The U.S. government’s international media operations grossly lack funding to counter effectively the rising global blitz of state-sponsored propaganda from Russia, China and other rivals, says the head of the federal board that oversees such Washington-financed outlets as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
With a total annual budget of roughly $730 million for RFR/RL, VOA and all other services — including Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks — the U.S. government is “spending a small fraction of what our adversaries are spending,” said Mr. Shell.
In a wide-ranging interview, he noted that the governments of Russia, China, Qatar and others are investing significant resources into satellite television news enterprises such Russia Today (recently renamed RT), Al Jazeera and China Central Television (CCTV).
Mr. Shell spoke after a Washington Times report about mounting concern among U.S. lawmakers and some Western diplomats that Washington is losing a global messaging war to the modernized array of anti-U.S. content — specifically from RT, which has expanded its operations around the world in recent years.
Although Moscow’s funding for RT — estimated at roughly $307 million annually — is lower than what Washington spends on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Russian operation is more focused and efficient, many analysts say.
The various U.S.-backed outlets are seen to be struggling to get their content aired in markets worldwide, while RT claims to be available in several languages in more than 100 nations, where viewers can soak in its Fox News-style, 24-hour programming.
The network also appears to be dominating in the “new media” sphere. A spokeswoman told The Times that RT has emerged as the world’s top TV news network on YouTube, having garnered more than 3 billion views across its channels on the site.
This may be unsettling for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Mr. Shell said he and others are “de-emphasizing the focus on total audience” comparisons and instead are “trying to build an engagement model.”
Creating and promoting U.S.-funded content that spreads across global social media and engages young users of mobile devices, he said, is more important than simply fighting to get products like RFE/RL and VOA broadcast via such 20th-century media as FM radio and analog TV in many corners of the world.
“If we have limited taxpayer funds, we should be much more focused on influencing people than rough audience numbers,” Mr. Shell said. “We have to make both regional and technological choices. We’d love to be on FM and on TV and all over the world, but we’ve decided in some countries that it’s more important to reach young people in the digital realm.
“The reality is, if you’re trying to reach a 12-year-old or other younger people, they’re not listening to radio in their cars. They have an iPhone or other device, and that’s what they’re listening to,” he said.
“We have three great challenges right now,” he told The Times. “The challenge of this newly nationalistic Russian media, the challenge of China presented increasingly through cybertechnology and, finally, the challenge of violent Islamic extremists spreading their propaganda online.
“We should be marshaling our resources,” he said.
Disagreement over reform
His full-time job is chairman of NBCUniversal’s Universal Filmed Entertainment Group — and he was once the president of Fox Cable Networks Group, overseeing business operations of Fox’s entertainment and sports programming.
He made the comments at time of division in Washington over what the U.S. government’s taxpayer-funded media — and more precisely the future of the Broadcasting Board of Governors — should look like. Debate is raging in some circles over calls for a total overhaul of the board.
Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the entity’s flagship news operations lack a clear focus. He told The Times in a recent interview that the board’s management structure of nine part-time, White House-appointed members who meet once a month is bloated and disorganized.
Mr. Royce and Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the committee’s ranking Democrat, introduced legislation last summer that would establish a full-time, day-to-day agency leader for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and attempt to reduce duplication among its more than 60 services to free up funding for newer and more forward-leaning initiatives.
More specifically, the legislation calls for consolidating RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network — although they would retain their individual brand names — into a single organization dubbed the Freedom News Network to “achieve cost savings, allow for closer collaboration, and improve responsiveness,” according to a Royce-Engel summary.
Although the Broadcasting Board of Governors would still exist, the legislation would establish an international communications agency beneath it to more directly oversee VOA and pursue “enhanced coordination” among VOA, the Freedom News Network and the State Department to “evaluate broadcasting activities and determine long term strategies.”
A central aim, Mr. Royce said, is to “reduce bureaucracy at the BBG and reduce wasteful overlapping.” He said a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office showed that nearly two-thirds of the board’s services producing content for particular languages and regions “overlap with another BBG service by providing programs to the same countries in the same language.”
Mr. Shell, however, said the organization already is aggressively pursuing a slate of internal reforms, including the creation of a CEO position and a push for higher coordination between RFE/RL and VOA.
He pointed to the 2014 creation of Current Time, a joint RFE/RL and VOA television news venture aimed at Russian-speaking audiences in countries bordering Russia, including Ukraine.
“We were up with this show pretty quickly after [Russian President Vladimir Putin] invaded Crimea,” he said. “We were able to put aside the differences between VOA and RFE/RL in Ukraine.”
As a whole, he said, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is functioning “better than a lot of media organizations that I have worked with during my career.”
A brewing dispute
Mr. Shell said he agrees with the Royce-Engel legislation’s call to reduce redundancy among the various services overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, as well as the plan to give federally mandated power to the newly created CEO to further enhance coordination among the organizations’ various services.
But he argued that the legislation is off the mark in its call to create an international communications agency with its own board.
“This idea that somehow the [organization] should be split into two different agencies, with two different boards and two different CEOs is the one thing that I and the rest of the board disagree with,” he said.
“I agree with reform to eliminate bureaucracy so you can have more money to spend on content, and to eliminate duplication so you’re not doing the same things in different ways,” he said. “But to me, two boards and two bureaucracies and two CEOs will result in exactly the opposite those goals.”
His sentiments are echoed by others at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
“So you will have created two media organizations, with two boards and no single oversight of both,” said board spokeswoman Laurie Moy. “At a time when Russia and China and others are centralizing their media efforts, this bill would split us up, and that would actually make it harder to achieve this more focused mission that the legislation claims to intend.”
A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity argued that there is fear within the board of a hidden agenda behind the Royce-Engel legislation to create a structure by which the VOA can eventually be “defederalized” and defunded. Unlike RFR/RL and other Broadcasting Board of Governors outlets, the VOA’s staff is made up of federal employees, a distinction that may be seen to bring cumbersome bureaucratic weight.
There also have been reports of concern among VOA staffers that the legislation would strip VOA of its journalistic integrity by forcing the outlet to pursue a more pro-American agenda.
Mr. Shell seemed unconcerned about such factors. “We’re in the business of trying to influence people to feel better about America.
“I think that anybody who’s spent any time on this set of issues is generally in agreement on the mission,” he said. “Nobody disagrees that we need to be fighting the information war and that winning hearts and minds is very important in this world where we have lots of different challenges to this country.”
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