Throwing Good Money After Bad: BBG’s Desperate Struggle Against Reform

OPINION
 

Dan Robinson Covering UN Peace Process Phnom Penh

Dan Robinson Covering UN Peace Process Phnom Penh

Throwing Good Money After Bad:  BBG’s Desperate Struggle Against Reform

 Will Taxpayers Continue to Foot This Bill in 2016. . . and Beyond?
By Dan Robinson

 

In a recent commentary published by BBG Watch, one of my former colleagues at VOA, Alex Belida, correctly identified striking similarities in debates that have occurred over the decades about the mission of VOA and what he calls “other information services.”

Belida’s findings in research made for interesting reading, as have some recent articles by BBG Watch founder Ted Lipien detailing some of the history that is part of the story of VOA, the former Office of War Information (OWI), and later the United States Information Agency (USIA), and its one-time chief, Edward R. Murrow.

But just because the same issues have been debated time and again, and for that matter, just because VOA and other U.S. funded broadcasters served an important purpose in years past, doesn’t mean American taxpayers should, in perpetuity, continue to foot the bill.

That is exactly what the entrenched bureaucracy at the BBG (Broadcasting Board of Governors), its subsidiary the IBB (International Broadcasting Bureau), and to a great extent the well-paid civil servant employees under the BBG, want Congress to continue doing, all on the hope that management of people and programs will improve.

Over the past two years, Congress had the opportunity to vote on House-passed legislation to reorganize U.S.-funded media, the first such sweeping effort since the 1990’s.  Opponents of the legislation, especially those at VOA, attacked both House bills to help avert Senate passage. While the Senate did not vote on the legislation, it’s doubtful that anybody paid much attention to those protests.

Members of Congress should recall the frequent and disturbing examples of mismanagement by the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the International Broadcasting Bureau.  If this was anything other than the most opaque of federal agencies, such failures would have assured that heads rolled.

At VOA, failures began at the level of former directors and their close associates, but extended down to officials in VOA’s central newsroom, whose responsibility it was to provide news coverage worthy of the respect of not only Americans, but the world.

These included the inability to compete with key outlets such as RT (Russia), Al Jazeera, and CCTV (China), not to even mention BBC, as the agency was embarrassed time and again.

Indeed, for a long period stretching through the first part of the millennium and into this decade, one could depend on seeing President Obama live on the BBC, but not on VOA.  It was only under intense scrutiny by external critics that this changed slightly for the better, in the last two years.

In 2014, Belida joined another former VOA news official in a commentary published by the website of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, calling the BBG “an unwieldy, inefficient, poorly managed and less than effective international broadcast conglomerate.”

In a mostly similar commentary published by BBG Watch, the two wrote the following paragraph, which remains in my opinion one of the strongest condemnations ever written of the management structure at the Voice of America and BBG (emphasis is mine):

“There is little doubt of the need to reform U.S. international broadcasting. VOA in particular has been poorly managed. The top leadership has shown little or no vision, some top managers have no real understanding of the needs of foreign audiences, some are allowed to manage through intimidation and cronyism and still others believe that the answer to the agency’s woefully low morale is to hold bingo nights and skating parties. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees VOA and the various entities, has been described by no less than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as “defunct.” The BBG and its support element, the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), are top heavy with highly paid and marginally effective personnel. The IBB has in recent years expanded, while the numbers of journalists and broadcasting staff at VOA have continued to be slashed to fit budget cuts. Cutbacks in the VOA Newsroom have reduced personnel to the point where it has become nearly impossible to properly cover a 24/7 news cycle.

Let’s take that again . . .“a top leadership [with] little or no vision [with] top managers [with] no real understanding of the needs of foreign audiences . . . [some managing] through intimidation and cronyism . . . [whose answer to low morale was] to hold bingo nights and skating parties.”

As someone who spent most of my adult life at VOA, I thought it would be instructive to revisit that quote and give it the credit it is due, because unfortunately today it remains highly-descriptive of the situation at 330 Independence Avenue, the BBG and VOA headquarters.

Yet, simultaneously my former colleagues argued for a counter-proposal that would basically give entrenched bureaucrats who mismanaged news and technical operations over many years, another pass by placing all BBG entities . . . ALL of them . . . under what they called a new “strong” VOA flagship with a mandate to produce “honest journalism.”

So, in addition to the description of dysfunction provided in those commentaries, let’s be clear which bureaucrats we would have been talking about.  They are those who:

  • . . . failed to ensure that VOA’s main English website, and language service websites and social media, reflected the latest news in as timely and efficient a manner as possible.
  • . . .encouraged personnel tactics that placed BBG at the bottom of federal employee satisfaction ratings for years . . . part of the outcome includes a $400 million civil suit recently brought by contractors at BBG resulting from the agency rule violations.
  • . . .frittered away millions in taxpayer funds on a severely flawed digital media management system, which at the end of 2015 suffered a breakdown lasting several days.
  • . . . mishandled the Persian News Network (PNN), and effectively eliminated VOA as a potent English radio broadcasting force.
  • . . . in 2014 insulted VOA audiences in Asia by abruptly and clumsily halting transmissions via shortwave radio, prompting analogies to the hurried final U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

The list goes on and on.

As Congress worked on reform legislation, lawmakers found themselves facing what was, in effect, an uprising by VOA civil service journalists who loudly complained about lawmakers attempting to assert their authority through legislation.

In their 2014 commentary, Belida and the other former VOA official asserted that the United States simply must have a Voice of America as a “trusted and reliable” source of news.

However, the fact is that years ago, VOA ceased being these things for an increasing number of people around the world who are able to choose from a rapidly-expanding menu of traditional and online media for their news content.

That’s the dirty little secret unknown to many, though agency officials, from the BBG level on down, continue to cite misleadingly computed and inflated audience figures that they assert show dramatically-expanded use and “impact” of BBG material around the globe. They fail to point out that live news and in some cases all sensitive political news have been intentionally eliminated from much of what is called VOA “placement” on local stations in countries that allow such placement. They might mention in passing that Mexico is one of these countries where VOA placement is particularly popular. The fact that foreign gatekeepers decide what kind of placement material is acceptable is not mentioned.

In fact, VOA has continued an accelerating slide into irrelevancy, having long ago failed to gain enough traction in the digital realm.

As one official told me, regarding VOA’s troubled online operations:  “VOA long ago lost the opportunity to become a destination of choice” [for global audiences].

Opponents of congressional legislation also asked lawmakers to join in a familiar Washington game, in which BBG entities opened fire at one another, seeking to continue to perpetuate their operations, and increase their budgets.

In the commentary referred to above, the two former officials spoke of non-federal grantee entities Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcast Network (MBN) being “winners” over VOA.

Just prior to his departure, the last VOA director, David Ensor, famously told staff that he would set out to “kill” other broadcast entities if they were found to be lobbying Congress for their own purposes.

What Congress should be concerned about, particularly in this time of budgetary belt-tightening, is not what federal entity wins or loses, but whether taxpayers can rely on efficiently-run operations at the BBG.

Recent electrical and digital media system failures at VOA demonstrated that we’re a long way from being assured of this.

In an apology letter to staff, Andre Mendes (the CEO job at BBG went to an outsider, John F. Lansing) offered his “personal apologies for this serious event”.

One VOA broadcaster described it as a “full-fledged meltdown of essential systems,” and added:

“This is amateur hour. We need to send out a red alert and reach out to real broadcast professionals. . .this isn’t hyperbole: this is the complete and total failure of the agency. The fact that it is, apparently, self-inflicted makes it all the worse. We are doing what Putin would love to be able to do: the Voice of America is silenced.”

While not all VOA broadcasts were silenced by the latest electrical and digital failures, and some news reports were being posted online with the usual delays, remember, this is the VOA referred to in those 2014 commentaries, which proposed among other things a “newly-invigorated VOA”. . . one somehow shed of “incompetence and mismanagement at senior levels.”

Also in 2014, BBG Watch, the independent watchdog website without which many problems in the agency would not have come to light, published a commentary stating, in part:

“In our view, you have to earn the right to have and/or retain flagship status. That isn’t happening with the VOA today. The agency has lost its way.  And we should note that flagship status is not an entitlement for an abysmally underperforming agency. Entitlement is never a rational justification for failure.”

After a long career as a foreign and domestic news correspondent for VOA, including coverage of Congress, I shared concerns about language in the first House bill, H.R. 4490, that initially under-appreciated VOA’s historical role of covering U.S. and global news.

Language was adjusted, and a new bill, H.R. 2323, was introduced in 2015.  Still, there was no Senate vote, leaving the legislation to languish into 2016, a presidential and congressional election year.

Remember — both H.R. 4490 and H.R. 2323 were bipartisan efforts, though a few VOA English News  journalists attempted to portray them as purely Republican efforts.  Agency officials later jumped on that bandwagon in an effort to squash legislation.

Opponents continue to assert that the sinking BBG ship can be righted, that one CEO can adequately manage operations across five entities.  Indeed, new CEO John Lansing (before Lansing, Andy Lack, the NBC titan who fled after less than two months in the position) dismisses doubt about this expressed by members of Congress, and a range of outside observers.

I stated in 2014 that the mismanagement I witnessed in my final years at VOA led me to conclude that congressional passage, and President Obama’s signature, was absolutely necessary.  Now in 2016, I still believe this to be the case.

Neither VOA nor any other government-funded broadcast/media entity should be self-perpetuating based merely on the proposition that the world, and America, will be in a much worse position without them.

The threat from the ISIS online brainwashing campaign. . .competition from Putin’s information machine. . .China’s media juggernaut . . . all are now being used as excuses for keeping one of the most mismanaged of agency’s in the federal bureaucracy alive ad infinitum.

As for the 2016 presidential candidates, it is interesting that on the campaign trail little has been heard from Hillary Clinton who famously described the BBG as “practically defunct”, while curious proposals have come from Republican candidates Ben Carson and John Kasich.

Ben Carson actually was first to bring up U.S information programs.  Writing in an opinion piece in The Hill, he urged what he called “relentless ideological and information warfare” using “a new Voice of America that pounds creative messaging, hitting sensitive issues head-on, while pushing relevant messaging into the cyberspace discussion.”

Kasich, the former Ohio governor, asserted that the U.S. needs some new agency to broadcast “Judeo-Christian, Western values” to target the Middle East, China, Iran and Russia.

Someone on the Carson and Kasich staffs clearly suggested to them at some point that they should raise the issue of the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s handling of counter-ISIS information programs.  They did, but we have heard little about it since.

General radio silence from Clinton could be explained by the fact that the controversy over BBG itself, specifically mismanagement, is not an issue worth wasting breath on at campaign stops.

One has to believe that, should she win the White House this year, she will turn her attention once again to what, if any, progress has been made to straighten out the mess at BBG.

Meanwhile, back at the agency, officials are desperate to hold the broken BBG together, and of course preserve their GS-15 and SES salaries (some of the highest-paid officials are those who mismanaged VOA’s news and online operations).  From the board on down, officials pander to all sides.

On one hand, officials assure government-paid rank and file journalists that they shouldn’t worry about being ordered to pursue the agenda of countering violent extremism.

On the other, in formal sessions officials such as the BBG chairman Jeff Shell talk of broadcasters being “a perfect vehicle to counter ISIS.”

In a recent Washington Times interview, Shell held out the offering bowl to Congress asking for more funding to, as he put it, “compete with our adversaries,  and help BBG “challenge violent Islamic extremists spreading their propaganda online.”

Another  line from Shell that really must have irked BBG journalists was: “we’re in the business of trying to influence people to feel better about America.”

Wow.  That’s quite an agenda, and not a purely journalistic one.  If you’re a VOA or other BBG journalist, try putting that on your business card and see how far it gets you.

At the very least, enactment of reform legislation would establish a new stepping off point for BBG, but certainly for VOA.  It would provide absolute clarity from Congress as to what mission lawmakers expect government-paid civil servants to carry out.

Taxpayers should not foot an annual bill of about $740 million to keep alive endless debates about the struggle between public diplomacy and journalism, or to support some rehabilitation project that is likely to stretch on for decades.

Unfortunately, that is the scenario before us — unless in this second session of the 114th Congress, lawmakers act to finally pass legislation that the Obama administration has said it has been generally “on board” with.

 

Dan RobinsonDan Robinson retired in 2014 after 34 years with the Voice of America. In addition to his White House posting as senior VOA correspondent, he served as bureau chief in Nairobi, Kenya and Bangkok, Thailand. He was also the chief of the VOA Burmese Service and the Capitol Hill correspondent.
 
 

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