BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Watch has learned that several highly-qualified individuals with various combinations of foreign policy, public diplomacy, national security and journalistic experience are being mentioned as potential candidates to head the dysfunctional Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) federal agency (FY 2017 Budget of $777 million), but it is still not clear what President Trump’s plans for the agency will be. They include former Republican BBG Board members and others with many years of government and private sector experience.
One of these candidates is a longtime BBG critic, New York Times best-selling author, political commentator, and investigative journalist Kenneth R. Timmerman who has accused the Voice of America Persian Service of posting “wild fantasy-land libel partisan screeds” against the Donald Trump 2016 election campaign. In another Washington Times op-ed published December 11, 2016, Timmerman, who is also a Middle East and Iran expert and a Republican Party activist, wrote that U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America is being “transformed into the Voice of Tehran.” BBG Watch reported recently that the BBG and VOA management had followed and legitimized a fake VOA Iran Twitter feed for years before discovering due to our reporting and admitting last month that the feed was set up by an unidentified impostor.
BBG manages U.S.-funded media outreach abroad through such entities as the Voice of America, a federal operation which is in the midst of a leadership crisis, according to many critics in and out of government. One of the strongest and longtime critics of the agency’s management has been Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA). Under a new bipartisan BBG reform legislation, which Congressman Royce helped to draft together with the committee’s Ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY), Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and other Republicans and Democrats, the BBG CEO position now requires a presidential nomination and confirmation by the U.S. Senate after President Obama had signed the so-called Thornberry amendment into law late last year. Unsuccessful Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was also a strong critic of the BBG. In 2013, as Secretary of State and ex officio BBG Board member, she described the Broadcasting Board of Governors as “practically defunct.” Criticism of the agency has been broadly bipartisan.
BBG Watch has learned of several contacts in recent days between representatives of the Trump administration and former BBG Board members, former VOA directors, and other former U.S. government officials. These foreign policy, public diplomacy, national security and journalism experts were discussing with representatives of the Trump administration agency reforms and individuals who could best implement such reforms, BBG Watch has learned.
It is not clear, however, how high is the current level of interest in the BBG among key officials in the Trump White House or their interest in quickly filling the CEO position. This position is now occupied by John F. Lansing, a former entertainment TV cable industry executive. An Obama administration holdover, Lansing lacks prior foreign policy, public diplomacy, government service or international journalism experience. Selected for his position by the BBG Board with a Democratic majority at the recommendation of former Democratic BBG Chairman, Hollywood film executive Jeff Shell, Lansing has not been vetted or confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He and VOA director Amanda Bennett, who was his choice but also lacks prior government experience, said in separate interviews, with NPR and with The Los Angeles Times, that the agency is well managed, has respect for the U.S. president and provides balanced coverage. They insist that the agency offers objective reporting despite multiple instances of some VOA reporters calling President Trump insulting names, some of them obscene, in their personal social media posts and generating an unprecedented number of one-sided VOA programs in which partisan criticism is not balanced or even properly identified, thus violating the VOA Charter.
BBG Watch could not learn whether President Trump is already personally aware of the charges of mismanagement at the BBG and partisan attacks on him by a few VOA reporters, but we were told that one of his senior advisors was briefed on the situation at the agency. In addition to social media posts and one-sided VOA reports, attacks on Trump included lampooning him, his wife and his daughter in a satirical skit produced by several VOA English newsroom reporters at a holiday party held in the VOA headquarters building in Washington. Many other VOA journalists object strongly to such conduct by a few of their colleagues and managers, but most are afraid to speak out publicly. The BBG has remained the lowest rated federal agency in employee satisfaction. Employee engagement and confidence in senior leaders have declined under John Lansing, according to the most recent Office of Personnel Management (OPM) confidential employee survey. Two former Voice of America directors who had served under Republican administrations, Robert Reilly and David S. Jackson, have published op-eds decrying violations of the VOA Charter. [Wall Street Journal – Reilly and CPD Blog – Jackson]
Kenneth R. Timmerman is one of about half a dozen potential candidates to lead reforms at the Broadcasting Board of Governors if President Trump decides to nominate someone to the BBG CEO position. While not the only individual interested in leading reforms at the BBG, he has gathered strong support among a group of former U.S. government officials and other experts who are concerned about the management crisis at the agency. Timmerman has been a longtime vocal critic of the lack of leadership and mission drift at the U.S. international media outreach agency. He has also criticized multiple violations of the VOA Charter, particularly at the Voice of America Persian Service. In a recent Washington Times op-ed, Timmerman charged that “The Persian-language services of both VOA and RFE/RL [Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty] have long been a disaster, mocked in Iran because they broadcast pro-Iranian regime propaganda and not the pro-freedom message they were intended to convey.”
Timmerman told one of our contacts that if President Trump would nominate him to lead the BBG and if he is confirmed by the Senate, he will try to bring U.S. international media services back to the Charter and to their respective missions.
Our contacts have also told us that a letter of support of Timmerman’s nomination has been signed by a number of former high and mid-level officials who had served in the State Department, former United States Information Agency (USIA), the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Voice of America, the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency. Most of the letter’s signatories held government positions under Republican administrations, but at least one former high-level official worked for former President Bill Clinton. BBG Watch was told that one of the signatories is a former Voice of America director who had served under a Republican president.
The letter says that the signatories, which also include a number of non-government experts, “are very concerned with the direction America’s international broadcasting efforts have taken over the past eight years,” according to our source who has seen a copy of the letter. They urge President Trump to nominate Timmerman as the next CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors and submit his nomination to the Senate.
“Numerous reports over the past eight years, from the State Department’s Inspector General to the Government Accounting Office, have documented how the Voice of America has strayed from its original mission, which is to ‘represent America’ and to ‘present the polices of the United States clearly and effectively’,” the letter says.