BBG Watch Commentary
This BBG Watch commentary on the “21st Century Vision for U.S. Global Media” paper by A. Ross Johnson and Gene Parta was written by Ted Lipien, a former acting Voice of America associate director and former BBG regional marketing director who is now associated with the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB-cusib.org), an independent, nonpartisan NGO supporting media freedom worldwide.
Beware of Central Bureaucracy for USIB
by Ted Lipien
There is much wrong with this paper, “21st Century Vision for U.S. Global Media,” by Mr. A. Ross Johnson and Mr. Gene Parta, although many of the observations and some of the ideas they presents are correct. They have correctly described some current problems facing U.S. international broadcasters, evolving audience habits and technological changes in media delivery around the world. I have a great deal of respect for both authors and their enormous contribution to U.S. international broadcasting over many decades. But I must sadly conclude that the overall solution they offer–centralization of USIB–is unworkable, dangerous and, also in my opinion, potentially extremely wasteful for U.S. taxpayers who would have to foot the bill for the central U.S. global media bureaucracy they propose.
I’m not surprised that these two very well-informed and well-meaning experts, formerly associated for decades with surrogate broadcasting, want to see a private U.S. global media organization. But they fail to answer the question how such an organization would be justified to Congress and American taxpayers and who on the outside would oversee how it is managed? The key question, however, is whom this central private institution would represent to foreign audiences? The United States? A private corporation? Its board of directors? Foreign journalists working for it abroad? We simply don’t know, and the two experts don’t tell us because neither they nor, more importantly, foreign audiences would be able to tell.
These key political questions need to be answered first, even before one looks at how a central U.S. international broadcasting bureaucracy would function and whether it would be able to produce better results and save money for U.S. taxpayers. I have no doubt that it would not do either and that the plan, if implemented, would produce even more brand confusion and ultimately less effectiveness, especially for the Voice of America, but for surrogate broadcasters as well. But the worst result would be the creation of a stifling central self-perpetuating bureaucracy accountable to no one, a bureaucracy–not unlike the current one but much larger and more powerful–that would continue to eliminate programs and programming jobs and expand its own ranks. If anyone thinks that the Jonhson and Parta plan is the answer to the current bureaucratic mess at USIB, they should think twice. It will make it far worse and there will be no one to stop it.
SURROGATES AND VOA: NEEDED, COMPLEMENTARY, NOT DUPLICATIVE
At least the current USIB set-up, far from perfect and in need of major reforms, still maintains some accountability and some difference between the Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters, although the status of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks is not at all clear, as it should be for the critical audience in the Muslim world. VOA still reports on behalf of the United States and helps to win understanding and hopefully support for U.S. policies and values. Surrogate broadcasters (foreign nationals) are still supported by American taxpayers because their independent reporting promotes free media and democracy in hostile and undemocratic nations, and thus enhances U.S. national security and economic wellbeing in the long-run. The authors claim that the dual mission is no longer necessary. Concerned members of Congress, human rights organizations, journalists working for USIB and foreign audiences in oppressed nations all disagree with this idea. It is, however, highly favored mostly by those who have little or no connection to the production of programs or the countries where these programs are most needed.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the new Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, like many other members of Congress, is well aware of the differences between surrogate broadcasting and the VOA mission. As a senior member of the Committee, he has pushed for expanded and more effective international broadcasting. He authored both the Radio Free Asia Act of 1997, which significantly boosted broadcasting activities to China, North Korea, and other Asian countries with repressive governments; and the Radio Free Afghanistan Act of 2001, which now brings a voice of liberty, tolerance, and democracy to a region that was once dominated by the Taliban-run hate radio. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta argue that surrogate broadcasting has become largely outdated and VOA’s mission should be incorporated into a unified, global programming stream. Both ideas are misguided, both in terms of U.S. domestic politics and in practical terms of serving international audiences.
The two missions are different but complementary, but the authors and other critics wrongly describe them as duplicative. They are not. The two missions, both extremely important, cannot and should not be combined. If they are combined then Voice of America is no longer Voice of America and surrogate broadcasters are no longer surrogate broadcasters. The question then arises what are they and to whom are they accountable?
NEW TECHNOLOGY: COLD WAR OR INFORMATION WAR
The authors claim that in the 21st century and because of new technology, this question does not matter anymore. They are absolutely wrong. Brand identity remains extremely important, even more important for dealing with current threats to U.S. security and democracy around the world than in the 20th century. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not agree with the authors when she talks about the U.S. losing the information war and the U.S. not doing what it did effectively during the Cold War.
To discredit the current division between VOA and surrogate broadcasters, the authors make repeated references to the Cold War. Being in almost daily contact with many USIB journalists, I find it strange because many of them were not even born during the Cold War. They all know and use new media technologies, they know their audience, and if not interfered with by Washington planners, they know what to do without looking to any Cold War models.
Yes, the Cold War is over, but the war of ideas in many parts of the world is not. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta think that it is and that surrogate media can be replaced by a privatized U.S. global media conglomerate. “The two-pronged Cold War communications strategy of ‘telling America’s story’ (VOA) and providing a ‘surrogate free press focused on domestic issues’ (RFE and RL) is no longer relevant in the new international media environment,” Johnson and Parta wrote.
They, first of all, mischaracterized the true role of VOA, which was never only “telling America’s story,” and they mischaracterized the true role of surrogate broadcasters, which was also much broader. They are wrong that the need for surrogate broadcasters is gone, just as they are wrong about the special role for VOA. Former Secretary of State Clinton would agree.
There is nothing wrong with VOA doing some surrogate reporting and surrogate broadcasters doing some reporting from the United States (This is where some necessary duplication occurs.) as long as each is doing this from its own perspective, in its own name, for its own mission. Combining the two undermines brand-names and destroys program identity and effectiveness, which may be one of the problems with Radio Sawa and Alhurra Television in the Middle East. They lack a clear identity, which Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta think is no longer all that important in a new global world. On the contrary, because of so many competing sources of information, a clear identity is very important. For U.S.-funded broadcasters, there are only very few brand/identity/programming choices that can be made, but they must be made and made clear to the audience. They may, of course, be different for various parts of the world and even for individual countries. But they must be clear and clearly communicated.
The discredited BBG strategic plan and the Johnson-Parta plan try to blur these choices and push a single, global information strategy that will appeal to no one. Bureaucrats love anything generic and global that they can identify with and understand and to hire more people like themselves, they hate anything that requires specialized knowledge and cultural sensitivity. I am not accusing Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta of lacking expert knowledge or cultural sensitivity, far from it, but their plan will facilitate the growth of bureaucracy and the hiring of employees who, unlike the two experts, have little professional connection to understanding and serving disenfranchised foreign audiences. This has already happened at the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) under pressure from IBB. The Johnson-Parta plan with its emphasis on centralization would make it even worse. I have seen it happen and it will happen again unless USIB is protected by the BBG board or Congress from international media professionals’ worst enemy, the ever growing bureaucracy. It does not matter whether it is government or corporate bureaucracy.
The latter may be even worse for a publicly-funded institution that is supposed to serve an important public U.S. national security mission. If we are in an information war, as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says we are, do we really want to put journalists fighting this war at the mercy of corporate bureaucrats? It would be almost the same as privatizing the U.S. Army. Granted, as a journalistic organization, USIB must be independent, but it does not mean that it must be completely private. At the very least, it needs a public, bipartisan board appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, as it has now. But the board must be firmly in charge of the bureaucracy, not the other way around, as it is now. The best solution for that is to de-bureaucratize, whereas the Johnson-Parta plan offers the opposite–creation of a new, large central bureaucracy
BBG PLAN AND JOHNSON-PARTA PLAN ARE ALMOST IDENTICAL
It is indeed very arrogant and naive for bureaucrats sitting in Washington to think that news is the same news for everyone and that everyone has latest media gadgets and wants the same thing–generic global news. They have not experienced life under oppressive regimes and yet these central bureaucrats working for the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ International Broadcasting Bureau have already achieved much of what Johnson and Parta propose. They have already blurred the difference between VOA and surrogate broadcasters. They continue to marginalize the voice of journalists and experts at the Voice of America and the surrogate broadcasters by imposing on them their central ideas and plans. Seeing images of semi-naked women on RFE/RL websites and stories of romantic online adventures of American university professors suggests that centralization and globalization of content has already taken place and the results are not encouraging. (This was happening before Kevin Klose took over from Steven Korn.) VOA has not yet sunk that low, but it will if the same central IBB planners have their way.
It is important to keep in mind that the current IBB-produced five-year central plan is almost identical to the Johnson and Parta plan. This is exactly what would continue to happen under their centralization plan, although I’m sure they don’t think it would. It is inevitable. The only explanation I can think of for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta introducing their plan is that, in their view, anything would be better than the current BBG arrangement. I am not at all sure that they are right even on that point. At least there is now a political, bipartisan board which sometimes checks on its bureaucrats. This would be much more difficult to do under the Johnson-Parta plan, which envisions only a private broad.
ADVANTAGES OF SMALLER MEDIA ORGANIZATIONS
I’m surprised that these two experts who saw first-hand how a small, autonomous organization like RFE/RL became successful because of its previous relative independence, sharp mission-focus and expert staff are now advocating for a large, central bureaucracy, albeit private. This sudden love affair with central planning, central bureaucracy and perhaps even a central message is to say the least puzzling considering the history of RFE/RL and its successful opposition to such bureaucratic concepts promoted by ministries of propaganda in the Soviet Union and the rest of the Soviet Block. Granted, there are multiple sources of information now as the paper points out, but disinformation and propaganda from multiple sources offer an even greater challenge and require even more media specialization and expert knowledge.
It’s obvious that these experts, who, I suspect, have never worked directly for IBB or BBG, don’t really fully appreciate how large bureaucracies operate and expand for their own sake at the expense of programs, journalists, and area experts. By the way, the same process has happened in recent years at RFE/RL, although still to a smaller degree than at IBB/BBG. All of these organizations I was able to observe first-hand over many years.
The number of RFE/RL vice-presidents has grown from one to five and the number of non-programmers, consultants, program evaluators, technical specialists, advisors and administrators has multiplied. Authority and independence of service directors, once very extensive, has been diminished to almost nothing. These absolutely critical for the mission country experts and journalists are now at about the fifth or sixth level on the organizational chart. They were once some of the most important figures in U.S.-funded surrogate broadcasting who reported directly to RFE and RL directors. They now have to do what non-journalists who have never studied any of these countries tell them to do.
IBB PLANNERS ROLE IN RADIO LIBERTY CRISIS
But problems at RFE/RL are not the worst part. While the latest crisis and destruction of Radio Liberty’s reputation and effectiveness in Russia are being blamed on two or three former and some still employed RFE/RL managers, those of us who have followed these developments know very well that they were in fact implementing the central strategic plan devised in Washington by central bureaucrats who are neither experts on the RFE/RL broadcast area, with perhaps one exception, nor are they terribly astute. Granted, RFE/RL managers who were implementing this central plan were even less astute and less sensitive to local political cultures and values than even their IBB colleagues and enforcers of a global USIB vision.
Thus, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta don’t have to look very far how their central U.S. international broadcasting private corporation might work. The plan they propose is already being largely implemented at RFE/RL, and we all saw what happened with Radio Liberty in Russia in the last few months.
There have been protests from Russian democratic leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev, former Russian prime minister, former deputy prime minister and many other opposition figures. How ironic is it that Nobel Peace Prize nominee Lyudmila Alekseyeva felt compelled to expose human rights abuses by RFE/RL bosses? Yet, they were behaving and acting perfectly in line with bureaucratic commands and corporate culture of the IBB bureaucracy which already functions like a central private NGO bureaucracy. Even as Radio Liberty in Russia was disintegrating before our very own eyes, some IBB managers were trying to convince BBG members to publicly endorse discredited RFE/RL managers. Most BBG members wisely refused and later took action to remedy the situation.
PROBLEMS WITH PRIVATE CORPORATE CULTURE AT USIB
I am sure that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta are as appalled at what happened at RFE/RL as I am. But why did it happen? Just ask rank and file BBG-employed journalists and contractors in Washington and they will confirm that the corporate culture imposed upon RFE/RL is the same as at the Voice of America, the IBB and the BBG. Nearly half of VOA employees are poorly paid and terribly exploited private contractors who can be dismissed at a moment’s notice. IBB managers, some of whom worked before for private Grantees, take great pride in how they are able to run a federal agency more and more like a private corporation. They don’t have any reason to feel proud. Foreign-born RFE/RL employees also have very few rights and face daily discrimination because of their national origin. None of these private sector management practices make USIB any better, they make it far worse. Central BBG structure in Washington and RFE/RL in Prague already operate largely as one private, extremely badly managed NGO. There is now almost no difference between the two. The Johnson and Parta centralization plan would make the current situation permanent and worse throughout USIB.
The point is that there is not much difference between a large central government bureaucracy and a large central NGO bureaucracy dependent solely on government largesse and working from a central plan developed by bureaucrats who treat journalists as second class citizens, don’t consult them and see them as expendable labor force. A private, U.S. taxpayer-funded corporation may be even more dangerous because it will have less public scrutiny, less transparency and less accountability. As dysfunctional as the BBG has become–largely because it allowed the IBB bureaucracy to operate without any supervision–it did at least correct the bureaucracy’s outrages at RFE/RL or the bureaucrats’ incredible plan to end VOA radio broadcasts to Tibet of all places in the name of “reducing duplication.” Regardless of what reforms are implemented, U.S. international broadcasting will always need an engaged, presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed public oversight board. To keep the bureaucrats in line, the chairman and co-chairman should have full-time positions to keep a close eye on how public funds are spent and what results are achieved.
JOHNSON-PARTA PLAN AND VOICE OF AMERICA
The two experts also, in my opinion, don’t understand at all the role of the Voice of America, having never worked there and not having worked extensively with media outlets abroad which are using VOA content. I have done both, and I have worked from the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague from 1995 to 2003 as a marketing manager on behalf of both VOA and RFE/RL. I can attest that VOA’s special status in Washington was what sold its programs. An NGO VOA would be no different from CNN International, Fox News and other American media outlets available internationally. VOA’s power has always been its association with the United States in the eyes of the audience. While the VOA Charter protects its editorial independence, VOA will not be taken seriously or be effective if it is privately-run and/or combined with other private but publicly funded U.S. global media outlets.
With all the other private U.S. international broadcasters out there already, VOA will never become like the BBC. It is just not part of the U.S. broadcasting tradition, there is not enough money to create another CNN-like VOA, it would duplicate CNN, and it would compete with it, and not very successfully. Nor is it possible now to create one single U.S. international broadcasting brand-name combining VOA and other U.S.-funded media. It would be so generic that it would be meaningless. BBG, Global News Network are names that mean very little to international audiences and will continue to mean very little no matter what kind of centralization plans are proposed. U.S. international broadcasting never had a global audience, but it had many separate local and regional audiences, mostly in foreign-language programming. The Johnson-Parta paper suggests in its title that there is “U.S. global media.” There may be if you count CNN. But even VOA English programs are able to attract a significant audience in only some parts of the world. U.S. international broadcasting was always targeting specific audiences in their native languages for specific reasons. USIB will never be like CNN or the BBC.
The bottom line is, you can’t combine the Voice of America with surrogate broadcasters because they are two completely different animals. One can have a discussion as to whether surrogate broadcasting or other surrogate programming is needed to some countries or not. (Why, for example, is RFE/RL still broadcasting in the Balkans? To avoid another U.S. military intervention? May be VOA would be now enough in that region.) But if the United States wants to communicate directly and effectively with the world on behalf of the American people, it can’t be done through surrogate media outlets or private media outlets.
That’s why I have always argued for keeping VOA and surrogate/private broadcasters separate. I want to be clear on one point. Despite my longtime former association with VOA, I am a big admirer and supporter of surrogate broadcasting. I absolutely agree that surrogate/private broadcasters were/are/can be extremely effective, in some cases much more effective than VOA for nations in crisis and those ruled by oppressive and authoritarian governments. That is because VOA cannot engage in the type of locally-anchored confrontational journalism that the expert surrogate media can and should do, especially if it operates from areas close to their audience. That’s where surrogate broadcasters have a clear advantage and that’s why they are still needed for countries like China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and some countries in the Middle East. Their effectiveness is also not measured only by audience numbers because surrogate programming appeals primarily to the most oppressed and the most politically-minded individuals and groups whose activism empowered by information and commentary can bring these nations closer to democracy.
What VOA does best is not only to present the United States to foreign audiences but also to offer an American perspective on events in other countries in a highly authoritative and credible manner. It is incompressible for me, for example, that there is no longer a VOA Arabic service.
The two experts do not really answer the question how projecting America’s message to the world would work in a private corporation because it would not work without a separate Voice of America having a special status that is different from the other private U.S.-funded broadcasters, as it is now even under the current imperfect USIB structure.
CENTRAL BUREAUCRACY INCOMPATIBLE WITH EFFECTIVE USIB
But the greatest flaw of the Johnson and Parta plan is the assumption that a large central private bureaucracy would somehow result in U.S. international broadcasting being better managed and more effective. Having been associated with the success of autonomous administration and programming at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and perhaps having some experience in dealing with the International Broadcasting Bureau and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta should be avoiding the idea of a central bureaucracy, either government of private, like a plague.
I don’t doubt that they are well meaning and see their plan as a cure for government bureaucracy, but I’m afraid that they grossly underestimate its power having not been as close to it as I was. Unless, of course, they think that IBB, BBG, and RFE/RL bureaucracy would magically disappear if a new NGO superstructure is created. Not only it will not disappear, it will take it over and expand its hold on RFE/RL and other surrogates. Take it from someone who knows these entities, their history, their leadership, and how they operate. Don’t expect anything different and perhaps worse under the Johnson-Parta plan than what USIB already is.
The corporate culture of RFE/RL and that of the International Broadcasting Bureau are now very similar. Both have been corrupted by bureaucracy. Their culture would become the culture of any central, non-governmental bureaucracy proposed by the two experts. Keep in mind that this is also the strategic plan of IBB bureaucrats, whom BBG employees, most of them journalists, have rated consistently in the Office of Personnel Management surveys as being absolutely the worst managers in the federal government. Would anyone want to be associated with their plan for U.S. international broadcasting? Yet their plan and the plan proposed by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta are almost identical.
[easychart type=”vertbar” height=”500″ width=”500″ title=”BBG Global Audience – No Progress Since 2008″ groupnames=”Global Audience in Millions” valuenames=”2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012″ group1values=”140, 140, 155, 175, 171, 165, 187, 175″]
*BBG admits that it overestimated its global audience in 2011.
BBG’s budget increased from $668 million in 2008 to $767 million in 2012. BBG spends about $100 million more in 2012 than in 2008 to reach the same audience.
The total world population has increased by about 300 million between 2008 and 2012 and now stands at about 7 billion.
The IBB bureaucracy has grown tremendously in the last several years, eliminated many programs and programming jobs at VOA and the surrogate broadcasters, has been getting larger and larger budgets from Congress almost each year–and yet BBG’s global audience has remained stagnant at about 175 million since 2008. It has not grown for several years despite increased spending by the bureaucrats–on themselves. Beware of what Washington bureaucrats want.
ALTERNATIVE REFORMS AND SOLUTIONS
Some program duplication between surrogate broadcasters and the Voice of America is unavoidable and necessary for attracting and keeping an audience, but it is the differences in missions that the U.S. Congress envisioned and created, and which are and will continue to be important.
If surrogate programming is no longer needed for some countries, the BBG board should terminate it and allocate the money to other services.
I have no major objections to combining all surrogate broadcasters into one administrative unit to achieve savings or to moving them to the National Endowment for Democracy or some other well-established and well-run NGO rather than creating a new one to be taken over by current IBB bureaucrats and an army of private consultants and contractors. Because the current establishment that made USIB dysfunctional wants this plan so badly, supporters of USIB and U.S. taxpayers should be extremely concerned and cautious.
I believe the Voice of America needs to maintain its special role and its independence. It should operate totally separately from the surrogate broadcasters, more completely on its own than even now, without interference from the IBB bureaucracy if any of it remains.
The International Broadcasting Bureau, the bureaucratic center within the BBG, should be abolished. It is nothing more than an overgrown central bureaucracy that is stifling U.S. international broadcasting and is largely responsible for BBG’s dysfunction. Most of its functions should be divided between surrogate broadcasters and VOA and the minimal rest kept directly within the BBG.
The BBG should be a very small, efficient, non-bureaucratic board rather than an full-blown agency, providing general oversight and perhaps some central technical support services, the less the better.
The bureaucracy of RFE/RL needs to be drastically reduced. Other surrogate broadcasters may also need some administrative reforms. I am not as familiar with them as I am with RFE/RL.
Congress should continue to provide separate budget allocations for surrogate broadcasters and for VOA. This will always be necessary because there will always be a strong push for centralization to transfer more resources and control from programs to bureaucrats who have proven themselves again and again to be incapable of running any kind of centrally-managed media organization, private or public.
Congress was right in creating both VOA and surrogate broadcasters. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta do not offer any proof that anything has changed except for program delivery technology, abundance of media sources, and perhaps the level of political and media suppression in some countries. If anything, this calls for less centralization and more specialization rather than more centralization and less specialization. I can understand and support Mr. Johnson’s and Mr. Parta’s desire to get more resources for U.S. international broadcasting, but the plan they have proposed would diminish rather than enhance effectiveness and would waste U.S. taxpayers’ money. I do not believe for a moment that if centralization leads to elimination of some redundant positions–and even that is not certain–many new ones will be soon created and the money will go not to programmers and programs but to more bureaucrats and consultants. I have seen this happen again and again within USIB, especially under the more recent, more private sector-oriented management model.
Having spent several decades working for international broadcasting in many positions as a journalist, manager, and marketing specialist and having observed the United States Information Agency (USIA), VOA, RFE/RL, IBB and BBG, I have learned that bigger has never been better for USIB, international audiences, and U.S. public diplomacy. Smaller, autonomous and specialized media organizations function and perform much better than those directed by a central bureaucracy, which USIB has already become. So instead of centralization envisioned by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Parta, I propose de-centralization and de-bureacratization, a strong and independent Voice of America, surrogate broadcasters where needed, and an engaged bipartisan BBG board providing strong oversight and insisting on accountability to Congress and American taxpayers.
Beware of a central, powerful bureaucracy of any kind for U.S. international broadcasting and be highly skeptical of claims that such a bureaucracy can deliver a large global audience.