BBG Watch Commentary
International Broadcasting Bureau – Onward With Dysfunctional and Defunct! Information War Lost: Armstrong Going Off The Script: Calling H.R. 4490 ‘less than inarticulate’
By The Federalist
On Tuesday, May 20, 2014 Matt Armstrong, a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) held a meeting with agency employees.
Front and center was a discussion of bipartisan legislation, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490), passed unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to reform and recast US Government international broadcasting. The bill is available on the US House of Representatives House Foreign Affairs Committee website: Reforming U.S. International Broadcasting.
Sources inside the Cohen Building have briefed us about the meeting. Of note:
At one point, Mr. Armstrong appears to have downplayed the House legislation. He seems to have suggested that the “Findings and Declarations” contained in the bill are things from the agency’s past.
Not true. They reflect present conditions.
An agency as pervasively dysfunctional and defunct as this one does not experience miraculous, overnight transformations without serious intervention.
Mr. Armstrong appears to have intimated that problems are being addressed. But in fact, they are not. In a manner of speaking, the problems are compounding.
Taking a bold step, Mr. Armstrong called the language of the bill, “less than inarticulate, it is inappropriate.”
Now Mr. Armstrong is way off the script.
As reported by BBG Watch, Jeffrey Shell, the BBG Chairman, cautioned board members not to speak for or against the legislation.
Accusing members of Congress and their staffers in public of being “less than inarticulate” is not a good idea by any measure.
Mr. Armstrong seems to have found the poison pill ever-present inside the Cohen Building: the one labeled arrogance/defiance. Mr. Armstrong apparently took it upon himself to extemporaneously make negative characterizations of the legislation. Maybe it was for the benefit of the audience in an attempt to portray himself as their defender. We don’t know.
But one thing we do know is that this represents yet another clear example of the dysfunctional and defunct nature of the agency when a BBG member cannot stay on message, on the same page, show deference to the BBG Chairman, and exhibit some common sense and civility.
Frankly, this is an absolutely outrageous declaration on Governor Armstrong’s part. If he doesn’t know, he should know that the Congress takes a dim view of remarks which can be seen as defiant, particularly while the legislative process is in motion.
He should have also been mindful of the fact that there is another bill in circulation, introduced by Representative Matt Salmon (R-AZ) also of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, calling for the closing of the Voice of America (VOA) which he referred to as a relic of the Cold War and accused of violating the VOA Charter, which Mr. Armstrong also wants to change.
Under the circumstances, Mr. Armstrong seems to have decided to throw political caution up for grabs. He may have taken a great leap forward in making the case to turn the VOA into a Cold War museum along Independence Avenue.
As the meeting progressed, Newsroom staffers tried to nail down the position of the board and senior agency officials regarding the legislation. Mr. Armstrong tap danced his way around the question by noting, “…saying, we support the legislation, is difficult because of where it is…”
You bet it’s “difficult”: because it would be an acknowledgement of the extent of dysfunction that typifies this agency. When you know the facts, Mr. Armstrong’s remarks take on the appearance of an exercise in avoidance: some observers described Mr. Armstrong’s presentation as rambling and just a little too obtuse when it came to providing specifics.
Stumbling Onto Another Agenda
He also may have slipped up a bit when he noted that the agency’s work is related to the national security goals of the United States.
For the benefit of the Newsroom folks who are in a PANIC over HR 4490,
they might want to be paying closer attention to what Mr. Armstrong is saying but not explaining. What precisely does he mean?
What Mr. Armstrong means may well be found in a draft of a new BBG Mission Statement, on which he has worked long hours, according to our sources. It is a work in progress, but may be rendered moot with the passage of HR 4490. Along the way in the BBG draft statement VOA Newsroom staff might find interesting statements, like:
“The BBG is a unique and necessary instrument of U.S. foreign policy.”
“As an integrated federal agency, we work closely with the rest of the government.”
Thus, while some of the folks in the Newsroom are feverishly upset with HR 4490, the new BBG Mission Statement – albeit in draft – suggests what appears to be an even tighter integration with the national security apparatus of “the rest of government.” These other agencies are known by initials that don’t suggest they are in the business of providing news and information.
Unlike H.R. 4490 which reaffirms principles of the VOA Charter, there is absolutely no mention of the VOA Charter in the draft of the new BBG Mission Statement.
You may want to ask Mr. Armstrong about that the next time he comes around to chat.
However, there is plenty of talk about integrating the entities: VOA, the grantee broadcasters AND the infamous IBB!
In so many words, the draft BBG Mission Statement – which the BBG, Mr. Armstrong included, would like to be the official BBG Mission Statement – is an endorsement of the status quo.
- The dysfunctional and defunct status quo.
- One that protects the IBB that has brought this agency to its knees, battered and bloodied, dazed and confused.
- And with the added bonus of “integration” with “the rest of government.”
We are going to give it to you straight:
In our view, this is what appears to be another example of agency employees – particularly those in the VOA Newsroom – being played for their naiveté.
Mr. Armstrong wants to take the agency out of the business of news reporting and remake it into something other than what it is supposed to be.
Think about it: the United States – and by extension this agency – is getting bulldozed by some very effective propaganda. What seems to be the BBG/IBB trajectory for this agency is to get into the same line of work, if you follow the carefully articulated language in the draft of the new BBG Mission Statement.
It is even more bizarre that the Newsroom folks would not be more thorough in looking for and asking questions about specifics. Keep in mind that Mr. Armstrong does not have a background these Newsroom folks hold sacrosanct: he is not a journalist and has no journalistic credentials. Instead, his professional, career resume has been centered on:
That is what Governor Armstrong knows best. He most certainly knows that it is this part of the agency’s mission that agency employees – particularly those in the Newsroom – don’t accept. As a result, this presentation was something of a diversionary tactic: mollify the Newsroom people by speaking negatively about the House legislation while actively working on a new BBG mission statement that goes beyond what the House legislation proposes, taking the agency even further out of the realm of providing news and information.
What is evident from what our sources reported is that Mr. Armstrong can’t talk in the language of journalism and must rely on smoke and mirrors generalities.
For Mr. Armstrong, VOA Newsroom subject matter is not his strongest suit or part of his most formative background.
Mr. Armstrong most likely knows that he should play to his strengths – which this presentation wasn’t because he must have been aware it would not be what his audience would view favorably.
The game of “dodge-‘em” continued when Mr. Armstrong seemed to remark that news events should be evaluated by some sort of “committee” or other process to determine whether or not to commit agency resources for tracking particular events and stories.
This is another way of saying the agency appears to be inclined toward more reliance upon third party news services for coverage and a whole lot less on its own reporters and correspondents.
Certainly, news coverage involves decisions on how much the agency can commit to certain stories. However, when one follows the untimely news coverage currently being provided by the agency, it is clear that the new trajectory for the agency is reliance upon outside news services and less original VOA news content.
And the “integrated” approach Mr. Armstrong references suggests comingling of editorial content from all the BBG entities, further diluting the core functions of the VOA Newsroom. Perhaps it might suggest airing press releases from other government agencies as part of being integrated with other agencies of the Executive Branch.
If you read the draft new BBG Mission Statement you see the intent to place more emphasis, not less, on explaining US policy.
Explaining US policy is part of the agency’s mission. It’s in the VOA Charter and there is nothing ambiguous in how it is represented. Where the problem seems to be is the board does not appear to be willing to strike a balance point along the lines stipulated in the VOA Charter that covers all the bases well. That would require time, energy, staff and resources, all of which the agency doesn’t have and likely will not have in the future. Hence, part of the reason for the shift – and the fact that other international broadcasters like the Russians, Chinese and Iranians are doing a good job of turning global publics against the United States and its foreign policy.
At the end of the day, the best thing we can say to the employees inside the Cohen Building is to be wary of comments you may want to hear as opposed to concrete, factual information you need to know.