If you follow the news, you might have seen a reference to two Tweets by US President Donald Trump about a “Worldwide Network”.
I have read a whole stack of interpretations, mostly damning, by the media. The worst version, by far, is that President Trump wants to establish his own version of RT. At no time does he mention if this “Worldwide Network” should be private, commercial, public – meaning government paid for and controlled, or even a completely nonpartisan, nongovernmental, independent effort.
Let me pause here a second. I look at the two tweets, above, and I don’t see anything referring to RT. In his own inimitable way, President Trump accuses CNN of portraying the United States, most notably President Trump and his administration, in an extremely negative fashion. I happen to agree with that assessment, as most of the media has an extremely liberal bias. That’s true for CNN, true for the New York Times, for the Washington Post, MSNBC, and the list goes on, according to their profiles at Media Bias/Fact Check.
Let’s look at what the US government already has which compares to the BBC, Deutsche Welle, France 24, and even *gasp* RT, Sputnik, or RIA Novosti (not counting Russian proxies and trolls).
We have the recently renamed United States Agency for Global Media, or USAGM. It used to be called the Broadcasting Board of Governors or the BBG.
The USAGM has five networks.
- Voice of America https://www.voanews.com/ and https://www.usagm.gov/networks/voa/
- Annual budget: $234.7 million
- Employees: 1,078
- Languages supported: 45
- Audience estimate: 275.2 million
- Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty https://www.rferl.org/ and https://www.usagm.gov/networks/rferl/
- Annual budget: $117.4 million
- Employees: 623
- Languages supported: 25
- Audience estimate: 33.9 million
- Office of Cuba Broadcasting https://www.radiotelevisionmarti.com/ and https://www.usagm.gov/networks/ocb/
- Annual budget: $28.1 million
- Employees: 117
- Language supported: Spanish
- Audience estimate: 1.0 million
- Radio Free Asia https://www.rfa.org/english/ and https://www.usagm.gov/networks/rfa/
- Annual budget: $43.1 million
- Employees: 253
- Languages supported: 9
- Audience estimate: 50.7 million
- Middle East Broadcasting Networks https://www.alhurra.com/, https://www.radiosawa.com/ and https://www.usagm.gov/networks/mbn/
- Annual budget: $112.6 million
- Employees: 869
- Language supported: Arabic
- Audience estimate: 25.7 million
Having experience with running multiple operations both in the US and abroad, these numbers are pitiful. They hire experienced journalists, work all over the world, often in dangerous areas, and they’re operating on a shoestring.
Let’s compare the Russian cost of living to the United States:
Comparing RT and Sputnik with RFE/RL and VOA allows us to see who is competing for roughly the same target audience. All are roughly competing for listeners in Russia, Europe, and the US through broadcasting and online. In 2015, the RT/Sputnik budget of $307 million is roughly double, adjusted for comparative cost of living chart above, to about $650 million. This is roughly double VOA and RFE/RL combined. Throw in the Russian Troll Farm and you have a built-in amplification system for almost no cost at all.
The real difference is qualitative, however.
RT, Sputnik, and RIA Novosti are not constrained by the truth, by facts, or even the law. They are notorious for inventing stories, not fact-checking, and manufacturing propaganda favorable to Russia. For that, you hire college kids and pay them the minimum wage, 6,204 rubles or $92.71 a month.
Minimum wage in Russian Federation is regulated by the Federal law № 82-ФЗ on Minimum Wage Size since June 19, 2000 as well as by Art. 133 of a Labour Code. The minimum wage from January 1, 2016 the sum of 6,204 rubles a month.
Workers at the troll farm are better paid, however. They earn approximately $5027.48 per month. That’s an almost exponential leap over the minimum wage in Russia.
Qualitatively, comparing all parts of the USAGM – VOA, RFE/RL, OCB, RFA, and MBN – abide by professional journalistic standards. They corroborate and verify their stories, they double check their facts, and they do their utmost to avoid even the appearance of propaganda.
But, what they do need is a budget increase. The USAGM needs to at least quadruple their budget to just compete on an even field with Russian propaganda. Washington DC is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Many parts of their networks are spread all over the world, and while not centrally controlled, they are synchronized, coordinated, and share products.
USAGM’s CEO, John Lansing is a very nice guy. I actually interviewed him last year for a whole hour. He is being hounded by detractors, by the media, and by government critics for a wide variety of reasons. I am not a detractor, however, I have seen the BBG and now the USAGM innovate, internally adjust, and thrive in a very, very harsh environment.
That said, I believe John Lansing needs to wear out the soles on his shoes and ask for more money. A LOT more money. In 2018 the BBG received a $24 million decrease, a cut in the budget. The White House and Congress need to belly up to the bar and quadruple the USAGM’s overall budget for global truth-telling.
Fair and objective professional reporting, telling the good and the bad about the United States of American and Americans, that is what the USAGM does and they do it well. People are traveling from all over the world to get through, over, or around our fences. Let’s tell the people of denied areas why, tell them the truth about how great we are and why. Also, tell them where we have problems and tell them the truth about where they live while we’re at it.
To do it, however, we really need the White House and Congress to put their money where their literal mouth is.