BBG Watch Commentary
BBG Governor Matt Armstrong about H.R. 4490 Bipartisan Reform Bill: “So, yes, I think, I know, we are a good Agency. I think we are on a good path. We’re going to need some assistance. And the language is overly harsh (pause) and not fair.”
In a rare criticism of members of U.S. Congress who have the power to defund federal agency programs, Republican member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Matt Armstrong rebuked Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who had unanimously approved a BBG reform bill in the committee. He accused them of being “too harsh” and “unfair” in criticizing the agency and its bureaucracy in charge of U.S. international media outreach.
There has been, however, even harsher criticism of the agency from now a former senior member of the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the agency “defunct” in her 2013 congressional testimony. At the time, she was an ex officio BBG Board member.
But in a meeting with Voice of America journalists earlier this week, BBG Governor Armstrong said that the bill, which was introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce and Ranking Member Rep. Eliot Engel with a large number (14) of co-sponsors, both Democrats and Republicans, was “overly harsh.”
Some of the criticism in the bipartisan bill was “dated,” and “it comes from the past,” Armstrong told VOA journalists in a meeting that focused on the proposed United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490).
In reference to the findings in the bill, which were highly critical of the agency’s management, Armstrong said that the criticism is dated “because I think we’re already on a positive trajectory and we’re already addressing some of these issues.”
“So, yes, I think, I know, we are a good Agency, I think we are on a good path. We’re going to need some assistance. And the language is overly harsh (pause) and not fair,” Matt Armstrong said about the findings in H.R. 4490.
Armstrong said that the new three-person interim management team at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) is already carrying out reforms. Armstrong serves as the Board’s liaison with the IBB management team.
But critics inside and outside the Agency pointed out that IBB’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was both late and weak compared to the agency’s responses during the Cold War when VOA had functioned under the United States Information Agency (USIA).
While BBG semi-private grantee, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), responded effectively to the current crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s aggression and propaganda offensive, the Voice of America frequently failed to cover important U.S. reactions and policy statements in its English news and most foreign language output.
VOA Ukrainian Service, which mobilized on its own and responded effectively through its popular TV news program for Ukraine, did not receive sufficient resources from VOA and IBB executives to promptly update its news website and social media pages or to cover all relevant news developments, inside sources told BBG Watch.
VOA English News posted online a map showing Crimea to be part of Russia, retweeted questionable tweets from Russia’s RT and President Putin’s other supporters, and failed to cover a bipartisan congressional visit to Ukraine headed by Rep. Royce and Rep. Engel. It was also not reporting or underreporting on significant policy statements from the White House and the State Department.
In criticizing the bipartisan bill and its congressional authors, Armstrong apparently went against the wishes of BBG Chairman Jeff Shell who, according to BBG Watch sources within the agency, mandated that the Board and the organization not support or oppose the bill.
However, individual BBG members, who are all nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, cannot be ordered by the BBG chair what to say or not to say and can choose to disregard chair’s recommendations. Shell reportedly told staff that the BBG needs to do its best within the legal parameters set up by Congress. A well-placed source in Washington also told BBG Watch that BBG Governor Armstrong has been criticizing the H.R. 4490 bill in private exchanges as well.
Some of the Voice of America journalists who met with Governor Armstrong at the VOA building in Washington earlier this week were concerned that the bill might limit their editorial independence, but many also expressed their strong support for management reforms proposed by members of Congress.
Armstrong did not provide a clear cut answer on where he stands on the bill’s controversial call for VOA to be more closely linked with U.S. public diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy, but stressed that VOA is not the State Department. VOA’s role should be sharing America’s stories so that audiences can understand what U.S. policies are, and it is countering the propaganda, Armstrong was quoted as saying.
Members of Congress of both parties are deeply frustrated that VOA often fails to cover U.S. foreign policy news despite the VOA Charter’s requirement to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and … also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.” (Public Law 94-350)
In rapid talk that some told BBG Watch they found difficult to understand, BBG Governor Armstrong said that VOA should focus on its audiences that do not have access to free media and should not duplicate the work of Reuters or AP but should use these wire services. Armstrong also said that VOA cannot be compared to BBC and CNN.
We are not CNN, our measures of success, our metrics and our end state, are totally different, Armstrong said. He added, the reality is that we don’t have any peers.
Governor Armstrong also said that the 1976 VOA Charter needs to be revised apparently because it includes the word “radio” as the only media platform. Armstrong said that that the Charter must be “program delivery platform agnostic.”
Outside observers of U.S. international media are concerned, however, that any attempt to change VOA Charter would distract the agency from pursuing its mission, undermine the 1976 law and might weaken VOA’s journalistic integrity. They point out that no one has ever seriously questioned that VOA Charter covered new media as they became available and that they are already being used without any opposition in Congress.
Along with former and some current senior IBB executives, Armstrong had been a strong supporter of the modification of the Smith-Mundt Act, which turned out to be a PR nightmare for the agency after it was passed by Congress. In response to negative media coverage, U.S. public started to associate the BBG with government propaganda. This controversy has died down somewhat as the agency under the new BBG chairman has stopped emphasizing domestic distribution of its news content, observers told BBG Watch.
Observers also told BBG Watch that Armstrong’s public criticism of members of Congress is especially sensitive and risky since at least one member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), wants to defund the Voice of America entirely for being mismanaged and violating the congressionally approved VOA Charter.
Before being nominated to the BBG as a Republican member, Armstrong served as executive director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which was defunded by Congress under his watch and later reinstated after a 19-month suspension. Previously, Armstrong was an adjunct professor of public diplomacy at the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Southern California. In 2010, he founded and served as President of the MountainRunner Institute and published a blog on public diplomacy and strategic communication. BBG Watch welcomed his nomination when it was announced.
In what would be an obvious difference of opinion with BBG Governor Armstrong, in an May 16 op-ed in Orange Country Register, House Foreign Affairs Committee Republican Chairman Ed Royce said that “We have done ourselves no favors by burdening international broadcasters with a failed bureaucracy.” “That has to change,” Congressman Royce wrote. He left no doubt that his view of how the agency currently operates is not unjustifiably critical of the management or that it is dated.
Findings by members of Congress included in the bipartisan bill, which Governor Armstrong called “overly harsh” and “not fair,” are considered by many BBG employees and outside critics of the agency’s bureaucracy to be right on the mark and nowhere near being addressed to the satisfaction of Congress and agency employees, although admittedly the new IBB management team is better the previous one. Most members of the previous management team still occupy key positions and there have been practically no management reforms of any kind at the Voice of America except for moving around the same managers from one high-level position to another.
Most of the agency’s management problems cannot possibly be solved by the new IBB team of three interim managers and must be addressed through congressional action, outside observers told BBG Watch. They also said that BBG Governor Armstrong’s public rebuke of 15 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and their staffers who had drafted the bipartisan bill was profoundly unwise.
It sends a wrong and misleading message that the renewed BBG Board and its new chairman are not serious about reform, which is not the case, and it antagonizes members of Congress at a critical time for the agency, one congressional observer told BBG Watch. These observers did not want to be identified.
In the bipartisan United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014, the bill’s sponsors and co-sponsors listed what they consider to be wrong with the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Many of their findings apply specifically to the Voice of America and the International Broadcasting Bureau.
SEC. 2. FINDINGS AND DECLARATIONS.
Congress finds and declares the following:
(1) United States international broadcasting exists to advance the United States interests and values by presenting accurate, objective, and comprehensive news and information, which is the foundation for democratic governance, to societies that lack a free media.
(2) Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘‘[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’’, and that ‘‘this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’’.
(3) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on January 23, 2013, that the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) ‘‘is practically a defunct agency in terms of its capacity to be able to tell a message around the world. So we’re abdicating the ideological arena and need to get back into it.’’.
(4) The BBG, which was created by Congress to oversee the United States international broadcasting in the wake of the Cold War, has, because of structural and managerial issues, had limited success to date in both coordinating the various components of the international broadcasting framework and managing the day-to-day operations of the Federal components of the international broadcasting framework.
(5) The lack of regular attendance by board members and a periodic inability to form a quorum have plagued the BBG and, as a result, it has been functionally incapable of running the agency.
(6) The board of governors has only achieved the full slate of all nine governors for seven of its 17 years of existence, which highlights the difficulties of confirming and retaining governors under the current structure.
(7) Both the Department of State’s Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office have issued reports which outline a severely dysfunctional organizational structure of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
(8) The Inspector General of the Department of State concluded in its January 2013 report that dysfunction of the BBG stems from ‘‘a flawed legislative structure and acute internal dissension’’.
(9) The Inspector General of the Department of State also found that the BBG’s structure of nine part-time members ‘‘cannot effectively supervise all United States Government-supported, civilian international broadcasting’’, and its involvement in day-to-day operations has impeded normal management functions.
(10) The Government Accountability Office report determined that there was significant overlap among the BBG’s languages services, and that the BBG did not systematically consider the financial cost of overlap.
(11) According to the Office of the Inspector General, the BBG’s Office of Contracts is not in compliance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, lacks appropriate contract oversight, and violates the Anti-Deficiency Act. The Office of the Inspector General also determined that the Broadcasting Board of Governors has not adequately performed full and open competitions or price determinations, has entered into hundreds of personal service contracts without statutory authority, and contractors regularly work without valid contracts in place.
(12) The size and make-up of the BBG workforce should be closely examined, given the agency’s broader broadcasting and technical mission, as well as changing media technologies.
(13) The BBG should be structured to ensure that more taxpayer dollars are dedicated to the substantive, broadcasting, and information-related elements of the agency’s mission.
(14) The lack of a coherent and well defined mission of the Voice of America has led to programming that duplicates the efforts of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, RFE/RL, Incorporated, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network that results in inefficient use of tax-payer funding.
(15) The annual survey conducted by the ‘‘Partnership for Public Service’’ consistently ranks the Broadcasting Board of Governors at or near the bottom of all Federal agencies in terms of ‘‘overall best places to work’’ and ‘‘the extent to which employees feel their skills and talents are used effectively.’’ The consistency of these low scores point to structural, cultural, and functional problems at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
(16) The Federal and non-Federal organizations that comprise the United States international broadcasting framework have different, yet complementary, missions that necessitate coordination at all levels of management.
(17) The Broadcasting Board of Governors has an overabundance of senior civil service positions, defined here as full-time employees encumbering GS–14 and GS–15 positions on the General Schedule pay scale.
(18) United States international broadcasting should seek to leverage public-private partnerships, including the licensing of content and the use of technology owned or operated by non-governmental sources, where possible to expand outreach capacity.
(19) Congressional action is necessary at this time to improve international broadcasting operations, strengthen the United States public diplomacy efforts, enhance the grantee surrogate broadcasting effort, restore focus to news, programming, and content, and maximize the value of Federal and non-Federal resources that are dedicated to public diplomacy and international broadcasting.
House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Markup of H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 April 30, 2014
(As prepared for delivery)
Let me begin by thanking Ranking Member Engel for his work in moving this bipartisan bill forward.
The two of us, and others on the Committee, have just returned from Ukraine. That visit underscored the need to reform U.S. international broadcasting. Traveling to Eastern Ukraine, our delegation witnessed the Russian propaganda machine – now in overdrive – and its attempts to undermine regional stability. The Russian closure of local Ukrainian radio and television stations and the jamming of uncensored sources of information demands an effective response. This Committee recently worked on legislation – signed into law – to ramp up programing into Ukraine.
But unfortunately, U.S. broadcasters – the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and others – are competing with a hand tied behind their back. That’s because the bureaucratic structure over top of these radios – the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“BBG”) – is broken.
So while our enemies are working 24/7 on their public information campaigns, the organization at the helm of ours meets once a month. That’s a recipe for failure. Indeed, then-Secretary Clinton told this Committee last year that the BBG is “practically defunct.” Reports from the Inspector General and GAO have agreed. As does nearly everyone with experience in this field, Republicans and Democrats alike.
This legislation makes dramatic changes to the current organization by clarifying the missions of our U.S. international broadcasters – consolidating six organizations into two.
One organization – “The United States International Communications Agency” – will remain a federal entity and will consist of the Voice of America and the associated technical services our broadcasters depend on. We make clear that the mission of the Voice of America is to “present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively” – exactly as it was intended.
Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Network, the so-called “surrogates,” have a different mission: to provide uncensored local news and information to people in closed societies and to be “a megaphone for internal advocates of freedom,” whether it’s in Iran, North Korea or elsewhere. These “freedom broadcasters” will keep their names, but consolidate into a private, nonprofit corporation that will become the “Freedom News Network.”
Both the U.S. International Communications Agency and Freedom News Network will now have empowered CEOs – and purely advisory boards. Ripping away the bureaucracy will reduce administrative overlap and allow both organizations to thrive. This legislation also mandates important reforms to the contracting practices of the BBG, and increases public-private partnerships.
Unlike decades past, today’s media landscape is highly competitive. Other countries are sprinting forward, but we are standing still. If we’re going to adapt, we need a more effective and efficient use of our finite resources, which this legislation lays out through its mission clarification and management reform.
Again, I want to thank Ranking Member Engel, who I will now turn to for his remarks.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) denied that the bill is designed in any way to limit VOA’s journalistic independence. The VOA Charter, which lawmakers have accused VOA executives of ignoring, was incorporated into the bill.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D-NY): “Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.”
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
WASHINGTON, DC—Representative Eliot L. Engel, the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, today made the following remarks regarding H.R. 4490, the United States International Communications Reform Act:
“Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this mark-up of bipartisan legislation that will enhance the ability of the United States to facilitate the free flow of information and share our values with people around the world.
“Mr. Chairman, on the recent trip you led to Ukraine, we saw firsthand that the competition of ideas and the battle for hearts and minds are alive and well. Over the past few months, Moscow has used its state-controlled media to broadcast totally baseless propaganda that’s been used as a pretext for Russia’s invasion of Crimea and its destabilizing activities in eastern Ukraine.
“But Ukraine is far from the only place where objective news is in demand. In Iran, the regime closely controls the free flow of information and has actively jammed U.S. satellite transmissions. And in North Korea, the regime locks radios on certain frequencies to prevent people from listening to the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.
“Unfortunately, our efforts to disseminate objective news to societies that lack a free media are not as effective as they should be. Last year, a report by the State Department Inspector General found that the Broadcasting Board of Governors—the agency that currently oversees all U.S. international broadcasting—was ‘failing in its mandated duties’ due to a flawed structure and strong internal dissension.
“The bill that Chairman Royce and I introduced, with support from many of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, will help fix this structure by improving management, enhancing coordination among the different broadcasting entities, and empowering journalists and editors to produce high-quality programming that keeps pace with the rapidly changing international media landscape.
“Specifically, the legislation creates a chief executive officer to manage the day-to-day operations of the new U.S. International Communications Agency, an umbrella organization for Voice of America and Office of Cuba Broadcasting. And it also creates a CEO to run the Freedom News Network, a new organization comprised of the three existing private grantees, which are – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.
“The bill also defines the missions of VOA and the Freedom News Network to reduce the duplication of programming, and requires robust coordination between the federal and private entities—including the sharing of content and strategic plans—to maximize efficiency.
“Under the new organizational structure, Voice of America—VOA, the flagship of U.S. broadcasting for more than 50 years—will remain the primary source of information about the United States and our culture, while the three grantees that form the Freedom News Network will continue to provide news to audiences about developments in their own countries. Only by working closely together will these broadcasters be effective in providing comprehensive news and information to those who need it most.
“When I was recently with Chairman Royce in the eastern part of Ukraine, we met a lot of people who said that they really would welcome more information from the United States… that they really don’t get the balanced type of information. And we know Radio Free Europe and others were the ones that helped the Soviet Union collapse. And so this is a really smart thing for us to do.
“Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this bill maintains the requirement that U.S.-funded programming serve as objective sources of news and information, and not simply as a mouthpiece for U.S. foreign policy. It’s absolutely critical that the news be accurate and seen as credible by the foreign audiences we’re trying to reach.
“Mr. Chairman, I’d like to thank you again for holding this important markup and really for your leadership over the course of many years on international broadcasting issues. This is one ball that you’ve run with for many years, even before your were chairman of this committee. And it’s very much noticed and very much appreciated. I’d also like to thank you for working with us on this legislation in a bipartisan manner. I have some votes in my other committee so I may be in and out, but this legislation is so important and should be passed with no dissension because I think this is the type of legislation this committee can be proud of, again, on a bipartisan basis.
“Thank you Mr. Chairman.”
Latest Title: United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014
Sponsor: Rep Royce, Edward R. [CA-39] (introduced 4/28/2014) Cosponsors (14)
Latest Major Action: 4/30/2014 House committee/subcommittee actions. Status: Ordered to be Reported (Amended) by Unanimous Consent.
Rep Chabot, Steve [OH-1] – 4/28/2014
Rep Connolly, Gerald E. [VA-11] – 4/28/2014
Rep Deutch, Theodore E. [FL-21] – 4/29/2014
Rep Engel, Eliot L. [NY-16] – 4/28/2014
Rep Keating, William R. [MA-9] – 4/28/2014
Rep Lowenthal, Alan S. [CA-47] – 4/30/2014
Rep McCaul, Michael T. [TX-10] – 4/29/2014
Rep Poe, Ted [TX-2] – 4/29/2014
Rep Rohrabacher, Dana [CA-48] – 4/28/2014
Rep Ros-Lehtinen, Ileana [FL-27] – 4/28/2014
Rep Salmon, Matt [AZ-5] – 4/28/2014
Rep Sherman, Brad [CA-30] – 4/28/2014
Rep Sires, Albio [NJ-8] – 4/29/2014
Rep Stockman, Steve [TX-36] – 4/30/2014