BBG Watch Commentary

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Broadcasting Board of Governors – Information War Lost: BBG End of Summer 2014 Conundrums

By The Federalist

 

While the Summer of 2014 is winding down, it seems the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) couldn’t pass up an opportunity for an ironic moment when it met on August 13, 2014.

Before we get to that,

 

We would like to commend Ann Noonan, Executive Director of the independent, non-government organization Committee for US International Broadcasting (CUSIB) for another overview of the realities facing US government international broadcasting. As Ms. Noonan has done in previous appearances before the board, she called for and made note of the necessity to institute management reforms at the agency.

 

While one should not expect substantive action by the BBG or officials among the career bureaucrats, it is important to keep this issue visible and chronicle the lack of progress, as legislation to reform US Government international broadcasting makes its way through the congressional legislative process and ultimately for signature by the President.

To all appearances, the BBG is going to ride out the process and await further developments with the legislation. That does not mean that the agency is being passive. In fact, it is engaged in something akin to passive-aggressive behavior by eliminating direct radio broadcasts in English and other languages, further reducing the strategic impact of US Government international broadcasting. In so many words, the agency is acting like it has a death wish for its mission: that one-way ticket on the Oblivion Express.

That makes it more important than ever that CUSIB and others document the chronology of the agency’s descent into its preferred standard of performance: dysfunctional and defunct.

In addition to Ms. Noonan’s presentation, the BBG heard from Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting.

According to Mr. Rhodes,

 

“We have the right team in place (BBG) to make a lasting contribution.”

 

We tend to disagree.

The BBG record is anything but synonymous with being the right team unless one adopts the BBG gold standard: dysfunctional and defunct.

 

BBG Watch made note of a Russia Today (RT) report which quoted BBG chairman Jeffrey Shell, while the Voice of America ignored the BBG meeting about VOA’s possible future.

 

Russia’s RT reported that BBG Chairman Jeff Shell initiated a proposal for setting up a TV channel for the Russian-speaking audiences.

“Let’s put together a plan of how much that would cost and how to do something that we could compete with Russia Today [RT] and then let’s go to the Hill and then let’s go to the White House and tell them what it’s going to cost to compete and let’s see if we can do it,” RT quoted BBG Chairman Jeff Shell.

 

For the benefit of Mr. Shell, this train left the station a long time ago – going back to 2008 when a preceding BBG configuration ended Voice of America (VOA) Russian language direct satellite TV and shortwave, medium wave, Internet and satellite radio broadcasts.

That’s a train out of the station for over six years.

In the meantime, the Russian government under Vladimir Putin hasn’t been idle. It has expanded restrictions on both foreign and domestic media. Like the Chinese and Iranians (among others) Internet access is controlled, and can include blocking of BBG websites at any time.

In the broadcasting realm, both VOA and RFE/RL are effectively banned in Russia when it comes to any kind of substantive news programming on substantive domestic platforms.

There is no ban, however, on the Russian government’s geopolitical maneuverings.

That makes the prospects for Mr. Shell’s musings rather dim.

In an agency that is already awash in waste and mismanagement, it would be throwing good taxpayer money after bad to buy into any concocted BBG plan – or worse, a new “strategic plan” from the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) to resurrect agency Russian TV broadcasts. It would be an enormous fiscal undertaking.

And the administration should note: the Chinese already outspend BBG more than 8:1 for its international media effort.

 

That’s $8-BILLION dollars.

 

And that’s only China.

The first order of business for the Congress and the administration is reconstituting this agency into a more effective model for 21st century challenges.

Speaking of which,

 

We take note of a presentation made by Jim Malone, a senior VOA correspondent. Mr. Malone spoke to the matter of bipartisan congressional legislation (H.R. 4490) which unanimously passed both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the US House of Representatives.

According to Mr. Malone, the legislation would (a) put the future of VOA credibility in question and (b) require the agency to promote US foreign policy and “take direction from the CIA and the Pentagon.”

These assertions by Mr. Malone are not credible. They are outrageously ludicrous and absurd.

This is one thing that observers of this issue keep coming back to:

While Mr. Malone’s speech was more balanced and did not include some of the more objectionable exaggerations, some opponents of the legislation lay claim to being “journalists” and “journalistic integrity and credibility” and yet indulge in rather un-journalistic-like exaggerations, omissions and lobbying:

 

  • An op-ed piece by a newsroom employee demanding, “Back Off Congress.”

 

  • Mongering in fear and hysteria (the agency being a propaganda mouthpiece, “journalists” leaving the agency en masse, as examples).

 

  • Incomplete descriptions of the VOA Charter.

 

  • Refusing to acknowledge that congressional legislation to reform the agency is co-sponsored and bi-partisan.

 

Journalistic principles we are familiar with speak to objectivity, impartiality, balance and stipulating to the facts.

That doesn’t seem to apply to some of the opponents of the bipartisan reform legislation.

There is another thing at work here:

Over the past several years, we have seen many emails from VOA newsroom employees. What we have discerned from this email traffic is that the VOA newsroom was for years a publicly silent but privately vocal Gripe Central and became a public Gripe Central only against H.R. 4490 and only when there was no fear of retaliation from the senior management:

 

  • These people have railed — not unjustifiably, but in private — against David Ensor, the VOA director.

 

  • They have railed — again, not unjustifiably, but in private — against Steve Redisch, the VOA executive editor.

 

  • They complained mightily about now retired newsroom director, Sonja Pace.

 

  • They have complained about numerous attempts to dismantle the newsroom, often contained in recommendations by the agency’s Office of Program Review.

 

  • They complain about studies and analyses of the newsrooms work flow.

 

  • They have strenuously complained about the AFGE union for its support of the legislation to reform the agency.

 

  • They really like to rail against anyone who isn’t a “journalist,” as if other professional analysis of the newsroom has no merit.

 

  • Most interestingly, however, they only rail in public against H.R. 4490 and remained publicly (outside of VOA) silent when their bosses decimated the Newsroom, closed down radio transmissions and VOA language services, and otherwise destroyed VOA’s effectiveness and employee morale.

 

That’s the pattern.

And what it points to is the intent to preserve the status quo. While VOA radio transmissions were being cut and language programs and positions were being eliminated with real program and job losses, positions within the VOA Newsroom were simply not filled. Senior VOA correspondents remained largely silent in the face of mismanagement and held on to their positions, although at least one voiced a public protest when leaving the organization and was not afraid to criticize the management publicly before he left.

That’s important for congressional legislators and their staffs to know.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that Mr. Malone and his colleagues would not have an appreciation for the damage done to their opposition to the bill when the “Back Off Congress…” op-ed piece appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Some of these people are driven by a strain of delusional arrogance.

The Congress, the administration and American taxpayers cannot be held hostage by an attitude projected by individuals within the VOA newsroom who appear to believe they can dictate the agency’s mission but fail to force the management to carry out reforms.

Here’s the lasting impression we have of this opposition to the bipartisan reform legislation:

 

On its face, it appears to be an attempt to discard the VOA Charter except for one provision which deals with news reporting.

It is clear that the opposition does not want to carry out the remaining two provisions of the Charter, which are:

 

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.

 

In short, the lasting impression created by these opponents to agency reform is a VOA newsroom — or what remained of it — that would dictate what is newsworthy and what is not and an agency which should go out of its way not to present discussion of US policy to global audiences.

Worse, they project an attitude that they are above and beyond oversight and accountability.

These guys forget who they are working for.

Or who pays their salaries.

This kind of bald-faced defiance and “virtual revolt” cannot be tolerated.

These employees are not entitled to hands-off treatment. That encourages abuse, disinformation, and misinformation.

The United States Government and the American people have no need for a “newsroom” playing to this paradigm.

 

In our view, the VOA newsroom is not only inept due to mismanagement by the senior executives. Some of its correspondents are indulging in an exercise in hypocrisy and denial of VOA’s role within the US government from the moment it was created. .

 

If you asked these opponents how they would intend the agency to carry out provisions 2 and 3 of the Charter, you would most likely be entertained by a tirade of protest.

Further, Mr. Malone may not have noted Mr. Rhodes presence in the BBG meeting via video link.

Let’s be mindful of Mr. Rhodes title:

 

Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting.

 

Mr. Malone would be well served to review Mr. Rhodes remarks in which he talked about the importance of having the Department of State having a seat “at the table” (as part of the BBG) and providing foreign policy guidance and advice on other matters.

And here is another thing:

 

We seem to recall a draft for a new BBG Mission Statement which included the following reference:

 

“The BBG is a unique and necessary instrument of U.S. foreign policy.”

 

Here’s another one:

 

“As an integrated federal agency, we work closely with the rest of the government.”

 

We don’t know if the draft of a new BBG Mission Statement has been adopted to include this language. But there is no mistaking the intent.

It should be impressed upon Mr. Malone and his colleagues that this is not some “news company.” It is an agency of the US Government and it always was. At one time, the Voice of America was part of the United States Information Agency (USIA), a public diplomacy arm of the U.S. State Department. Senior correspondents did not leave VOA en masse then and served abroad under US Foreign Service assignments.

Being still an agency of the US Government means carrying out provisions 2 and 3 of the VOA Charter. They are not “optional.”

 

Equally, there should be no mistaking our position:

 

This agency has become so dysfunctional and defunct that it needs to be reconstituted from the ground up.

 

This is the deal:

 

  • No half-way measures.

 

  • No quibbling over one chief executive officer or two (one person can’t handle this mess).

 

  • No distractions over issues that do not warrant further consideration (VOA newsroom hysteria-mongering).

 

This legislation is very necessary. It should be passed by the Congress and signed into law by the president. It is in the national and public interest to do so.

 

The Federalist

August 2014

 

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