Picture: Wall Street Journal
By Andrei AKULOV | 24.12.2016
US Congress has passed an amendment to the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to modify the United States International Broadcasting Act of 1994. The amendment would change the leadership of those broadcasts by placing the five broadcast networks under the control of a chief executive officer (CEO) – a permanent position held by an official with expanded powers who is appointed by the president and requires Senate confirmation.
The CEO will become the head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — the federal agency that oversees all US-funded non-military international broadcasting. The nine-member bipartisan Board — which consists of four Republicans and four Democrats appointed by the president, as well as the secretary of state — will be removed. The legislation also gives the president the power to appoint an advisory board — which will consist of five members, including the secretary of state — but it has no statutory power.
The BBG currently oversees the VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, taxpayer-funded federal broadcasting entities, as well as three grantee organizations: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The networks under the BBG control reach a weekly global audience of 226 million people, broadcasting in 100 countries and 61 languages.
The CEO responsible directly to the president makes the position a partisan appointment, with the agency becoming a tool of the executive power. The executive branch will fully control several news networks funded by the taxpayers.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the lawmaker who introduced the amendment, said the goal of international broadcasting revamp is «to tackle new threats, including the weaponization of information by ISIS (Islamic State-IS) and Russia». He believes that «Our agencies that helped take down the Iron Curtain with accurate and timely broadcasting have lost their edge. They must be revitalized to effectively carry out their mission in this age of viral terrorism and digital propaganda».
With no bipartisan control, the broadcasting entities will become tools of unfettered propaganda spread around by the government. The information offensive will also encompass Americans as modifications were introduced into the Smith-Mundt Act in 2013 lifting the ban on reaching the audience on American soil. Since then, BBG networks began to aim Russian audiences in the continental USA.
The Russian RT and Sputnik have been many times rebuked for getting money from the Russian government. Sounds hypocritical enough against the background of passing a legislation to make US government media outlets move under the direct and unchecked control of the executive power. But unlike the BBG’s outlets, RT operates in compliance with the laws of the countries it broadcasts to.
Congress has long been frustrated over the inefficiency of US government-funded networks, especially when compared to media outlets of other nations. According to the congressional testimony from Helle Dale, senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation, US government-funded media has no influence on Russians: the VOA’s Russian service website ranks 3,828 in Russia and 44,415 in the world, according to the Internet service Alexa. This compares to RT’s website, which ranks 61 in Russia, 443 in the world, and it should be added, 1,007 in the United States.
Despite its relatively meager budget, RT reports that its weekly audience reached 70 million, and half of those watch RT daily. In the US alone, 2.8 million people in major cities watch RT weekly, according to 2014 Neilsen ratings. In the United Kingdom, RT viewership tops even Fox News TV channel. Across the Middle East, RT in Arabic is watched by 6.7 million people every day. Russia Today is leading in the «new media» with three billion views across its YouTube channels, which made it the world’s top TV news network on the platform.
It should be noted that an annual BBG budget is roughly $780 million a year ($778 in for fiscal year 2017). For comparison, the Russian government allocated just over $300 million to RT ((including its English, Spanish, Arabic television channels, as well as French and German web-based projects) in the 2016 federal budget. MIA Rossiya Segodnya, the parent company of Sputnik News, operates on a budget of $75 million, including both domestic and foreign media — 10 times less than the BBG.
The international broadcasting reform is just part of the ongoing effort to intensify the propaganda warfare offensive the US Congress is paying so much attention to.
On December 8 the Senate passed the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act – the legislation designed «to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China, and other nations». The measure could reach President Obama in December.
The bill passed the Senate as part of the FY 2017 NDAA Conference Report. It was passed by the House of Representatives in late November. According to the Act, an interagency Global Engagement Center will be established to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts throughout the US government. The center will be led by the State Department, but with the participation of the Department of Defense, USAID, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the intelligence community, and other relevant agencies.
The measure also creates a grant program for NGOs, think tanks, civil society and other experts outside government who are engaged in propaganda related efforts. The fund will complement and support the Center’s role by integrating capabilities and expertise available outside the US government into the strategy-making process, including private sector experts.
Becoming a law, the act will allow the government to crack down against any outlet it does not like and use American taxpayers’ money for hiring journalists to spread around what the US government believes to be the right information for the people to know. Many outlets will have to look back at the government with powers to take action against them as there is no way to prove they have no relation to Russia or China. The administration would be fully in charge of running the media.
With all the efforts to boost the effectiveness of propaganda efforts, Americans are skeptical about what they read in social networks. Just 6 percent of people say they have a lot of confidence in the media, putting the news industry about equal to Congress and well below the public’s view of other institutions. «Over the last two decades, research shows the public has grown increasingly skeptical of the news industry,» the report from the American Press Institute reads. «The study reaffirms that consumers do value broad concepts of trust like fairness, balance, accuracy, and completeness. At least two-thirds of Americans cite each of these four general principles as very important to them».
Trust in the news media is being eroded by perceptions of inaccuracy and bias. Only 12 percent of those who use Facebook say they have a lot of trust in the news and information they see on the site. Twitter attracts smaller numbers for news than Facebook, and about 18 percent have a good deal of trust in what they read there. With the above mentioned viewer skepticism of other social media sites, no wonder Americans target alternative media, like RT and Sputnik.
The above mentioned developments demonstrate the US lawmakers’ resolve to start and win information wars. With mainstream media going through crisis, the focus shifts on government-funded propaganda outlets. In an amazing demonstration of hypocrisy, the US officials and congressmen raise hue and cry over the Russian media being sponsored by state while boosting the government–funded propaganda effort in the their country. A pot calling the kettle black!
Perhaps, the gist of the problem is not the laws regulating the effort or agencies in place and their budgets but rather the quality of information and its truthfulness to earn the trust of the audience. So far, the US has been definitely losing the fight for people’s hearts and minds.