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Soft Power, Anyone?

Our international media networks like Voice of America and RFE/RL help others while helping us—at a huge bang for the buck.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Trump’s man Michael Pack will be gone soon from the helm of U.S. international media. It hardly seems necessary to say that his six-month tenure as CEO of the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has been a failure. Pack’s position, if you didn’t know, entails overseeing media networks like Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and Radio Free Asia (RFA).

Pack, a Trump appointee, alienated both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill. He has riled rank and file, provoked lawsuits, and, for a job that few really know much about, Pack has gotten the attention of President-elect Biden, who promises to dump Pack as soon as he’s inaugurated.

There are a thousand pieces to pick through in the alphabet soup-insider world of U.S. international media. There are VOA, RFE/RL, RFA, MBN (Middle East Broadcasting Networks), and OTF (Open Technology Fund). There are Martí (Cuban broadcasting) and Sawa (Arabic-language radio) and Alhurra (Arabic-language TV), the last two both part of MBN—and terms of art like “surrogate broadcasting,” this last item being a topic of heated theological and operational debate for broadcast brethren. An important article by longtime observer Martha Bayles, expected soon in National Affairs, sorts many of the details.

For the Biden folks, I offer here three big-picture pieces of advice to help to restore confidence in America’s Voice abroad.

First, to get past Pack and restore morale, focus on the thousands of people—the editors, technicians, producers, and journalists—who create the content. It is, as they say, king; and these content creators are a treasure. They are also mostly foreign nationals. Michael Pack has tried to run a number of these non-U.S. citizens out of town through visa chicanery.

These are the people, in Washington and in bureaus around the world, who speak Urdu and Farsi, Ukrainian and Russian, Mandarin and Arabic. In this important realm where public diplomacy marries up with democracy promotion, there is an alignment—more, a mutual dependence—of the most glorious kind. We rely on armies of proxies: How else can we credibly and compellingly tell America’s story in dozens of languages across the globe? Who else holds the cultural keys to strategic hot spots where we want to provide honest news and information, and where they, our allies, strive for homelands that are America-friendly, tolerant, and pluralistic?

When I was running RFE/RL from 2007 to 2011, I chuckled whenever someone asked whether our Afghan journalists knew anything about the Taliban. RFE/RL not only has a bureau in Kabul but stringers across all of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces. They are all native speakers of Dari and Pashto. They grew up with the Taliban, these reporters. They know more than the CIA about what makes tribal villages tick. And they are ours, our colleagues, doing fact-based, honest, and reliable journalism. It’s the long game, this kind of work, with some short-term, tangible effects if you look close enough.

A call-in show on women’s issues, with an Afghan woman who is a gynecologist, draws an audience. On one of my visits to Afghanistan, in a meeting with tribal leaders—all men, of course—one of them told me sheepishly, with the hint of a smile, that he would occasionally adjust the prayer schedule so that he could tune in to one of the programs. A young Imam in Kabul—socially conservative, as they all are, yet anti-Taliban and fighting for more rights for women—explained to me how America could never be a model for his country. But he emphasized to me that he found Azadi, the RFE/RL local brand) a source of inspiration toward paths to a more empathetic society.

Is that not a complicated and meaningful conversation worth pursuing?

This, and other conversations like it, cannot take place without the men and women who drive U.S. international media.


To follow reporting on Pack controversies of the past several months, you might conclude that all of it is a matter of C-suite intrigues, with us Washington types fighting to pull our respective partisan levers.

But it’s not. Instead, USAGM involves issues like assuring that our rank and file get adequate compensation and benefits as ordinary as health care. We have people in parts of the world—for instance, Central Asia—where adversarial regimes like Russia and China are actively poaching our talent by offering better salaries and benefits. Great power competition gets played out on different fronts; sometimes one of those fronts involves pharmacy co-pays. This all deserves a new team’s serious review.

In trying to understand what has happened here, don’t get distracted by shiny objects. Despite their old-fashioned names—Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty do sound very Cold War-ish—these U.S.-funded media groups know what Twitter and Instagram are. They do social media in spades. They are also smart enough to know the importance of being platform-neutral. Some audiences remain attached to television; it’s why Vladimir Putin is stingy in handing out TV licenses. In other places, there is a partiality to Facebook. Some out there like Twitter: Young staffers here at American Purpose tell me it’s the choice of older folks in America. And then in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, short-wave radio still carries the day.

So, if gadgetry is mainly a distraction, where should we focus as a second order of business? The answer is fairly obvious, and it comes back to people. Spend time and money on the training, supervision, and continuing education of our journalists. How unsexy does that sound? Yes, it’s guaranteed to make a congressperson’s eyes glaze over, I know. Yet these are absolutely essential and chronically underfunded.

Remember that the people who do this work come from a thousand remarkably different circumstances. I recall walking though the cafeteria at RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters once and chatting with a young Iranian colleague. I learned that he had done jail time in Iran for dissident blogging. After he was released, he escaped the country and worked for an NGO in Istanbul. Then he drove a cab in Paris. And then he made his way to RFE/RL and Farda, our Persian-language service.

You think any of this is atypical? Across U.S. international media, you meet a wealth of human experience, sacrifice and talent, character and aspiration. None of it is comprehended by a degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. Moreover, during my time Farda was made up of not just journalists but also defense historians, human rights activists, academics, and think tank analysts. Such is the nature of exile media; there are things more important than specialization. Further, radio requires training; so do television, video, and web work. And we haven’t even gotten to the exceptionally demanding and dangerous calling of investigative journalism. Nor, sad to say, as Bayles notes in her forthcoming essay, do we live in a time in which the model of American journalism helps very much. As a Washington-based journalist and friend said to me recently, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and Fox are filled with angles, editorializing, and advocacy. So, where do we go to find out what’s actually and honestly happening in, say, Portland, Oregon?

It’s not an easy question. Care in recruiting the right people, training properly, and supervising responsibly all require resources and focus. Yet how else to provide for the integrity of our journalism, for the credibility that creates bonds with audiences around the world?

We should protect our people, too. They get threatened, kidnapped, and killed. Such protection requires more than just money for security. It often means using our diplomatic capital to lean on foreign governments. I recall a conversation in Baku with President Aliyev of Azerbaijan. His regime was bullying, beating, and jailing our journalists. Aliyev felt he could confidently get away with this. He has oil, he told me, and rules over a country bordering Iran and Russia, a position of strategic utility to the United States. All true. Yet a superpower like the United States should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We are at our best when we fuse interests and ideals to maintain a demanding balance that serves as a statement of who we are and aspire to be. The rubber meets the road in what we do, not just what we say.


Finally, if we want to get decisively beyond the brief yet destructive Pack era, let’s end mole hunts. The Pack team, presumably egged on by the Trump White House, made a number of moves in the name of national security that significantly damaged morale and internal cohesion. There are unconfirmed stories of Pack people wanding offices for bugs and digging through trash cans. There was very public talk from Pack and his associates about Chinese plants and spies inside U.S. international media.

I was CEO of one of these media groups, with the requisite security clearances. So, I can say with certainty there are indeed plants and agents of influence in these organizations. No one should be surprised: This is standard operating procedure by adversarial intelligence services. There is no classified material to be stolen, of course. But with the Russians, for instance, it is a long-standing practice to place people in organizations in order to disrupt, to sow confusion and discord.

Yes, it would be nice to be able to root out such elements. Rarely, however, does one ever know with certainty who is doing the bidding of a foreign government. If a young Iranian diplomat, at a reception in Prague, meets one of our Persian colleagues and invites him to a movie or coffee, how do we monitor and assess who’s doing what for what purpose?

Do you think you can recognize a plant by his or her political attitudes and beliefs? There’s the true Cold War story of a young Czech freedom fighter who flees communist Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968. His new home is democratic West Germany. His employer is that Munich-based bastion of anti-communism, Radio Free Europe. Only years later do we learn from Czech archives that this America-loving champion of liberty was a communist plant from the get-go. His mission? Nothing fancy, just to slow work down and help worsen this or that internal division—to stir the pot, as they say.

Mole hunts in U.S. international media, if thoroughly pursued, would be endless and largely hopeless. They erode morale and turn colleagues against one another.

In other words, let’s focus on the overwhelming number of decent, honorable journalists and on quality journalism. It’s really hard enough without all the tempting side shows and distractions. And it provides a big bang for the buck. The current budget of $750 million for all U.S. international media costs roughly what we spend on eight or nine top-shelf fighter jets.

Soft power, anyone?

Jeffrey Gedmin is CEO and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.