Broadcasting Board of Governors: The Battle Rages On – The Federalist

by The Federalist
 
There seems to be a conflicted message coming out of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). On the one hand, in the January board meeting, it appears that Chairman Walter Isaacson is amenable to compromise on the nature and extent of the reorganization of US international broadcasting assets.
 
On the other hand, there is the agency press release of January 18, 2012 which looks to be a very public restatement of the long-intended goals of reconstituting US international broadcasting as a corporate-based model envisioned by certain elements within the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) staff.
 
Here is what the reader needs to know:
 
The BBG/IBB house is not in order.  It is out of order.
 
In dealing with certain individuals of the IBB staff, you have to know that the overarching strategy has always been “all or nothing.”  They are not interested in compromise.  They are not interested in a “hybrid” organization.  They want it all and they want it their way, typical of a corporate mindset that these people have embraced.  You can be sure that these individuals are seething over the manner in which their corporate “flim flam strategic plan” got exposed for what it is in the attempt to kill off VOA radio broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese.  You can be certain that they are just as livid with the apparent derailment of their plan to privatize the Voice of America (VOA).  Their alleged five-year timetable has been disrupted.
 
For the most part, the reorganization that these individuals advocate contributes no material improvement to the effectiveness of US international broadcasting.  US Government international broadcasting has fallen on hard times, in part because the BBG/IBB hierarchy has demonstrated that it can’t manage the assets that it has.  
 
What this plan does – and is a key undercurrent to the plan – is to embed the top level IBB officials in the agency for years, where they get paid very well for lackluster results, perpetuate a hostile work environment and line themselves up for hefty bonuses as a way of congratulating themselves for stiffing the American taxpayers.  The only known outcome from this is not an improved structure or improved impact and effectiveness of the agency’s mission.  What it does is assure that the IBB bonus-monger gravy train continues to roll.  Now we’re talking about the real top priority!
 
Let’s examine some of the statements contained in the January 18, 2012 press release:
 
The press release quotes Chairman Isaacson as follows:
 
“…any reform plan will retain and celebrate the individual and historic brands and their journalistic mission…”
 
How is this accomplished when one of the stated goals of this reorganization is to come up with a name change for the entire enterprise?  How are the entities going to be identified within the name change for the agency?  We don’t know and most likely the BBG/IBB doesn’t know either.
 
Here’s the deal:
 
The various entities reflect the desire to go after targeted audiences.  Lose any one of them and you abandon the audiences that come with them, at the peril of the overall mission of US international broadcasting.  Each makes a contribution to the whole.  
 
Here’s another thing: the BBG already commands a “global news network:” VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio Sawa and al-Hurra, the Persian News Network and Radio Farda (to Iran), and Radio and TV Marti (to Cuba).  This pretty much covers the planet wholesale.  As we already have stated, the problem is the BBG/IBB cannot manage the assets that they have.  
 
Here’s a perfect example:
 
The BBG/IBB does not broadcast in English 24/7.  Other international broadcasters do including China, Russia and Al-Jazeera.  Some of the broadcasts are radio.  Some are television.  But the point is that the BBG/IBB doesn’t and won’t.  If they can’t do this – and are not about to under their alleged “plan” – this “global news network” thing that the BBG/IBB references is a farce.  The people who have concocted this “plan” have tuned out to the global dynamics of international broadcasting.  They have chosen to be deliberately tone deaf. They are making a clear demonstration that they are not in the same league with the Russians and Chinese, in particular, in the arena of world broadcasting.  That intimates a very strong message to other nations that US power and prestige are on the wane.  And the decline continues with the alleged plan fabricated by the BBG/IBB.  Other governments and populations pay attention to these things, while the BBG/IBB doesn’t.
 
In fact, this claim of creating a “global news network” when one already exists, is an act of deception.  We strongly maintain that the ultimate goal of the BBG/IBB plan is to reorganize itself out of the direct broadcasting business altogether.  This is not reflected in this press release.  However, it is embodied in comments by senior agency officials.  It doesn’t get any clearer than when VOA director David Ensor declared that the agency isn’t going to be what it used to be, also stating that there will be “blood on the floor,” an oblique reference to staff reductions.  This does not sound like the posture of an organization about to embark on being a “global news network” and elevating its profile.  To the contrary, this is sending a very clear message that US international broadcasting is off the pinnacle of what it used to be and is riding the down slope.
 
We already know what the IBB staff has foisted on the Board:  they want to put all their eggs in one basket: the Internet.  We already know how brittle that basket is and the IBB’s meager penetration of this market.  However, it is consistent with the “all-or-nothing” approach favored in the IBB sales pitch.  We also know that the IBB “plan” includes moving the operation to the Dulles Town Center near Dulles International Airport far to the west of Washington, DC (and made even more removed by the area’s congested traffic grid).  Most assuredly, they are not planning to move the entire existing organizational structure out there.  The intent is to reduce the operation to the slimmest of what the IBB sees as what it wants to do.  That’s the real deal and is the reason one has to watch, under the name of “reorganization,” the manner in which the BBG/IBB attempts to decimate the non-VOA broadcastings grantees, if their plan is allowed to proceed.
 
Here’s more:
 
According to the press release, this reorganization, “would establish a CEO (chief executive officer) who would report to the Board and provide day-to-day executive leadership.”  
 
The fact of the matter is that the BBG/IBB already has someone in this position but under a different title, either a director or executive director.  What the IBB is doing here is ping-ponging titles.  But more importantly, the really big problem is that this position assumes one heck of a lot of the Board’s authority and power.  The key phrase here is “day-to-day,” which means when the Board isn’t around – which is most of the time.  Either you have a Board or you don’t.  Someone needs to decide that essential point.  As we have said before, if there is any agency in the Federal Government that needs more hands-on oversight and accountability, this is it.  And that won’t be coming from title changes.  Titles don’t mean a whole lot, except to the title holder.  The point of the matter is you can create any title you want, but what is the impact?  Does the organization run better and make noticeable improvement?  Under the circumstances, with the present cast of characters still around, we think not.
 
And as far as “leadership” goes, we already know where the agency stands: dead last in the annual employee surveys – for years – including under the present so-called “leadership.”
 
Here’s another “good one:”
 
“The restructuring package would be subject to appropriate administration approval and Congressional consideration.”
 
Whoa!  Somehow, the BBG/IBB has decided to sidestep the US Constitution.  The administration can approve the plan all it wants.  But the fact of the matter is the Congress appropriates and authorizes funding, the spending of taxpayer money.  That’s part of separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, the process of checks and balances.  One hopes the BBG/IBB is only being figurative and not literal.  And the other fact of the matter is: this “plan” needs much more scrutiny.  Why?  Because: it isn’t a plan! It’s an idea or a collection of ideas.  Plans have details and the BBG/IBB distinctly avoids specifying the details of how all of this is going to work.  Calling this a “plan” is like calling a pile of building materials in a yard a house, with no blueprint, just a drawing.  They are not the same.
 
Another thing the BBG/IBB is after is repealing “the domestic dissemination ban in the Smith-Mundt Act.”
 
In reality, the agency has already gotten around the Smith-Mundt limitations because of the websites the agency maintains.  These websites can be viewed within the United States with the appropriate software to allow computer users the ability to view websites in their specific vernacular languages.  Why the agency chooses to make this a big deal is something of a mystery.
 
However:
 
IF the agency was truly interested in transparency, it would run these language websites in both the vernacular languages and English.  That would allow Americans outside the various ethnic communities to have a clear idea of what the BBG/IBB is disseminating not only to fellow Americans but also to international audiences the specific websites are aimed at.  It could also run English translations at the bottom of screens in its language service video productions.  That is true transparency.
 
It also amazes us that the agency would be placing such an interest in this aspect of its reorganization scheme because true transparency is the absolute last thing the people on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building want.  For example, we are very much aware of the antipathy certain members of the BBG/IBB have for BBG Watch.  One can see the potential for even more critical appraisals of the agency’s actions if it were to open itself up to the ability of mainstream Americans to scrutinize what the agency was posting on its language websites or its other media.
 
Finally, the following quote from Chairman Isaacson:
 
“We look forward to working with internal and external stakeholders and experts as well as with the Administration and Congress on these proposals.”
 
If this is true, it would be a first of monumental proportions.  Perhaps Chairman Isaacson is committed to this, along with board member Ambassador Victor Ashe.  But the IBB crowd?  Probably not.  It would be totally out of character.  These folks want it their way or not at all.  That has been their modus operandi and a substantive departure from that is unlikely.  To get them to go along with this is a tall order, let alone to endure an increase in public criticism of their ideas for reorganization or for the very existence of the agency at all.  Anyone who has ever sat through one of the IBB sales pitches for the “plan” knows this: presentations timed out to the last second to avoid questions or any lengthy, detailed discussions.  Why?  Because they don’t want to answer questions and take criticisms.  They don’t want their plan to be scrutinized.  They want the plan and the oxymorons created to go along with it to be accepted at face value.  
 
Congress has the ability to hold hearings.  But other than that, what is the intended forum for internal and external stakeholders to present their views to the Board, not the IBB staffers who have no interest in hearing from these stakeholders?
 
It has been remarked that “the devil is in the details.”  That is precisely what is absent from this discussion.  The details of how any of this reorganization plan is supposed to work in reality are nonexistent.  There is too much of this collection of ideas that is obscured by broad, sweeping generalities.  That is not a good sign.
 
We will often repeat the following:
 
If the BBG/IBB and its entities disappeared tomorrow, they would not be missed by the most important stakeholders of all: the American taxpayers.  They would most likely ask the same kinds of questions that have appeared in these commentaries.  The vast majority of Americans don’t know that the place exists.  Frankly, in this day and at this particular juncture in the American Experience, if this agency isn’t something that works well, if it isn’t something that meets their basic needs, if it doesn’t provide for the national defense, more than likely the majority of American people would want the plug pulled on it.  The money formerly committed to funding the agency could then be put to the business of dealing with those things that matter most to them.  
 
You can take it as a matter of faith that the BBG/IBB doesn’t make it onto the list of top priorities for the vast majority of Americans.  And that BBG/IBB is not making a good case that it should be a top priority.  They are trying to slip something through, under the radar, to perpetuate certain self-interests.
 
The American people are not oblivious.  They see the country headed in the wrong direction.  They want to see America’s enemies vanquished.  They want to see the nation return to its global preeminence.  They want to earn a decent living and enjoy a comfortable retirement.  They want their children to be educated.  They want to get above water on their mortgages and home values.  They want manageable costs in essential goods, services and necessities.
 
Does the BBG/IBB see, hear or accomplish any of the things that matter most to the majority of Americans?
 
Nope.
 
So, Mr. Isaacson, there is a problem.  There’s a whole lot of explaining to do as to why this agency is relevant to 21st Century America.  
 
Too much of what the agency has become at the hands of bonus-conscious senior officials has left US international broadcasting disappearing below the horizon.
 
The Federalist
January 2012
 
 

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