Business versus Policy Experience: Thoughts on Reform of U.S. Overseas Broadcasting

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

BBG Watch

Remember Charlotte Beers. She is a highly successful American businesswoman. She was the first female vice-president at the JWT advertising firm, then CEO of Tatham-Laird & Kudner until 1992, and finally CEO of Ogilvy & Mather until 1996. In 1997, Fortune magazine placed her on the cover of their first issue to feature the most powerful women in America, for her achievements in the advertising industry (Wikipedia).

From October 2001 until March 2003, she worked for the Bush administration as the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. While at the State Department, she initiated the production of propaganda videos “intending to sell a ‘new’ America to Muslims around the world by showing that American Muslims were living happily and freely in post-9/11 America. The $15 million Shared Values Initiative produced five mini-documentaries for television, radio, and print with shared values messages for key Muslim countries. Less than a month after the release of the Shared Values Initiative, the State Department abruptly discontinued it.” (Wikipedia)

Not everything that makes perfect sense for business or even for some public institutions in the United States can be applied to the highly complex and politically and culturally sensitive area of foreign policy, public diplomacy, government-funded overseas broadcasting and a combination of government and private media initiatives.

Two very successful and intelligent private sector media and entertainment executives, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Chairman Jeff Shell and his new choice for managing U.S. international media outreach, John Lansing, are making the same mistake Charlotte Beers made. They think that a perfectly logical and proven business model for a media organization, which indeed favors one central management, should also be applied to a U.S. government agency which has both federal and non-federal components, different mission, and which deals not only with journalism, but also has a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy, public diplomacy, and efforts to counter false propaganda and disinformation. It is a highly complex and politically sensitive operation with many distinct elements and entities, both federal and non-federal. A businessman would try to put them all together, but that was never how previous generations of U.S. government and public sector leaders and most current leaders and experts, other than the federal agency bureaucrats, think U.S. public diplomacy and international media outreach should be organized.

No one denies that Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing mean well and are top experts in their business fields, but like Ms. Beers they are trying to apply a business solution a very complex government operation with numerous international and foreign policy dimensions. According to our regular commentator, The Federalist, they are doing so against the advice of individuals far more knowledgeable in the area of foreign policy, public diplomacy, international broadcasting, and government/private sector cooperation: members of the U.S. Congress of both parties, including Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), the Committee’s Ranking Member, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) other U.S. lawmakers, former Secretaries of State, former Broadcasting Board of Governors members, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent and former National Public Radio and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive, and many others. All of these experts support the key provision of the H.R. 2323 Royce-Engel International Broadcasting Reform Legislation which calls for the separation of the federal and non-federal BBG operations and the elimination of much of the federal bureaucracy which made the BBG dysfunctional.

Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing, claiming private sector business expertise, want to skip this key reform provision. Experts, who know how U.S. government, public diplomacy, and various forms of international broadcasting work, tell them that keeping the Voice of America and the so-called surrogate broadcasters together and trying to run it centrally as a single operation will simply not work, as it already does not work under the aegis of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Senior Congressional contacts were surprised that during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on November 17, 2015, Mr. Lansing kept making the analogy about one team with two coaches in criticizing and rejecting the two-organizations and two-boards legislative proposal.

The bipartisan Royce-Engel reform bill calls for two organizations, each with its own leadership and its own board. According to congressional sources, Mr. Lansing’s analogy would have been more appropriate if he said that there are two teams, each with its own coach. Would the Cowboys and Patriots ever have the same coach?, one senior Congressional staffer asked. Or more appropriately, since each organization should have a distinct mission – would the Red Sox and Patriots ever have the same coach?

Mr. Lansing also said in his testimony that the Broadcasting Board of Governors currently has five entities operating independently. This, according to our Congressional contacts who support the reform legislation, tends to undermine his argument that H.R. 2323 is bad because it’s “two teams with one coach.” Currently, it’s five teams with one coach, and the bipartisan House legislation proposes two teams with two coaches. This makes far more sense to the lawmakers and experts who have testified in favor of the legislation than any argument based purely on what would work best if it were just a private media company in the U.S. selling lowbrow news and entertainment to the largest possible number of consumers to derive maximum profit for the shareholders, a Congressional contact said. That’s a far cry from how U.S. public diplomacy and U.S. international media outreach is set up and how it should and can operate under U.S. law, the same contact added.

Bureaucracy Warning Sign

Business versus Policy Experience: Thoughts on Reform of U.S. Overseas Broadcasting

By The Federalist

Among the most important testimony at the hearing was delivered by Kevin Klose, who commands enormous expertise in private sector journalism (The Washington Post) and public sector National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasting including two tours as head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and public broadcasting. His testimony is penetrative and timely in what needs to be done.

Mr. Klose supports proposed legislation (H.R. 2323) that would separate the grantee entities (RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia and others) from the Voice of America (VOA). The federal entity and the combined 501 (c) 3 media grantees would be independent of each other. Mr. Klose understands the particulars that distinguish the missions of the grantees and VOA.

Mr. Klose supports having two chief executive officers (CEOs), one for the federal entity and another one for the private sector entities, which makes perfect sense to anyone familiar with U.S. international broadcasting except its current federal bureaucracy which wants to maximize its control, positions, salaries and resources.

To get right to the point, Mr. Klose is absolutely correct in his vision. Expecting one CEO to manage both the grantees and VOA, as in the current management arrangement with John Lansing as CEO over all, is asking for the arrangement to fail. It is in fact guaranteed to expand the current federal bureaucracy and to fail in even more spectacular way than the current failed bureaucracy.

Those of us well familiar with the many shortcomings of VOA know that Mr. Lansing has his hands full, surrounded by career bureaucrats who have no interest in (a) exposing their incompetency and (b) being accountable for the egregious failure of the agency’s management.

The reform arrangement proposed by H.R. 2323 has the added benefit of each organization having to prove itself. There is less room to hide for the inept bureaucrats in the grantees (particularly Radio Sawa/Alhurra Television) and, on the federal side, the odious International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) with its concocted audience numbers and ragtag “strategic planning” (which is neither, as correctly observed.

Broadcasting Board of Governors Chairman Jeff Shell noted that “American culture is pervasive around the world.” However, BBG Member Kenneth Weinstein countered, expressing concern over the images being presented by Hollywood where Mr. Shell works in his day job. The “American culture” that Mr. Shell is talking about is the entertainment industry which has demonstrated that it is largely exploitative and embellishes the underside of American society. As a result, the image that is often presented is one of extreme violence of all kinds, lascivious behavior and the like portraying the United States as violent and out of control.

Shell also noted that digital media “has no technical boundaries.” The statement is not completely accurate. Digital media is limited by accessibility: the electrical infrastructure necessary to support it and the per capita income to own it. Even more so, it is limited by largely effective countermeasures at the point of contact in countries such as China and Iran. Various target areas have BBG content blocked and inaccessible to the vast majority of the population. Traditional media (radio and to some extent satellite TV) can cover broad geographical areas, is more difficult to block and is much more accessible (radio) to even the poorest of population groups. There are more costs for the agency, but those costs are worth more in terms of accessibility and affordability for those who are the poorest, the most oppressed and have the greatest need for information without the fear of being monitored by their governments.

New BBG CEO John Lansing talked about the power of Facebook over traditional media. The agency’s performance in this arena shows it to be especially dismal and disconnected from global publics. Lansing noted that users often get news and information from friends who also use this media. Thus, who do you trust more: your friends or VOA? The former has the capacity to be the overall winner in that choice. And yet when the terrorists attacked in Paris, VOA English news and web operation only managed to produce less than 10 Facebook posts on the story over the weekend. (VOA language services, including Russian, did even less. BBC, RT, and Deutsche Welle each had dozens of Facebook posts in various languages. When compared with these other international broadcasters, VOA got only between 1 and 2 % of “Likes” and readers comments on Facebook on the Paris story.

“Raise Your Voice” campaign on Sawa/Alhurra. A perfect example of how out of touch the agency is in the practical realities of life in the Arab/Muslim world. It is certainly not happening in areas controlled by ISIS. There and beyond, this kind of slogan is an invitation to get killed. Beyond stupid.

“Current Time,” the Russian program. Is this the one, only 30-minute long program, that has been pulled of the air in one country due to poor ratings, and is broadcast in other countries only late at night? Come on. The Russians have the upper hand in its own narrative. And they can do it 24/7 compared to whatever miniscule effort is being made by VOA or RFE/RL. That’s something that the senators hopefully took note of.

Mr. Lansing made note of the connection to State and the NSC. He tried to distinguish from it editorial independence. But at this point, one should not think that the administration is not going to let that get in the way. The administration’s “messaging” efforts are in disarray at best, failure at worst. No firewall is going to get in the way of getting a message out that the White House thinks is important even if it is bad for U.S. public diplomacy in the long run.

Mr. Lansing also made note that “the issue is effectiveness.” I heard nothing in testimony by him, Mr. Shell or Mr. Weinstein that would lead me to believe the agency has made any significant gains in that area.

Former BBG Member and former high-level Radio Liberty executive S. Enders Wimbush spoke about the “leadership deficit” within the BBG and that the BBG is notoriously allergic to strategic planning. He’s right on both counts. As someone else remarked, the agency is in need of “adult supervision.” Nothing has improved at the agency in this regard, even with Mr. Lansing on board, albeit still a rather short time.

Mr. Wimbush supports H.R. 2323 and a two CEO approach. He’s right on that point as well. Expecting Mr. Lansing to handle all that is wrong with the agency and all its component parts is setting him up to fail. He may already be well on his way in this regard, surrounded by the very bureaucrats that put the agency in the position it is in. They hope that by eliminating the key element of the reform legislation they can outlast Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing and end up with even more power and less accountability.

The agency already shows all the signs of being unrecoverable. If Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing continue to resist the central legislative reform plan, ignoring advice from such a distinguished private sector journalist and public media executive as Mr. Kevin Klose and from former BBG member, foreign policy expert, and former media manager like Mr. Wimbush, the agency most likely will end up in even worse shape than it is now.

This is how The Federalist sees it.

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