Media blackout of U.S. public diplomacy – and of much diplomatic work

WASHINGTON — Imagine for a moment that we are in an alternative universe.  High-level State Department managers are being nominated and confirmed and are taking part in public events.  Most in this town, this country would find that good news.

Most in this town, this country would be surprised to learn that we are living in that alternative universe.  The reason for surprise is that the media are ignoring arrivals at State, choosing only to report departures.

Today’s rumor de jour is media speculation, for the umpteenth time, that Secretary of State Tillerson is leaving.  The media speculation has been frequent for several months, and it has always been wrong.  Eventually the rumors will be correct – next week, next month, next year, or after President Trump steps down.

Meanwhile, what is happening in the State Department?  Good luck finding that in U.S. media.  Take the nomination and confirmation of the new U.S. Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy:

As of November 30, typing into Google News the name of the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy yielded this response: “Your search – ‘Irwin Steven Goldstein’ – did not match any documents.”

But Google News missed a Voice of America profile of the new Under Secretary; note to journalists: you need to double-check Google search, too.

Google News also missed a long October 17 New York Times magazine story that mentioned him near the end, describing him as a “New York City marketing executive.” (Yes, and the Times is a Sunday magazine – correct but incomplete at best.)

What you would never know from U.S. media is that Under Secretary Goldstein testified in public session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a month ago and laid out his view of U.S. public diplomacy; see links found here.

What else don’t we know about what is happening at State? Did we know there is a Deputy Secretary?

Two weeks ago. shortly before a public discussion of this issue, typing “Deputy Secretary of State” into Google News yielded nothing but news reporting from overseas, including African media reports in multiple languages of Deputy Secretary John J. Sullivan’s visit that began there the previous day.  That day he was in Khartoum, in a visit described by the Sudan Tribune as “the first visit of a senior U.S. diplomat to Sudan since long years ago.”

U.S. media were and are silent.

As of November 30, typing “Deputy Secretary of State” into Google News linked to stories critical of his boss, Secretary Tillerson, notably a page 1 New York Times story last Saturday that led with the news that the Secretary wasn’t spending as much time with subordinates as they would like.

Mind you, these are some of the same people who a few years ago lambasted Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, as inaccessible and as an inept manager; a standard line was that he had never managed anything larger than a Senate office, so he didn’t know how to manage the State Department.  And they didn’t particularly like Secretary Clinton, either.

“Mrs. Clinton and John Kerry, her successor, were both seen as focused on their own priorities and were not particularly popular within the department,” reported The New York Times at the end of its long page 1 story last Saturday. “The model secretaries in recent history have been Colin Powell, James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz, Republicans who cared about management.”  Yes, that was in The New York Times, and no, you may not be able to recall that newspaper’s having reported that in the past.

What about the “hollowing out” of the State Department, with repeated op-eds claiming the State has far fewer employees than a year ago? According to The Washington Post, that’s not true:

“The total number of employees is about the same,” reported the Post on Tuesday largely because he [Tillerson] has approved more than 2,300 exemptions to the hiring freeze and turned down only eight.”

What is happening is that senior positions, notably Under Secretaries, are left vacant, while lower-level positions are being filled – or added.  Tillerson blames what he views as a ridiculous organizational structure, according to the Post report on Tuesday:

“Tillerson said he was ‘stunned’ when he arrived in February and saw an organizational chart with 82 senior diplomats reporting directly to him.”

How has that affected U.S. public diplomacy – or diplomacy?  There has been no reporting, zero, about any programs that are affected.  And those who complain about Tillerson’s leadership only write about numbers and pay grades, not about any programs canceled or curtailed.  It sounds like another inside-the-Beltway bureaucratic food fight. So there is no way of knowing whether Tillerson’s shift to lower-paid, less senior staff has had any effect on the actual work of the State Department.

This is a huge failing of U.S. media. But by focusing only on rumors, personalities and departures, and not reporting what diplomats are actually doing, the media have left Americans with no knowledge of what public diplomacy initiatives exist (or not) and of what specific public diplomacy cuts (or additions) there may be.

And did the work getting an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy confirmed ahead of other Under Secretaries reflect a priority in the administration?  You certainly cannot get any hint on that from the media.

Instead national editors obsess with the latest White House tweet, at the expense of covering the substance of government.  Lack of coverage of the State Department is typical in Washington, not an exception.

Perhaps we are living through the end game of media obsession with celebrities, including political and media celebrities, at the expense of issues that affect America and Americans.  CNN, Fox and MSNBC have led the way down, showing how cheap opinion can be much more profitable than serious reporting.

(Adapted from remarks delivered at the Broadcasting Board of Governors public meeting on November 15, 2017, video available at https://www.bbg.gov/2017/11/15/board-meeting-november-15/)