Rick Stengel used to assign stories on terrorism and U.S. foreign policy. Now he helps to combat one and shape the other.
Stengel is an accomplished journalist, editor and author who left TIME magazine, where he was managing editor (the top editorial job), to join the Obama administration as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. It’s one of the more exhausting titles in Washington, along with being one of the least-understood but increasingly important posts in town.
Stengel, 60 and a former Princeton basketball player, is thus one of six under secretaries of state, which rank behind the secretary and the deputy secretary. By some reckonings, the post is tied for the third-highest position in the department (perhaps the fourth, say others).
As explained by Jim Glassman, a journalist who held the position during the latter portion of the George W. Bush presidency, the job title does have “public affairs” in it, meaning you oversee the department’s army of spokespersons worldwide, but the primary duties involve public diplomacy.
Public diplomacy? That’s basically our direct engagement with foreign publics with the aim of achieving our national interest. It is “a wide-ranging job,” notes Glassman. Most of the funding for public diplomacy goes to dozens of exchange programs, such as Fulbright, which send scholars and graduate students to foreign countries and brings foreigners here. The under secretary is also in charge of cultural and sports exchanges, running websites and generally trying to tell America’s story.
Glassman focused on using non-violent tools to counter violent extremism, as in Al Qaeda. Stengel is, for obvious reasons, also concentrating on this subject, especially via his role with the Office of Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (OSCC), a successor to an operation Glassman set up, the Global Strategic Engagement Center. With the rise of ISIL (also known as ISIS), as well as other terrorist groups, substantial efforts are underway to deflate its impact and also push a positive American image.
It’s a tough challenge, with critics chiding American efforts and claiming great successes by ISIL, including its use of social media. But Stengel is probably perfectly suited to the task.
“Rick’s great strength is that he is both fearless and game; he doesn’t let conventions or rules, or really much of anything else, get in his way. And he has an uncanny instinct for turning challenges into opportunities,” says Michael Duffy, deputy managing editor of Time and himself a stellar Washington reporter-editor.
It was all the more reason to pick up the phone and chat with Stengel.
What is your job and what do you do?
I am the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. I think it’s the longest title in the State Department. It includes the spokesperson’s office and our outward communications. Public diplomacy encompasses education affairs and exchanges, and cultural diplomacy. The simplest way to describe it is that it’s soft power.
As an example, what one thing you did today?
Well, one thing underneath me is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, so I have a regular weekly meeting with them. They’re the entity tasked with countering ISIL’s [ISIS’] messaging. I have been very involved in coming up with a whole-of-government messaging strategy. Another meeting involved discussions and planning for a Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2016, which will be a big diplomacy-soft power initiative under the U.S.
Speak about the transition from daily journalism to this job.
Well, I think as the journalists reading this would imagine, in the beginning there was a little bit of that feeling of being inside the room when I had been outside. But I felt so quickly embraced by everybody inside the room, all I was quickly thinking about was how do we get these things done. I have never been a look backwards sort of person. I use some of the skills honed over the years but there’s a lot of new stuff I have to do as well.
More managing than accustomed to?
I had become accustomed to managing. But managing in government is a bit different. People change jobs more frequently in government than in the private sector. So some of the managing is figuring how to jump from this rock in the stream to the next rock because frequently you’re dealing with a new cast of characters.
Let’s talk social media and terrorism. The government and military have, with varying degrees of alarmism, cited ISIS’ social media campaign as successful and something we have to better and be more aggressive in counteracting. For starters, what are the metrics used to determine their success? How do we know this for sure? And how targeted are they? Do they [ISIS] really know what they’re doing or are they throwing crap against the wall and crossing their fingers?
First thing I would say is, I am trying to bring the focus on metrics and data and analytics from my previous life so we can measure what they are doing and what we are doing. As for [ISIL] winning, I actually think that is a myth. If you look at their popularity in the Muslim world, they are not in double digits anywhere. When it comes to the popularity of their policies, their support is under 1 percent. I wouldn’t call that winning the Information War. I think that is a myth. Another myth is that they are creating a market that wouldn’t otherwise exist. They are tapping into a market of grievance that is already out there and that is what gives them the power to get new people to support them.
Another misconception is that this battle is in English. Only six to seven percent of what they do is in English. Most of what they do is in Arabic, but most people monitoring this are English-language speakers. I monitor all this every day and I think people are looking at this through a narrow spectrum.
What does the counterterrorism group do?
I’m given a reel of what ISIL is doing every week, in the digital space and in traditional media space — they have kiosks in markets, for example; they have fliers. One thing people don’t realize is that if you look at the amount of content out there that is counter-ISIL, it is exponentially greater than it was a year ago — in part because people around the world have expressed revulsion at what they do. Our partners have marshaled their own messaging entities and groups and we coordinate with them. It’s something media critics don’t see.
What do we do on a given day?
There’s a great deal of content on Twitter. The Egyptians do a lot of religious messaging. There’s a lot of positive messaging about mainstream Islam, and this is what people don’t see. Also, so much of ISIL’s messaging is about the nobility of the Caliphate, the need for Muslims to serve it, and doesn’t present images of beheadings but of ISIL fighters playing with young people and of markets filled with food. They are saying, we are a governing entity, we are making life happy and safe and cleaning the streets in Mosul and bringing electricity. Part of our messaging is saying no, you can’t govern; nobody is really picking up the garbage or providing electricity.
Speak a bit about our international broadcast operations. The Broadcast Board of Governors [which oversees the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, among other entities] has long been chided for a variety of reasons. I myself have written about its problems. Successive administrations have seemed to roll their eyes and not gotten a lot changed. What’s been happening in the last couple of years of any consequence?
The first thing is we have a new CEO, John Lansing [a former president of Scripps Networks Interactive]. He’s strong, pragmatic and has a vision of how BBG should change. Just having a CEO is important. The governing board, of which I am a member, had been the operating entity for this vast agency. The fact we have created and found a CEO is a tremendous advance. That said, he is now looking at what we do that is effective and not effective. The single most ineffective thing against propaganda is other propaganda, so I don’t think we should be in that business. At the same time, the traditional recipe of independent journalism was created in the Cold War era scarcity of information and we had nothing like the tremendous platforms of information we have now. What IS the new way to communicate with international audiences and tell our story and counter the epidemic of disinformation out there? Having a CEO is a big step forward. Now the board wants to let him kick the tires and see what we are doing well.
Last question. A group of Edward R. Murrow fellows showed up at Poynter last week. Explain what they do, how it fits into overall U.S. strategy and, finally, what have you learned about media worldwide that you didn’t know previously?
Murrow is a jewel in the crown of our journalism programs. It involves 100 journalists from more than 80 countries who come to the U.S for a few weeks to study the way we do things. Exemplary, terrific journalists from around the world. We do programs for more than 1,000 journalists worldwide, including the Murrow program. I will be focused on how we can raise that further to create programs that really help international journalists. The thing I see, what journalists in America know but don’t quite articulate, is that the risks and dangers to journalists around the world are exponentially greater than what we have here. You might be criticized here for asking an adversarial question to a Republican presidential candidate. But, elsewhere, you can lose your life. More than 200 journalists were in prisons last year, more than 60 were killed worldwide. When I travel it is inspiring to see how much these men and women care, how much they risk to bring truth and reality to their audiences. It’s something we have taken for granted here. We need to help them do what they do. And many operate in countries that don’t prize or recognize free speech and expression as we do. We’re looking to give them better tools, support and training than they have now.