BBG Watch Media
The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB – cusib.org) posted a comment in Foreign Policy disagreeing with the article by former Voice of America (VOA) David Ensor who came out in support of one Superman CEO solution to reform the ailing Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
DAVID ENSOR: “Fortunately, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and the current board understand the structural problem and what to do about it. The BBG’s recent appointment of a full-time chief executive officer for U.S. international media is an excellent first step. But CEO John Lansing, a seasoned media manager, needs legislation giving him clear authority over all budgets and personnel. A proposal in the House of Representatives (HR 2323) could actually make things worse, accentuating the rivalry and competition for resources by placing VOA under a different board and CEO than its three smaller sister entities: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.”
READ DAVID ENSOR’S ARTICLE: How Washington Can Win the Information War, David Ensor, Foreign Policy, December 14, 2015.
Another former Voice of America director, David S. Jackson, has also endorsed the one BBG Board/one CEO solution. Former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) executives, including former Washington Post foreign correspondent in Moscow and former NPR president Kevin Klose, are opposed to this proposal and support the bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) and approved unanimously by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr. Lansing, while he is a highly successful U.S. domestic cable industry and entertainment TV executive, has no substantive experience in government operations, U.S. public diplomacy, U.S. foreign policy, counter-propaganda, psychological warfare, or U.S. international journalism, broadcasting and other U.S. Government-funded media outreach abroad. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty had much larger audiences and much grater impact in most Soviet block countries than the Voice of America. RFE’s and RL’s success was attributed to its editorial independence, institutional separation from the U.S. government while being supportive of long-term U.S. foreign policy objectives, and its independent, non-federal oversight board. To see who disagrees with Mr. Ensor, Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing on the one Superman CEO idea
READ: OPINION Former Voice of America Director: U.S. International Media Needs Only One CEO, Other Experts Disagree, BBG Watch, November 29, 2015.
READ CUSIB COMMENT ON DAVID ENSOR’S FP ARTICLE: The directors of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB), a non-partisan NGO, disagree with most of Mr. Ensor’s analysis and his proposed solutions for U.S. international media outreach. We do appreciate efforts undertaken by BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and CEO John Lansing to improve the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Therefore we were more than surprised that in recent testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations they both argued that the current oversight arrangement for BBG media entities is sufficient and that all that is needed is one CEO with enhanced powers who can handle it all. Mr. Ensor now makes essentially the same argument. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of both parties, several distinguished former BBG members, former U.S. diplomats, and many other experts disagree with him and with both Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing.
What individual BBG media entities need is much more of truly focused oversight, which one board and one CEO simply cannot provide. These entities have distinct missions which require different sets of experience. Surrogate media outreach combined with providing a forum for opinions is not compatible in many ways with global news outreach, and global news outreach is not always compatible with public diplomacy. Countering propaganda is again something different. The old model of separate missions and separate entities was highly successful during the war of ideas of the Cold War. Hillary Clinton described the new one-board BBG model as “practically defunct.” One CEO and the federal bureaucracy under him or her are not going to fix the problem. The Inspector General pointed out that a single oversight board for the BBG and all the entities creates a conflict of interest, because it does.
While Mr. Lansing may be an excellent manager, the next CEO may not be. Even for Mr. Lansing, a successful domestic media executive, it would be next to impossible to be or to become an instant expert in counter-propaganda, foreign policy, public diplomacy, U.S. news and international news. We saw some truly bad entity heads below being appointed by the single BBG board in the past. It took the part-time board members months and even years to replace them. A single CEO is not an institutional reform.
Therefore, we must agree with former BBG member, the Honorable S. Enders Wimbush, that there is a leadership crisis at the BBG, and it will remain unless there is a legislative solution and a major structural reform.
We hope Mr. Shell and Mr. Lansing will reconsider their opposition to the key reform provision of the bipartisan H.R. 2323 bill introduced by Rep. Ed Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel and supported by all members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
More specialized and entity-focused oversight is needed. Here are just a few examples why.
Voice of America’s “State of Fear” opinion roundup article was truly appalling and completely one-sided. The rest of VOA’s editorial segment is also confused and not consistent with the VOA Charter.
Chasing after easy audiences, such as Mexico, and self-censoring news to achieve more of such easy placement, self-congratulatory statements about “audience growth” — all of these are highly problematic, as is claiming these audiences as the evidence of significant “impact.” As soft public diplomacy, this may be great. Perhaps, such outreach should be left to one entity. But BBG should focus its energies more on other nations and groups more critical in terms of U.S. national security.
Should audience ratings be allowed to run the publicly-funded BBG? There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating to those whose freedoms are denied. That’s where the agency and Mr. Ensor were going in the wrong direction.
VOA had a failed digital media strategy. Not all advertising is bad, but buying Facebook “Likes” with ads paid by taxpayers to fix this problem can be problematic.
While we wait for major institutional reforms, we urge the Broadcasting Board of Governors to focus on these issues and on the treatment of employees throughout the agency. This is an area where some small progress has been made thanks to Chairman Shell, this board, and some former board members such as the Honorable Ambassador Victor Ashe. But a lot more remains to be done than what Mr. Ensor suggests in his article.
Director, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting, former acting associate director of the Voice of America.
BBG Watch Disclaimer: Ted Lipien is one of the co-founders and supporters of BBG Watch.