BBG Watch Commentary
“It’s playing everywhere here – even during the Olympics!,” a Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) executive told BBG Watch. The official was referring to a video featuring BBG’s Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer André Mendes. He has been with the agency in high-level executive positions for more than six years. In 2015, he served as Interim CEO and Director of the BBG.
The Olympics analogy may have been a slight exaggeration. The video, posted on YouTube on July 14, 2016, is showing 426 views as of August 11, 2016, and 5 “Likes.” The BBG has over 3,000 employees.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors has been consistently rated as one of the worst-managed federal agencies, according to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys (FEVS) conducted in recent years. It is one of the worst places to work for employees in the federal government. André Mendes is one of several top-level executives at the BBG who has occupied some of the key positions, to which he was appointed by the BBG Chairman Jeff Shell and the BBG Board.
Critics say the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) seems to be going from bad to worse, but BBG executives claim that everything is just fine.
The “André Mendes: For my American dream, it had to be UMUC” YouTube video was posted by University of Maryland University College, with a subtitle “Find out why it had to be UMUC for MBA alumnus André Mendes.” BBG press releases in recent years also have been full of praise for André Mendes. We quote from some of them below. They present him and other BBG executives as being highly successful in a dynamic and effective organization, while in 2013 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the Broadcasting Board of Governors as “practically defunct in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world.” These are obviously two completely different narratives.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors established in January 2014 an interim management structure for its International Broadcasting Bureau that saw the appointment of three senior executives to manage the day-to-day operations of the agency. According to a BBG press release, the move helped “pave the way for a future Chief Executive Officer.” Under this interim management structure, André Mendes served as Director of Global Operations. BBG Chairman Jeff Shell commented in January 2014:
“The Board proposed this structure to leverage the strengths of three exceptional leaders and set the stage for important agency reforms,” said Jeffrey Shell, chair of the BBG’s governing board.
In a December 18, 2014 press release, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell again praised the interim IBB management team led by André Mendes.
“BBG Chair Jeff Shell thanked the members of the Interim Management Team, Suzie Carroll, Rob Bole and André Mendes, who together have been leading the IBB. ‘It is rare to find three people who can not only work well together, but who can also make change happen. This group has exceeded expectations; they are impressive public servants.’”
In 2014, Jeff Shell recruited media executive Andrew Lack as BBG Chief Executive Officer and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
In a December 18, 2014 press release, BBG Chair Jeff Shell thanked the members of the Interim Management Team, Suzie Carroll, Rob Bole and André Mendes, who together have been leading the IBB: “It is rare to find three people who can not only work well together, but who can also make change happen. This group has exceeded expectations; they are impressive public servants.”
Andrew Lack was sworn-in on January 20, 2015 as the Chief Executive Officer and Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees the five networks and broadcasting operations of U.S. international media. Those networks include the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
On March 4, 2015, BBG Chairman Jeff Shell announced that new BBG CEO Andrew Lack will be departing the agency after only a few weeks at the agency to take a job at NBC News.
The BBG press release of March 4, 2015 said:
“With this strong foundation from which to move forward, the agency has never been on a better footing to accomplish our mission.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors now has a cohesive governing board, made up of media and communications industry leaders, and foreign policy experts, who will continue to lead the agency at this time of pressing need.
BBG’s Director of Global Operations André Mendes will serve as interim CEO and Director while a search is conducted for Lack’s replacement. He will be supported by a strong team including Robert Bole, Director of Global Strategy and Suzie Carroll, Executive Director.”
On August 17, 2015, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the independent federal government agency that oversees all U.S. civilian international media, announced the appointment of John Lansing as Chief Executive Officer and Director of the BBG. Lansing began his service at the BBG in September 2015.
The BBG press release said:
‘John is a proven executive and a remarkable, transformative leader in multiplatform content strategies, development and distribution,’ said BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. ‘With his journalistic sensibilities and success in leading media companies through periods of challenges and growth, John is the ideal person to lead the BBG as we accelerate efforts to shape a global, world-leading media organization that is up to the challenges of the 21st century.’
At that time, Chairman Shell also thanked André Mendes for his service as BBG Interim CEO: ‘On behalf of the entire Board, I would like to express our deep appreciation for the tireless work of André and his dedicated team. During this transition period, André and his colleagues have worked diligently to produce outstanding results and to spur on forward momentum at the BBG.’”
Robert Bole, Director of Global Strategy, and Suzie Carroll, Executive Director, left the agency.
A statement on the BBG website states that “the CEO and Director oversees all aspects of U.S. international media. He provides day-to-day management of BBG’s operations, including oversight of the technical, professional, and administrative support as well as strategic guidance and management of other programs.”
A July 13, 2016 BBG press release reported that “BBG Chairman Jeff Shell was denied entry into Russia and detained at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport last night after arriving shortly before midnight on a flight from Prague.” BBG executives planned this trip and a reception in a Moscow hotel for RFE/RL to which Russian Foreign Ministry officials were invited. A few weeks earlier, Russia expelled some U.S. diplomats and another U.S. diplomat was attacked by a Russian guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Russian Foreign Ministry officials did not show up at the reception.
The BBG press release and a subsequent statement from BBG CEO John Lansing did not mention that Jeff Shell may have been traveling to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to do private business or that John Lansing, BBG executive Jeffrey N. Trimble and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) President Thomas Kent were traveling to Moscow at the same time and were allowed to enter the country.
The State Department spokesman seemed to be caught by surprise and a little bit embarrassed:
Mark C. Toner, Deputy Spokesperson, U.S. State Department, Daily Press Briefing, Washington, DC, July 13, 2016
QUESTION: And what is your understanding of what happened to the head – the Broadcasting Board of Governors chairman? Have you made representations to the Russians? Will this come up when the Secretary is there – is it tomorrow or Friday?
MR TONER: So a couple of things on that, Matt. First of all, we’re still, frankly, in the process of sorting through all the details of what happened yesterday, or last night, and the timing of what occurred. But obviously, everybody’s seen the reports. You know also that the Broadcasting Board of Governors did issue a statement on the matter. I’d refer you to that and to them for additional details. I’m limited here. And I’m limited because we’ve not yet received a Privacy Act waiver. Once I do, I’ll be able to say a bit more but not a whole lot more about the incident and about the case.
QUESTION: Well, I —
MR TONER: I said a little bit. And I did —
QUESTION: So the Privacy Act now applies to officials – government – all right, it’s an independent government agency and I realize it is kind of a part – it is a part-time job.
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: But he still was traveling in his official capacity. The BBG, as you noted, put out a statement. It said that the other people who were with him on this delegation went to the embassy, spoke to Ambassador Tefft, and then they thanked Ambassador Tefft and the Department back here for their urgent —
MR TONER: So I was going to finish that.
QUESTION: Oh, okay, I thought you were done.
MR TONER: I was – allow me to go on a little bit further and say —
QUESTION: I’m sorry. I thought you were done.
MR TONER: That’s okay. No worries. We were, when alerted – our embassy in Moscow – to what was happening and to the incident, we did obviously go and assist Chairman Shell. But your question highlights some of the ongoing questions and details that we’re trying to sort through, which is in exactly what capacity he was travelling. And I have to stop there because you said he is – it is a role that he plays. He is also a private citizen.
QUESTION: Well, it’s my understanding that he was supposed to go to a reception or to ceremony today marking the – an anniversary for Radio Liberty in Moscow. That would seem to me that he was doing this not in his private capacity at NBCUniversal but rather in his capacity as chairman of the BBG.
MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to read too much into this and I don’t want to – I just – all I’m trying to say, Matt, is I don’t have full Privacy Act clearance to go any further. And frankly, we’re still trying to sort through the details of what actually happened. As to why he was denied, that’s really something for the Russians to speak to. Whether we raised our concerns with the Russians – we did.
Here, John F. Lansing, Jeffrey N. Trimble and Thomas Kent played a key role in setting up the badly-timed and ill-advised trip to Putin’s Russia for themselves and for BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. It does not appear that André Mendes had anything to do with it.
An article, “This Broken Agency Is Losing Info War to ISIS & Putin,” posted on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Blog, said:
“For years, the BBG, which is headed by nine part-time governors, has been widely condemned as “ineffectual,” “unprofessional,” “unproductive,” “useless and perhaps fatally broken.” Millions of dollars have been squandered. Mismanagement and incompetence is so deeply rooted within BBG that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the agency “practically defunct” in 2013 before warning, ‘we’re letting the Jihadist narrative fill a void.’”
In an e-mail sent to staff on Wednesday, July 20, André Mendes did warn Voice of America journalists covering the Republican convention that “in order to avoid any bandwidth problems,” they must completely discontinue non-business use of high bandwidth video sites like ESPN, YouTube, Facebook, Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, and other such services. VOA journalists were also told to completely discontinue usage of Internet streaming of convention feeds that are available over broadcast TV in the office. VOA had experienced earlier many electrical and data processing outages. These services are provided to VOA by BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) which has been managed at various times by André Mendes and Jeffrey N. Trimble.
It appeared that the BBG and VOA ($777.8 million in FY 2017, including VOA’s $224.4 million) were digitally unprepared to support heavy convention coverage. It would not have, in any case made much of a difference if they planned for it properly over the last few months or years because the Voice of America under many years of mismanagement by the BBG boards and the permanent BBG/IBB bureaucracy has never developed any significant online audience or audience engagement. According to Voice of America Director Ms.Amanda Bennett’s figures, less than 0.0001% Mandarin speakers, 0.0004% English speakers, 0.002% Spanish speakers, 0.006% Russian speakers, and 0.03% Persian speakers watched VOA’s live online streaming of Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH.
Supporters of Donald Trump and supporters of Bernie Sanders complained that VOA coverage of their favored candidates was biased and amounted to subsidizing unbalanced attacks on the candidates with U.S. taxpayers’ dollars and possibly affecting the election outcome in the United States. VOA Director Amanda Bennett promised to organize anti-bias training for VOA reporters, but earlier this week VOA Russian Service posted a one-sided Donald Trump puff video for Russian-speaking audiences, which include Russian-American voters in the United States. Jeff Shell, John Lansing, André Mendes, and Jeffrey N. Trimble are not directly responsible for VOA program content, but together with VOA Director Amanda Bennett and other entity heads they set the tone and are supposed to provide leadership for the entire agency.
In a wide-ranging news conference last Thursday, August 4, at the U.S. Department of Defense, President Barack Obama spoke at length about the need to counter ISIL terrorist ideas and its propaganda but once again failed to mention the Broadcasting Board of Governors media as having any role in this U.S. government effort. President Obama talked about “working to counter violent extremism more broadly” and “to knock down their propaganda,” presumably with the help of U.S.-funded news and information programs, but the Voice of America (VOA) English news department did not quote these remarks online.
Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said again this year that the agency is still broken under John F. Lansing’s new leadership. Rep. Royce and the committee’s Ranking Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) have introduced bipartisan legislation, H.R. 2323, to reform the agency. BBG CEO John Lansing and BBG Chair Jeff Shell are on the record opposing key provisions of H.R. 2323 to abolish the BBG Board and to restructure the agency.
They are successful private sector entertainment media executives, but neither Jeff Shell nor John Lansing has any significant prior experience in U.S. government service, foreign affairs, public diplomacy or international news coverage in countries without free press. If during the Cold War executives in charge of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe or Radio Liberty had a record of such chaotic performance, wanted to do private business in the Soviet Union or made a major mistake of the type being made almost every week now at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, they would be promptly asked to resign. It would have been inconceivable for the President of the United States during Cold War years not to mention VOA, RFE/RL or RT when speaking about countering Soviet propaganda. As one former high-level presidentially-appointed U.S. government official told us, the BBG is no longer even an afterthought in Washington.
Are you in good hands, BBG?