Jeffrey Gedmin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a senior adviser at Blue Star Strategies consulting firm and former president and chief executive of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Gary Schmitt is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Donald Trump clearly views himself as master of the deal. When will the president-elect catch on that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been taking the United States to the cleaners in the media and information game? Putin has engineered a deal so profitable to his interests and so disadvantageous to the United States that it ought to become a business-school case study.
In 2005, Moscow decided to rebrand Putin’s Russia by establishing the Kremlin-directed and state-funded television network Russia Today. Its product and intended customer were clear: flattering news and information about Russia for a global audience. Russia Today hired young, attractive on-camera talent from the ranks of unemployed American and British journalists. Such upstart talent thrived at Russia Today, where Bernie Sanders-style rabble-rousing meets a youthful, edgy culture supported by high-end production values.
Like any good business, Russia Today showed agility and adapted to market conditions. When network executives discovered that the name was a liability, they changed Russia Today to RT (just as Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC around the time popularity of fried foods began to fade). It also became clear that audience size would be driven not by good news about Russia, but bad news about the United States. An emphasis on the woes and hypocrisies of U.S. politics and society would dovetail nicely with Putin’s vision of making Russia great again and delegitimizing the U.S.-led liberal order.
There was one more thing RT needed to do to be successful: tilt the playing field to its advantage. RT’s American competitors, taxpayer-funded Voice of America and Radio Liberty, have evolved since the Cold War into multiplatform media companies comprising television, Web, social media and radio. Both provide reliable news and information, and both help ordinary Russians better understand their own country and the United States.
And here’s the rub.
The Kremlin decided it wouldn’t do to just jail U.S.-sponsored journalists and expel VOA and Radio Liberty. Putin decided on a shrewder approach. First, he disrupted their indigenous network of partner stations. Russian authorities used health and fire inspectors, tax collectors and anti-corruption police to harass VOA and Radio Liberty affiliates and drive up the cost of doing business with the Americans. In short order, Radio Liberty’s local partners, for instance, shrank from several dozen to a handful. Second, the Kremlin blocked the Americans from important airwaves, refusing them access to the Russian television market. Russian regulators have steadfastly rejected their efforts to obtain a license. (The BBC has faced comparable harassment and constraint.)
As a result, Russian-sponsored rants about America get airtime in America, while U.S.-underwritten attempts to fairly and honestly inform Russians are massively curtailed. That’s not an uneven playing field; that’s our adversary owning the field and using America’s own liberality to attack U.S. policies and discredit Western values.
The new administration needs to push back.
Under U.S. law, there is a standing presumption that foreign ownership of broadcast companies or broadcast licenses may exceed 25 or 20 percent, respectively, only if the Federal Communications Commission determines that allowing it is in the public interest. However, while the law has not changed, the FCC has adopted more lenient rules for assessing that interest and indicated that it no longer frowns upon 100 percent foreign ownership.
Given the proliferation of broadcast mediums today, it was probably appropriate to widen the licensing aperture. And, of course, the United States’ ethic of free speech inclines us to take a relaxed approach to voices other than our own. But that very principle, if we take it as seriously as we should, ought to make us demand reciprocal treatment abroad.
When it comes to much of our foreign policy, Trump has argued that U.S. negotiators have failed miserably. We’ve been made chumps by other countries. Free trade is not necessarily fair trade, or so many now believe. And while one can have doubts about that argument’s economic merits, it has certainly been true enough when it comes to government-sponsored broadcasting.
The Kremlin has put hundreds of millions of dollars into its broadcasting and propaganda efforts, and the United States, along with other allies, has provided an open door for it to pursue its illiberal agenda. The least Washington should do is insist that, in exchange for access to U.S. airwaves, the favor be returned. Either the FCC can broaden its “public interest” assessments to include equal access, or Congress can mandate it through amendments to the Communications Act of 1934.
Fair play may be more important than ever. Recent reform legislation passed by Congress aims to make U.S. international broadcasting more effective by streamlining bureaucracy. If we resist the temptation to abuse the opportunity — Kremlin-style dissembling and deceit can never be America’s game — and stick to the highest standards of journalistic integrity, we can advance our interests with renewed energy and purpose.
With the end of the Cold War, the hope was that the competition of ideas might end as well. Russian revanchism has put it squarely back on the table, and Washington needs once again to take it seriously.