Russia has reorganized and intensified its international propaganda machine so effectively over the past decade that some Western lawmakers and diplomats say Washington now is badly losing a global messaging war to the increasingly modernized blitz of anti-U.S. content from Moscow-backed news operations.
Since 2005, the global satellite network Russia Today — recently renamed RT — has grown into a worldwide operation perhaps best described as Moscow’s version of the BBC. As of this year, RT claimed to be available to an audience of some 700 million across more than 100 nations, where viewers can soak in its Fox News-style 24-hour television content in English, Arabic and Spanish.
This is not to mention the expansion of RT’s Web-based news platforms in those languages, as well as German and French and, the entirely separate web-news platform SputnikNews.com, which launched last year. The site is generated in 35 languages, with its English language content having become so successful at penetrating the American digital landscape that it has been linked by the Drudge Report.
What is most mind-boggling, some U.S. lawmakers say, is how Moscow has brought about this propaganda revolution during a post-Cold War period in which America’s own government-financed news operations, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America have remained largely stagnant in terms of their reach around the world.
“It’s remarkable to see the sophisticated media offense that Putin is conducting across Eastern Europe, Central Europe, the Middle East and Latin America through Russia Today,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“We’re just not countering it effectively,” Mr. Royce told The Washington Times, asserting that the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees RFE/RL, VOA and a slate of other taxpayer-funded international news outlets, is essentially broken.
For years, Mr. Royce has been calling for an overhaul of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, asserting that its management structure is bloated and disorganized — the board is run by nine part-time White House-appointed members who meet once a month — and that its flagship news operations lack a clear mission focus.
Mr. Royce is pushing legislation with Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking Democrat, that would establish a full-time, day-to-day agency leader for the Broadcasting Board of Governors and attempt to reduce duplication among the organization’s more than 60 services to free up funding for newer and more forward-leaning initiatives.
But officials with the Broadcasting Board of Governors say they already are spearheading internal reforms.
Leaders in the House and Senate have not put their full weight behind the Royce-Engel legislation, although it moved swiftly through the committee in May.
At the time, Mr. Engel lamented that products of the Broadcasting Board of Governors were being drowned out on the world stage by Russian media and by a slate of other actors such as the Islamic State in the Middle East, who are “flooding the airwaves and covering websites with propaganda and misinformation.”
“During the Cold War, the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other U.S.-backed broadcasters were the global gold standard for transmitting honest, unbiased news around the world,” the New York Democrat said. “Today, the need for that information is just as great.”
He suggested that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has failed to engage in strategies to penetrate its content into the world’s evolving media space.
“Modern technologies have provided new avenues for disseminating lies and distortions to massive audiences,” Mr. Engel said. “Unfortunately, America’s ability to respond effectively hasn’t kept pace.”
‘Pervasive propaganda campaign’
The sentiment has echoed in Eastern Europe, where one high-level diplomat says Russia’s expanding slate of state media operations has come to dominate the airwaves over the former Soviet republics, while the presence of Western-backed content has shrunk.
“This is an information war, and we’re losing,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told The Times in a recent interview, claiming that a full 60 percent of cable TV channels available in his nation are Russian-language programs reflecting Moscow’s policies and perspectives.
Mr. Linkevicius said RFE/RL and VOA audio content is being piped into Lithuania and other nations in the region via the Internet rather than FM radio stations.
Sources at RFE/RL say a portion of the blame should be placed on regional governments that have done little over the past decade to encourage local broadcasters to carry RFE/RL and VOA content.
“The places we’re trying to reach right now are very difficult to get to for a radio broadcast,” an RFE/RL employee said on the condition of anonymity. “Back in the early 2000s, we had 35 or so local affiliates taking our products even within Russian territory. But they were forced off the airwaves by the Russian government over a period of three to four years to the point where we now have no broadcast affiliates there at all.”
With regard to the former republics, the employee said, officials are “looking for every single effective way to get in, but getting the transmissions in is a tough nut to crack.”
The RFE/RL employee also argued that the value of online streaming of radio and video content should not be discounted across the region, including in Estonia, which he described as “one of the most wired countries in the world.”
One example may be the recent expansion of Current Time, a joint RFE/RL and VOA television news venture aimed at Russian-speaking audiences in countries bordering Russia. In addition to securing prime airtime on stations in several nations, including Lithuania, Current Time has as many as 2 million people inside Russia accessing its content via the Internet, he said.
But some U.S. officials say Moscow’s propaganda dominance over the region must be countered more effectively.
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told Mr. Royce’s committee in March that she and other American diplomats were scrambling to “harden European resilience” to the “Kremlin’s pervasive propaganda campaign [that is] poisoning minds across Russia, on Russia’s periphery and across Europe.”
Ms. Nuland said the Obama administration was working with the Broadcasting Board of Governors “to ramp up efforts to counter lies with truth” and noted that the board was committing $23.2 million to Russian-language programming during 2015 — a 49 percent increase over the previous year, and requested an additional $15.4 million for 2016.
The total annual budget for operations funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors has been in the $730 million range during recent years. The figure is higher than the $307 million that the independent Moscow Times recently reported as RT’s budget but notably less than the $1.3 billion Moscow is expected to spend on state media operations in 2016.
When it comes to audience reach, the Broadcasting Board of Governors claims to be winning, with all the organization’s operations reaching an estimated audience of 226 million people a week worldwide. Although RT claims to be available to 700 million people around the world, an RT spokeswoman told The Times, the organization’s weekly audience is estimated at just 70 million.
But the spokeswoman noted that figure does not account for RT’s expanding presence online, where the organization claims to have emerged as the world’s number one TV news network on YouTube, having garnered more than 3 billion views across its channels on the site.
Still, some argue that the Obama administration has failed to grasp the gravity of the situation.
Jeffrey Gedmin, who was president of RFE/RL from 2007 to 2011, wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last year that “VOA and RFE/RL are doing good work, but suffer from the Obama administration’s lack of vision and strategy.”
Claiming the outlets are “hindered by U.S. public diplomacy’s fixation on new media without proper consideration of content and what our larger aims should be,” Mr. Gedmin said that “we need to stop playing defense and go on the offense as we did during the Cold War.”
He noted that little of RT’s programming is about Russia. Instead, the network’s content is focused on advancing three main “narratives: American and Western leaders are hypocrites; the American and Western military-industrial complex seeks to dominate the world; and America and the West are in decline.”
Articles appearing on SputnikNews.com follow a similar narrative trajectory. One listed in the website’s “most discussed” column last week bore the headline: “‘Diabolical’ Obama Actions Lead to Weakening of America.”
SputnikNews and RT are peppered with stories that often diverge toward the grotesque rather than the “click bait” of some major American news websites. For instance, “Polar Bear Fed Firecracker in Russian Arctic (DISTURBING VIDEO)” was among the “most read” articles on RT’s English-language website last week.
While such content swirls through cyberspace, RT’s more serious side also has a global reach and has turned the organization into a sophisticated diplomatic networking engine for Moscow.
A slate of noteworthy guests turned up at the organization’s 10-year anniversary gala in the Russian capital this month. Among those reportedly in attendance was retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, former Defense Intelligence Agency director, whom sources say was seated at a table with Mr. Putin.
RT employees reject the notion that their organization is propaganda.
“The term ‘propaganda’ is something that is lobbed at RT by certain political and media establishments that do not like to see their narratives of the world being challenged, as a way to invalidate inconvenient points of view,” RT spokeswoman Anna Belkina said. “It is also a charge that is rarely, if ever, put to the VOA, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Euronews, or many other news outlets that receive public or compulsory funding.”
Such comments hang in the backdrop as debate quietly rages in Washington over the posture of the U.S. government’s taxpayer-funded media — and particularly the future of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
An essential point often missed about RFE/RL, VOA and other entities such as the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks is that the content they produce “is not propaganda,” said Laurie Moy, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
“It’s the beauty of this agency,” she said. “The way we’re structured, there is a clear firewall that prevents the government from dictating control over our journalists. It’s our belief that true journalism, unbiased and uncensored information, is the best counter to propaganda.”
Ms. Moy and others inside the Broadcasting Board of Governors oppose the proposed Royce-Engel legislation, arguing that lawmakers should be careful about tinkering with the structure.
Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Jeff Shell testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that the organization is pursuing internal reforms, including institutionalizing the position and power of the board’s CEO.
Ms. Moy and CEO John Lansing went further in recent comments to The Times, asserting that the Royce-Engel proposal would add a layer of bureaucracy that could challenge the integrity of the various news organizations beneath the Broadcasting Board of Governors while making it more difficult for them to streamline toward a single, potent mission focus.
“Right now we have one board and one CEO that oversees all of the broadcasters and makes sure our broadcasting aligns with U.S. interests,” said Ms. Moy. “This bill would create two boards, one that would oversee VOA and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which are federal entities, and then another that would oversee our entities that operate as grantees, including RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
“So you will have created two media organizations, with two boards and no single oversight of both,” she said. “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.”
Mr. Lansing added in a statement that the bill would take the strategic deployment of all U.S. international media activities and “degrade them into media entities that are competing rather than cooperating, would limit their access to U.S. foreign policy goals, and would severely inhibit the ability for the U.S. to present a coherent strategic alternative to foreign propaganda.”
Disagreement over the legislation could not be more stark. Mr. Royce told The Times that one of the central aims of his bill is to “reduce bureaucracy at the BBG” and reduce wasteful overlapping of efforts among the many news outlets operating beneath the organization.
He pointed to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office that highlighted how nearly two-thirds of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ 69 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. Royce also said his legislation would require “consolidation of existing offices” maintained by different services as well as a “right sizing” of certain operations to free up more than $100 million from the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ budget that could be spent on programs such as finding ways to penetrate markets around the world more effectively.
“We need to think back to how Ronald Reagan used American programming in the 1980s,” said Mr. Royce. “I personally remember my experience as a foreign exchange student visiting East Germany, and I remember how effective the news broadcasts for young people who were listening there. I talked to Germans in East Berlin and in Dresden. I saw it for myself.”