should go into public diplomacy officers and press training and the way it’s integrated. I haven’t worked at the State Department in many, many years, and I was a civil servant–not overseas–but the way that the messaging is integrated, the way that tools are integrated, as Shawn mentioned, means that you can’t have a whole of government, whole of state approach. It’s very targeted, your audiences are different. How you broadcast, what particular platforms are used differ from country and region. I do agree that needs to be better.
I think the idea of making VOA more–let’s not say partisan, but policy-oriented–is provocative. As long as it’s broken out of the different missions of the grantees is, it’s an interesting idea to pursue. I do think that, at least what we’ve said and what I’ve heard, is we express our values through the support for grantees, and missions, and press freedom training, and journalist training, and that is a separate mission.
The one thing I also wanted to say, because I didn’t mention in my opening remarks and I’ll just throw it out, is combating censorship and circumvention tools, I think is another really critical piece of this. Obviously, OTF has been on the forefront and, again, I do think it’s important to keep it separate from internet technology programs that are happening at the Department of State, but I think it’s a really important element of this that we haven’t delved into too much.
Vivian Walker: Great. Thank you. A number of questioners are very interested in the notion of restructuring or recreating a new entity to manage these issues, such as a USIA-lite. And one of the themes in those questions has to do with what journalistic independence looks like. So, I’m going to give you two questions that center around this question of government versus journalistic independence. So, specifically for Professor McFaul–but I think Shawn and maybe Sarah may have something to say about this as well–the proposed new structure for public diplomacy such as the NED model of institutional autonomy with semi-independent actors may have less accountability to elected officials and may become quasi-independent policy actors. Does this not risk attenuating democratic oversight of foreign policy? That’s the first part of the independence question. And the second one is straight up: why should media entities be independent and privatized but still funded by the US government?
Sarah Arkin: Can I just jump in with a short answer here, which is, the second question is the answer to the first question. Because if you’re worried about independent agencies spinning off and not being held accountable to democratic actors, the answer is that’s why they’re funded. It is through the funding mechanisms in Congress, without policy prescriptions, that you’re able to turn off and off on funds, and you’re able to direct them to specific places, and that’s all I’ll add to that.
Vivian Walker: Professor McFaul, Shawn?
Michael McFaul: I’m happy to jump in, but Shawn, do you want to go next or…?
Shawn Powers: No, please.
Michael McFaul: Great questions, and I agree completely with what Sarah said–that the answer to the second question is the first–including the advisory commission, by the way, so that is important. If you believe, as I do, that we are in an ideological struggle–I’m using that adjective on purpose because it makes people nervous and uncomfortable, and I want to make you nervous and uncomfortable–then we therefore need to think ideologically about defending these values in this different way.
Now, Shawn very eloquently—and it’s a hard concept, I want to be honest—said that by supporting independent media, we’re supporting freedom and democracy, et cetera. That is true. As a professor who teaches a course on democracy, yes, that’s true. The rubber hits the road in the field, though. It’s much more difficult there. It’s an easy thing to say as a bumper sticker, but it’s a harder thing to say–and I have some bitter experience dealing with that very issue with a pretty formidable adversary in Putin’s Russia—in a difficult space.
Which is why I advocate this multi-pronged approach. One is surrogate media, independent media, and I want to emphasize this blurring thing too. Because most of the people working at Radio Liberty are Russians. They’re not Americans; they’re reporters. There are Russians that don’t work for Liberty, but do similar things, and I think that’s fine. That blurring is good, and we need to encourage it and think of more platforms to support independent reporting as a bigger concept than, I think, we’re at now. And you see it in the private sector. It’s not in this space yet. But that’s on the one side.
On the second side, I do believe there has to be a space for the government to say what its position is. VOA doesn’t do that–with all due respect, I don’t know if anybody here’s worked for VOA. When I was the US ambassador in Moscow, the VOA was not an instrument to express Obama Administration policy. They didn’t think of their mission as that. I love the guy who ran the place, but he was a journalist from the New York Times for goodness sakes. His mentality was not to go get a phone call from Ambassador McFaul to say what he should put on the air.
So, VOA doesn’t have that training. And Sarah, you left a long time ago, and I’ve left a long time too from the State Department, but I still interact with them pretty often. Likewise, they’re not trained to do that too with public affairs officers. It’s a big can of worms, and I just think it needs to be radically rethought so that one is not embarrassed to say, “My job is to explain the Trump Administration’s foreign policy or the Biden Administration’s foreign policy.” There needs to be people that get up in the morning every day and think about, “How can I do that better?” in Burma, or Vietnam, or China, or Iran–or France, by the way. And that piece, in my view, is not happening.
The last thing I want to say is to echo something Helle said. I feel the separation is even more important today than a decade ago. About Mission Statement Two for VOA, I honestly don’t know how you could get up and say “I’m going to explain America” without having a theory of the case of what America is. Maybe in ancient history, that was possible. I actually don’t think it was even possible during the Cold War. But today, in our partisan divide and the polarized world that we’re in, to pretend that you’re going to tell foreigners what America is in a non-partisan way, I think, is an impossible task. And therefore, I think we should just try to put that in a different place because I think it’s a very difficult thing to do.
Just one anecdote, just so we’re clear about this. I was on a Russian television program as a US ambassador and, speaking to talking points of our administration, I said, “The Obama Administration supports universal values.” That was the language we used back in the Obama Administration, right? Well, in the new media world–it was in Irkutsk or something like that–that got translated into the American media and appeared on Fox News Now 24 hours later, which said, “Why isn’t this ambassador supporting American values? He’s supposed to represent America, not just Obama.” And actually, Sarah, I remember Senator Menéndez on Face the Nation–we had this discussion. That’s a real problem that I think we need to address head on, and I think this separation helps to do it rather than pretending it’s not a problem.
Shawn Powers: Yeah, great comments and really a productive, provocative conversation. I should have probably said previously, as I’m speaking as a US government official and representing the agency, I really can’t comment on some of these big structural issues and weigh in on those, though I think it’s a good conversation and I do think it needs to happen. And I think that the tension, in particular, about policy advocacy and the independence of our journalism is a challenge. I’m very, very proud of the work that the Voice of America has done and excited to see how impactful their work has been, but completely agree that I don’t think anyone would deny that the policy advocacy piece of its charter, at least, has some things in tension with the overall credibility and how compelling it is that the reporting overall is independent of the US government. I think the independence piece would be much stronger if we didn’t have that third piece of the charter, of course.
On the question of oversight, where this actually started, I think–and it came up a few times in some of the remarks previously too–I just want to say the agency takes its oversight responsibility seriously. For the first time in recent history, in 2019, I stood up a robust program review function at the agency which requires each language service to conduct an independent review of their content on an annual basis, and to report the findings of those reviews to myself and the CEO, and to have a conversation between the heads of the networks and the CEO about any problems that have come up. That’s, of course, a baseline, but it gives us a routine opportunity to see what’s going on and have experts with vernacular expertise assessing the quality of the content. That has really improved our ability to understand which services maybe need some extra attention and which services are doing just terrific and fantastic work.
And I should just also add that we’ve been grateful with the pushes and the encouragement from Congress on oversight as well. It’s not a dirty word, it’s something, I think, the closer we’re aligned with Congress on what oversight looks like and how does it still protect the independence of our journalists, the stronger and more effective the agency is.
Sarah Arkin: I know you want a budget increase, Shawn. I get it, okay? I get it.
Shawn Powers: [Chuckles] My only point, Sarah–though, if you could do that, that’d be nice–the only point, though, is if there were to be some structural change–Professor McFaul has mentioned the NED model–I think, obviously, that oversight piece has to be built in because, from my experience, Congress won’t support it. They won’t fund it–to Sarah’s point–unless there’s sufficient oversight to address any concerns about kind of the authenticity and the integrity of the programming that results.
On the second part of the question, why is the US government funding this stuff? I think that the return on investment is pretty remarkable if you think about what we’re getting for the $800 million we spent on international broadcasting. When Radio Free Asia uncovered the story of the genocide of the Uyghur population and drove that coverage for the world, the reporting they did resulted in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal being able to cover the issue, and it put pressure on the Chinese government that resulted in some serious important conversations and, hopefully, some policy changes. I’ve got 12 examples of things that our reporters have done that have changed the dynamics of policy; and if you compare this to the investments we make in DoD, for example, I mean we’re talking about one or two aircraft, which is basically the entire budget of the US Agency for Global Media. And so, it’s a pretty remarkable return on the investment–and I’m not asking for more money on this one, Sarah. But I think it’s fairly easy to defend when you look at the impact that our journalists can have.
More broadly speaking, though, independent media is facing a media extinction event–this has been really well-documented. The rise in state-funded media, highly politicized media, and the lack of resources for truly independent investigative fact-based news organizations are part of the major problem that we face; that’s why disinformation is so prevalent. It’s not just that Russia and China are spreading disinformation–that certainly is happening–but it’s also market-driven disinformation If you get people to click on links that generate revenue for the organization, and if we don’t have resources–publicly-invested resources to support high-quality, independent fact-based news and journalism–the news market itself is going to be just filled with market-based disinformation, state-based disinformation, and some really uninformed or poorly informed citizenries. And I’ve got great fears about what that means for the future of democracy all around the world if that’s the direction things are going.
Vivian Walker: Right. Well, thank you so much, Shawn, and thank you to all of our panelists for an extremely informative and stimulating discussion. I think we’ve hit on some of the most important issues facing public-funded international broadcasting today. Unfortunately, we need to keep within our time frame, so we’ll close out the Q&A.
Now I’d like to ask Commissioner Wedner to give us a program wrap up.
Anne Wedner: Thanks, Vivian. Again I want to thank Shawn, Michael, Sarah, and Helle for their participation. You guys represented distinct areas and interests in this community and having all your voices here at the same time is what, critically, the commission is about: we’re trying to bring these conversations together. There’s no other organization that could have made this happen, so a little bit of self-promotion on that.
I do wish that, Shawn, you had started with your closing statement at the beginning because I think it is profoundly true–the extinction of media in our world and the independence of journalists and journalism that we see across the world, and that being a critical factor in supporting and maintaining democracy. So, just to summarize a little bit of what I feel we’re getting out of this, I think there was a very clear statement from Michael and Helle about the importance of making room for a much more vigorous place to explain US foreign policy, whether that’s based on VOA as a mechanism or others that require a heck of a lot more funding–sorry, Sarah. And also, that place that we need to keep as sacred, maintaining that independent journalism that Shawn eloquently talked about as being so vital to our democracy at the end.
So, I think this was a really great conversation, I do think–and I’m going to say it again, Sarah, sorry–that more funding in this area is required. We do have a good comment from Gordon–and forgive me if I mangle your last name [Gordon Duguid]–saying that all of these rearrangements–and I’m going to use the words in your comment–were a little bit like rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic, that if we’re not getting appropriately funded, we’re looking at reorganizations and all the other issues that we deal with every single time there’s another staff person, another Undersecretary, another President. And so, maybe the real commitment needs to be a much more profound level of funding for US public diplomacy efforts. And so, I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but I think it’s obvious that we’re not spending enough, even if our expenditures–or perhaps, because–our expenditures are so efficient and bring so much.
So, anyway, I just want to thank everyone here. You guys are all super brilliant. I really appreciate you taking the time, and I can’t wait till we get the transcript up online and more conversation is generated from this. Thank you all.
Vivian Walker: Great. Thank you, Anne. Bill, did you want to close us out?
Bill Hybl: Thank you, Vivian. Let me just say on behalf of the commission, we appreciate the panelists and certainly all of you who have joined us today. We will have another program next quarter and we appreciate that sustaining interest you have in public diplomacy.
And with that, we conclude. Thanks to all of you.