Some very successful private sector executives, and one former CNN TV reporter, are lobbying for the appointment of a single U.S. government information czar with enhanced powers to lead the propaganda war against ISIS and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Unfortunately, it’s an outdated idea that screams of mid-20th century government megalomania and old technology. It’s reminiscent of bureaucrats’ dreams of controlling the masses through a single powerful medium like radio which only they can afford to run and manipulate public opinion with a few simple messages. The Internet does not work like that. It’s inexpensive and opened to many. It abhors central control. It thrives on creativity and freedom.
Besides being outdated, the information czar idea is unworkable and dangerous in any government setting. It implies that central news planning works, that Stalin, Goebbles and Brezhnev were right after all. (They were not.) No government operates like the private sector. Checks and balances are absolutely necessary in a democracy. The First Amendment mandates the separation of state and press. Media outreach abroad on behalf of U.S. national interests is needed, but it is a delicate and complex endeavor which requires specialization, sophistication and, above all, vigorous oversight which is now missing at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
I can understand why BBG Chairman Jeff Shell, an energetic Hollywood executive, and BBG CEO John Lansing, a successful former entertainment TV executive, think that centralized management control works. It does work for many private media companies. Both are well-meaning men whom I respect. What they don’t know is how the U.S. government really operates. They are not students of history of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy. They have no experience with either. Like many private sector executives before them who try to dabble in government operations which are unfamiliar to them, they allowed themselves to be co-opted by permanent bureaucrats who in the words of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the BBG “practically defunct.” She was and still is right on that point.
Giving more power and more money to the same BBG government bureaucracy would be insane. Despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, it can’t reliably deliver broadcasts and digital content to audiences abroad and can’t compete against ISIS and Russia’s propaganda. Money is not the only issue. Not too infrequently, lax BBG oversight allows one-sided reports and commentaries written by inexperienced staffers that could easily be confused for something produced by Russia’s RT media outlet or Radio Havana. Falling standards of journalism at VOA are an embarrassment. Former Voice of America director David Ensor, who is also advocating for a government information czar, should know better. Some of these mishaps happened under his watch, others just in the last few days. A BBG executive apologized for recent technical failures, calling them “very distressing.” The entire BBG senior bureaucracy, which claims successes and impact where there is very little, must be replaced, but one powerful CEO can be just as dangerous.
The United States had an information czar once. His name was Elmer Davis and he was director of the Office of War Information (OWI) during WWII. He allowed his office to be infiltrated by Soviet agents who spread Soviet propaganda. He himself wrote misleading commentaries denying Stalin’s crimes and whatever else the Roosevelt White House wanted him to say. In 1944, a member of Congress called Elmer Davis “America’s leading propagandist, the generalissimo of the propaganda forces of this great nation.” It was meant as a compliment. Only later it became widely known that the agency also engaged in domestic propaganda and illegal press censorship. The WWII information office with one powerful CEO in charge was a managerial disaster. It so antagonized the U.S. Congress, ordinary Americans and even the State Department that OWI was quickly abolished right after the war. The BBG Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing envision would be very much like the failed OWI propaganda superagency experiment.
It’s time to recognize that delivering uncensored news, countering propaganda, psychological warfare and improving America’s image abroad are highly complex and critical government operations. It’s not a job for a single information czar and a single government agency. Some of these activities absolutely don’t belong together and should never be assigned to one government office, but they are all in desperate need of reform. It’s also important to know that no degree of coordination of propaganda can in the long run help bad policies succeed. By misleading foreign audiences and even Americans, such propaganda can be very dangerous in the hands of powerful officials who are not even confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The Broadcasting Board of Governors CEO is not. It’s a dangerous idea.
The bipartisan reform legislation H.R. 2323, the United States International Communications Reform Act, introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce and ranking Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel, takes account of these complexities. It separates different government information missions and provides for much better management and oversight. Its reforms are modeled to a large degree on the very successful work of Cold War-era Radio Free Europe (RFE) and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), but the legislation also takes into account new technologies. The H.R. 2323 reform bill offers the only hope for making U.S. response to ISIS and Putin propaganda effective in the long run. It needs to be promptly enacted by Congress to counter lies and tell the true story of the United States abroad.
• Ted Lipien is a director of a media freedom NGO and former acting associate director of the Voice of America.