New BBG CEO John Lansing is having a positive impact, but is it enough?

BBG Watch Commentary

Capitol HillThere are clear signs that new Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) CEO John Lansing is having a positive impact at the U.S. government-funded federal agency, perhaps with some help and pressure from outside critics such as congressional overseers of U.S. International Media which BBG runs. The BBG’s mission is “to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.”

But while some contributors to BBG Watch watch-dog blog agree that at a micro-level John Lansing is beginning to make some positive difference, congressional sources we consulted are not at all hopeful there is any chance a single executive, no matter how good, can turn around a failing agency without major structural reforms which require new legislation. They also criticize John Lansing for what they see as lobbying against some of the key provisions of the bipartisan H.R. 2323 BBG reform bill. Agency officials privately deny that they have engaged in any lobbying against the bill, also referred to as the United States International Communications Reform Act. It was introduced in May 2015 by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the committee’s Ranking Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). The House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the bill. It now awaits further action in the House and the Senate.

Most observers we talked to agree that, overall, John Lansing is a positive presence at the agency. But is it enough for BBG’s mission, impact and long-term, strategic and institutional needs? Critics believe that the BBG has to be significantly transformed through legislation to have a winning strategy against ISIS and propaganda from countries like Russia. John Lansing’s positive impact is not enough, congressional critics say, and he may be delaying needed legislative reforms by resisting the passage of H.R. 2323, they add.
 
Good News and Bad News
 
As a former successful private sector media executive, John Lansing came to the agency last September without any previous U.S. government, international media or public diplomacy experience, but by all accounts he is both a strong and thoughtful manager. According to some Voice of America (VOA) journalists, he has lost some of the initial good will among the staff by seemingly enhancing the role of a few longtime BBG executives and repeating some of their narrative justifying low employee morale. Some VOA journalists we consulted were, however, willing to excuse these early moves and comments by their new CEO based on the fact that John Lansing has been surrounded by failed BBG managers and had very few options for getting good advice or finding staffers to do what he may have wanted them to accomplish.

Subsequently, both VOA and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalists have been encouraged by some of the other recent personnel changes which may have been influenced by John Lansing’s presence. They are still hoping that more failed managers would depart and effective permanent leaders will be selected soon for VOA and RFE/RL.

Since the departure of former Voice of America director David Ensor and the reassignment of his deputy, VOA has seen some improvements under acting director Kelu Chao. Even news coverage by decimated and poorly managed VOA Central English Newsroom has improved somewhat in recent months, but spectacular failures still happen all too frequently. There are not enough good news managers and experienced journalists at VOA and RFE/RL. Almost no one believes that the agency can be improved or saved in its present form. One CEO and one part-time board cannot possibly provide sufficient guidance and oversight for both VOA and BBG’s non-federal media entities, say congressional critics from both parties.

Another longtime observer of the BBG said that by resisting congressional reform plans, “the agency is sinking out of sight, out of mind” regardless of what accomplishments individual journalists may have. In strategic terms, the BBG is losing the information war, as former BBG member and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out in 2013, another critic observed. Before she herself joined the BBG, she had nothing but great praise for RFE/RL and VOA as the First Lady in the 1990s before the establishment of the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 1999.
 
Congressional Sources Suspect Lobbying By BBG
 
Congressional sources told BBG Watch that the BBG is spending a lot of time on the Hill these days trying to convince Senate members to reject H.R.2323. They see new BBG CEO and Director John Lansing as leading the charge, at the direction of BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. For a U.S. government agency which by law is required to stay completely above domestic politics, John Lansing and other BBG officials are targeting Senate Democrats in particular, congressional sources told BBG Watch. However, when John Lansing approaches Republican Senators in his lobbying efforts against H.R. 2323, he reportedly is assisted former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker who is one of BBG board’s Republican members.

Congressional sources told BBG Watch that the message some BBG officials are now circulating is that they would rather have no bill at all than H.R. 2323.

“It’s an interesting position to take since it not only contradicts what BBG Chairman Jeff Shell has said previously, but it also suggests that the status quo at the agency is working,” one senior congressional staffer told BBG Watch on the condition that his name not be used.

Does anyone actually believe that the status quo is working?,” the staffer asked.

The anti-reform legislation strategy may have been imposed on John Lansing, and he may have received bad advice from BBG’s senior staff. Some of them may have engaged in questionable lobbying against a pending bipartisan bill. Lobbying by government employees for or against legislation can be illegal and is subject to criminal prosecution, although the Anti-Lobbying Act is rarely enforced.

It seems that both Chairman Shell and John Lansing are convinced that H.R. 2323 is a bad bill when it comes to restructuring the agency, while they may agree with some of its other provisions. But the position that the status quo with one CEO is better than H.R. 2323 is interesting because it amounts to exercising the nuclear option. H.R. 2323 is a bipartisan piece of legislation with support from across the political spectrum. If the agency can’t support that, some BBG officials apparently hope that Congress will simply pack up and go home. It is an naive assumption. Outside observers we talked to suspect that longtime senior BBG officials are setting up Jeff Shell and John Lansing for failure. These observers, some of whom had worked for the agency for many years point out that veteran International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) officials have done this to former board members to prevent reforms and to maintain their bureaucratic power base.

Congress is likely to view a rejection of the bipartisan legislation as an indication that compromise with the Obama Administration is not possible and therefore more partisan and more dramatic action should be taken. Any subsequent legislation will not make additional concessions to the BBG leadership; if anything, there will be a roll back of concessions already made, a senior congressional staffer told BBG Watch.

BBG leadership’s actions here are quite sad,” is the feeling among House Foreign Affairs Committee members. Essentially they’re saying they want it their way or not at all… “they’re taking their ball and going home,” a congressional source told us.

 

A SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL STAFFER: “That childish petulance only does a disservice to the agency and its personnel at the time when they need help the most. A successful U.S. international broadcasting effort is necessary to confront the many challenges facing our nation today: ISIS, Russia, China, etc. The BBG board is putting its personal interests ahead of the agency, its people, and its mission. That’s disappointing and frankly quite shameful.”
 
“The current BBG anti-legislation strategy is also short sighted. The Obama Administration is over in less than a year. John Lansing may be out. Jeff Shell (and others) are already serving on expired terms and they’ll be out too. If the BBG Board thinks it can permanently stymy legislative reform, it’s mistaken. At best, the BBG can postpone legislative reform for one more year. Congress is committed to reform and will not be deterred by petty politics; it’s too important to our nation.”

H.R.2323 or a very similar bill may or may not come out of the Senate in the coming weeks, or it may come out after the November elections. The President would have to sign it; he can also use a pocket veto. It is hard to predict what will happen, but according to congressional sources who are fuming over BBG’s alleged lobbying efforts against the current bipartisan bill, members of Congress of both parties will not easily forget this. A senior congressional staffer said that members will be determined more than ever to scrutinize closely the agency’s budgets and to force through major reforms sooner or later.
 
A Group of BBG Employees Supports H.R. 2323 Reforms
 
Congressional critics believe that problems at the BBG’s bureaucracy and technical support element, the International Broadcasting Bureau, are too enormous to be solved without H.R. 2323 or similar legislation. A group of BBG employees who wish John Lansing well agrees in this letter sent to BBG Watch:

A GROUP OF BBG EMPLOYEES: “In commercial world, especially for the broadcasting industry, if you have to find savings, cut the bloated bureaucracy first, and cut talents last. At the BBG, we always cut services, mostly at the wrong time.
 
IBB has been on autopilot for at least a decade. BBG Watch has year to year comparison of how IBB offices expanded. They divided the workload to many smaller units; each of them required an executive to supervise. As such, IBB has dozens of executives. IBB’s combined funding is the largest of all BBG entities, 34%!
 
IBB spent more than $30 million on Global Strategy, it has only paper strategies though. IBB strategists have no vision, no regional/international expertise, no media experience, no knowledge about industry practices or market realities, superficial understanding about the U. S. foreign policies and U. S. strategic interests, and no skills of presenting strategies to stakeholders.
 
A list of failed IBB strategies and recommendations is a very long one:
 
IBB proposed to close the Georgian Service and to eliminate VOA Russian radio and TV broadcasts on the eve of Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008;
 
IBB proposed to drastically cut VOA Chinese and Tibetan broadcasts in 2012 at a time of worsening human rights in China, and increasing numbers of immolations in Tibet;
 
IBB proposed to eliminate Balkan services during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
 
This year IBB again proposed to cut VOA Afghan broadcasts when violence from extremist groups continues to plague Afghanistan, and ISIS is increasing operations there;
 
IBB proposed to cut Central Africa service at the time when ethnic fighting intensified in their target regions.

 
Please examine closely, how IBB created more new offices, appointed more functions, hugely increased their staff, thus perfected a bureaucratic mechanism that buffered between the Board and broadcasters, but served no one’s interests. IBB executives have been the architects of this buildup that eventually got Secretary Clinton’s “Defunct” criticism and the Royce/Engel Reform Bill.
 
We think those deficiencies legitimize Reform Bill H.R. 2323.”

 
On The Positive Side
 
John Lansing has restored a certain element of seriousness and dignity at the agency. One of the few successful managers at the agency described him as “very smart.” He appears to be putting pressure on failed managers. While two of his initial appointments at BBG disappointed many BBG employees, his other actions and statements were well received. We could not establish whether he had any direct role in some of the more recent personnel changes at BBG and RFE/RL, but they were also well received by staff and outside observers.

The [recent] appointment of Andrei Shary [as Radio Liberty’s Russian Service acting director] has changed the game. He is competent journalist and good manager,” a European journalist who has worked with him in the past, told BBG Watch. “I am sure he will be able to fix some of the problems quickly, and that Svoboda under his direction would be again a great news outlet,” the journalist told us. He was referring only to the Russian Service. Reforming RFE/RL would require new American leadership, the end of interference by BBG bureaucrats and effective oversight which the part-time BBG board has never been able to provide with or without a CEO.

Recently, Voice of America acting director Kelu Chao, who has struggled with the IBB bureaucracy for years and had to work under some spectacularly ineffective VOA and IBB leaders, had some positive news to report about Voice of America.

One current VOA broadcaster responded by saying: “A lot goin on. Nice of her to write it and send it, but I’m not sure how much of an effect it will have, frankly. Things seem to be stabilising, or maybe people have just given up.”

As a result of years of mismanagement by BBG and IBB, neither VOA nor RFE/RL have enough experienced journalists or a winning strategy for dealing with Kremlin propaganda and many other pressing problems, but some individual journalists are still capable of producing outstanding work. Unfortunately, both VOA and to some degree RFE/RL have lost much of their former prestige and impact. Online audience engagement for program content fulfilling the mission is low due to a series of management mistakes and wasteful spending under BBG.

Individual VOA language services and broadcasters, however, are trying hard to achieve impact despite all odds.

From: IBB Notices Admin
Sent: Friday, January 29, 2016 2:58 PM
To: IBB Notices Administration
Subject: Kelu’s Kudos
 
Dear Colleagues,
 
Once again, I want to thank all of you who helped keep the Voice of America on the air during the blizzard. Despite the treacherous conditions, so many of you managed to make it in. More than 100 staffers and contractors slept on cots here in the Cohen Building or stayed in hotels at your own expense to ensure that we provided uninterrupted news and information to the world. Some of you spent hours walking several miles to get here. One broadcaster even rode his bicycle to work from Silver Spring. Still, some were unable to make it through the storm, so many of you pitched in to pull double and even triple shifts to cover. Special thanks also to Computer Services and administrative staff for supporting our ability to telework as well as to Facilities for ensuring that the parking lot was cleared and enabling our cleaning crews to stay late on Friday and to come in during the government closure. Your dedication and professionalism is unwavering. And for that, there can never be enough thanks.
 
I want to congratulate our Kurdish Service for its recent launch of Kurdvizyon (Kurd Vision) — a weekly, 30-minute television program carried by our affiliate in Dayirbakir to better reach as many as 20 million Kurds in Turkey. Special thanks go to hosts Mutlu Civiroglu and Ruken Isik and their team for making this broadcast a success.
 
VOA Russian recently launched a new digital-first video product called Lexicon. It is designed to explain to Russian-speaking digital audiences American political jargon, particularly during this election season. Thanks to the journalists and producers led by Natasha Mozgovaya and Alexandr Grigoryev, who have been instrumental in making this one of the service’s most popular offerings.
 
Many thanks to VOA Creole for their very successful use of the new Teradek system, which allows services to use cost-effective local Internet connections to feed high quality video live from difficult field locations like Haiti. Twice ahead of what would have been a runoff presidential election in Haiti, the service put the system through its paces with stellar results. For a team that usually doesn’t do television, the service deserves to be congratulated for a great job, with special thanks to anchor Jacques Jean-Baptiste, reporter Jacquelin Belizaire, IT specialist Jose Vega and radio broadcast technician Ted Schneider for mastering the system and helping to lead the way. The Bosnian, Tibetan and Turkish Services also have used Teradek in their shows. And we will be using it at the Iowa Caucuses and throughout the presidential campaign. Please contact Betty Van Etten if you want to learn how to incorporate it into your programming.
 
Congratulations also to the Mandarin Service for its great teamwork in successfully producing an unprecedented four-hour live television/webcast Taiwan election show with some 20 live interviews and reaction from around the world to the opposition’s landslide victory. Extensive planning and coordination with Broadcast Operations, Traffic and many others made this a great program for our audience.
 
And congratulations to VOA Indonesian reporter Petrus Riski for winning first prize in the 2015 Pelindo Journalist Awards for his radio report, “Teluk Lamong as Indonesia’s New Green Port,” which was posted online as part of the Indonesian Service’s COP21 Project.
 
And hats off to VOA Tibetan. According to the writer Pico Lyer, a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader makes it a point to listen to the news every morning — even during meditation. As reported in The Huffington Post, the Voice of America is among the Dalai Lama’s favorite morning radio listening.
 
Learning English recently provided audiences with an out-of-this world experience by streaming a live interview with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornieko told Learning English’s Anne Ball here in Washington about the challenges of long-duration space flight. Many thanks also go to TV broadcast technicians Jamaal Teagle and Robert Conyers for coordinating with NASA to ensure that everything went smoothly during this rare VOA interview opportunity.
 
VOA Persian’s wall-to-wall coverage of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Paris this week was a great example of how services can collaborate with our sister BBG entities as well as with other international broadcasters to provide our audiences with comprehensive coverage of major events. VOA aired special live TV reportage co-produced with Radio Farda and Radio France International that included in-depth analysis by experts in Europe and the United States. Thank you to everyone in the service for collaborating to explain this important international event.
 
VOA journalists often report under difficult circumstances, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Michael Atit, a stringer with the South Sudan in Focus program, is one of them. He went into hiding for two weeks recently, feeling threatened by the South Sudanese military in what is now called Wau State. He had interviewed a woman who allegedly was gang raped by soldiers. Soldiers later arrested the victim as well as her father, accusing them of trying to tarnish the image of the South Sudan Army by speaking to the media. Michael learned that Sudan People’s Liberation Army forces were searching for him in connection with the interview, forcing him to go underground. Thankfully, the situation has been resolved and Michael is filing again.
 
Sadly, VOA journalists sometimes risk everything in service to our profession. I want to take a moment to remember freelance Yemeni journalist Almigdad Mojalli, who was killed on January 17 in an air raid by the Saudi-led coalition while on assignment for the Voice of America. He was in an area outside of rebel-held Sana’a when he was killed. Mojalli had reported for VOA since October, focusing on the human impact of the war and economic crisis in Yemen, often seeking out the most vulnerable victims. His factual and compelling reporting reminds us all why we are VOA journalists.
 
These are only some of the things at VOA in recent weeks that deserve recognition. Thank you all again for your tireless dedication to our mission.
 
Kelu
 

Kelu Chao
Acting Director,
Language Programming Director
 

 
 
 

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