Op-Ed: Propaganda war in which Voice of America helps Putin | Digital Journal

By Ted Lipien

Published September 9, 2014 by Digital Journal

Because of gullibility of officials in charge of U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America (VOA), the Obama Administration helps President Putin win disinformation and propaganda war over Ukraine with some of VOA’s reports and programs.

U.S. taxpayers are helping Russia’s President Putin win his propaganda and disinformation war over Ukraine by paying for a Voice of America program with a Russian television channel in which facts are effectively denied by the Russian side and U.S. views are ridiculed and poorly defended by VOA because of incompetence of its management. The same officials, including the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) senior staff, are also responsible for America losing the information war in other countries, including communist Vietnam, as they violate the VOA Charter and U.S. law to accommodate repressive regimes in a desperate and misguided attempt to increase market share. The BBG is a federal agency in charge of U.S. international media outreach. It is lead by a bipartisan board, which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said is practically defunct in its capacity to tell a message around the world.

In an incredible display of naiveté, Voice of America executives agreed to do a discussion program with a Russian business television channel just as President Putin was moving more Russian troops and heavy equipment into Ukraine. It would be extremely foolish for anyone to assume that this project was not carefully coordinated and is overseen by top propaganda advisors to the Kremlin. They saw an opportunity to embarrass VOA and the United States while scoring points for Putin with domestic and perhaps also some international Russian-speaking television audiences. 

The two programs with a Russian TV channel so far have been an absolute disaster for the United States and a great win for the Kremlin’s propaganda, according several Russian scholars, journalism, and propaganda experts from the United States and Europe, all fluent Russian speakers, whom I have contacted to seek their opinion. They include former Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) Russian Service directors, Dr. Paul Goble, a former State Department analyst, former RFE/RL and BBG program advisor, and now an independent expert specializing in studying propaganda and disinformation who appeared in other VOA programs, several current and former VOA Russian TV and radio broadcasters, and Rimantas Pleikys, a former cabinet minister in Lithuania, a Baltic NATO member country on Russia’s border. He’s an international communications expert and provider of radio transmitting services to the BBG.  

RIMANTAS PLEIKYS: I was able to watch the “joint task force” VOA- Business Channel TV program. My first impressions are negative. The talk show was dominated by the pro-Kremlin anchor in Moscow while his co-host in Washington, DC and his guest looked really helpless. Such TV “debates” are just waisting time, money and efforts of the U. S. international broadcasting. The BBG and the VOA management must be made to understand that the Russian propaganda machine is just fooling them. 

Members of this informal focus group concluded that the timing of this project was terrible and it was a terrible idea to begin with while Russia was invading Ukraine. They also agreed that the VOA management ceded almost all control of the discussion to the Russian side and allowed Russia to use this program against the United States and against objective journalism and press freedom. 

Dr. Paul Goble had his observation: 

PAUL GOBLE: I think this is a big mistake because it sends the wrong message and becomes yet another reason the BBG will use not to move to the next generation of international communications, direct-to- home satellite television. We will be used, I fear. 

The excellent Russian TV program host in Moscow effectively presented views put out by the Kremlin and accepted as true by the vast majority of Russians exposed to the official propaganda. He was authoritative, sincere and highly convincing. In full control of the program, he immediately and easily put the weak VOA teams on the defensive. Without any doubt, he proved to the Russian audience that it is the U.S. side rather than Russia that is engaging in propaganda and making unfounded claims against Russia and President Putin without any convincing proof. Even the title of the program, “Cold War?,” was undoubtedly picked by the Russian side to reinforce the Kremlin’s argument about alleged U.S. and other Western attempts to encircle and attack Russia and to make Voice of America and the United States appear out of touch with the times and ridiculous at the same time. The Russian host made this point quite well.

While VOA and BBG press releases bragged how VOA guests contradicted the Russian host on some points, their arguments were either weak or their Russian language skills were not up to standard. VOA guest experts had no wide name recognition in Russia. The Russian side easily won and when it looked as if one of the VOA experts was about to start a good argument, the Russian host who had the control of the program would cut them off.

A West European expert on Russian disinformation measures, who because of her sensitive position wants to remain anonymous, observed that VOA management has no idea how to respond to and counteract Putin’s propaganda.

Is Voice of America making an impact in Russia? If the intention is to have the Russians outside of Russia rally around the Kremlin, by proving that the U.S. population is poorly informed, yes VOA is having an impact, just probably not the one intended.If the target group is the Russian speaking population in Russia, then the output will be to confirm what their propaganda machine has already told them, as in: see even VOA says it or cannot effectively deny it. What will be retained is the poor performance of the ones telling the truth (Voice of America).A counter-narrative to be effective has to be aggressive, it should NEVER, EVER be defensive or perceived as such.  

There was no doubt among all of the experts I consulted that this program paid partly by U.S. taxpayers increased President Putin’s already high popularity in Russia and made the United States look aggressive and weak at the same time. One VOA journalist said that perhaps this is better than nothing in getting at least some exposure for VOA and U.S. views in Russia, but even this broadcaster agreed that the program was badly mismanaged and ultimately counterproductive. The Voice of America management should have never agreed to this project considering VOA’s current mismanaged state and without ability to control the discussion or provide top-notch talent to be at least on an equal footing with the Russian side. 

I was in charge of the Voice of America Polish Service in the 1980s as the communist regime introduced martial law against the Solidarity labor union led by Lech Walesa and later started to negotiate with Walesa and other opposition leaders when the already nonfunctional economy collapsed and Gorbachev was no longer willing to provide military support to keep the regime in power.

But while Solidarity was still struggling for recognition, I and the Voice of America management would have never agreed to any kind of joint program with communist controlled Polish Radio and TV unless we were absolutely sure that we would maintain control of the project and would not confuse the audience by cooperating with the communist side. Above all, we had to be certain that VOA would demolish any arguments presented by the regime’s journalists if we were to agree to go on the air in Poland still under communist rule.

We eventually did agree to do such a program when the Polish regime of General Jaruzelski was nearly finished and desperate for any kind of U.S. recognition to get the best possible deal with Walesa. But even then we made sure that there would be no confusion among the audience in Poland that the Voice of America and the United States were doing the right thing and that we would be on the winning side.

To make sure we would not lose or give any other advantage to the communist regime, I had invited former U.S. National Security Advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski to be my quest on the TV program. This prominent Polish American expert on the Soviet Union and the Eastern block, Democratic Party member and former advisor to President Jimmy Carter, was known for his brilliant mind, had wide name recognition in Poland, and could easily stand up to anyone the regime side would put up against him. (Later I recruited Dr. Brzezinski and Vaclav Havel to serve on the advisory board for the first online VOA multimedia and multilingual opinion magazine, “New Europe Review,” which I edited. It included video interviews with prominent newsmakers and contributions from many talented VOA journalists in the Eurasia Division.)

We also made sure VOA and the United States Information Agency (USIA) Worldnet television network would be in control of the show. My only problem was to convince Dr. Brzezinski that his Polish was good enough. (His Polish was excellent and he eventually agreed to do the program in Polish.) He delivered a masterful performance and simply demolished regime journalists who tried to discredit him with tricky questions. The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw sent a cable that the TV program, over which USIA or the State Department had no editorial control whatsoever, was a great public diplomacy success for the United States. 

Later, we agreed with Polish Radio still under communist regime control to rebroadcast VOA English lessons with Americana content, but we also insisted on live rebroadcasts of bilingual English-Polish VOA newscasts to make sure that the VOA Charter, which calls for accurate, balanced and objective news, was not being ignored. 

I also helped VOA and RFE/RL negotiate hundreds of rebroadcasting agreements with affiliates in Eurasia, including Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. At that time in the 1990s and the early 2000s, there was never any doubt that these programs will not be censored or compromised in any way, or if they were, we would end these arrangements immediately. Eventually, however, it became impossible for VOA and RFE/RL to rebroadcast any kind of programs in Russia without the Russian authorities asserting veto or control. All direct rebroadcasts in Russia of U.S.-funded news programs over which the Russian side had no control were banned, even though Russia’s state TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today) can place its programs freely on stations and cable systems in the U.S. 

Predictably, the current VOA management never had the slightest chance against the Kremlin. VOA executives are naively presenting this as a successful journalistic project with an independent Russian TV business channel known to be slightly more liberal than other Russian media. They are unwilling to acknowledge that the Kremlin is waging a propaganda war against the United States and that this project would have never been allowed by Putin’s disinformation experts, the FSB security service and the Russian military if they thought for a moment that it would harm Russia’s war effort in Ukraine or undermine their own internal and external propaganda in any way. The Russian side has shown its superiority in propaganda wars and spreading disinformation. It had to be certain that the project with VOA was good for Russia and bad for VOA and the U.S. before allowing it to proceed. They were right. VOA’s poor performance boosted Putin’s propaganda in Russia and therefore the value of this project is negative for the United States.

Putin’s media advisors had to know that the VOA management would agree to such a deal because VOA executives are desperate to show an audience in Russia after allowing RT to obliterate VOA online and in social media. As U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Rick Stengel recently observed, the U.S. should own social media in the information war with Russia, but “we really don’t own it.” As it is, the State Department has about ten times better social media outreach than VOA English News. But it is Russia’s RT that gets thousands of “Likes,” Tweets, and hundreds of comments on its online news reports compared to very few for VOA. White House Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Ben Rhodes made similar comments about RT’s tremendous success on social media. Problems with management of VOA programs to Russia were outlined in the 2013 Office of Inspector General (OIG) report and in the 2011 BBG-commissioned study by an independent scholar who concluded that the VOA Russian Service website was poorly managed and had a “pro-Putin bias.”

Having severely undermined VOA’s news reporting capabilities and failing to develop its online and social media presence, the only way VOA executives can now show millions of new media consumers for VOA is by agreeing to one-sided affiliate and rebroadcasting arrangements, which in many cases violate the VOA Charter and U.S. law, or have very little to do with VOA’s news mission. At best, these are expensive public diplomacy efforts that duplicate private sector initiatives or projects that should be done and can be done better by the U.S. State Department.  

It was obvious that the VOA senior management, which has caused many talented journalists to depart, could not negotiate a fair deal for the United States or present a decent show. A fair deal with Russia at this time would not have been even possible under the best of circumstances. VOA and agency executives, should have known that the Kremlin, which has demonstrated its propaganda and social media prowess, would have never agreed to an arrangement in which the Russian side could possibly lose. 

The VOA management is now proposing an even more one-sided deal with the communist government of Vietnam. The proposed deal would be in clear violation of the VOA Charter and U.S. law. While the U.S. State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report concluded that the law in Vietnam is used to silence dissent and free press, VOA and BBG executives are ready to agree to supply a program to the Voice of Vietnam radio that complies with Vietnamese law. Needless to say the program will not have any political news and will not include any Vietnamese Americans or members of Congress criticizing human rights abuses in Vietnam. By limiting topics, the management has agreed that the program will be pre-censored by VOA. But if its American cultural and social news content still looks bad to the regime, VOA executives also gave Vietnam the right not to air it if it violates communist law, which expressly forbids “taking advantage of democratic freedoms and rights to violate the interests of the state and social organizations.” 

But nothing illustrates the management meltdown at VOA and mindless desperation of VOA and BBG executives to build an audience at any cost as this VOA promo video for Pakistan showing a blood thirsty zombie dressed as Uncle Sam attacking a Pakistani. After criticism, the video was eventually removed from VOA websites. 

I have to conclude, unfortunately, that the current VOA management team not only does not help the U.S. win the information war, it often helps America’s enemies and their anti-American propaganda. VOA news is full of examples of poor reporting full of misleading and outright false pro-Kremlin claims which are allowed to stand without being challenged or balanced. A recent VOA report blamed NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe for Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine. There was no balancing view in that report, as required by the VOA Charter. It was not even made clear whether this apology for Putin was VOA correspondent’s own view, VOA’s view or U.S. government’s view, or whether this was a news report or a pro-Kremlin and anti-NATO op-ed. 

Members of the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors seem so far unable or unwilling to replace or reform Voice of America management. A bipartisan bill, H.R. 4490, to reform the entire Broadcasting Board of Governors bureaucracy is now stuck in the U.S. Senate after unanimously passing in the House. Fortunately, the BBG’s surrogate broadcasters — Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia (RFA) — are not only better managed but also much better in understanding propaganda and ways of responding to it with uncensored news reporting. Some VOA foreign language services, including the VOA Ukrainian Service, still manage to do an excellent job, but most don’t because of mismanagement at the most senior levels.

VOA executives are using unhappiness of some senior Voice of America English News correspondents with provisions of the H.R. 4490 reform bill that might undermine VOA’s journalistic integrity to present themselves as saviors of VOA’s independence while continuing to destroy VOA’s effectiveness and objectivity with their incompetence. The current impasse allows VOA executives to make decisions that embarrass the Obama Administration and the BBG Board led by its reform-minded chairman, Jeff Shell, who together with other BBG members has introduced some management reforms but did yet attempt to reform VOA. But lack of reforms at America’s leading foreign broadcaster unable to counter Putin’s propaganda and even helping to promote it in some cases cannot be good for the White House and President Obama already facing tremendous pressure in the election year over the failed bureaucracies in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IRS.

If the BBG reform bill gets stuck in the Senate, Jeff Shell and the other BBG members owe it to the American people to reform the Voice of America management immediately on their own. They must prevent VOA executives and other parts of the BBG’s failed bureaucracy from helping Putin and other authoritarian rulers to spread their propaganda with VOA’s help and to beat up on America and on press freedom at U.S. taxpayers’ expense.

 Ted Lipien retired in 2006 as VOA acting associate director and is co-founder and co-director of the independent NGO Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) which supports media outreach by Broadcasting Board of Governors’ journalistic entities funded by U.S. taxpayers. In 1992, he helped to start independent radio in Ukraine and later launched VOA television to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution. He also started direct-to-home VOA Russian satellite TV news program, which VOA and BBG management eliminated in 2008 together with direct VOA radio broadcasts to Russia around the time of Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

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