Washington Post Enabling BBG Dysfunction With A Dysfunctional Message
Broadcasting Board of Governors: Information War Lost
By The Federalist
Surprising to some and perhaps less so to others, the Washington Post editorial board has served up a prime example of pedestrian “journalism” in its December 9, 2016 editorial regarding the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG):
READ: A big change to U.S. broadcasting is coming — and it’s one Putin might admire, The Washington Post, “The Post’s View,” December 9, 2016.
ALSO READ: WP defends defunct BBG Board, fails to mention VOA chiefs’ former links to the paper, BBG Watch, December 10, 2016.
The Washington Post piece starts off well enough by acknowledging the failings of the BBG in comparison with other media outlets with an international reach.
But then it goes wildly careening off the rails with charges of “radical change” and a “system” that would be admired by Vladimir Putin and others. It also engages in a favorite advocacy tactic of hysteria over the impact of what might be the result of reform legislation that was included in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
In so many words, the editorial is a factual debris field:
National Defense Authorization Act
The Post alleges that the language included in NDAA was inserted by “House Republican leaders.” The reality is quite different. For a number of years, legislation has been proposed to reform or reorganize the BBG. The legislation has originated in the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) chaired by Edward Royce (R-CA) with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) as Ranking Member and co-sponsor of the original BBG reform bill. Left out of the editorial is the fact that the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support. That’s right: Republicans and Democrats sponsoring the legislation and moving it through the legislative process. The editorial also doesn’t mention that the resulting legislation is the result of reconciling both House and Senate versions of the NDAA. In short, it’s been a long road, with a lot of effort and a triumph in bipartisan cooperation: common recognition of a problem needing adult supervision and corrective action.
And the Post should be mindful of the fact that the BBG Board members and key executives used a previous NDAA to work through legislation changing provisions of the Smith-Mundt Act regarding agency programs accessible within the United States by the American people. That was a far more dangerous change as clearly confirmed by biased, one-sided Voice of America (VOA) reporting during the 2016 election campaign under the current BBG Board and current management. Many VOA reports, described by critics as one-sided hit pieces against Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and even one video with a smear against Senate Democratic leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) who was not even running for re-election, were available on VOA social media pages to American voters in English and in foreign languages used by VOA. Somehow, the Post and the BBG Board the Post‘s editorial defends failed to notice these outrageous violations of the VOA Charter, which has been U.S. law since 1976.
In an attempt to rationalize its argument, the Post reaches into its journalistic bag of tricks and comes up with a “two-fer:” Vladimir Putin and president-elect Donald Trump: lumping them together as purveyors of propaganda. The Post has it right on Putin. No doubt there. But the problem for the Post – and US Government officials as well – is that he has been so good at it.
But from there, the Post “goes for the gold” insinuating,
“With a confirming vote by the GOP-controlled Senate, President-elect Trump will be able to install the editor of Breitbart News or another propagandist of his choice to direct how the United States is presented to the world by VOA (the Voice of America), or how Russia is covered by RL (Radio Liberty). If Congress’s intention was for U.S. broadcasting to rival the Kremlin’s, it may get its wish.”
That gets an award for pure hysteria of the kind perhaps associated with the political Left in the US. This does not mean that other kind of hysteria is not found among media outlets and blogs associated with the political Right, but they together with most US media have largely ignored the Broadcasting Board of Governors because long ago it has become irrelevant. Even President Obama has ignored it in recent years.
We have no knowledge of the thinking of Mr. Trump’s views on US Government international broadcasting, and neither does the Post. However, he and his advisers should familiarize themselves with the following characteristics of this agency:
- “Regular Bottom Feeder” ; “Going Backward” Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson “Federal Insider,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2016.
- “Dysfunctional” (Heritage Foundation scholar Helle C. Dale)
- “Practically Defunct” (Hillary Clinton)
- “Broken” (US statesmen, diplomats, media experts and journalists interviewed by former BBG member S. Enders Wimbush and former Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty executive Elizabeth M. Portale)
- “Truly Rudderless” or Leaderless (Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce)
The end result still is:
- “This Broken Agency is Losing the Info War to ISIS & Putin,” House Committee on Foreign Affairs Blog, February 23, 2016.
The Washington Post editorial board should have familiarized itself with these descriptions before writing its ill-informed editorial article. It was after all a Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson who recently described the Broadcasting Board of Governors as “regular bottom feeder … going backward” on employee engagement and their assessment of senior BBG leaders.
These are not qualities that exactly inspire confidence.
It is an agency that has consistently been ranked as a bottom feeder in the annual government-wide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) by its own employees!
Forever! (As in the entire time these surveys have been conducted through the Office of Personnel Management [OPM].)
If The Washington Post is worried about the agency being morphed into a propaganda machine, it should be concerned with the bias and slipshod reporting that has appeared on the agency’s English-language website and some of its foreign language websites. The agency has been adept at presenting a decided anti-Trump bias, which might play well alongside the editorial position of The Washington Post, but is serious deficient in presenting balanced news and information for foreign audiences.
In so many words, it is evident that officials in charge at the BBG and Voice of America have taken the agency’s Charter and tossed it aside. The result is far less than what the Charter calls for.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors
Here’s the deal:
The BBG has demonstrated itself to be its own worst enemy.
Frankly, the BBG should have been abolished, period. Instead, these individuals get a “parachute” to linger on in an advisory capacity which affords them the opportunity to maneuver on the sidelines in machinations and scheming with agency bureaucrats.
The BBG has been an active ingredient in the agency’s disintegrated effectiveness with foreign audiences by failing to substantively address the agency’s deficiencies – particularly with the VOA and the grantee Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) operations.
In essence, the BBG has allowed the agency’s “business as usual” bureaucrats to rule the day – the very people most responsible over many years for ruining the agency: and seemingly proud of being an obstacle to necessary reform that would reveal their incompetence and self-interest. As recently as a few days ago, outgoing BBG Chairman Jeffrey Shell and BBG CEO John Lansing effusively praised these BBG executives and senior managers.
The truth of the matter is these people should be fired. But at present, these individuals are able to hide behind government regulations making it very difficult to remove them. And that doesn’t take into account their practice of writing glowing evaluations of their performance, presenting misleading audience reach figures, and reinforcing their fakery with cash awards.
And it doesn’t help the agency’s (or the BBG’s) cause when the chairman of the BBG, Jeffrey Shell, gets himself booted out of Russia while in the company of BBG executives who did not stop his misguided and supposedly “private business” trip to the Putin-ruled mafia state (Mr. Lansing, BBG senior executive Jeff Trimble, and RFE/RL president Thomas Kent who accompanied Mr. Shell on his mission to Moscow were not booted out), an example of the farce the BBG has become. When it comes to “the damage to U.S. interests could be considerable…” the Post needs to look no further than the bungling of the BBG at its own hand. The damage is already here and now and it has little to do with either Mr. Putin or Mr. Trump.
Things To Do
Repairing US Government international broadcasting and other media outreach will not be an overnight occurrence. Some serious effort will be required.
Replace the “Leadership”
At the top of the list, the new administration needs to replace John Lansing (the BBG chief executive officer), Amanda Bennett (the VOA director) and Sandy Sugawara (the VOA deputy director). All of these recent hires — two of which (Bennett and Sugawara) have previous connections to The Washington Post — have been ineffective. Lansing and Bennett have both made the overall state of affairs worse in their respective positions. To all appearances, they have enabled the worst characteristics of this agency. The fact that Ms. Bennett referred to the agency bureaucrats as “a fantastic leadership team” in light of the agency’s performance is both outrageous and unacceptable. Mr. Lansing made references to “excellent managers,” while Chairman Shell called the BBG leadership “amazing.”
BBG executive staff can’t even get John F. Lansing’s name spelled right and get his title right in a press release. The press release stays online uncorrected for many days, which shows that Mr. Lansing and his senior managers don’t even bother to read the agency’s own press releases. Nothing short of amazing.
Take The VOA Charter Seriously
It is the only formula for success of VOA. It will take a monumental effort to restore the faith and credibility of this agency and this is where it starts. Balance is the most important ingredient in anything the agency puts out across all its media platforms.
The VOA Newsroom
The VOA newsroom has become a lot of things, none of them complimentary. It has become a monument to journalistic ineptitude, biased “reporting” and other undesirable lapses and injuries to the agency’s effectiveness and credibility. When its reporting isn’t just plain bad, such as reposting Russia’s RT and SPUTNIK propaganda videos, it is untimely and incapable of keeping pace with developments.
And when it isn’t these things, it has shown a tendency to be defiant and rebellious. The Post should know that behind loud claims of “journalistic integrity” there is often arrogance, contempt for those who hold different opinions, defiance and ideological advocacy.
Cut Out The Nonsense
The Post editorial saved the “best” for last:
“The Obama administration – perhaps anticipating a Hillary Clinton presidency – supported these changes (reflected in the NDAA legislation). Now its outgoing public-diplomacy officials will have to hope that Mr. Trump chooses an executive committed to the U.S. broadcasting tradition of independent and reputable journalism rather than a political loyalist or alt-right ideologue. Either way, there is likely to be an exodus of seasoned professionals from the surrogate broadcasters as well as VOA – meaning that U.S. international broadcasting, whatever its current deficiencies, is likely to get worse.”
You have got to be kidding (#1).
This is the Post wanting its cake and eating it too, as the saying goes.
Whatever the motivation, the Obama administration acknowledged the need to reform and reorganize the agency. So did Secretary Hillary Clinton long before her run for the presidency when she called the Broadcasting Board of Governors “practically defunct.”
This appears to be the Post’s way of denying responsibility and deflecting blame away from the BBG and onto the next administration.
As for “independent and reputable journalism,” the BBG has tossed that aside and has gone out of its way – particularly with the VOA – to engage in advocacy journalism, much like we see virtually everywhere in U.S. media and elsewhere today.
The big – and we mean REALLY BIG laugher is the comment about a “likely exodus of seasoned professionals from the surrogate broadcasters as well as VOA…”
You have got to be kidding (#2).
First, the VOA has been offering buyouts to its “seasoned professionals” across all job categories for years. At present, before taxes, it amounts to $25,000. In future years, it may rise to $40,000.
Second, some of these “seasoned professionals” are making over $100,000 dollars a year, with a healthy dose of health care (which they pay for) and pension benefits that are probably second to none. They’re not going anywhere. They are being compensated very, very well.
The running joke among those who know better is that someone should set up lawn chairs, beach umbrellas and sell lemonade and position themselves up outside the main entrance to the Cohen Building to watch the grand exodus of “seasoned professionals” from the Cohen Building to parts unknown.
To put it somewhat colloquially,
It ain’t happening.
Finally, as to “U.S. broadcasting, whatever its current deficiencies, is likely to get worse,” here’s what to do:
Get a copy of the VOA staffing pattern and see how long its career bureaucrats have been in place, the positions they encumber, their salaries and total length of government service. The agency’s deficiencies have been in place for years. They have been embedded and institutionalized. This is why.
You need not look further to identify the cause.