Reforming U.S. International Media Outreach

BBG Watch Commentary

BBG and US INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS REFORM ACT OF 2014A draft bill originating in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) as Chairman and U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) as Ranking Member, would, if passed by Congress and signed by the President, radically reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the bipartisan board and the federal agency currently in charge of U.S. international media outreach, including the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau. In addition to proposing major organizational reforms, the bill would also likely result in eliminating a number of highly-paid bureaucratic positions and transfer resources to the production of news programs for overseas audiences. Sources told BBG Watch that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was also involved in the drafting of the bill in a completely bipartisan effort.

To be known as he the “United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014,” the draft bill calls for the creation of the United States International Communications Agency within the executive branch of Government as an independent establishment. It also calls for creating the Advisory Board of the United States International Communications Agency. According to the proposed legislation, current BBG members would serve out their terms of office on the new board, which in contrast to the current board would have mostly advisory functions.

The draft bill also calls for having a Chief Executive Officer of the United States International Communications Agency, appointed for a five-year term and renewable at the Board’s discretion. The CEO would exercise broad executive powers.

The draft bill also calls for the creation of the Consolidated Grantee Organization, for the non-federal grantees of the BBG: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). RFE/RL, RFA, and MBN would be consolidated and reconstituted under a single organizational structure and management framework.

Read: Major reform of U.S. international broadcasting and public diplomacy to be proposed in Congress, BBG Watch, April 29, 2014.

Two opinion articles on possible ways of reforming U.S. international media outreach were recently published before BBG Watch reported on some of the major changes likely to be included in the proposed legislation.

Helle C. Dale

Helle C. Dale

Brett D. Schaefer

Brett D. Schaefer

One of the articles, “Time to Reform U.S. International Broadcasting” is by Helle C. Dale and Brett D. Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation. Their reform proposals include the following:

Eliminate the BBG or downgrade it to an advisory role. If there is to be a broadcasting board, it should have a strictly advisory role and should be populated by media and public diplomacy professionals.

Disaggregate the broadcasting services according to their functions. VOA should become an explicit arm of U.S. public diplomacy focused on promoting America’s story and U.S. policy. The VOA leadership role performed by the BBG should be replaced with a new powerful CEO, appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress, who is instructed to coordinate with the State Department on U.S. public diplomacy messaging and targeting. Surrogate media such as RFE/RL and Radio Free Asia should more closely coordinate and share resources to increase efficiency and economies of scale and should be overseen by a governance body separate from VOA to avoid the conflicts of interest present in the current structure. The surrogates should focus on bolstering America’s democracy promotion efforts by providing unbiased news coverage, policy and political discussion, and, where governments constrain political speech, alternative outlets for political dissidents and minority parties. They could benefit from an affiliation with the National Endowment for Democracy, whose mission they share.

Provide adequate funding. To be effective, USIB must be capable of answering global ideological threats through a multimedia approach at VOA and at the surrogates, including radio, satellite television, and the Internet.

Regularly review and target USIB to maximize its impact. USIB should not replicate the efforts of pre-existing free and independent media. USIB should focus on countries where representative government and/or a free and independent media are absent or inadequate, where there is conflict and political instability, or where U.S. interests justify a robust public diplomacy presence.

Substantiate decisions about language services. Short-sighted decisions have currently left the United States short of assets to counter the new Russian revanchism as well as the aggressive Chinese global media advances and the ideological threats from militant Islam, to name a few of the critical challenges currently faced by this country.”

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David S. Jackson

David S. Jackson

The second article, “What is the Mission of U.S. International Broadcasting?,” was written by former Voice of America director David S Jackson and published on the Public Diplomacy Council (PDC) website.

David S Jackson wrote:

“In practice, there is a lot of room between being a propaganda outlet and being a CNN. Every day, for example, there are stories that the U.S.-supported international broadcasters should cover because they can inform a target audience about an issue that they are either uninformed or misinformed about. And every day there are feature stories that VOA can (and does) do that counter anti-American propaganda and show our society as one that provides, for example, opportunities for upward mobility and freedom of speech and religion. None of these examples could be fairly called propaganda, and all of them can be done in a journalistically balanced way. Yet none of them could be called part of CNN’s mission.

Clearly the BBG is facing some tough issues. But at a time when true propaganda from organizations such as RT (formerly Russia Today) and China’s CCTV has gotten both more professional and more pervasive around the world, the U.S. needs a strong global voice with a clear mission.
We have that strong voice in our U.S. international broadcasting media. What we need now is a consensus on what those voices should be saying.”

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